Friday, August 31, 2007

Providing Added Value to ESL Students

A number of my private ESL students are working professionals. Many of them want to improve the tone of their writing, especially in emails. We often review their "sent" emails in class.

However, sometimes my ESL students need to send particularly important emails before we have a chance to review them in class. I offer to review and edit such emails for my students free of charge. This doesn't take too much time for me and it delivers a valuable service to my ESL students.


Thursday, August 30, 2007

Teaching "Marry" to ESL Students

For some reason, almost all of my ESL students--all levels--say "marry with" when they're talking about marrying someone. They will say, for example, "I married with my wife in 2003." It's a logical way to say it, I think. However, the verb "marry" is never followed by "with."

Another way to teach ESL students how to use this verb is with "to get married."

Here are some correct ways to use "marry."

He married her in 1999.

They got married in 1999.

She is married to him.

They are married to each other.

They got married to each other in 1999.

He got married to her in 1999.

They divorced in 2000.

They got divorced in 2000.

She divorced him in 2000.

They divorced each other in 2000.

But I digress....


Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Teaching ESL and Loving It

Sometimes my "job" as an ESL tutor is almost criminal! I get paid to have great conversations with interesting English language learners from all over the world. I get to "travel vicariously."

As a private ESL tutor, the majority of my students are advanced ESL students and mostly want to improve their speaking skills. I'm glad to oblige. I'm also fortunate that I've had a lot of life experiences and different careers throughout my life. I'm fortunate to know at least a little bit of most things. And it's particularly great when I don't know too much about something, because I can then ask my ESL students and they are happy to talk about things they know and teach me new things.

If you're considering a career change, teaching ESL or EFL is definitely a great possibility.


Tuesday, August 28, 2007

ESL Conversations about Americans

During my conversation lessons with ESL students who have been in the U.S. for a short while, I often ask them about their impressions about the U.S. What were they expecting before coming here? What did they expect to find? What ideas did they have about Americans? (Of course, I usually wait to ask such questions after we've established some rapport. I want them to speak freely and not worry about offending me.) I then ask about their current experiences and observations. What turned out to be true? What's false?

One of the general themes in the answers of all my ESL students is how diverse the U.S. is. They tell me that they thought that Americans were primarily white. When they come here, they see and experience our abundance of hyphenated Americans (Mexican-American, African-American, Italian-American, Japanese-American, etc.)


Monday, August 27, 2007

The Best ESL Conversation Topics

For the ESL or EFL teacher, one of the challenging parts of a conversation lesson is getting some students to talk! The ESL teacher has to choose a topic that appeals to the majority of students. I'm fortunate because I teach English language learners one-on-one. Sometimes it's easier to get one person to speak than it is to get a whole class of ESL students. Getting an EFL classroom to speak may be easier. The challenge there is to get the students to speak in English!

As I said, the best conversation topics are those of interest to the English language learner. The topics could be of interest because the student needs the skills for his or her job, or in order to more easily live in an English speaking culture. The best ESL topics will be those that are relevant to the student's life.

When an ESL student knows that he or she can take what is learned in the tutoring session or in the classroom and apply it in real life, then the student will be more likely to want to participate in the discussion.

Other ESL topics that could get students talking include things that students know about (e.g., their family, their home culture, their jobs, etc.) and things that are controversial (e.g., abortion, the death penalty, and other standard debate topics). I also use Compelling Conversations when I need a very thorough list of ESL conversation topics and questions.

One of the important things for ESL tutors and ESL teachers to remember is that the student(s), not the tutor/teacher should do most of the talking in a conversation lesson.


Sunday, August 26, 2007

Learning Vocabulary from Television

I often encourage my ESL students to watch television. Although watching TV is usually a mind-numbing process, for English language learners, it's another way to practice English listening skills. It also (for better or worse) teaches about American culture. Sitcoms are particularly useful for learning new vocabulary and idioms. TV news can also be useful, although most of my ESL students tell me that they have trouble understanding TV news. The stories are often out of context so the English learner cannot use the context to understand what's going on.

I was just watching a Sunday national news program. One of the stories was about adults who take care of their aging parents. One of the lines in the story was, "She took care of her aging parents until they both passed." Although an English language learner could probably figure out what this sentence means, it was interesting to me that the reporter said "passed" instead of "passed away." "To pass away" is the more common euphemism to talk about death; yet, any native English speaker would have no trouble understanding this sentence. I wondered if a non-native speaker would completely understand.

Incidentally, I looked up "pass" on Without using "pass" as part of a phrasal verb, there were 75 definitions! Seventy-five definitions for the word "pass!" How's a person supposed to learn English?!

Saturday, August 25, 2007

ESL Students and Self-Confidence

As a private tutor of adult ESL students, I think the most important thing that English language learners get from our sessions is increased self-confidence. Most of my advanced students have excellent grammar skills, a pretty good vocabulary and fairly decent pronunciation.

The thing that ESL students are lacking is self-confidence. They're afraid of making mistakes out in the world. Just by providing a safe place for them to have conversations and practice their English speaking skills, their self-confidence improves immensely. I've noticed that it only takes three to four months of regular practice with me for their self-confidence and speaking skills to significantly improve.


Friday, August 24, 2007

Transition as a Verb

One of the things that is so fascinating to me as an ESL teacher is that the English language is continually evolving (or at least changing). As most of us were taught as children, "'ain't' is not a word." (And yet, it's now in the dictionary. Although most educated people don't use it, or if they do, they use it selectively.) The word "google" used to only be the name of a search engine. Now it's a verb. "I googled you last night."

In the past, we also only used the “generic” “he,” “his,” and “him.” That changed to "he or she" and sometimes "s/he." Now, using “they,” “their,” and “them” as singular pronouns is common and used in informal conversation and writing. It is perfectly acceptable to most people and “Usage Notes” are discussing this point in dictionaries (see Longman Advanced American Dictionary).

This word came up in one of my ESL lessons with an advanced ESL student. I was pretty sure that "transition" could be used as a verb. She had never heard it used as a verb. We looked in my dictionary and it was not there. Yet, I felt fairly certain that I'd heard this word as a verb before.

When I got home, I searched the internet for other dictionaries and other sites about this topic. Some people are absolutely adamant and even offended by the idea of "transition" as a verb. Most of the sites I saw "transition" used as a verb were discussing the issue of transgendered people. Some medical sites use "transition" as the verb to talk about the process of a person "transitioning" from one gender to another.

Transgender issues and sexual reassignment are a fairly recent phenomenon in our history. I tend to think that as society changes and deals with more issues, our language will change to enable us to talk about these topics.

Whenever I teach ESL students about non-standard English (even if it's only using reductions), I always explain how the language is changing and caution students about using new terms.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

ESL Blog and Blogger's Navbar

As most of you may know, the ESL blog you are reading here is hosted on "Blogger." Blogger is a free service that belongs to Google. It's a really great way for anyone to have their own blog, whether it's about teaching English as a Second Language or anything else in the world.

The one very unfortunate thing for many people, especially teachers or others who work with children, any many others of us, is that the Navbar (the line across the top of the page that says "Search blog," "Flag blog," and "Next blog") is required by Blogger. It used to be optional when I started this ESL blog.

It used to be a great little resource or interesting for internet surfers because it would randomly pull up another Blogger blog that had been recently updated. You might find someone's blog in another language, certainly about other topics besides ESL of EFL. It was like a little mini-travel portal (a wormhole?) that would take you to another part of the world.

Unfortunately, now the "adult content" people have discovered Blogger and are essentially "spamming" the rest of us. They are creating tons of blogs with adult content, from which they can make money. And they are adding and updating them regularly.

So now I have noticed that if I hit the "Next blog" button, more than half the time I'm taken to an offensive "adult content" blog. Google and Blogger don't seem to care about this. They don't give us regular bloggers a way to block this offensive content.

I have considered using only my regular website (Teaching ESL to Adults), over which I control of the content, and abandoning this blog. However, I have put a lot of effort into this blog and I am hoping that Google and Blogger will eventually reconsider their policy of not allowing certain types of blogs to be blocked.

In the meantime, please be careful of using the "Next blog" button and I apologize if you come upon offensive content. Blogger does not make it very easy to complain to them.


Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Using "A" or "An" for Acronyms and Abbreviations

Articles are very difficult for ESL and EFL speakers to master. There are only three: a, an, the. However, there are way too many exceptions.

Aside from the exceptions, one of the extra challenging areas is determining whether to use "a" or "an" when using acronyms or abbreviations. ESL students are taught to use "a" before a word (noun) that begins with a consonant and "an" before a word that begins with a vowel. But what do you do with something like "RFP" or "MA"? Both of these begin with a consonant, so it seems that an "a" should be used. However, when looking at acronyms or abbreviations, we don't look at the first letter, we "hear" the first letter, or we look at te first sound.

The first letter in "RFP" is an "R." When I say this letter, it sounds like "arr". The first sound is a vowel. The same applies for "MA." The sound is "emm." Another vowel beginning sound. So for both of these abbreviations, I would use "an."

For example:

She has an MA in English.

I need to complete an RFP before I can submit my application.


Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Fees for Tutoring ESL Students

I received an email from an elementary school teacher who is planning to take on her first adult ESL student. She wrote to my other website Teaching ESL to Adults to ask me how much to charge for her ESL tutoring services. She is somewhere in the United States. She didn't provide her city or state.

To find out how much to charge for ESL tutoring services, especially in the U.S., I recommend visiting and looking at their "Lessons" section. You can limit your search to "ESL" or "English" to find out how much other tutors are charging in your area (or nearby) and use that as a basis to charge your private ESL students.

Another tip for finding new ESL students is to peruse the above section of Craig's list for students. Often, adult students looking for a private tutor will post their request. I've actually gotten a few students this way in the past couple of years.


Monday, August 20, 2007

Contractions and ESL Speakers

Many of my private ESL students are advanced level ESL speakers. Many come to me because they want to sound more like a native English speaker. Together, we work on many ways to improve their American English pronunciation and reduce their native accents. We look at intonation, pronunciation of words and of individual sounds, we look at voiced and unvoiced sounds, etc.

We also look at reductions and contractions. Most advanced ESL students are very familiar with contractions. They've been taught about them many times. However, very few of my students use contractions. As a matter of fact, when they are reading aloud to me, they will even take apart a contraction. "I'll" becomes "I will" when they are reading. So it is often very difficult for ESL speakers to consistently use contractions.

And yet, the use of contractions during speaking is one of the best ways to move toward sound more "native." With a lot of practice and reinforcement, non-native English speakers can move towards sounding more native by using this one technique.


Saturday, August 18, 2007

English Only for ESL Students

I'm not very fond of the term "English Only." In my home state of California, "English Only" used to be (and to some extent, still is) the slogan of people who felt it would be better do eliminate bilingual classrooms for children. For many reasons, I don't believe this is a good learning strategy for children who must learn not only a new language, but also different subject matter content (history, science, math, etc.).

So when I used to teach adult ESL classes and I found myself reminding students, "English only!" I felt a little strange saying these words. However, it was a useful reminder for students paying a lot of money to learn American English.

I'm a private tutor now, so I don't find myself saying, "English only," too often, because I only have one student at a time. I had the opportunity today as two of my students who know each other had an opportunity to chat as I took a short break between students. They are both advanced level students, but they still chose to speak in their native language instead of English. I decided to let this one slide.

It just reminded me of the feeling I used to have when I said, "English only," to my former classes and how strange that expression was for me to say.


Thursday, August 16, 2007

Steps for Teaching Past Tense Pronunciation

When I teach my ESL students how to pronounce regular past tense verbs (those ending in "-ed," I follow a step-by-step process.

Here are the steps I follow:

1) First, I teach the concept of voicing, or voiced and unvoiced sounds (aka voiceless sounds).

2) Next, I teach how to pronounce /t/ and /d/.

3) Finally, I teach the rules for which past tense verbs end with /t/, /d/, and /id/ sounds.

I find that that this methodical approach works best to help my ESL students really learn past tense pronunciation. It takes more time, but I find it very effective.

Here's more info on English Past Tense Pronunciation.


Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Saying "Goodbye" to ESL Students

One of the great pleasures I get from teaching ESL students in the U.S. is that I get to "travel vicariously." I really enjoy meeting people from other countries, learning about other cultures, and generally, meeting new people.

I just had my last meeting with an ESL student that I have been meeting with two to three times a week for the last year. It was such a pleasure "working" with him. I put working in quotes because this was indeed a case of "do what you love and the money will follow."

My student's English improved significantly while he was here. He was really determined to improve his English and he did a lot of studying outside of class. He worked with me primarily to improve his speaking skills, which he did significantly.

I really learned a lot from him, as well. It was a great pleasure meeting with him and I will miss our discussions.

I love my job! (Mostly.)


Sunday, August 12, 2007

Comment on "How English is Really Spoken"

A couple of days ago, I wrote How English is Really Spoken. Steve, from and submitted a comment about his experiences. I’m not sure if people have a chance to read the Comments, so I wanted to post Steve’s comment more prominently.

“I think every ESL instructor faces the same situation. There is textbook English and there is real world English. You can tell the students what you know to be the truth, often it is best for them to come to a truth on their own. The way I deal with this is to simply play a scene from some English movie which is popular with the students at the time. Provide a copy of the script if possible, simply Google for it and print off a copy for each of the students. Perhaps they can write the script as they hear it. Then show the official copy. In this way they can hear and see the real world English, I then show a scene from some Shakespeare movie (recent famous actor is best). So, I ask....which is English? Let them talk it out and vote on the outcome.

It is the same in any language I know of, textbook v real world. Once they can relate it to their own language, they can see it is the same with English.

Another suggestion, take a popular English song and have the students in class write out the lyrics as they hear them. Then produce the actual lyrics, which is correct? Are the lyrics textbook English? I doubt it. Deal with slang, regionalism, mention that you cannot sometimes understand someone from another country speaking English. I mention some of the most beautiful pronunciation and vocabulary is in fact spoken by people from African countries. Most students in Japan found this hard to believe. Some students think real English is spoken by only this or that nation or people, which is wrong. Part of being in the ESL business is to break down the untruths, to open your student's eyes and ears. Let them know they are speakers of English, they will be understood.

Keep grinding away,

Thanks, Steve, for the comment.


Friday, August 10, 2007

ESL and Telling the Time

One basic thing that English language learners need to know is how to tell the time.

I was talking to one of my ESL students today. We were practicing prepositions of time (in/at/on). I asked what time he left for work. He said, "I left at 8:05." However, when he said "8:05," he said, "eight-five." He left out the "oh."

It's actually a little strange to pronounce the "O" in 8:05 as the letter "oh." One might expect it to be "eight-zero-five" since the "0" is a number. However, native English speakers say the time from one minute after the hour through nine minutes after the hour with "oh" instead of zero.


Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Tongue Twister for Relative Vowels

I'm working with an advanced ESL student from Mexico. Her English is very good. We're concentrating on accent reduction and pronunciation skills. For the last couple of weeks, we've been working on "alphabet vowels" and "relative vowels" (essentially "long" and "short" vowel sounds). Most recently, we're working on the relative vowel sounds. I use the book Clear Speechto teach these sounds.

Another of the challenges she has is differentiating between the "b" and "v" sounds. I remember from studying Spanish that as a native English speaker, I have trouble making the b/v combination sound that Spanish speakers use.

I've found a great tongue twister to work on both the "b" sound and all the relative vowels (as well as the t/d issue). "Betty Botter" is helping with all of these issues.

You can read more about Using Tongue Twisters for Pronunciation on my other website. "Betty Botter" is also written there in its entirety.


Monday, August 6, 2007

How English is Really Spoken

One of the challenges I occasionally have with advanced ESL students is that they disagree with me about how the English language is used. There's a difference between the correct, formal English language and how the language is actually used by native speakers. This is one of the reason's that many EFL positions will prefer and even require native English speakers, as opposed to non-native speakers who may even have an advanced English degree.

English language learners who study in their home countries are often exceptional when it comes to grammar skills. This is why it makes it a bit of a challenge for them when they try to communicate with native English speakers. And it makes it a challenge during some of my tutoring sessions. I have to develop enough trust with students so that they know I'm not leading them astray, and that people really do speak without using proper grammar sometimes, even highly educated people.


Saturday, August 4, 2007

Using the Telephone in the U.S.A.

A basic survival skill that my students of English as a Second Language need to learn when they come to the U.S. is how to use the telephone. I know from my own experiences traveling abroad how difficult this very simple, yet important, task can be!

In the U.S., we have so many variables to consider. For example, is the phone call in the same area code? What is the area code? Do I need to dial the area code? Why is the area code different from one street to the next? Do I need to dial "1"? If so, why isn't the phone number written with a "1"? What number do I dial for emergencies? Are there differences when I use a pay phone, a land line from a home, from an office ("dial '9' to get an outside line"), or a cell phone? Etc, etc.

I'm not going to try to answer all of these questions here. This is just a reminder to teachers and tutors of ESL that this is a basic survival skill we should be teaching our students.


Thursday, August 2, 2007

Job Interview Greetings

I'm working with another ESL student on job interview preparation. Actually, the "job interview" is at a professional conference. My student has five short interviews with potential employers. With such short interviews, first impressions are particularly important.

When I practice with students, I try to create as "real" a situation as possible. So in this interview practice session, I extended my hand in greeting. My ESL student's handshake was a little weak and tentative. So we went over this little bit of body language and practiced a firm handshake.

It's these little things that English-speaking Americans (and probably other English-speaking countries' people) take for granted. However, these little things can make or break someone's first impression. As such, I feel that it's important to include these non-verbal forms of communication in my ESL lessons.