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Archive for August, 2008

I have to say, this is a good week not to be back in Colorado.

It looks like bystanders are getting herded up, too.And what’s up with the storm trooper look?

Today, a prospective teacher who came in to visit my first and second grade class seemed genuinely impressed with the amount of material they’ve learned so far. They came as complete beginners, and they’ve been in my EFL classes for six hours a week for just under a year, doing the Up and Away series.

I made a comment about how one of my students really struggled with his reading compared to the rest of the class, and the visiting teacher told me that the kid was equivalent to third year students at his school. Then, he went on to ask me several detailed questions about how my students had made so much progress in a single year. Unfortunately, I didn’t have enough time to answer everything before I had to get ready for my next class.


I had planned to email my thoughts to him directly, but then it occurred to me that others might have the same questions. Undoubtedly, some readers will have differing opinions, and that’s fine. However, if my ideas help a few teachers and a few more students, then I’m more than happy to share them.

The Main Ideas

Don’t burden beginners with a 100% English classroom

This should be self-explanatory. With only six hours a week of class time, complete beginners need support via their first language. The goal isn’t to minimize the amount of Chinese they use in class; it’s to maximize the amount of English they use. This makes a huge difference and it’s worth it, even though it requires a teacher with more language skills.

Motivate the students

In many ways, motivation is the single most important factor in teaching. Every great teacher I’ve studied has been a master at it. If your students aren’t at least trying do to whatever class activities you give them, then the rest is a loss. Personally, I’ve gotten the best results from using a multi-pronged approach. If the kids don’t do what they should be doing, there are consequences. On the other hand, when they go the extra mile, there are rewards. Quick 1 minute motivational speeches here and there also go a long way.

Teach Phonics.. thoroughly

Teaching phonics takes time. There’s no doubt about that. Just getting students to the point where they can hear the difference between the various long and short vowel sounds, the “ar”, “er/ir/ur”, “or/ore/oar”, “air/are”, “ear/eer”, “ire/ier”, “ure”, and “ow/ou” sounds can easily take a couple of months. The “ng” sounds (i.e. “rang” v.s. “rain”) are a nightmare for many Taiwanese people. And after that, it takes dozens of phonics rules before students can reliably sound out most English words they see or spell out words they hear.

This time is well spent, though. Teaching phonics will help students improve their listening skills, will improve their pronunciation, and it will help them read unfamiliar words. Without implementing a serious phonics curriculum, it’s difficult to use Dr. Seuss books or other books for English speaking children. With good phonics, though, the kids learn a lot reading them and they love them.

Don’t make the students memorize huge spelling lists

Unfortunately, an obsession with spelling runs rampant through east Asian EFL. Worse still, it takes a lot of time to get eight year-olds to be able to accurately spell a list of twenty words. Rather than making an effort to do so, I just keep teaching them more material. Comprehension is necessary before I’ll go on. Perfect spelling isn’t.

Maybe while the students are on the Level 2 Up & Away book, they have problems spelling half or even two thirds of the words in the book, but a few months later, they’ll already be on book 4 and they’ll find they can spell quite a few more of the words from book 2. As their phonics skills improve, their mistakes become more and more like those of native speakers (e.g. misspelling “meal” as “meel” rather than as “mil”), and as they read more their mistakes become less frequent.

Get the students reading actual stories ASAP

I can’t emphasize enough how important reading is. It’s the single easiest way for kids to get more English input. It reinforces all the grammar and vocabulary they’ve learned, and they usually enjoy it, too.

Keep notes

If you notice most of your students have the same problem, then it’s probably your fault, not theirs. It doesn’t matter whether it’s related to grammar, pronunciation, reading skills, or even classroom behavior. If the majority of the class has the problem then it’s your job as a teacher to find a way to fix it.

Periodically reviewing your notes and looking for things to improve makes all the difference in the long run.

Related Posts:
Dr. Seuss Is My Friend
The Hardest Week at School Yet
1st & 2nd Grader Spelling Drill
Language Skills and ESL Teachers

Recently, I’ve been getting more and more bogged down in my EFL curriculum work. It’s a very rough process, but even so it’s become unwieldy. The problem is the way I’m keeping track of vocabulary words.

Frequency is key

Whenever I create a new lesson, I have to choose vocabulary items to introduce. Rather than do so on a strictly topical basis, I’ve opted to focus on usage frequency. In particular, I do everything within reason to teach the headwords used for the Oxford Bookworms series of graded readers. Extensive reading is possibly the single most important part of our program, and it’s worth it to make a few sacrifices to get the kids reading actual books as soon as possible.

Spreadsheets can save time

In order to keep track of everything, I’ve made a big spreadsheet for all the vocabulary items in the curriculum. One field is the word itself, another field represents which lesson I teach it in, another is the Bookworms level in which it first appears. The Chinese translation is in still another field, and there’s one final one for any notes I might have about the vocab item. I can sort this spreadsheet by column headers to see the words taught in a given lesson, or all the adjectives taught between any given lessons, or any number of other useful combination. It’s great for making review sheets for my students.

Spreadsheets still aren’t perfect, though

So what’s the problem? The problem is that I started the list with only level one Bookworms words. Before, when I made new lessons, I used to look through the remaining level one words and choose the most appropriate group of them I could. After exhausting the level one list, things got a bit tougher. Now, when make a new lesson, that means adding new words to my master spreadsheet. Obviously, I want to add level 2 words, but sometimes there’s a word that just has to be added regardless of where it appears in the Oxford frequency lists. When that happens, I have to hunt through the list of words that appear in level two readers. If the word I’m looking for isn’t there, I have to look through the level three list, and then the level four list. It sucks.

Worse still, if I were to just copy the entire level 2 list into my master spreadsheet, there would be hundreds of duplicates, which would take hours to remove by hand. No good. Especially since the task would just become all the more unmanageable when it was time to add the level 3 list into my master spreadsheet.

Aha! I’ll just whip up a quick program to parse my excel file and remove duplicates!

Ha! What a fool I was! After spending hours pounding my head against my computer desk, I came to the realization that the excel file format is pure evil. It has decades of cruft that hark back to the days in which desktops had less computing power than my sports watch! And it won’t yield its information gracefully! Had the .xls file format been the result of one particular person, I’d have said his decision making skills rivaled those of Easter Island native who said, “I know! Let’s cut down the last tree and commit suicide because we need more identical statues!“.

Finally, I came to my senses, saved the list as text file and wrote a quick python script to read the vocabulary list into a few big arrays of strings, and then it was easy to remove duplicates:

for i in range(0, len(b2words)-1):
	for w in l2words:
		if w == b2words[i]:
			del b2words[i]
			del b2pos[i]

Then I output my list of level two bookworms (that aren’t duplicates of any words already in my curriculum) into a simple text file, and the part of speech information into another text file. Finally, I used my good friends cut and paste to add them into my master spreadsheet and I set the Bookworm level for the whole group to two.

Why, oh why couldn’t I have thought of that solution before 4 a.m.?

There’s nothing worse than the feeling of waking up, rolling over to the side, seeing a big spider on the wall, gasping and seeing the thing motor across the wall. I swear, these things are faster than cockroaches.

Super fast spider on my wall

Just what kind of spider is this that can move so f@#$ing fast? Is it poisonous? Can the thing zip up to me, pump necrotoxins into me and then disappear in a blur? I’m no fan of spiders, but nothing creepy should be this fast.

Fast spider

Fortunately, it seems the geckos have driven these eight-legged bundles of energy off… for now.

This, after their earnings report came out SIMO dropped by over a third of its total valuation. It was a significantly undervalued stock to begin with, and it’s still a fast growing company. The NAND problems notwithstanding, I see SIMO as a long-term grower. As usual the market has an unreasonably short-term focus. At its current valuation, I couldn’t justify not buying any SIMO stock.

If necessary, I’ll sell some of my stake in BWLD. Buffalo Wild Wings has been executing its expansion well, but its price has also gone up over 50% since in invested earlier this year and the holding has grown to over 20% of my entire portfolio.

Right now, SIMO is trading at a P/E of under 6, and a price/book ratio of under 0.9!

07/31/2008 Bought 175 SIMO @ 7.42

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