Thursday, 13 June 2013

50 SHADES OF EFL (Part Three)

50 SHADES OF EFL (Part three)

Yes, another blog post of idle ramblings, with no clear focus and no main topic. (And my apologies to E. L. James, author of 50 Shades of Grey for borrowing his title once again.  I’ve just read that his was the best-selling book of 2012, so I’m hitching a ride on his shirt-tails, so to speak.)

The most-read post on this blog would have to be “Your Embassy is Here to Help”. In it I outlined just what exactly your embassy won’t do to help you if you get into strife. The post struck a chord, I think, because most of us who travel abroad usually have in the back of our minds the comforting thought: “Oh well, if it all goes belly-up, I can always get assistance from my embassy.” That may have been true thirty years ago, but today, alas, it’s just a pipe-dream. You’re not convinced? OK, just look up your embassy’s website on the internet. It makes for alarming reading. Your embassy’s main function nowadays is to promote trade with the host country. If you’ve got problems, tough. You’re on your own when you take up residence in a foreign country. Welcome to the world of user-pays.

Vietnamese hotels come in many shapes and sizes, from sumptuous to down-market. Typically they are about five stories high, and very, very narrow, as the Vietnamese government charges taxes on street frontage rather than height.  They’ll contain an average of 15 to 20 rooms, and a budget hotel room will set you back $10 to $15 dollars a night. (Last year I stayed in a hotel in Can Tho for $5 per night. The room was clean and spacious enough and it had an en suite bathroom, but the mattress would have to take the title of the world’s most uncomfortable.  Next time I go to Can Tho I’m going to upgrade my accommodation I’m even prepared to pay up to $6 a night for the privilege.)
 In Vietnam, you have the Caravelles, the Pullmans, and the Inter-Continentals, but you also have hotels whose names can raise an eyebrow or two. I’ve seen the Hung Hotel, the Dung Hotel, the Dong Hotel, the Ancient Hotel, the Vitamin C Hotel, the Real Darling Hotel, the Dic Star Hotel (obviously with an eye out for the porno trade), and the Phuc Dat Hotel. 

Now most of us who descend upon a town or city for the first time are armed with a Lonely Planet guidebook. And who can blame us?  – they’re invaluable aids to the traveler. Vietnamese hotel owners have woken up to the fact that a mention in Lonely Planet ensures a year of maximum occupancies and big profits, and some owners have devised a scam to snare unsuspecting travelers. They snap up each new edition of the guidebook, and check out which hotels are recommended. Lo and behold, next day their hotel bears a new name – you’ve guessed it – a name that LP has recommended. Clever, huh? So, be warned, if your prospective hotel has been chosen from the pages of Lonely Planet, give the street name and number to your taxi- or cyclo-driver. Especially in Hanoi, where the scam is most prevalent.

Teachers usually have very little input on what textbooks they use – that’s the management’s choice. We can usually choose which textbooks we use for supplementary work though. Over the years I must have taught from around 50 different titles, some good, some patchy, and some a waste of trees. The good ones are English File, Interchange, Streamline, and Cambridge English Course. One stands out above all others in my opinion: the lower levels of Side by Side. It’s based mainly on illustrations, which is its strength; students start off on a level playing field when pictures are used as language cues.  A typical page has a short dialog at the top, for example:

A.      Where’s Walter?
B.      He’s in the kitchen.
A.      What’s he doing?
B.      He’s eating breakfast.

Under it are a series of six to ten small illustrations, and students must apply the target dialog to talk about each picture in turn.
Thus they’ll be saying:

A.      Where’s Betty?
B.      She’s in the park.
A.      What’s she doing?
B.      She’s eating lunch.
A.      Where are you?
B.      I’m in the library.
A.      What are you doing?
B.      I’m studying English.

This particular lesson has 14 different pictorial cues, so assuming you drilled the target dialog 6 times, then each of the 14 practice dialogs once in unison, then pairs of students went through the dialogues twice, by the end of the session each student will have practiced the target language 48 times. Over-kill? Not at all. The beauty of Side by Side is that the students don’t realize they’re repeating, repeating, repeating, ad finitum.

The book gets my top vote for the following reasons. 1. The language patterns are established and drilled at the start of each page, so every student knows what’s expected of him or her; it’s just a matter of substituting certain words. 2. It’s fast paced. 3. It’s demanding, but not too demanding. 4. Students get a lot of repetition of the target language, but such is the nature of the book they don’t realize it. 5. Student Talking Time is maximized. 6.  Students like the book. Six good reasons for you to rush out and buy Side by Side today. Unfortunately that’s easier said than done; it’s hard to come by, and many shops don’t stock it. More’s the pity.

Which brings me to the subject of the bad books, the duds, the ones that should never have been printed. Top of the list comes Smart Kids. If you’ve ever tried to teach from it, you’ll know what I mean. Even the most basic tenets of teaching a foreign language are ignored. Utterly unteachable. (Beware any book which claims to employ ‘Accelerated Learning Techniques’ – they’re pie-in-the-sky.) A textbook aimed at adults comes second on my list: Straightforward. It’s a dud of a book because it’s too ambitious in its aims. Reading passages are over-long and too crammed with new vocabulary. Listening passages are over-long and tedious. Each unit starts with open questions for discussion; a sure-fire way to clam students up. Unteachable.

But, like I say, teachers have little or no input on which book they teach from. What a shame.


EFL minus the B.S. is now available on Amazon in both paperback and Kindle form.  CUSTOMER REVIEW: “Excellent book. As a former EFL teacher, ten years in Vietnam and Indonesia, this book is spot on in giving the basic lay down of teaching overseas. The book is a quick read and should be read by every EFL teacher. Definitely a good read while on your flight to whatever country you are going to teach.” – J.D.

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