Textbook Update

The original plans for the first textbook (level 1) was slated to have six units. However, after two years of trials in adult ESL classes, it became clear getting through just three units for the whole 72 hour course was difficult. It’s difficult because there are so many basic components of the English language that students need to understand in order to lay the foundations for more advanced comprehension. The three units address these fundamentals which are rich in phonic activities, listening and speaking exercises, and grammar components.

Having only three units simplifies many aspects of this textbook as well. For example, concentrating on pronunciation of words with specific digraphs, such as the “ch” and “th” sounds, also gives opportunities to engage in modeled conversations that have words embedded in them with these specific digraphs. This also extends to incorporating a short storyline, grammar practices, writing and reading activities. The concentrated portions of the lessons are in the main units, but the supplemental sections (toward the back of the book) give many more exercise and practice activities to further examine details explained in the main units. This also allows for more emphasis to be placed on details within each lesson without overwhelming students with too much information processing too quickly.

I believe the approach of going step by step renders more language dividends in the long run. Since 2012, students who worked with the I Want To Learn English prototype units have improved their scores on the CASAS exams and some even jumped two levels within a single semester. Some may attribute these highlights to a number of factors, but going further back to years before I developed IWTLE, the success rates did not have the kind of surges I see in the overall numbers now. And with help coming from other instructors using IWTLE with their students, overall student scores will reveal its effectiveness. Stay tuned for these results in the coming months.

The Voiced and Voiceless “Th” Sounds

One of the trickiest digraphs to teach new English Learners is the “Th” sound. This is because it isn’t a common sound produced in non-Latin based languages. In fact, with some exceptions like Arabic, Greek, Albanian and Burmese (for example), many languages do not have voiced or voiceless fricative “Th” sounds in their language at all. For Spanish speaking students, for example, learning words with the “Th” sound is very difficult. Most English Language Learners in my classes have expressed their frustrations in learning words with these voiced and voiceless “Th” sounds. What I always recommend to my students is their dedication to practicing words and sentences with these sounds in them to help them produce the sounds a little more fluidly. This is the primary reason I spend a great deal of time going over digraphs in the first place, especially when working with low beginner students and even all the way up to intermediate level students. An entire unit in the “I Want To Learn English” textbook is dedicated to practicing digraphs. I produced the following video for students to practice the voiced and voiceless “Th” sounds and give some examples to practice with. Please feel free to share this video with as many people as you like. Stay focused and practice as much as possible.

Voice-overs and Other Updates

voice over1

The one thing that has consistently made me curious about ESL textbooks is the homogenized voice actors on so many English learning tools and textbook audio companions. I understand the need to establish “standardized” English vernacular to model for students just starting to learn the language, but the reality is Americans have all sorts of accents, including those from other nations. Essentially, I believe, making simulated conversations without any ethnicity other than Caucasian is truly an unrealistic representation of the American melting pot ELLs face in work and community interactions. For this reason, I have enlisted the help of people with various backgrounds to help with creating the simulated conversations that go with the I Want To Learn English textbook in development. And not only do they vary in ethnicities and accents, but also in age. Some very young voice-over actors (including my 7 year old daughter) and members of our senior citizen community participate in this project. I like the idea of using some of these dialogues for the swing differentiation conversations and listening activities because they present more challenges for those students in the upper proficiency levels.

What is truly useful about having different people participate in the simulated conversations is the sense of “real” people. The nuances in speech are difficult to master when your first language is not English. Americans take this for granted, of course. This is one of the principle reasons it is essential to have a myriad of voices simulating conversations: to give adult ELLs a sense of being in a authentic conversation. Or at least, listen to them for the purpose of deciphering meaning and recalling details about the subjects being discussed. Perhaps this will be realized as students progress, not only in their overall test scores, but in their confidence level and English proficiency. This will ultimately pay major dividends for students working through general comprehension activities to improve their hold on the language, as well as in their improve their articulation skills.

Long and Short Vowels [Review Lesson]

The following video features part of a review lesson on long and short vowels. It demonstrates visual associations with auditory and articulated comprehension of distinct pronunciations of English sounds (specifically long and short vowels) in English words. The words used in the examples are one-syllable words so students may have the least amount of distractions (to avoid confusion) in focusing on the specific vowels sounds being targeted and studied.

Presenting at the Maryland TESOL Conference

It’s always an honor to be selected to present at a conference, since so many people from various backgrounds submit their proposals. However, the MD TESOL Conference 2014 is particularly exciting because Dr. Stephen Krashen, a well respected figure in the field of TESOL, is the keynote speaker at the event and also a presenter on Common Core. Although the excitement is evident, the primary focus for my presentation is to introduce colleagues in teaching English to adult ELLs to the crux of my research project: “Swing Differentiation.” It’s this concept that has lead me to begin creating a prototype textbook I call “I Want To Learn English,” or IWTLE. The birth of this concept came from the inherent need for adult learners to be able to acquire at least some understanding of the essential phonetic foundation of the English language. After some trials and error, I discovered just teaching adults the “bare bones” basic phonetic symbol representations of, say, long and short vowels, paid great dividends in their overall performance throughout the course. For this I needed to work almost exclusively with level 1 students to verify my conclusions. After two years of trials, I had the necessary data to submit to my supervisors at Baltimore City Community College’s Basic English Language Skills (or BELS) program. The number of students who were able to score higher on the CASAS exams and advance to the next level rose exponentially, which made the program director take serious notice of what I had been doing. It was because of their encouragement and support that I have been allowed to continue my methods and studies, which has only become more efficient with each new class. So, my findings, methods, theories and data are at the center of my presentation at the MD TESOL Conference, which I hope will generate more interest from my fellow colleagues and perhaps entice them to participate in my ongoing project. If you were not able to attend the conference, a video stream of my presentation will be made available both through the MD TESOL website (mdtesol.org) and on my channel on You Tube. Stay tuned.

The Dawn of “I Want To Learn English”

I Want To Learn English began as a research project aiming to improve adult ELLs’ scores on the CASAS exams in Baltimore, Maryland. What I discovered in over two years of implementing phonics intensive curriculum at the onset of beginners’ coursework was it not only improved their overall scores, but a greater number of students were retained throughout the semesters. Curiously, I looked deeper into this unexpected effect and learned adult students found the initial lessons on the phonetic foundation of the English language helped them, generally speaking, grasp the the language more analytically, which is something many students felt was very beneficial in the overall course. This added an intrinsic component to seemingly mechanical methods. This opened my eyes to the multi-faceted, complex miracle that is language acquisition in the adult years. There are so many angles to this phenomenon and much more research is needed to gain more of an understanding of the importance of establishing the basic fundamentals for acquiring English as an adult learner. IWTLE is both a tool and an ongoing research project, which is why I am actively seeking other adult ESL instructors to be a part of this project and put together a more efficient textbook for adult learners than what is currently available on the market. To inquire, please email  directly me at iwanttolearnenglish3@gmail.com.