Monday, March 27, 2006

The Tomato: An Important Tool for ELT and Foreign Language Teachers

An Important Tool? Really?

What has a tomato got to do with English or foreign language teaching? Try this. Take a tomato, display it prominently in front of your English or foreign language students. Now ask them to tell you about it. “Ask, “What things can relate?” If one of your learners asks, “Teacher, can I touch it or pick it up or handle it?” you should say “Yes”. Just don’t let them eat it. No prop, no class you see.

The idea is to generate the use of the four basic language skills using a known prop or piece of realia. With the exception of Antarctica and possibly the Himalayas, I don’t know of any other continent or geographic region where the tomato might not be known. The learners then, must come up with as much tomato-based input as they can. From some individual learners there may not be much, but collectively, the input generated could be considerable.

Brainstormed Tomato Themes

Here are some allowable input themes my learners have brainstormed using this exercise.

*Tomato dishes
*Allergies, especially food allergies
*Cooking methods used with tomatoes
*Tomatoes in songs and movies (Remember “Attack of the Killer Tomatoes”?)
*Collocations with “tomato”
*Countries where tomatoes are grown or heavily used
*Chemicals and nutrients in tomatoes
*History of tomatoes
*Tomato-colored objects
*Idioms and expressions using “tomato”
*Tomato statistics and records (world’s largest, smallest, etc.)
*Famous people who liked tomatoes (like Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis who reportedly put catsup on everything she ate )
*Companies that feature tomato products
*Tomato stories and anecdotes
*Words that can be made using the letters in the word “tomato”

By now I’m sure you get the idea.

The Power of Your mind

Try this visualization exercise right now. Close your eyes. Picture a tomato. Can you see it? In your mind, touch it. Pick it up and move it around in your hands. What does it feel like? Is it warm or cold? Can you smell it now? Describe the fragrance of your tomato. Okay, now you can take a bite. How does it taste? Do you want another bite? Would you like to sprinkle some salt or sugar on your tomato? Go ahead. Help yourself.
If you’re getting hungry or otherwise reacting during this exercise, great, your learners will too. Even more so with a real tomato on hand.

So try this language-stimulation exercise to get your learners talking and using English or another target language to actively communicate. It’s been a great help to me with my learners in generating speech and related topics during language class or Conversation Clubs.

Saturday, March 25, 2006

Use Web Quests to Promote Extensive Reading in EFL Learners

Do your language learners read enough? Do they even like to read? How can you get them to read more in English or another target language? An all too common problem in foreign language and EFL learners is a lack of extensive reading in the target language. Extensive reading has numerous benefits for language learners. Some key benefits include:

· Development of vocabulary in context

· Extensive use of grammar in context

· Exposure to authentic language

· Exposure to idioms and expressions of the target language in context

· Continuing development of learner interest in a variety of topics

To avail themselves of these and other featured benefits derived from extensive reading however, learners must in fact read – and read a lot. But learners will rarely jump into a heavy schedule of reading unless they both understand its benefits and enjoy what they read. So, stimulating their interest first is paramount to success. Here’s what you can do.

Use Web Quests
One useful and fun way to stimulate or facilitate extensive reading is by using learner-centered web quests based on topics of interest to them. An online web quest is not unlike an electronic scavenger hunt. From a starting site or page learners go successively to additional pages to read and gather facts and information. There can be comprehension questions, charts, graphs, and / or exercises at each stage and a more comprehensive evaluation at the end of the web quest. Learner responses to exercises and evaluation activities are commonly sent to the teacher by e-mail. There are online sites that can be used to facilitate the process or a web quest can be set up using a word processing program like MS Word. Two useful teaching-oriented sites online for piloting web quests are:

* at:

*Quintessential Instructional Archives (QUIA) at:

Online Readings
The online readings can be any of a broad spectrum of formats or topics:

-News and sports



-Articles and stories


-Occupational topics


-Special Interest

-Travel and culture


-Nature, geography or Animals

-Technology, Computers

Topic Selection
Topics should be selected and included based on the needs and interests of the learners. With careful selection and a three to five station web quest, learners have both the opportunity and desire to do more extensive reading in English or another foreign language.

F*r*e*e Sample Available
For a sample web quest for you to try out for yourself or your learners, if you have questions or need help, e-mail the author using “web quest sample” in the subject heading. Good Luck. I look forward to hearing from you.

Monday, March 20, 2006

If You Think English is Difficult Try Mandarin – Part 1

Several factors make learning Chinese a considerably more formidable task than learning another Germanic or Romance languages. Studying a foreign language is an excellent way for English and other language teachers to improve their own teaching. It also forces you into the role of a student so you can experience first hand the problems, difficulties and challenges your EFL learners face in your classes. Don't believe me? Then look at what happened to me …

Greeting the language learning students with a cheerful “Ni Hao” (Hello), our teacher, Shutzng Zhang begins the second class session of the Santiago de Cali University’s first – ever course in Mandarin. The spartan class room contains a map of China – in Chinese of course, tacked to one side wall, desks, a small table, and white board. There are two worksheets with the vocabulary of greetings written in Chinese characters on her desk. We greet the teacher in return. She wishes to be called “Susana” to spare us the tongue-twisting pronunciation of her Chinese first name. She speaks Spanish fairly well but her English is considerably more advanced. Explanations are done in Spanish to accommodate the class majority.

Practice with vowels follows:

a, o, e, i, u, u

There are 11 Spanish-speaking adult students in the first week of the group. Each in turn tries their hand at getting their pronunciation of vowels and greetings phrases to an acceptable level. Then some consonants follow:

n, t, h, m, x, j, z

As I’d expected, there are more than a few problems in teaching the tonal sounds of Mandarin to speakers of a non-tonal language. Yiu Wing Fung, a Chinese man, has more trouble than others in the group. “Why is he here”, I wonder?

A series of common greetings is written on the white board with the Spanish transcribed underneath. I instantly want to make up (or have the teacher make) flash cards to give me something to study and practice. I make a mental note to ask later. I do ask for and get copies of two key pages of the phrases written on the board. I’ll make flash cards from these later on. That’ll do for a start at least.

Next, the pronouns are written on the board in singular and plural. They’re remarkably similar:

Wu, ni, ta - then ta, ta, nin

There are differences in the pronunciation tones to distinguish them, but I produce my own little chart in singular and plural.

Then the other shoe drops. We get to the tones in earnest. It’s like doing the musical scales. High, low, short, long, up and down. There are going to be three tonal values I think; high, medium and low. I’m wrong. There are five: first tone, second tone, third tone, fourth tone and no tone. Each student runs through their “version” of the pronunciation. Sometimes our young teacher giggles. Other times she simply shakes her head and has the student try again. From the look on her face, we know our speech is bad. We’ll need a tape recording of the pronunciations. Without it there’s no way to check, practice and mimic the tonal sounds. It’s a time-consuming but necessary process.

How do you ask, “Do you love me?” one of the ladies asks. In response, the answer; “I love you” along with “I love you too.” Are written and practiced by the class next. The five ladies in the class are thrilled and amused, blushing as they practice the phrases. “This isn’t foe me”, I think, but decide to stick it out another couple of weeks. Maybe with some practice and help I’ll make some progress and develop more enthusiasm.

Some photocopied sheets with the words and phrases on them would help. So would a practice tape recording of the sounds, pronunciation and tones. The spoken language and its related listening comprehension development need more than the cursory “twice a week” class attendance sessions to practice. We need much more exposure than that to internalize elements of the language.

A description with drawings of how Chinese characters are derived proves more interesting for us. For example, the character “sun” plus the character “moon” means “light” or “illumination”. Now we’re getting somewhere.

… Continued in Part 2 …