- Do you have any tips on teaching writing and training students to use the thinking skills behind the writing skills?
Always answer “why” and “how”. Support your ideas with concrete examples. Show, don’t tell.
Even for people who don’t need to write in their current or future jobs, everyone needs to be able to logically explain why they hold a particular opinion or belief, and to understand and share what experiences led them to that position. I try to communicate to students that, although writing might not be their end goal, much like football drills or piano practice help us to build skills, writing is similarly a way to train our brains in evaluating, expressing and defending ideas.
- What is the difference between professional writing coaching for native and non-native speakers?
While NNS might need more error correction, they’re usually more knowledgeable about English grammar and are familiar with the meta-language, i.e. they know what a past participle is, even if they occasionally use the wrong one. Because NS use language intuitively, or have picked up faulty rules that they never understood (like “you can’t begin a sentence with “because”), they often require more lengthy explanations to understand the “why” behind how subordinate clauses work, for example, so that they can re-learn how to use the language more effectively. However, apart from grammar, working with NNS and NS speakers is about the same. I focus on organization of ideas, clear transitions and signals, stronger word choices (e.g. active verbs, concrete nouns, etc.), and building more sophisticated sentence structures.
- What was the Embassy Language Program in Moscow?
Most US Embassies offer free English classes to locally-engaged staff (LES) so that they can improve their skills. In Moscow, I supervised a program for 80+ students. In the advanced classes, I mostly had LES from reporting sections (Political, Econ, Public Affairs, etc.) who wanted to work on professional writing, vocabulary expansion, and conversational fluency. At the lower levels we worked on general EFL, interviewing skills, resume writing and so on. They were often highly educated, but didn’t have the English skills they needed for the jobs that fit their experience. Many of my students had taken jobs as security guards, for example, as a way to “get a foot in the door” until they could gain the requisite English skills to apply for jobs that matched their educational backgrounds.
- I am curious if you have been able to adapt some of the writing you did with the students at Cal State with some of your other types of teaching – the Embassy language program, the tutoring and your future plans for conversational courses. The skills you mentioned that writing helps develop are certainly applicable outside of the academic world!
Absolutely! I love using TED talks with all my clients/students because I can choose themes related to what they’re are interested in, professionally or personally. The talks range in difficulty and length, and students can adjust the video speed, or read along with the transcript in English or another language. The talks are great for sparking conversation and introducing new vocabulary. Depending on my teaching context, I’ll either discuss the talk with the students, or write Comprehension or Critical Thinking questions for them to answer. I can use the talks as springboards for in-class writing assignments, journal prompts, argumentative essays, opinion pieces, compare/contrast, debates, etc. I’ve also used TED talks with clients who need help with speech writing or presentations as good examples of how to organize and present on a topic.
- Could you tell us a bit about the unique EFL needs of diplomats and diplomatic spouses, from both a teacher’s and an insider’s perspective?
We always joke that diplomats can negotiate nuclear treaties in their target language, but can’t order dinner in a restaurant. It’s often the spouses that learn the useful language on our own because we need it for survival, while the “direct hires” live in their little Embassy bubble. When we’re able to take classes at the Foreign Service Institute, the spouses don’t find the classes all that helpful. I don’t need to greet foreign dignitaries or introduce my family members; I need to talk to the plumber, read ingredients in the grocery store and buy transit tickets! As a teacher, my recent experiences learning survival Russian, Spanish and German have made me much more aware of what learners actually need to know when they get to a new country. If I could go back to California where I started out teaching beginner classes to newly-arrived immigrants, I would approach it so differently now!
- Would you include intercultural skills in the course for diplomats? If so, what kind of skills would they need?
Diplomats are screened for their intercultural skills before they’re hired, and they return to DC between each assignment abroad for 6-12 months of language and cultural training (depending on the difficulty of the language at their onward Post). However, I think diplomats would really benefit from courses in “international English.” Within the Embassy, English is often the default language. However, I constantly hear Americans using obscure vocabulary, sports metaphors, US-specific cultural references, etc., which makes even fluent LES feel lost in a conversation or meeting. They usually won’t admit what they don’t understand because they don’t want their new boss (and we move every 2 years, so there’s always a new boss) to think they don’t know English well. In my opinion, there should be some practical, intercultural linguistic training for native speakers who spend the bulk of their day interacting with non-native speakers.
- How has your transient lifestyle influenced your teaching style?
I think I’m still figuring that out! At the moment, I’m transitioning away from the classroom and into one-on-one tutoring, which is new for me. While I miss the energy and flow of the classroom dynamic, I like the individualized attention I can give to my tutoring clients. I sometimes feel like language coaching is almost like therapy. I really get to know my clients’ interests, insecurities, learning styles, and struggles. I meet them where they’re at, then help guide them to where they want to be.
- How has being a member of the ELTABB community helped you settle n Berlin?
From the first Stammtisch, I could tell that this is a dedicated group of professionals, who are also a lot of fun! I’ve missed having “colleagues” to discuss ideas with and learn from. I’ve already been to several workshops, and the networking potential and enthusiasm for professional development within the membership is really encouraging.
- Question from Richard: What has motivated you to take on the role of blog editor for ELTABB?
I feel fortunate to have found a supportive group like ELTABB, and I want to give back by getting involved. I think we can learn so much from each other’s personal stories and experiences, and I’m excited to be able to facilitate further sharing.
- Who would you like to nominate as Eltabber of the month and what question would you like to ask them?
I nominate Mandy Welfare, the outgoing Eltabber-of-the-month editor, and I’d like to ask her: What are your top tips for a new English teacher arriving in Berlin (besides joining ELTABB, of course!)?
Edited by Mandy Welfare