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.

Re-imagining the non-native speaker

Re-imagining the non-native speaker

A short essay on the debate on who makes a better English teacher: a native or non-native speaker of English


Advertisements for English teachers often stress native speakers (NSs) in their hiring requirements, thus denying those labeled as non-native speakers (NNSs) jobs even if they are qualified teachers (Reis, 2011, p. 140), as well as reinforcing discrimination against NNSs in their profession. As noted by Rubdy, the NS is privileged “not only in decisions concerning the norms for determining the most appropriate models for teaching the language, but also in recruiting teachers.” In fact, the dichotomy between NS and NNS is “often essentialised by non-native speakers themselves, thus actively contributing to the adoption of such beliefs and their own disenfranchisement” (Rubdy, 2009, 158 – 159). This paper examines the debate about whether the NS is superior to NNS, highlights the global context of the English language, and addresses the challenges for the non-native English-speaking teacher (NNEST). In addition, this paper argues that the NS/NNS dichotomy is flawed for three reasons: i) every language user is a speaker of his or her own unique language; ii) the use of English has expanded well beyond the countries where English originated from; and iii) the NS/NNS dichotomy does not reflect the sociolinguistic complexities of language learning. Instead of viewing NS and NNS as a dichotomy, a continuum should be used to reflect the varying types and degree of proficiency of any English speaker.

Who is the Ideal English Teacher?

 The NS is assumed to be “inherently [a] better language teacher than [a] NNS” (Reis, 2011, p. 140) because the NS comes from a country (e.g. United States and United Kingdom) where English originated from and the accompanying culture dominates in. Apart from the notion that “speakerhood relates to birth within a particular country” (Holliday, 2008, p. 121), the acceptance of the NS as an English teacher is tied up with ethnicity and race. For example, an ethnic Chinese who was born in the United States would not necessarily be considered an ideal English teacher because he or she “doesn’t look right”, never mind that “the birth criterion for being a ‘native speaker’ is fulfilled” (Holliday, 2008, p. 121).

The arguments against the NS as the ideal teacher include distinguishing language proficiency from teaching ability, as well as citing the advantages of having NNS as teachers. For example, the TESOL association, in their position statement (2006), states that “[t]eaching skills, teaching experience, and professional preparation should be given as much weight as language proficiency. … All educators should be evaluated within the same criteria” (in Reis, 201, p. 140). In addition, Moussu & Llurda highlight various advantages of the NNEST. For example, the NNEST, who learned English as a second language (L2) can “empathize very well with their students’ learning difficulties” better than the native English-speaking teacher (NEST) who learned it as a first language (L1). Also NNESTs can be “greatly admired by their students because they are successful role models and often very motivated” (2008, p. 322).

Who is a Native Speaker anyway?

While the above arguments work with the NS and NNS labels, another set of arguments question the very label and identity of the NS, showing how inappropriate and false the dichotomy between the NS and NNS is. According to Moussu and Llurda (2008), “three arguments have been used to attack the legitimacy of the dichotomy:” i) everyone is a native speaker of his or her own unique language; ii) English has become an indigenized language in many countries outside the circle of BANA (British, Australasian, North American) countries; and iii) the NS/NNS dichotomy does not reflect the complexities of language learning in the local context. (p. 317).

The first argument that every language user is in fact a native speaker of a given language means that “speakers cannot be divided according to whether they have a given quality (i.e., native speakers) or they do not have it (i.e., non-native speakers), based on whether English is their first language or not” (Nayar, 1994, in Moussu & Llurda, 2008, p. 316). This dichotomy, Nayar argues, shows the “unfairness of Anglo-centrism, through which English is taken as the only language in the world that deserves attention.” While some view this dichotomy as linguistic elitism, others consider it linguistic imperialism. The exclusivity of the English language is further questioned in terms of the concept of the ownership of English.

Who Owns the English Language?

The central point of the second argument is that English has become an indigenized language in many of the countries where English is not the native tongue but is an official language (what Kachru categorized as the Outer Circle countries) and therefore “speakers of English in such countries cannot be dismissed as non-native speakers of English just because they do not speak a centre variety of the language” (Moussu & Llurda, 2008, p. 317). Furthermore, as English spreads to the Emerging Circle countries where it is used as a foreign language or lingua franca (or contact language), “learners may be producing forms characteristic of their own variety of English, which reflect the sociolinguistic reality of their English use … far better than either British or American norms are able to” (Jenkins, 2006, p. 168). In fact, the number of so-called non-native speakers “vastly outnumber” native speakers (p. 158) such that the idea of the BANA countries ‘owning’ English becomes untenable, thereby weakening the dichotomy between NS and NNS.

What do the Labels Really Mean?

The third argument against the NS/NNS dichotomy is that it lacks contextualization, “on the grounds that it disregards the interdependence between language teaching and the local context where it takes place” (Moussu & Llurda, 2008, p. 317). Evidence from case studies show how individuals who could not easily self-identify as either NS or NNS. In Menard-Warwick’s (2008) case studies , for example, two “intercultural teachers” show how the NS/NNS dichotomy fails to take into consideration their particular circumstances and context. One teacher, ‘Ruby’, is an adult ESL teacher in the United States who was born in Brazil to an American father and an English mother who were both bilingual in English and Portuguese. Her language proficiency in English was not consistent during her childhood but she eventually regained a native-like proficiency in English by the time she finished high school in the United States. Another teacher, ‘Paloma’, is a university-level Chilean EFL teacher who was born in a Spanish-speaking family in Chile and acquired English initially through academic study as a Chilean university and developed ‘near-native’ proficiency after 20 years in the United States. In both examples, both teachers have had deep contact with the so-called native source of English, the United States, and possess the linguistic and cultural competencies of the NS despite not being born in and having grown up in the United States.

Using a Continuum, Not Labels

The three arguments which challenge the NS/NNS dichotomy compels us to use alternative paradigms in addressing the legitimacy, proficiency and relevance of the English that any user possesses, and by extension, compels us to reconsider the divide between the NEST and the NNEST. Since English no longer operates in a monolingual and monocultural environment, the teaching and learning of English must accommodate the personal linguistic biographies and contexts of the teacher and learner. Hence there is no justification for the ideal English teacher to be the fair-skinned expert from an originating country of the language. Furthermore, the labels ‘native speaker’ and ‘non-native speaker’ perpetuate too simplistic a divide which remains largely unexamined and unquestioned by the majority of those who use it.

Instead of using NS/NNS labels, a continuum can be used to account for “all possible cases between the two extreme options, each corresponding to the two idealized notions of what traditionally was considered a native speaker and a non-native speaker” (Moussu & Llurda, 2008, p. 318). I would further suggest that this continuum introduce objective yardsticks such as technical competence (e.g. reading and writing skills), communicative competence (e.g. giving and receiving instructions), and intercultural awareness (e.g. a person asking “How are you?” may not be expecting a detailed explanation of your current state of affairs).


In light of the above discussion, I propose that all English teachers, regardless of country of origin, accent, race, cultural background, be given a new name: culturally competent English language teachers (CCELTs). Following from the proposed continuum, the CCELT can be evaluated against more neutral terms of reference which relate to the real challenges that face TESOL students: to be linguistically and communicatively competent in a global context of English used as first, second and contact languages. In addition, the ideal CCELT possesses multicultural pedagogical skills, as well as multicultural interpersonal awareness and skills. Examples of such multicultural skills include addressing the different learning styles of students of different ethnic backgrounds, and being sensitive to body language and its intended signals when interacting with a diverse group of students.

In nurturing ideal CCELTs, all teachers should look at one another as belonging to a “cooperative learning community and consider their development holistically” (Matsuda 1997, in Moussu & Llurda, 2008, p. 323). TESOL teacher preparation programs and hiring organizations should aim at developing CCELTs who are comfortable and confident in managing competencies regardless of perceived ‘differences’ and ‘otherness’.


Despite the realities of discrimination against NNESTs, the changing nature of the contexts of use of the English language will require all stakeholders re-examine their previously held convictions of NS/NNS labeling in order to prepare English learners for the real world of English, as well as make the English teaching landscape a more equitable playing field for all teachers, thus making the TESOL profession a true profession. Those labeled as NNESTs, in particular, must themselves embrace their unique identity in shaping the English language teaching and learning landscape by demonstrating high levels of competence in language, culture, communication and pedagogy.

Personally, as a Chinese Singaporean with demonstrated competence in the English language, ‘native’ and ‘non-native’ English cultures, cross-cultural communication skills and pedagogical delivery, I am determined to succeed as a TESOL professional by continually demonstrating not just competence, but also how relevant my English language biography is to my teaching context.

This paper was written for a course in the MAT-TESOL at USC in July 2011.


Holliday, A. (2008). Standards of English and politics of inclusion. Language Teaching, 41:1, pp. 119 – 130. Cambridge University Press.

Jenkins, J. (2006). Current Perspectives on Teaching World Englishes and English as a Lingua Franca. TESOL Quarterly, 40(1), pp. 157 – 181.

Menard-Warwick, J. (2008). The cultural and intercultural identities of transnational English teachers: Two case studies from the Americas. TESOL Quarterly, 42(4), pp. 617 – 640.

Moussu, L. and Llurda, E. (2008). Non-native English-speaking English language teachers: History and research. Language Teaching, 41:3, pp. 315 – 348. Cambridge University Press.

Reis, D.S. (2011). Non-native English-speaking teachers (NNESTs) and professional legitimacy: a sociocultural theoretical perspective on identity transformation. International Journal of Society and Language 208, pp. 139 – 160.

Rubdy, R. (2009). Reclaiming the local in teaching EIL. Language and Intercultural Communication, 9(2), pp. 156 – 174.


Generation iY – the best is yet to be

Generation iY - the best is yet to be

I had the privilege of being in the audience of Dr Tim Elmore’s presentation on Generation iY when he visited my school yesterday. Tim’s work (with Growing Leaders) is about  instilling values in youth who will be leaders of future generations.

I was informed, moved and challenged to view the Generation iY with different lenses and help them develop values to be leaders, not in the sense of being heads of organizations, but having a leadership perspective, i.e. being personally accountable and having a significant influence on others.

According to Tim, Generation iY are those born in the 90s, a group he categorizes as confident, social, tech savvy, family oriented and influential. With a life paradigm ,”life is a cafeteria”, their life is a buffet and the sum of their life is picking and choosing what they like. This generation is markedly different from my generation (Gen X) and even the earlier Gen Yers who were born in the 80s.

While this group sounds like they have everything going for them, Tim also pointed out that Generation iY are generally self-absorbed, display low empathy and ambiguous about the future at best. Of the seven reasons that Tim listed for this unique Gen iY personality, I strongly identified with two of them: parenting style and media & technology.

Media & Technology – Made for Them

My students are Gen iY and as a whole, their life seems to be always in the here and now. They are particularly emotional (or emo as they call it), taking admonishments badly and making the trivial the highlight of their day. You could call it adolescence, you could call it one generation lamenting about the next, but as Tim pointed out, the Gen iY is the first generation that doesn’t need to ask adults to get information. In fact, with the Internet so firmly entrenched in our daily lives, it has become a part of their living environment, especially since they were born into a world that already had it.

These kids are “always on”, wired up, and they learn lessons from what they consider the wonderful world of the internet. A student of mine said that she learns about life through Tumblr, though inspirational quotations blogged by people she doesn’t know. These catchy observations of life seem to shape her emotional response, never mind that those emotions will surface at some other point in time. By then, there will be another blog post or twitter update to fix that problem. Please tell me I’m not the only one disturbed that the values and attitudes of this Gen iY (or whatever name you want to give them) are guided and molded by anonymous strangers, distant acquaintances and friends whom have been influenced by the anonymous themselves!

Parents, where are you?

I think parents have a part to play in this unreal world of character building. Or to be precise, the absent parent is at least partly responsible for this state of affairs. At least in Singapore, the idea of a stay-home parent or grandparent is becoming rarer and so the kid has no human being, let alone a parent, to connect with at home. Or maybe parents are too tired after a day’s or work to connect with their child who may not be in the mood for connecting with his parents. I personally know of friends with teenage kids who struggle with not being there for their kids, or when they are, their kids aren’t. In fact, I think I’m connecting more with my friends’ teenage kids on Facebook then they are with their own kids at home! But let’s make it clear, I’m not their mum and I can’t parent them. (Anyway, I have my own post Gen iYers to parent!)

Be Intentional & Purposeful

I don’t think we can  confiscate media & technology and ground kids on a permanent basis. You’ll be screaming for your iPhone if it happened to you. So whether you’re a parent or a teacher, we need to focus on the what we can deal with – the young lives of Gen iY – and do so  intentionally and purposefully.

It’s not a 3 minute answer and it’s not something you can buy online. It’s about making use of the teachable moments, modeling positive behaviors and responses and making every effort to have a real (not cyber) dialogue with them. I like what Tim said about being responsive and demanding. We need to be sensitive to their needs but we also need to exercise our judgment and have high expectations of them so that they can grow into  “the best versions  of themselves.”

It’s a challenge I’m taking up. Shall we do this together?


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.