Not just another App: 4pics1word for English Learners

Not just another app - 4pics1word for English Learners

Apart from making your waiting (or waking) time less monotonous, 4pics1word is also a great vocabulary game.

4pics1word – Four pictures with one word in common

People around me are hooked on this game – the office lady on the train, someone in the checkout line, my colleague, my boss. The addictive word game available on both iPhone and Android appears simple but forces you to think out of the box (or the four boxes for that matter) to figure out the answer. Apart from making your waiting (or waking) time less monotonous, 4pics1word, I have discovered, is also a great vocabulary game.

The basic form of the puzzle is identifying a common word that each of the four pictures (or part thereof) depict. It could be a noun, adjective or adverb, plain words most of the time, but trickier to guess as you move up the levels. The word association exercise teases your mind, making you wonder whether you’ve lost all common sense, but is also a vocabulary builder in disguise, whether you admit it or not.

For English language learners, this game teaches collocation, synonyms, antonyms, word parts, and lots of brainstorming on the go. Here are some suggestions of how to use the game in a teaching context.

#1 Just play it

Learners can be introduced to the app and they can figure out the mechanism of the puzzles on their own. More likely, however, they will grab friends (and very soon, innocent bystanders) to ask them to help them solve the puzzle. The nature of the game cultivates a competitive (or self-improvement) spirit and the desire to outwit a bunch of pictures will soon have players unconsciously devouring dozens of word associations and patterns.

#2 Break the ice

Teachers can use the game as a warm-up activity and use the puzzle as a teaching point. Some puzzles may  have word associations that are too obscure or challenging for learners so explaining the reasoning behind the answer will not only help your students learn, but will also help them to be able to play the game more successfully on their own.

#3 Plan the lesson around it

Teachers can use the game as part of the lesson itself, getting students to explain how they arrived at the puzzles, asking them to keep a journal on new words and their explanations, and perhaps even getting them to compile a list of their favorite puzzles or the hardest ones to crack. Better yet, students could create their own 4pics1word puzzles for both classmates and teacher to solve.

#4 Make it an incentive

If students are already very keen to play the game, teachers could use it as an incentive and reward individuals or groups who solve the most number of puzzles and/or are able to explain their answers. So instead of just receiving virtual old coins, students can be rewarded with something more tangible.

4pics1word is a great example of turning a popular app into a teaching tool where students take to naturally and enthusiastically. While students can easily learn on their own (consciously or subconsciously) through playing the game, bringing their attention to word meanings and clarifying their doubts will help extend and improve their vocabulary.

If you have used the game in class, or if you’re an English learner and have benefitted from the game, please share your experience in the comments.

In the meantime, if you find yourself turning into an addict – skipping meals, losing sleep and ignoring crying children – do what I did – delete the app.


Me, Teacher Leader?

Me, Teacher Leader?

The successful teacher leader is one who is committed to making a difference in the school while the unsuccessful teacher leader is easily defeated by criticism and obstacles.

View Prezi on Teacher Leadership by Sherrie Lee

Teacher leadership is not reserved for the chosen few but a responsibility of all teachers. While school culture dampens the spirit of teacher leadership (Barth, 2001, p. 444), empowering teachers as leaders benefit students, teachers, administrators and the school (p. 445).

Who is the successful teacher leader?

The successful teacher leader is one who is committed to a set of beliefs about teaching and making a difference in the school (Barth, 2001; Ackerman & Mackenzie, 2006). She leads by example and thus begins to influence those around her. She perseveres despite obstacles (Barth, 2009, p. 447), claiming victories however small, and does not give up pursuing unrealized goals.


The unsuccessful teacher leader, on the other hand, is not focused in fulfilling goals and is overwhelmed by the daunting workload and critical colleagues. Ultimately, the teacher leader is unsuccessful because she finds greater comfort in remaining in her own classroom than stepping out of her comfort zone (Ackerman & Mackenzie, 2006).

Flickr: Dead End by Benny Lin

Am I a teacher leader?

The initial years of my teaching career were characterized by the traits of the unsuccessful teacher. I was discouraged by colleagues who believed that leadership was reserved for senior staff and administrators. Their skepticism led me to think that I was better off focusing on teaching rather than leading, and that trying to make changes was a waste of time. For example, I suggested compiling video-recordings of student presentations but was quickly censured for creating more and unnecessary work for everyone. Now as I complete my Master of Arts in Teaching, I am convinced that my teaching career is a unique opportunity to be a change agent.

When I put myself in the position of a teacher leader, I am committed to producing excellent work, collaborating with colleagues, and helping our students succeed. While obstacles are real, I am reminded by Barth (2001) to enjoy “half a loaf”, that is, finding success in “incremental change[s] in the desirable direction” (p. 447). One of my weaknesses, however, is that my enthusiasm and energy can easily wear off, especially in the face of difficult colleagues or seemingly futile pursuits. Nonetheless, I must remember that Rome was not built in a day and that being a teacher leader is a journey in itself, and a rewarding one at that.

 Rome was not built in a day and that being a teacher leader is a journey in itself, and a rewarding one at that.

Problem of practice

One powerful way of developing teacher leaders is through action research where teachers identify areas of concern and begin to take steps to resolve issues to benefit the school community. At my school, the business communication subjects are taken by students with varying English proficiency standards. While all students have received education in English as a first language, there are minority English language learners (ELLs) whose home language is not English and face challenges with using academic language. My action research project focused on this problem of practice and explored student identity and empowerment.

As an emerging teacher leader, I plan on sharing the findings and recommendations of my action research project at department meetings. In addition, the school’s staff development department organizes events where I will have the opportunity to share my research with a wider school audience. Through these sharing sessions, I will need to develop interpersonal skills such as gentle persuasiveness, especially when dealing with experienced yet resistance teachers. As Danielson (2007) notes, “[l]eading change within one’s own department or team may require considerable interpersonal skill and tact [and] the success of such an effort … depends on the teacher leader’s having established credibility and trust with his or her colleagues” (p. 17).

I anticipate most of the audience to be politely lukewarm toward the information I share as the teachers at my school are generally cautious in making changes, especially when there are no immediate and visible benefits. Unfortunately, the issue of student identity and empowerment is one that is complex; it requires effort and time in exploring identity and empowerment issues with students.

Here’s the plan

To counter skepticism among the crowd, persistence is key. First, I endeavor to take up every opportunity within the school, formally and informally, to share the importance of issues of identity and empowerment and how my own action research project benefits students. This entails identifying appropriate platforms to speak, as well as being aware of the barriers each audience brings to the sharing session. For example, if the audience is unfamiliar with terminology, then I will make the effort to modify my presentation in order to be clear, and more importantly, convincing. A teacher leader is committed first to her beliefs and second to harnessing people’s potential to take necessary action.

A teacher leader is committed first to her beliefs and second to harnessing people’s potential to take necessary action.

In addition, I must also show that my work is recognized by other educators, especially those with authority in the education field. Possible actions include publishing the findings of my study in an education or TESOL related journal and presenting my study at a local or regional conference. The process of publishing or presenting requires a keen understanding of the requirements of each, such as intended audience, paper length and writing style. Apart from the detailed requirements, I must also be aware of the approval process be prepared for rejection. As a novice researcher, the best result I expect is to having to resubmit my paper with changes.

Even if I am rejected, however, I view it as a learning experience. I anticipate mixed reactions to my leadership project. Teachers in my school are likely to have varying levels of commitment to address the needs of minority ELLs in our school, even if my study is accepted by a journal or conference. Whatever the outcomes, I aim to be open to feedback and use the experience to inform my next step in leadership. Success in teacher leadership depends on reaching out, modeling for others, and helping colleagues develop skills and understanding (Ackerman & Mackenzie, 2006, p. 68).

Success in teacher leadership depends on reaching out, modeling for others, and helping colleagues develop skills and understanding.

Never give up, never give up, never give up

Thus my desire is to work with the few who are willing and be focused on student success, without losing sight of the bigger picture of greater student empowerment through the actions and leadership of each and every teacher. Even if I end up being alone in my cause, may I continue taking risks “to provide a constant, visible model of persistence, hope, and enthusiasm” (Barth, 2001, p. 447).

Flickr: Rock Climber by Greg Foster


Ackerman, R. & Mackenzie, S.V. (2006). Uncovering teacher leadership. Educational Leadership, May, 2006, 66-70.

Barth, R.S. (2001). Teacher leader. Phi Delta Kappa, February, 2001, 443-449.

Danielson, C. (2007). The many faces of leadership. Educational Leadership, 65(1), 14-19.

ESL Textbook Review

ESL Textbook Review

Headway Academic Skills 3: Reading, Writing, and Study Skills Student’s Book

Sarah Pilpot and Lesley Curnick

Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011.


Headway Academic Skills 3 aims to equip students in higher education with a comprehensive range of academic skills ranging from vocabulary strategies to essay planning in ten tightly packed units. It is an impressive and ambitious plan but will likely cause the student to be overwhelmed.

The ten units in Headway Academic Skills 3 cover the following topics: education and learning, health and medicine, urban planning, natural resources, international trade, history conservation, modern engineering, the Olympics, describing statistics and trends, and communication and technology. Each unit covers academic skills in four main sections in the following sequence: reading, language for writing, writing and vocabulary development. In three of the units, the topic of research skills is covered as well. At the end of each unit is a review section which brings together the reading and writing skills learned in the unit. The main sections generally follow the presentation, practice and production (PPP) approach (Shehadeh, 2005, p. 14), that is, the presentation of specific language items and/or reading or writing strategies (termed “study skills” in the book) is followed by practice through exercises such as gap fill, spotting language features and completing graphic organizers, and finally the production stage where students use the target language and skills with less guidance. The review section itself serves as an overall production stage where students are expected to reproduce the language items and study skills covered in the unit more independently. The appendix contains a word list of the main vocabulary used, complete with word class and pronunciation. There is a separate Teacher’s Guide which contains tests and additional activities but is not part of this review.

Intended Audience 
According to the book summary, Headway Academic Skills 3 functions as a bridge between general and academic English, and can be used either independently or alongside a general English course. While it does not specify the proficiency level of students, the book will be helpful to both native speakers, as well as advanced ESL students who have just begun university.

Strengths and Weaknesses 
The overall goal of Headway Academic Skills 3 is to equip students in higher education with academic skills such as note-taking and essay-writing, as stated in the book summary. However, since the units are content driven rather than skills driven, there is more breadth than depth in the treatment of academic skills. One exemption is reading skills which are adequately explored in each unit, as well as reinforced across units, highlighting strategies related to external text features (e.g. skimming and scanning for information), as well as internal text features (e.g. text structure and signal words). Other skills like writing and vocabulary development, however, are not as well integrated; the language features and strategies are introduced once in the unit but are hardly mentioned again in other units, thus limiting students’ opportunities for developing those skills. Furthermore, the PPP approach, as stated by Shehadeh (2005), does not allow students to develop both accuracy and fluency in using language items as students tend to either end up focusing primarily on form and not fluency or focus primarily on meaning without incorporating the target language at all (pp. 14-15). Thus the lack of integration of academic skills across units and the weakness of the PPP approach undermine the very purpose of the book.

Apart from its main weakness of not providing integrated and appropriate opportunities for students to fully develop academic skills, the book also features topics which may be too impersonal for young adults to identify with. While the topics represent diverse cultures and are appropriate for a higher education audience, the approach taken does not lead students to be personally interested in the material. Activities revolve around the given reading passages or writing tasks with few opportunities for students to provide their viewpoints or creatively interact with the material provided. This lack of personal interaction is reinforced by the largely similar nature of the tasks such as underlining words and phrases, filling in gaps and matching items with corresponding answers.

Despite its instructional flaws, Headway Academic Skills 3 has several strengths. One of them is the use of near authentic materials such as journal articles, news reports and letter to capture the range of expository writing material a university student would likely to be exposed to. Even though some of the materials were probably re-written with a more appropriate level of grammar and vocabulary, it is more important for the materials to be more easily understood while simulating authenticity than for materials to be presented in its original but less comprehensible form, especially for students who struggle with such texts (Flowerdew & Peacock, 2001, p. 185).

Another strength is that the book can be adapted for use with either native English speakers or ESL students. While ESL students would probably appreciate the straightforward and simplified language used, all students will find it beneficial to learn specific reading and writing strategies. For first language students, teachers can consider using more challenging supplementary reading material for students to practice their academic skills.

Finally, Headway Academic Skills 3 does well in having visually appealing graphics and layout. For example, most of the photos used are clear, colorful and informative. In terms of the layout, the different sections are color-coded for easy reference. In addition, important information like study skills and language rules are highlighted in boxes and placed at the side so as not to interrupt the flow of the text. However, one minor complaint I have about the layout is that there is hardly any white space on each page and the limited spacing between tasks and sections. Thus the reader will find it difficult to focus on the text at first glance.

Headway Academic Skills 3 succeeds in introducing a comprehensive range of reading and writing skills and strategies but falls short in providing integrated and meaningful practice across the units for students to master the skills. While the brightly colored photos and pages stand out, those elements will not be sufficient to engage students. Teachers who choose to use the book may make up for the lack of depth in the coverage of academic skills by being selective about which language items and strategies to focus on. Alternatively, teachers may design their own lessons and use the book’s activities as supplementary material. Either way, teachers should not overlook what is useful in the book for their purposes in teaching academic skills.


Flowerdew, J., Peacock, M. (2001). The EAP curriculum: Issues, methods, and challenges. In J. Flowerdew M. Peacock (Eds.), Research perspectives on English for academic purposes (pp. 177-194). New York: Cambridge University Press.

Philpot, S. & Curnick, L. (2011). Headway academic skills 3: Reading, writing, and study skills student’s book. In L. Soars & J. Soars (Series Eds.), Headway academic skills. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 

Shehadeh, A. (2005). Task-based language learning and teaching: Theories and applications. In C. Edwards J. Willis (Eds.), Teachers exploring tasks in English language teaching (pp. 13-30). New York: Palgrave Macmillan. 

Only Connect: My Ideological Stance in Content Area Instruction

Only Connect: My Ideological Stance in Content Area Instruction

I present my ideological stance in content area instruction by first providing background information about the students and their goals and challenges regarding attaining proficiency in academic literacy practices. I then briefly summarize my ideological stance regarding teaching students in content area instruction, followed by describing three pedagogical approaches to integrate academic literacy into my instruction so as to provide equity and access for all students to succeed in content understanding.

Background of students

 The classes I teach at the polytechnic (or technical college) in Singapore are heterogeneous – students have wide ranging abilities in academic reading and writing, as well as come from different socioeconomic backgrounds. However, the majority of the students can be said to be passive learners. Asian students have been brought up on a diet of passive reception of information and knowledge, thus many students tend to be quiet in class, not responding actively to teachers’ questions or whole class activities because they are not confident of their ability to do so and would rather wait for the teacher to provide the answers.

Goal: Academic Literacy

Students need to master academic literacy (i.e., academic reading and writing skills) in order to be successful in school. Such skills are important not only to understand content across different subjects, but also to do well in assessments. Furthermore, as many polytechnic students continue to further their studies at the university, mastering academic literacy is important for their educational goals. Gee (2012) defines literacy as a “[m]astery of a secondary Discourse” (p. 173), thus academic literacy of reading and writing entails mastering “distinctive ways of … writing/reading coupled with distinctive ways of acting, interacting, valuing, feeling, dressing, thinking, believing with other people and various objects, tools and technologies[.]” (p. 152). Gee argues that the mastery of a Discourse requires both acquisition through an exposure through models and learning through having meta-knowledge about the Discourse (p. 174). Thus students should not only be successful at academic skills and assimilating its accompanying actions and attitudes, they should also be aware of how they become successful in such a Discourse (p. 175), thus facilitating their cognitive development.

Challenge: Coercive Power Relations

In terms of the teachers’ attitudes toward students’ English language proficiency levels, students whose English language standardized test scores are high are expected to excel at academic reading and writing, while students who have low scores are unquestionably assumed to continue to struggle with academic reading and writing and will have little hope of making any improvements. Furthermore, students’ use of colloquial speech – their primary Discourse, to use Gee’s (2012) terms – in class is frowned upon and is seen as a reflection of their lack of academic abilities.  Thus students’ past test scores and their functioning in their primary Discourse have a deterministic effect on teachers’ expectations of students’ future performance. This reveals the coercive power relations between teachers and students where teachers indirectly prepare students to accept the status quo regarding their academic abilities (Cummins, 2003, p. 25).


My Ideological Stance in Content Area Instruction

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My Ideological Stance in a Nutshell

My position is that students need to be weaned off passive learning and engage in active learning because the complex nature of their content area (e.g. business and marketing subjects), as well as the demands of higher education and the workplace in a rapidly evolving social and economic environment. In addition, in order to promote mastery of the discourse of academic skills, teaching must be lead to both acquisition and learning of the discourse. Furthermore, students need to be empowered to master academic skills so that they can succeed in school, regardless of their existing English language proficiency and the beliefs that they themselves or others have about their ability.

Pedagogical Approach 1: Cooperative Learning

I choose cooperative learning to encourage positive interdependence, individual accountability, equal participation and simultaneous interaction – the four basic principles of the cooperative learning approach (Kagan, 1998, p. 108) – to foster the development of active learning, academic skills and content understanding.

Sociocultural learning theory informs this approach as an important premise of cooperative learning is the social nature of the activities. Complex mental processes begin as social activities and evolve into internal mental activities which students can use independently in the future (Ormrod, 2011, p. 40). Thus cooperative learning influences the cognitive development of students. Furthermore, the use of pair and group work in cooperative learning allows a student’s learning to be scaffolded by more capable peers who offer assistance or co-constructed together with fellow similar ability peers (p. 45). In this way, the use of scaffolding in pair and group work promotes equity and access among the heterogeneous classes that I encounter.

Pedagogical Approach 2: Modeling

According to Gee (2012), “[t]eaching that leads to acquisition means to apprentice students in a master-apprentice relationship” (p. 175) through exposure to models “in natural, meaningful, and functional settings” (p. 174). In practice, this means using content-based instruction where the teaching of academic skills is done through “exposure to content that is interesting and relevant to learners” (Brinton, 2003, p. 201). For successful modeling of academic skills to take place, the selection of content should extend over several weeks. (p. 201). Furthermore, the modeling of academic skills is optimally effective when I am able to demonstrate “not only how to do a task but also how to think about the task” (Ormrod, 2011, p. 330). Such cognitive modeling can be achieved through think-alouds where I make my thinking explicit by verbalizing my thoughts while completing a task (Vacca, Vacca, & Mraz, 2011, p. 197), for example, when planning a persuasive essay. Furthermore, according to social cognitive theory, modeling not only teaches students new behaviors and skills, it also boosts their self-confidence (Ormrod, 2011, p. 334).

Pedagogical Approach 3: Using Primary Discourse

I use students’ primary Discourse as a vehicle to mediate their learning of a secondary Discourse. A person’s primary Discourse is acquired as a result of family socialization (Gee, 2012) and for many students, their primary Discourse includes oral literacy in non-standard colloquial speech.

Students’ oral literacy, however informal and deemed unacceptable, is the carrier for their personal perspectives that needs to addressed before teachers can move on less familiar literacies of reading and writing (Kern & Schultz, 2005, p. 384). By narrowly defining academic literacy as a “strict adherence to standard forms and conventions” (p. 389), students who do not meet the standards are viewed as deficient. However, by expanding the notion of literacy through linking students’ primary Discourse to the secondary Discourse of academic skills, I explore and validate how students communicate with the resources that they have, thus empowering all students, especially the low achievers. For example, encouraging students to use informal language to talk or write about their reactions to a reading passage is a way to address their unique or even culturally-specific ways of thinking. By validating their worldview, I motivate them to connect with the academic ways of thinking that I seek to teach (Delpit, 2002, p. 45).


Ultimately, using the three pedagogical approaches of cooperative learning, modeling and using students’ primary Discourse help to combat the coercive power relations that exist between teachers and students. I must first be conscious of such power relations, then explore more collaborative relations of power of interacting with students so as to negotiate the “acquisition of knowledge and formation of identity” (Cummins, 2003, p. 19). In other words, I must be conscious of affirming my students’ sense of identity by allowing them to be confident participants during lessons, as well as in all other interactions with me (p. 19). As Delpit (2002) so eloquently concludes, we must “reconnect them to their own brilliance and gain their trust so that they will learn from us” (p. 48).


This paper was written for a course in the MAT-TESOL program at USC in March 2012.


Brinton, D. M. (2003). Content-based instruction. In D. Nunan (Ed.), Practical English language teaching (pp. 199-224). New York: McGraw Hill.

Cummins, J. (2005). Teaching the language of academic success: A framework for school-based language policies. In Schooling and language minority students: A theoretical framework (3rd ed., pp. 3-32). Sacramento, CA: LBD Publishers.

Delpit, L. (2002). No kinda sense. In L. Delpit, (Ed.), The skin that we speak: Thoughts on language and culture in the classroom (pp. 34-48). NY: The New York Press.

Gee, J. (2012). Discourses and literacies. Social linguistics and literacies: Ideology in discourses (4th ed.) (pp. 147-178). New York, NY: Routledge.

Kagan, S. (1998). New cooperative learning, multiple intelligences, and inclusion. In J. W. Putnam and R. W. Slavin (Eds.), Cooperative learning and strategies for inclusion: Celebrating diversity in the classroom (pp. 105-136). Baltimore, MD: Brookes Publishing.

Kern, R. & Schultz, J. M. (2005). Beyond orality: investigating literacy and the literary in second and foreign language instruction. The Modern Language Journal, 89(3), pp. 381-392.

Ormrod, J.E. (2011). Educational psychology: Developing learners (7th ed.). Boston, MA:  Pearson.

Vacca, R. T., Vacca, J. L., & Mraz, M. (2011). Content area reading: Literacy and learning across the curriculum (10th ed.). Boston: Pearson.

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The truths about teaching English

The truths about teaching English

In preparation for a new course with the MAT TESOL program, I read the first three chapters of James Crawford’s “Educating English Learners: Language Diversity in the Classroom“. I was at first overwhelmed with the various programs and acronyms for teaching English to immigrants in America, but soon I grew curious about the assumptions and implications of these programs. By the end of Chapter 3 on Language Policies in the USA,  I viewed the act of educating an English learner with greater appreciation for the non-pedagogical (i.e. social and political) reasons. In fact, I started to think about my personal journey as an English learner, a timely response as Singapore’s annual Speak Good English Movement trots out slogans and ministerial soundbites in a bid to rescue the language from falling standards, whether real or perceived.

Response to Crawford

First, let me sum up my thoughts on Crawford’s overview of the diversity of English language programs in America. On the surface, it seems that the US government makes the effort to help immigrants and their children to assimilate into American society. But assimilation itself is not necessarily an ideal outcome. The whole idea of a Melting Pot sounds innocuous enough, where many cultures combine to form one homogenous culture (therefore avoiding ethnic, religious and political divisions). However, what goes unquestioned is that homogenous culture – whose culture is it exactly?

Crawford seems to champion acculturation instead, which he defines as “adding the new without discarding the old” (Crawford, p. 63). He highlights a competing metaphor, the Salad Bowl, which suggests that cultures should blend without losing their distinct flavors.

According to Crawford, the debate over teaching English in an English-only environment versus a bilingual (and bicultural) program has a lot to do with whether political camps take the Melting Pot or Salad Bowl view.

The America context, historical, social and political is a minefield that I am beginning to understand and discover. (See The Official English Movement: Reimagining America for an overview of the debate over language policies in America.) The Singapore context of language policies, on the other hand, is something that I’ve wondered about, sometimes becoming critical but mostly brushing it aside to deal with its realities. Crawford’s book has ignited my interest once again but this time, I hope to sustain my critical understanding of how English is taught, and “deal with its realities” in less reactive and more proactive ways.

How English is taught

The first thing I’m concerned with is how English is taught in this country. And the way it is and has been taught cannot be divorced from the history of the use of the language.

The history of English language teaching in Singapore goes back to the early 19th century when the British Empire conquered this sleepy Malay fishing village. This village was soon a major trading port and attracted immigrants from a mix of countries including India and China. In the land of immigrants speaking a plethora of languages, or more accurately, dialects, English was the language of the ruling power, administration, law, commerce and over and above all, privilege. English in as ‘pure’ as form as possible as long as the British were in charge, or had a heavy influence, entrenched itself in English medium (as opposed to Chinese medium) schools right up to the 60s. By the late 70s and early 80s, Chinese medium schools were no longer around, and English was firmly taught as a first language in all schools. (Note: These are broad historical strokes from my under-researched understanding. I welcome clarifications, corrections and recommended readings.)

Even as a first language, the way English has been taught (particularly in primary schools) from the 80s right up till today has undergone several changes. The most obvious one to me, since I was a primary school student during the 80s and now I teach students who went through primary school in the 90s, is a shift from a focus on grammar to a focus on communicative competence. I have yet to come across solid researched evidence but my sense (as well as the sense of my peers and elders) is that the standard of English has dropped, with a typical teenager who has undergone the 10 years of schooling, speaking and writing less grammatically. Of course we can all understand each other, and even foreigners will figure us out, but the fact that it is our first language (or is it?) should demand that we know and perform it well.

English language and the immigrant

The second thing that I’m concerned with is how the English language interfaces with the 2nd wave of immigrants coming to Singapore. Now, more than ever before, Singapore is experiencing an influx of foreign workers, blue-collar, white-collar, with a range of qualifications and motives. Many Singaporeans, especially those who speak and understand primarily English, are frustrated at the number of foreign service staff who seem inept at providing customer service since thy struggle with the language. There are others who feel that the immigrants (or perhaps more rightly called migrants) are not even interested in assimilating into Singapore culture, and by that, I think they mean speaking the lingua franca of English.

Apart from the workplace, there are also potential issues in English language learning among immigrant children or foreign students in Singapore who struggle not only with the language, but also understanding other subjects that are taught in English, and mixing with their local peers.

This issue of how English interfaces with the foreign community is complex and I will have to deal with it separately at a later date. But for now, my view is that we cannot assume that the foreigner themselves should bear the burden when it is clear that their language competence affects how we perceive them and how well we all get together.

E pluribus unum (Out of many, one). But there is no one truth about learning or teaching a language. There are many because we as language learners are complex creatures because of our histories, social interactions, personal motivations and aspirations.


Crawford, J. (2004).  Educating English Learners: Language Diversity in the Classroom (5th edition).  Los Angeles:  Bilingual Educational Services (BES).


My students, my passion

My students, my passion

I sit there listening to them, some of them shy, some of them daring, but all of them reaching into their heart to tell the class about what they care about.

Each time I teach this course, I always find out something I would never have if I didn’t have the trial presentations. The trials are supposed to help them prepare for the final graded presentation, but they are more than that. The three-minute presentation about ‘whatever they like’ is really a window to their soul – what they are, what they stand for.

My students, when they first find out they have to do the trial presentation, groan, shudder, fake a heart attack and the like. But when they go through the prep, stand in front of the class and receive feedback on how they have done, I dare say it’s better than any textbook, video or self-help book.

Some of them can’t wait to share with their friends their favorite sport, hobby, singer; some of them want to but are fearful and nervous. There have a few who don’t bother but thankfully they are too few to count.

Whether they are springing onto stage, or carefully pondering every move, or trying not to shake too much, I relish each student’s presentation, both content and style. For that brief moment, I find out more about their personality, what makes them tick, what fills their thoughts, what is their passion.

When I see their eyes light up, some time for the first time in my class, I’m content to know that they had the opportunity to connect with others, to share a part of themselves. When I see them shy away from their friends’ gaze, I know I have to encourage them to take that risk.

When I hear about their stories, why the love something, their aspirations, I’m reminded of the time I was their age – 17 years old – full of ideals and energy, exploring each passion one by one.

I am, of course, no longer 17, and regrettably in some way, do not have the passions I once had at 17. But I seem to re-live my passions through my students, vicariously, yes, but I think slowly I’m beginning to realize I could rekindle that passion, re-imagine it and make it real for me this moment. At least I have one passion I am sure of – my students.


Generation Gap or Just Plain Rude?

Generation Gap or Just Plain Rude?

I could go on and on about how teenagers nowadays don’t know basic courtesy: how they let out expletives within earshot in a crowded lift, how they talk when the teacher is talking as if she didn’t exist; basically how they walk the road like they own it. But I really shouldn’t because one, there’s no end to that list, and two, I will start to moralize about who’s to blame.

So let me talk about what I can do as a teacher, standing in front of a class of youngsters who can’t get enough of their phones, talk when you’re talking, and seem to do something else even when you’ve set them a different task?

Enough with your phone already!

What do I do when they can’t keep still for 10 minutes without reaching for their iPhone? I tried ignoring it as long as I thought they were more or less paying attention to the lesson but the more I let it happen, the more I was convinced that their mind was on some mindless gossip on twitter. So I made it clear at the beginning of the lesson: put away your phones or I will put them away for you. I’ve confiscated a couple before by placing them at the teacher’s desk but returned it to the student after the lesson. I think they weren’t too cheesed off since I didn’t spot any black faces. I had been generally tolerant of their behavior before and maybe they were just used to me already.

Would this work in your class?

However, I wouldn’t necessarily try it in a large class, like a lecture hall of 80 plus students. First, I would have to spend more time confiscating phones than teaching. Second, I they will hate my guts. Third, one and two make a really bad class.

I think the best defense against a tech distracted crowd is to win them over with your superior tech display, e.g. great eye-catching photos during presentation, a couple of well-timed videos, and having interactive activities like getting individuals and groups to come to the front to do something. And don’t forget the M&Ms to encourage participation!

Chatting like there’s no tomorrow

Most of my students tend to talk a lot more when I’m not the one asking them to do the talking. For example, when they’ve just come in to the classroom and they’re settling down, when they’ve finished an activity and the others are still working on theirs, or when I disappear from the classroom to get something.

I have nothing against students talking in class – except when I’m talking and that usually means I’m trying to say something I think it’s important to them.

Usually they do it because they are engrossed in an ongoing discussion, and can’t snap out of it until they get both physical and verbal cues, i.e. the teacher standing in front of them and saying, “Are we ready for class?”

What if they don’t get the cues? What if they get it one moment and forget the next? Well, I keep on reminding them until my cues are reduced to a glance, a stare or a glare. I don’t aim for total silence and I don’t want them to end up fearful of not keeping quiet. But I think through consistent reinforcement of the expected behavior in class, they will get the message.

One of these kids is doing his own thing

Texting on the phone and being a chatterbox are actually less disturbing behaviors than not following specific instructions in the larger scheme of things. I’ve had students who seem to insist on doing something contrary to what I’ve set the class to do. Thankfully this doesn’t occur often but when it does, it could mean the student is suffering from a behavioral disorder like Asperger’s Syndrome. It could also mean that the student cannot bring himself to complete the task because he finds no meaning in it.

While I have not experienced the former, I have come across students who exhibit the second type of behavior. Usually, they find the work un-challenging or they already know the topic. So far from being rude, they just can’t bring themselves to do something which doesn’t help them learn anything new. What I do to help this student is to give him a more challenging task or point out aspects of the activity that he can still benefit from. To date, I’ve not had a resistant student.

Not rude, well, not all the time

So in my encounters with less desirable classroom behavior, I conclude that the students don’t mean to be rude or challenging; they are just behaving in a way that’s most natural to them. I think it’s our job as teachers to remind them what’s appropriate and what’s not in class – and be consistent in setting our boundaries and ground rules. The last thing we want to do is to ignore them and let them continue with behavior that will not help them learn any better, or anything at all!

P/S I teach in an Asian context where students are largely respectful of authority figures.

Navigating a new world of e-learning

Navigating a new world of e-learning

Learning points from eLearning Forum Asia 2011

I just finished a 2-day conference (8 – 9 June 2011), the eLearning Forum Asia 2011, held at the National Technological University (Singapore). While there was a variety of topics, my main interests were on e-learning and using social media for teaching. For e-learning, my takeaway was that we need to focus on the design of the e-learning activities. For social media, my takeaway was that we need to engage the students where they were. Ultimately, it was about the learners – what they were like, what they were doing, and how we could cater to their needs.

The following paragraphs, if they can be called that at all, are lists of ideas, jotting them down before this conference becomes a vague memory. I don’t want to end up with post-conference inertia and I hope this post reminds me of what I need to do.


My actual experience with e-learning has been largely i) me uploading stuff and students downloading stuff and ii) students posting superficially on forum threads.

What I would like my experience to be:

i) Students and I do stuff together on something;

ii) Students care about this stuff we do together;

iii) I actually have fun getting all this done!

What I could do in the immediate future:

i) Use Google Docs for group writing for collaboration;

ii) Set specific instructions for students so they don’t get lost in the activities;

iii) Model the actions and behaviors I expect from them.

Social Media

I have recently started to connect with my students via Facebook but not for specific teaching or learning purposes. I use it to make announcements for some of my subjects, encourage students, send reminders and wish them Happy Birthday!

I’m not entirely sure how I could use it for teaching although the Facebook Group Page comes to mind. I’ve just finished a Social Media workshop by the folks from UWM and it was awesome! Some things I’ve learnt:

i) Social Media is here – don’t fight it, join it, manage it!

ii) Twitter is powerful! I’m now officially on Twitter (@orangecanton)

iii) Facebook Fanpages are a great resource for putting up information for courses.

iv) Some challenges include privacy and convincing people who don’t care much for social media but control the approvals and money for using it in education!

v) Students will appreciate it that you are reaching out to them through the very means they live 24/7!