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I’ve been glossing the Penguin Reader version of White Fang for my students tomorrow. It’s the story of a 3/4 breed wolf/dog who lived around the Mackenzie River. The book’s a bit harder than what my kids have been reading, but it seems pretty accessible to them since it has so many animals in it. After having read Pocahontas last semester, some of the kids like the idea of reading another book with Indians in it, too.

I kind of wish I’d had a chance to see some of the natural beauty in that part of Canada myself. Unfortunately, I fell into the same trap everyone else does during my last visit. I made a beeline for Vancouver and stayed there the whole time.

Tonight TC came over to my place to pick up some of his stuff that had been left at my apartment since long before I moved in there myself. He had a tripod, and some random other filming stuff to take, and I also gave returned all the books he’d lent me over the last couple of years. That was my mistake.

Somehow, we stumble across an extra copy of Crytonomicon, which I am currently in the process of reading. He picks it up, thumbs through it and says, “Geez, it’s all in the simple present tense!”.

“What could he be talking about?” I say to myself. I pick up the book and look at a random paragraph. I turn the page. I look at another. Then the realization sinks in… Neil Stephenson writes vast tracts of text entirely in the simple present tense. I try to read another page. It bothers me. It sucks.

TC ruins Neil Stephenson.

I recently received this email from a high school teacher in Florida:

I came across your textbook reviews online and they all seem to focus on college level chinese and traditional characters.
I just started teaching high school Chinese and I’m looking for a textbook that will allow me to focus on tones, simplified characters, and pinyin. A workbook or audio cd that goes along with it would also be helpful.
Do you have any recommendations?
Thanks in advance.

Ruth

Then, in a follow-up email, she said:

… the focus is on language, culture and society. Unfortunately, the language aspect of the class is not supposed to be too intensive, but I would be happy if the students could get the tones down and learn some basic survival Chinese and sentence patterns. I’m thinking about using the New Practical Chinese Reader available on Amazon.com. Do you have any experience with this book?
Thanks!

I haven’t ever used the New Practical Chinese Reader, but I know that the Far East series I reviewed has simplified versions of their books and they have some books for younger learners, too. Unfortunately, I haven’t seen many books targeted at high school students. I’ll bet John might know, though. Can anybody else help Ruth out?

The very first Dr. Seuss book I have my students read is Hop on Pop. It’s easy enough in terms of phonics and vocabulary that my students can handle it pretty easily by the time they finish the first book in the Up and Away series of textbooks. Most of my first and second grade classes reach that point by their fifth week in a six hour a week course.


Many of the words in the book are words commonly taught within the first few units of EFL books, and they are well-supported in with colorful pictures.

Other words in the book are known by very few beginner level students. The pictures still provide quite a bit of support, though.

I only specifically translate a few words into Chinese as we go through the book. It can be done on the fly, but giving the students a hand out, or writing them on the whiteboard before class is usually helpful. Here are the words most of my students tend to need help with:

  • fall / 跌倒
  • all (time period) / 整 ____
  • must not / 一定不要
  • town / 小鎮
  • snack / 小吃
  • bumped / 碰
  • went past / 走過去
  • yelp / 叫
  • hill / 山丘
  • still / 仍然, 還
  • other / 另外一個

This book is especially great for phonics-heavy curriculums, such as mine. It provides quite a bit of practice for short vowel sounds, as well as the -igh- phonics rule. The only minor complaint I have is the crazy picture for “hill” on the page in which Will is still up the hill. It really could confuse students, especially in “English only” classrooms.

Related Post: Dr. Seuss is my Friend.

When I went down to Xindian last month, I picked up a copy of Red Mars, by Kim Stanley Robinson. Since I was in the middle of The Diamond Age at the time, I didn’t get started until a couple of weeks ago. I read the first chapter pretty quickly, and then kind of got bogged down a bit. After making it a couple of hundred pages in, it really picked up and I finished the whole book last night. There won’t be any big spoilers in this review- it will all either be obvious things, or things that are established in the first few chapters of the book.
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I stayed over in Táibĕi last night, so I could get some things done this morning. Since I have less than a year left on my passport, I figured it was time to head over to the sort-of-but-not-really-a-US-embassy, otherwise known as AIT. While I was filling out my paper work, I bumped into none other than my TA from my first Chinese class at CU ten years ago. Geez, I feel old thinking about that.

Back then, I had a pretty rough time in the class. I worked pretty hard, but I still wasn’t one of the better students. There were WAY too many kids who’d grown up speaking Chinese and were just taking the class for an easy A, or to mollify their parents. Every semester, about half of the white kids in the class flunked out or dropped out, until it was just me, some guy who was already fluent (and literate) in Japanese, and an uber-student called Dan. I swear that guy had practically a crate of flashcards with him every class. He had an organized and efficient system for making sure he knew them all, too. Not being nearly as cool as either of them, I gave up on Chinese, and started learning some HTML and playing around on the web. By the time I came to Taiwan three years ago, I honestly couldn’t understand more than about 10 or 20 words. If only I’d had my current Chinese background when I was 18!

The coolest thing about my passport renewing experience, though, was something completely tangential to it. I had to go get some photos taken, since my “passport sized” photos I brought were too small. Luckliy, there’s a photo shop right next to AIT that can develop pictures on the spot. While I was waiting, I ducked into the bookstore next door to browse around. I still can’t believe what I found. They had Chinese versions of one of my favorite fantasy books from my first year of college. The Death Gate Cycle in Chin-frik’n-ese. Somebody slow down my geeky heart before it races away.

The first time I ever heard anything about lucid dreaming was when I was a teenager. My best friend, Jason, lent me a blue paperback called Exploring the World of Lucid Dreaming. The premise of the book was simple- people can be lucid, i.e. aware, even while they are dreaming. In other words, rather than thinking your dreams are real, or having only a vague idea that you’re dreaming, you can be fully and totally aware you’re dreaming and take control of your dreams actively or explore them and use them as a vehicle for understanding your subconscious.
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Avid investor that I am, I’ve been reading quite a bit about investing. Especially over the last year, I’ve been trying to read at least one or two investing books each month. I’ve finally gotten around to one my friends have been telling me would be just my type. Not only that, but it’s a book famous enough that I’ve seen hundreds of websites refer to it- One up on Wall Street, by Peter Lynch.

For those of you who don’t know who Peter Lynch is, he’s was the former manager of the Magellan Fund. It averaged a 29% return over 14 years, and did so without a single down year. Interestingly, Lynch crushed the market by investing in literally thousands of companies, many of which were picked due to his own (or his wife’s) personal experience with their products or services. He invested in things like L’eggs, Taco Bells, La Quinta Inns, and countless other “boring” businesses.

I have to say, I wasn’t disappointed at all. I can see why so many of my friends have been recommending it. Peter Lynch advocates exactly the kind of investing I believe in. There isn’t any technical analysis, there any convoluted models for determining the “resistance” of a stock to pass certain price thresh-holds. No, the whole book is about making long term investments based on the idea that one is buying a piece of a company as opposed to a lottery ticket. Lynch clearly beleives that despite short term price fluctuations due to hype or fear, the market does reward performance in the long run. Once, the great investor Benjamin Graham said

“In the short-term the market is a voting machine, in the long-term, a weighing one.”

Peter Lynch expressed the same sentiment as:

People may bet on the hourly wiggles in the market, but it’s the earnings that waggle the wiggles, long term.

Beyond being a long term investor, there are several other things Lynch talked about that resonated strongly with me. He noted that there are many ways in which individual investors have an advantage against Wall Street. First of all, since we aren’t investing billions, we have more companies in which to choose from. I can put 20% of my savings into a stock with a market cap of $100 million; most fund managers don’t have that option. Even if there weren’t usually restrictions on what percentage of a funds money can be put into any one stock, most funds are big enough that they’d wildly distort the price of whatever small-cap they tried to invest heavily in. Beyond this, most fund managers have to try to beat the market every quarter. We don’t. They have to worry about buying things that are defensible, when they do lose money. We don’t.

Besides talking about general investment ideas, Lynch also laid out the six general types of companies a person might want to invest in:

  1. Slow Growers with Dividends
  2. Stalwarts
  3. Fast Growers
  4. Cyclicals
  5. Turn-Arounds
  6. Asset Plays

He then went into dozens of examples of various investments he made during his career and explained why they were or weren’t successful. The story is pretty much the same, buy companies that offer a some combination of strong earnings and/or growth relative to their price and wait. Don’t try to time the market, don’t buy or sell based on movements in the price of a stock, and don’t pay attention to what the analysts are saying. The book had great, great advice, and it was a pretty good read, too. It also had one unexpected and likely unintended gem of Engrish.

Diworseification: making one’s business (or portfolio) weaker by diversifying into markets one doesn’t sufficiently understand.

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This year my father gave my Grandmother an investing book. It’s called The Little Book That Beats the Market, by Joel Greenblatt. I’d already read about Greenblatt before. His investment firm has averaged a jaw-dropping %40 in annual returns for over 20 years. Needless to say, I was more than a little curious what he had to say. I ended up reading the whole book yesterday, and figured I’d report on what I read.

The Little Book that Beats the Market is aimed at beginning investors. It starts with very clear explanations about the nature of investing in general and investing in stocks in particular. I can’t say I’ve seen too many books that would be as clear to the layman. Then the book goes on to tout its “magic formula” for beating the market. It’s a mechanical investing approach that involves buying stocks based on ROC and P/E. Being an academic, he used “Earnings Yield”, which means E/P instead of the commonly used P/E. The method does indeed have an impressive track record that is based neither on data-mining, nor on “survivorship”. The method has a great rationale, too: buy companies that generate lots of money when you can buy them at deep discounts. All in all this is a great book for a novice investor and I’m really glad my Grandmother has it.

Still, I’m somewhat skeptical of mechanical investing. Despite the book’s arguments to the contrary, I’m pretty sure that if the “magic formula” really is that good, then more and more institutions will start to use it. After that, the returns would have to dry up pretty quickly since it’s impossible for everyone to beat the market. Basically, what I’m saying is that right now there’s a pricing inefficiency. As always in the case of pricing inefficiencies, the first to find them can make a lot of money, but it disappears once enough people are aware of it. The Little Book that Beats the Market was just published this year (2006). If you don’t mind betting your savings on an algorithm and you want to make money from the “magic formula”, now is the time. It may not be that useful anymore in a couple of years.

Note: Joel Greenblatt used EBIT/(Net Working Capital + Net Fixed Assets) to calculate ROC, and EBIT/Enterprise Value to calculate Earnings Yield. He ranks all the stocks above a certain market cap based on ROC, and then he ranks them all by Earnings Yield. After that he adds the two rankings together to get a grand ranking. For example, a stock ranked #4 in terms of ROC and #732 in terms of EY would have a total rank of 726. Another stock ranked #50 on both lists would have a total rank of 100, and thus be the better buy. His system is to rank all the companies above a given market cap, and then buy the top 30, hold them for one year, sell them, and then buy the new top 30 ranked companies of that year.

Extensive reading is most easily understood by contrasting it to intensive reading—the type of reading most often found in foreign language learning programs. Intensive reading materials are often hard for students and are packed with new vocabulary or difficult grammar. Extensive reading materials are easy and have few unfamiliar words and little to no new grammar. Intensive reading is slow. In many cases students spend an entire hour working through just a few paragraphs or pages. Extensive reading is fast. Students might read 20-40 pages or more of foreign language text in an hour.

Intensive ReadingExtensive Reading
Hard GrammarEasy Grammar
Many unfamiliar wordsUnder 2% of words are new
Read 1-2 pages in an hourRead 25+ pages in an hour

What kind of materials are suitable?

Extensive reading materials should be three things—easy, authentic and interesting. These goals conflict to some degree. As anyone who has had the experience of trying to read in a language they don’t know very well, nearly everything they want to read is too hard. At the same time, those few texts that are easy enough, are usually very artificial (e.g. textbooks) or very boring (e.g. books for three year-olds).

Get books the students can actually read without a dictionary

The most important thing about choosing extensive reading materials for a classroom is that they are easy enough. There is a tremendous pressure to accept a text with “just a few” extra vocabulary items since it feels like the students will learn more. This is a trap. While intensive reading is valuable and has its place, the benefits students get from extensive reading disappear quickly if students cannot comfortably read and instead find themselves decoding and translating.

The bar identified by L2 acquisition researchers is that at least 98% of the vocabulary in a text must be comprehensible to the students.  About one or two new words per page and maybe one new sentence structure per session is the goal to aim for. If the students can already understand that much of the text, new words can often be learned entirely through context. If these few new words appear again and again through out the text, all the better. Words learned like this aren’t learned all at once, of course. Students start with a fuzzy understanding of a new word, which gradually gets clearer and clearer as they encounter it again and again in new contexts. This may seem like a slow way to go, but as I argued in my intensive reading article, there really is no short-cut. Translations accompanied by a few example sentences are never enough alone.

When choosing books for your students, one good test is to take a page from the text you are considering, give it to your students for a few minutes, and ask how many words they don’t know. Depending on how honest your students are, you’ll get a good idea of whether or not they could read the text. If you are worried they won’t admit what they don’t know, then cover up about twenty words scattered throughout the page, and photocopy it. You can then give the students a cloze test. If they can complete over 80% of the sentences with the correct words or reasonable alternatives, use the text. If they can’t, pick an easier one.

Aim for natural text—something native speakers (perhaps children) might actually read

There’s nothing worse than studying a language from materials filled with strange, wooden-sounding phrases that native speakers would never actually say. And yet, these kinds of materials are pretty common in foreign language instruction. Sometimes this is due to pressures to teach certain grammar structures or to prepare students for an examination. In isolation, that may not be a terrible decision since learning core grammatical patterns does help bring more authentic materials within a language learner’s reach. Extensive reading is not the time, though. When extensive reading, keep to the most natural texts possible. Reading a lot will improve a learner’s grammar but that’s not the primary goal.

Choose the most interesting books possible

At very low levels, there aren’t a lot of reading options that are easy for a second language learner. However, within the constraints of what texts are usable, it is imperative to choose the most interesting ones possible. In a classroom setting, very low-level students may need help from a teacher and need to go through the same story together. In this case, choose something with as broad of an appeal as possible. As students get more comfortable with books in the target language, they can and should be choosing their own. In my own experience teaching over a thousand students, I haven’t yet encountered one who didn’t start wanting to read specific books after having read a dozen or so at a given difficulty level. As long as students have had several successful reading experiences in the language and there are interesting choices, it’s almost inevitable that they’ll start finding themselves comfortable with more and more complex books over time.

How much should an L2 learner read?

Assuming, one free hour per day, aim to read at least 25 pages per day. If there’s only half an hour to spend on reading, then read at least 10 pages. This may seem like a lot and, for students who are reading normal paperback books with few pictures, it is. A native reader typically reads 40 to 100 pages per hour, so this is a bit over half the rate of a native reader on the slow end of the normal range.

There are two reasons for reading so much. First of all, it forces you to use dictionaries sparingly. As I encountered in a very painful way when learning Chinese, every 5 minutes spent looking through a dictionary is another 5 minutes in which very little language is acquired. The second reason to read so much is that reading too slowly interferes with comprehension. In normal reading, there are certain neurological processes at work that depend on sufficient reading speed (Day and Bamford, 1998). According to Nuttall, “speed, enjoyment and comprehension are closely linked with one another” (1996: 128). When adults read in their own languages, they take in entire phrases at a time, not individual words. If an L2 learner reads too slowly, word by word, it is even possible to forget the meaning of the first few words in a sentence before reading the last.

What are the benefits of Extensive Reading (ER)?

It seems obvious that it is better for a student to learn 20 new words while reading 20 pages of a fairly easy and interesting text, than it is to spend 20 minutes memorizing the same words and then struggle through a few difficult, boring paragraphs followed by grammar and translation drills. (For a look at one such difficult text look at page four of this report.) However, I’ll outline the main points below:

  • ER can provide “massive comprehensible input”
  • ER can enhance learners’ general language competence
  • ER can increase knowledge of previously learned vocabulary
  • ER leads to improvement in writing
  • ER can motivate learners to read
  • ER teaches learners about the culture of the target language users, which will allow learners to more easily join the L2 speech community
  • ER can consolidate previously learned language
  • ER helps to build confidence with extended texts
  • ER facilitates the development of prediction skills

How can these benefits be maximized?

Remember that newly acquired vocabulary is fragile. Therefore, the most important vocabulary to use is the vocabulary just learned. Obviously, you don’t want to introduce too much new vocabulary at one time, either. Aside from making sure that the difficulty of your texts is appropriate, it is also important to make sure that they are interesting to the students. The more interesting the texts are, the more the students will like reading (and the language in general), and the sooner they will start doing voluntary reading on their own. See this diary of a JFL (Japanese as a foreign language) learner’s extensive reading experiences.

What are the difficulties?

Using extensive reading in a classroom is, by nature, a difficult thing to do. Different students are at different levels. It takes some work to make a viable curriculum in which not everyone is necessarily reading the same thing at the same time. Some students, who have been studying a foreign language for a while in traditional a class, resist extensive reading at first. They feel that if it isn’t hard, it isn’t “real learning”. It is absolutely vital to explain the rational and benefits to them. Most difficult of all, particularly in an EFL as opposed to an ESL environment, is getting the appropriate reading materials. They can be expensive, hard to find, or simply unavailable, depending on where you are. It also takes some planning to effectively keep track of which students have which books and make sure they are all returned. In my next article on language learning, I’ll talk about some of the extensive reading materials that I have found useful.