All posts by Gwen Zeldenrust @gwenzeldenrust

Alleviating Article Anxiety

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While it is probably true that simple language structures are the easiest thing to teach and  learn, we should look very carefully at what we consider to be simple.

Take for example English articles. There are only two of them: definite and indefinite —   maybe three, if we count the allophonic variant of the indefinite article  ‘an’.  Unlike other languages,  in English we don’t have to take into account gender or case when deciding which one to use.   So, why are these items so difficult for English language learners?  The answer to this question relates to the rules that govern articles, which are very complex, thus making their application somewhat difficult.

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Centred and Balanced

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What is student-centred learning?  There are many facets to this idea.  It can be lessons based on students’ needs.  It can mean choosing topics based on students’ interests.  But one of the concepts that is most commonly related to student-centred learning is learning through discovery.  When someone learns through discovery, they are given enough autonomy to interact with materials and consequently discover how things work (think figuring out grammar rules implicitly).  On the other side of the coin you have teacher directed learning where knowledge is transferred from teacher to student (think explaining how grammar rules work). Continue reading

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To Err is Progress

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Fear of making a mistake or asking a stupid question is a legitimate problem. Sir Ken Robinson in his TED talk: “How schools kill creativity” talks about how the education system makes people fear being wrong. This fear of being wrong can squash our creativity. If we always keep ourselves in check, so that we don’t make mistakes, we will never take chances. He states we need to be prepared to be wrong.

I often say to my students “There is no such thing as a stupid question!”  I’ve said this many times.  However, when I put myself in the position of student, I sometimes feel like my question might be stupid.

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The Power of Disorientation

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As ESL teachers, we all know that the techniques we need to employ while teaching adult learners differ from those techniques used with children.  Jack Mezirow, a well -respected theorist in the field of adult learning, suggests that adults need to experience a disruption as a catalyst for the learning process.  In his theory of transformative learning, he lays out the steps in the process which result in learning.  The first step toward adult learning comes in the form of a disorienting dilemma.  This dilemma provokes a period of critical reflection to help us make sense of the disturbance.  As a result of our examination of what is happening, we grow.

In my experience as an ESL teacher, most of the participants attending the classes I teach have experienced a lot of Continue reading

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Signposts Show the Way to Good Communication

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Fluency is a critical element of communication and is often a basis for how language levels are judged.  Signposting is a technique which makes speech more fluent.  Words or phrases that link speech together to make it coherent, and give the listener an indication of where our verbal communication is headed, are considered signposts.

Does receiving an indication of the direction that a conversation will take make a difference to the listener?  Absolutely!  When we have a good idea about what we will hear, we can process the meaning faster.  Hearing something contrary to what we are expecting causes our brain waves to spike.  The spike causes a diversion of energy which can contribute to longer processing time.  Considering how fast a brain processes language, a matter of milliseconds can slow down comprehension.  The delay in comprehending could cause a listener to completely misunderstand what was said. Continue reading

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Lost in Translation

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Have you ever seen the movie Lost in Translation?  The main character, played by Bill Murray, has some strange experiences while working in Japan.  The situation seems almost surreal to someone who has not experienced Japan.  However, if you’ve ever lived there, what happens to him is not all that extraordinary.  After having been exposed to a bit of Japanese culture, what happens to him seems closer to everyday life.  Culture has a big impact on our activities and our perceptions of what is happening.  How much impact, then, does culture have on something as integral as communication?

It is very difficult to teach Canadian communication norms.  Most people who have been raised in Canada aren’t even aware that the language structures they use may carry a different meaning when literally translated, simply because the meaning of the expression has been internalized.  Often we think our expressions are logical.  Continue reading

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About Misplacing Stress

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The topic of syllable stress in English is a difficult concept to teach, learn, or understand.  Often it is an error that is not addressed at all.  Why do teachers minimize it and learners avoid it?  Why are researchers baffled by it?  The rules to English syllable stress are unfathomable.  Oh, there are rules, but when these rules are put together, there would be enough to write a one-thousand page book in very small font.  Obviously a matter this complex is very difficult for everybody to comprehend and creates quite a cognitive load when we try to process stress rules that have been learned explicitly.

Researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics have discovered that stress usually only affects the comprehension of a word if the quality of the vowel is also affected.  What does this mean? I for one have witnessed numerous times in English and French classes how misplaced stress causes a second-language speaker to be misunderstood. Continue reading

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