Fine brush and freehand

Lin Liang: Birds in Bushes

Peter Yongqi Gu’s Fine Brush and Freehand (2003) has long been one of my favourite academic papers. Not only does it help me think about an important topic (vocabulary learning), it also reports on the kind of case study that I’d like to do with some of my students. I recently realized though that one of the best things about it is the name; it’s so evocative, especially compared to the names of most journal articles. It could easily have ended up called something horrible like: An examination of analytic verses holistic approaches to vocabulary acquisition by way of a case study of two Chinese students of English…


Anyway, in the paper, Gu compares the vocabulary learning styles of two successful English learners. One of them takes a very deliberate approach, noting down many vocab items from his assigned readings and carefully studying them, while the other student relies much more on reading widely for pleasure. Refreshingly enough, both approaches seem to work fine—his subjects are both top English students after all. This is somewhat liberating for me, because, as a lover of books and language, a part of me always wants to somehow make my students read for the love of reading, while another part of me worries about students who love English but aren’t so diligent about keeping vocabulary notebooks and such. But this case study suggests that both ways can lead to successful language learning and reminds me that different learners have different ways of reaching their goals so I shouldn’t try to mold them all into little models of me.

Another nice aspect of this paper is that Gu gives some details about what both learners have in common. They both study word lists for example, but they studied different words in different ways and did their best to use news words when they could, either by inventing and practicing their own sentences, using examples from the dictionary, or trying to use the words in conversation.[1]

Both students also had strategies for choosing which new words they encountered (in reading usually) they would spend the time to learn. They would ask themselves questions like,

  • Do I need this word to understand what I’m reading now?
  • Do I find the word interesting?
  • Is it an idiom or multi-word item?
  • Will it be important or useful in the future?

This last question is one that often stumps students, in my experience, and the learners in Gu’s study approached it in several different ways. They’d consider it important if it was on one of their exam-prep word lists, of course, but they’d also try to evaluate words by whether or not there were a lot of related meanings in the dictionary and by how common they judged the Chinese translation. Finally, they’d give priority to verbs over other kinds of words, possibly thinking that verbs are more broadly applicable than many nouns.

These seem like pretty good suggestions to give students who are feeling overwhelmed by the sheer number of English words they are faced with every day. Do you need the word right now? Is it interesting to you personally? Does it seem like it will be useful in the future based on its related meanings or how often it’s used in your language.[2]

[1] One of Gu’s points is that the Chinese practice of studying word lists can be an effective way of learning new vocabulary. I don’t doubt that there’s some truth to this, although I tend to prefer a spaced repetition approach over just going over a static list. [return]

[2] And if they want to check it against a word list. something like the AWL could be useful, at least for university students. [return]


GU, P. Y. (2003), Fine Brush and Freehand: The Vocabulary-Learning Art of Two Successful Chinese EFL Learners. TESOL Quarterly, 37: 73–104.

I choo choo choose you

One of the perennial problems of classroom management is dealing with the over-dominant students (or, inversely, the very timid ones who don’t like to volunteer). The obvious answer is to make sure you call on all students equally, but this can be more easily said than done: it’s hard to keep track of who’s spoken already and it can be tempting to just let the students who want to talk talk.

I’ve tried a few techniques. I used to have a little pack of index cards with a students’ name on each one. I’d shuffle them then pick them one by one, calling on the student named on the card. This worked pretty well, though I had to remember to reshuffle regularly or those students who’d already been called would get complacent…also I had a bad habit of losing one of the cards somewhere.

Thomas Farrell has suggested giving each student two talking sticks and making a rule that a student can’t say any more once they’ve used up their sticks. I like this idea but I’ve always been put off by the prospect of managing the sticks: distributing and collecting them, monitoring who has used up their quota. Still, this is an intriguing idea because it makes it easier for students to volunteer contributions without being called on by the instructor. It seems like it could be a good technique for students to use in small group discussions where the instructor isn’t actively participating.

Not me again!

Recently, I’ve been trying a high-tech solution, with pretty good results. There are several apps (and websites) that will randomize a list for you, or choose an item from a list. So I have one of these apps on my tablet and whenever I want to call on a student I tap the screen and it chooses the student for m e (from the class list that I’ve previously entered into the app). I find this quite easy and generally non-distracting. Although it is quite teacher centered it does prevent me from playing favourites and keeps the students on their toes. Recently I found a variation on this idea that even included student pictures, but it does feel a bit like cheating—I mean, I don’t exactly need any encouragement to avoid learning names.

I think I know how they feel

You know those students, the ones who don’t contribute that much in class, who keep talking to the person next to them instead of listening to you? I think I’m one of them, at least sometimes.

Last week I went to a dance class (the Charleston, if you must know). Let’s just say that the class was a…little bit fast for me; no sooner had I not yet figured out the first move then we moved on to another move and then another. It was embarrassing. I was sure that everyone was watching me trip over my size-16 feet and all I wanted to do was run out the door and never come back.

I managed to stay in the room, and even to get back into the swing of things a little bit more by the end of the class, but there was a long period there when I kept checking my watch. Because what the instructor was saying built on something that I hadn’t understood, it seemed impossible to catch up and I felt myself losing focus, even making a joke to my partner while the instructor was teaching us something. I wasn’t trying to be malicious or to disrupt the class; it didn’t feel like I was entirely in control. Shutting down and ignoring the class felt like a kind of automatic defense mechanism. Partially this feeling of loss of control came from tiredness: it had been a long day and the next oldest student (after me) was probably 10 years younger than me.

Of course, none of my first-year students are less physically fit to keep up with my class because of age, but there’s certainly a wide range of abilities and probably a wide range of how rested they are (I certainly had problems ending a computer game session at their age, and the games I played weren’t nearly as carefully designed for addiction as theirs seem to be).

Most teachers know that a non-participating student is having trouble in the class, but my dance class was a good reminder to me that not participating may be a sign of a student feeling helpless in that situation, and not necessarily a sign of an inherent character flaw.

I don’t come out of this with any profound ideas for how to help students in this situation. The dance instructor working with me one-on-one for a couple of minutes did help, although it was even more embarrassing. What would have really helped was if I could see that I was contributing something to the class as a whole, even though I was having trouble. This could have been something as irrelevant to the course content as people laughing at my jokes(1), because the primary reason for my embarrassment was my feeling that I was really just a bother to the instructor and my classmates, that I had nothing to contribute. So maybe what I need to do is try to find one thing a student having trouble is good at (even if that thing isn’t directly related to course content) and foster it.

(1) Thus is born the class clown

Pecha Kucha links

My students are doing Pecha Kucha-style presentations this term, so I’ve collected some links that I’ve found useful.

An example of a Pecha Kucha about, not entirely holy, Shaolin monks

A detailed series of pages on PKs, what they are and how to do them well. Too much information to just send the students to, but good background info.

A couple of pretty good Pecha Kuchas about how to do Pecha Kuchas.

Pecha Kucha in the Classroom: Tips and Strategies for Better Presentations

A couple of pages from courses where PKs were assigned

Some good tips

Demand high ELT

Recently two of the best-know names in our business, Adrian Underhill and Jim Scrivener, have started a new blog where they challenge what they see as the contemporary tendency for teachers to settle for good-enough. I haven’t watched enough classes lately to agree or disagree with Underhill and Scrivener’s observation that these days many teachers do

little more than a series of announcements to start up and close down exercises and activities. There is typically a lack of “up-close”  teaching skills, no “hands-on” work with language and little or no engagement with the process or experience of learning.  Much of traditional “teaching” is devolved to the coursebook. And coursebooks are now so good that they can take that strain.

…but I do welcome any blog that challenges us, as teachers, to do the best job we can.

I wonder if this good-enough teaching, if it is really a thing, relates to a shift in teacher identity from teacher as professional, where teachers are expected to be skilled and knowledgeable enough to teach in whatever way is required by the needs of their students, to teacher as technician, who is required to teach only what is set down by a strict curriculum or to the needs of a standardized test.