Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Remember, English for exams is NOT authentic!

Basically, good English is not always good for exams. However, this is not a bad thing. Let me explain.  (Also, if you are not preparing for an exam, keep reading because not all of this post is about English for exams.)

What is authentic language?

Authentic language is real language. Authentic English language is unplanned and unchanged language from native speakers. It’s the language that is used between two fluent speakers in a natural conversation.

What is the purpose of an exam?

The purpose of an exam is to test and assess language ability. You have to show how much you can do with your English in short period of time for the speaking (11 minutes for IELTS, 14 minutes for FCE, 15 minutes for CAE, 20 minutes for the TOEFL speaking test) and a limited number of words in your writing (400 words for IELTS, 330 words for FCE, 480 words for CAE, 525 words for TOEFL).

So within this short period of time you really have to show off (meaning to demonstrate) your English and use all the different forms you know as well as a good variety of vocabulary.  Remember, if you don’t use the language during the speaking test then the examiner won’t know that you have it.

Good English does not always pass!

Sir Winston Churchill, Prime Minister
of Britain (1940-45, 1951-55)
(Picture from Wikipedia)
Here is part of a very important speech in British history.  This speech by Winston Churchill, the prime minister of Britain during most of World War 2, was incredibly important in motivating the people of Britain to continue fighting during a time when Britain was losing the war.  I don’t want to give you a history lesson but this speech was possibly the most important speech in Britain in the 20th century.

However, this speech recently failed an English assessment!  Read and listen to the most famous part of the speech here.

"We shall go on to the end, we shall fight in France,
we shall fight on the seas and oceans, 
we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air,
we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be,
we shall fight on the beaches, 
we shall fight on the landing grounds, 
we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, 
we shall fight in the hills; 
we shall never surrender, and even if, which I do not for a moment believe, this island or a large part of it were subjugated and starving, then our empire beyond the seas, armed and guarded by the British fleet, would carry on the struggle, until, in God's good time, the New World, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the old."

The computer system that marked the speech didn’t like the repetition. The speech uses the phrase “We shall...” at least 12 times. The repetition was a very important and useful part of the speech, but for an English exam it is not good. Repetition is a tool that we use in spoken and written English to emphasise a point and it is used a lot in speech writing, especially by politicians. However, for English exams, it does not help you because it only shows a small part of your language knowledge.

Have a mental checklist

Make checklist in your mind for
your speaking and writing.
(Photo from Flickr)
So it is a good idea to have mental checklist.  A list in your head of things you should try to include when you are speaking and writing in the exam.  Here is a short list for you to start with (there are plenty of other things to add):

  • Conditionals (e.g. If you learn how to use these different forms of English, you’ll have no problems in your speaking and written exams.)
  • Passive Voice (e.g. This blog post was written to help learners of English understand and prepare for their English exams.)
  • Relative Clauses (e.g. This blog, which started in February 2011, exists to help learners of English.)
  • Adverbs (e.g. Both the teacher and the students were 'terribly pleased'* when everyone passed the exam.)
  • Comparatives/Superlatives (e.g. The CAE test is definitely designed to be more difficult than the FCE test but the CPE is certainly the hardest test of them all.)
  • Reported Speech (Gordon said that the CAE test was definitely designed to be more difficult than the FCE test but the CPE was certainly the hardest test of them all.)
So all of these are useful parts of English to use in your speaking and writing to show the examiner what you can do.

If you are not taking an exam, this is still useful

Yes, even if you are not doing an exam, focusing on these parts of English is still very important.  It is important for your accuracy to practise these parts of English separately sometimes.

Here are some videos to explain.  The first video shows a martial arts drill.  A drill is an exercise of repetition, where only one action is practised and repeated again and again so that the student can focus and improve on one specific area.  This is not an authentic fight but it is an important part of martial arts training.

You can see that this action alone would not be very useful in a fight.  However, when you put this action together with other actions then you can get something like this! (One of the most exciting martial arts fights I’ve ever seen! - Just click on play, it will start at the exciting part.)

So from this martial arts example, it is easy to see that the same rules apply to language learning. You've got to do the drills, practising your conditionals 'over and over and over' (meaning again and again and again), practising your use of passive voice over and over and over, practising your comparatives and superlatives over and over and over. This way they become better and better, you use them with more accuracy and fewer mistakes.

Then when you put them all together you get a grammatically accurate piece of writing or a grammatically great conversation.

* "terribly pleased" - Although 'terrible' is a negative word, we can use the adverb 'terribly' to mean 'very' in a positive way.  So this actually means "very pleased" and it is a positive sentence.  You can see the same use with 'awfully'.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Marcia Lima's "secret" to language learning

I just read this on Marcia Lima's blog and just had to share it with you:

"My secret to language learning was perspiration, really!"

Perspiration = sweating = hard work!

An excellent way to improve listening and writing skills and, as Marcia says, song lyrics are a fun option.

Memorization, memorization, memorization!  It's not the only thing you need to learn a language, but it would be impossible to learn a language without it.

Thanks Marcia, great advice!  Go visit her blog and leave a comment or send her a tweet!

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Daily Writing Tips (Blog Recommendation #5)

I think most of us have a secret desire to write novel.  If you think about it, a lot of our lives and conversations are spent telling stories: what you did last night, a funny incident when you were 8 years old, how you met your husband/wife, saying what you bought at the supermarket.  They are not all good or interesting stories but they are all stories.  So I think that most of us have the desire to write a whole novel, a big long story that we hope will become world famous.

If you are one of these people, then the next time you decide to try and do some writing you should take a look at this website.

Oh, and if you want to know how to start and complete a novel then you might want to try Matt Cutts's suggestion.  I showed this video in a previous post but I've put it here again, in case you missed it the first time.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Setting Goals and Realizing Them (Trying to Understand Motivation)

First of all, ‘to realize your goal’ is similar to ‘realizing your dreams’: to have a goal or dream and to do the work so that is actually happens. For example:

One of the many wonderful things
I found in Mexico - a stray dog we
rescued and called Bianca. She's
 now happily living in the USA! :-)
He realized his dream of living abroad by moving to Mexico.

She realized her goal of becoming an artist by quitting her job and taking a course at college.

What goals have you realized recently?

I'm not very good at realizing goals. Recently, I gave myself the challenge of learning 1000 new words and phrases in Spanish – I managed 869 in 1 month (see video here). I’m happy with this achievement but I know there are lots of other times in the past when I ‘gave up’ (meaning stopped trying) and I didn’t complete a goal that I set (‘setting goals’ means ‘making goals’).

How do we achieve learning goals and why do we sometimes fail?

I talked about this in a previous post and video, SMART Goals. In addition to this, here are two more videos that talk about goals.

I love this video. Matt Cutts’s enthusiasm is inspirational. Although I did my charity challenge before I saw this video, I think that my challenge is a perfect example of something we can achieve if we really try and have a reasonable 'deadline' (meaning a 'time limit').

Thanks to Kylie Barker, I saw this video about setting goals.  According to Derek Sivers, telling everybody about your goals isn’t a great idea because apparently you feel less motivated to realize those goals after telling people.  Do you believe this?

I do!  I think this is true for me sometimes.

Examples of Failure

Before arriving in Argentina I decided that I wanted to do the Buenos Aires Marathon.  I told people about this goal and I asked people where I could go running.  Unfortunately the marathon is in October and I won’t be running in it.  I gave up training about a month after I arrived in Argentina.  I know I can do a marathon but somewhere I lost motivation, maybe because I told everybody about it.

Here is a second example.  After the 1000 Charity Challenge I decided that I wanted to do a more physical challenge.  I told people I would train for 1 month and be able to do 100 push-ups in 2 minutes.  Unfortunately the deadline for that was August 6th... and I gave up training after about a week.  So obviously, I didn’t complete that challenge.  Maybe I did not have the motivation because I told everybody about my challenge.

Examples of Success

I ran the Brighton Marathon last year.  I trained with some good friends as well as by myself but I didn't tell many people that I was going to run the marathon.  I didn't want everybody to know in case I didn't complete the race.

I scored 87% in the memory challenge for charity.  When I did this challenge I told everybody about it but I told people so I could get help (lots of people gave me words to learn) and start raising money.  My motivation here was to achieve the goal so I could help a charity.  I think this helped me because I knew that if I stopped, I would be disappointing a lot of people.  In this way, my goal was not only for me.

Another thing that helped me was that, as you see in the video, there was a very public event to test me at the end of my month of study.  I didn’t want to look stupid and I couldn’t give up.

You can talk the talk, but can you walk the walk?

This phrase in English is basically a challenge: you can talk about doing something but can you actually do it?  If we believe Derek Sivers, maybe it is better not to talk about something until after you have finished it.

I am very interested to hear people’s opinions and experiences about this. Please comment below.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Video: 1000 New Words & Phrases (Learning Language for Charity)

On July 1st 2011 my students tested me in a fun event to improve vocabulary and raise money for charity. This is how and why we did it!

During June this year, I spent at least half an hour every day trying to memorize 1000 new Spanish words and phrases. This was for an event to raise money for a local charity, AsociaciĆ³n Promover, in Argentina, where I am teaching at the moment.

The idea was simple: I had 1 month to learn the words and on July 1st my students tested me to see how many I could remember. Sometimes they gave me the English and I needed to give them the Spanish translation, and sometimes they gave me the Spanish and I gave them the English translation.

It was a fun event and I think everybody who helped improved their vocabulary!

We raised money by asking each person to donate for every word I remembered correctly: $0.02 for 1 word, $0.04 for 2 words, etc. A lot of the students helped by donating as well as helping me to find 1000 Spanish words and phrases to learn. Thank you very much to them!

To know about how I learned and memorized the vocabulary, take a look at my post, No Magic Please (Learning Vocabulary). In future posts this week, I will give some more information about the challenge, the motivation and how much I remember now, 2 months later.

Thanks for everybody’s messages of support. They were very much appreciated. :-)

If you are still a bit confused, here is my video explaining the challenge.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Thinking about Superman a.k.a. Imaginary Situations (Conditionals)

Superman (Picture from Wikipedia)
Let's think about imaginary situations; these are situations that are not real. These situations are very common when we speak in English. Lots of our conversations talk about things which might happen and we have other conversations about things that probably will not happen, but we like to imagine and dream about them.

Imagining Situations in the Present

For example, in the future I will eat, but this depends on me being hungry or not.  If I'm hungry, I eat. This is a common and normal situation. However, in English we also like to talk about situations which are not normal. Let’s think about Superman.

Superman isn’t real... sorry to disappoint you. :-) He is imaginary so a lot of conversations about Superman are imaginary.

I like to be Superman = Something I enjoy regularly.  Hmmm... I can't be Superman so this is not a good sentence.

I would like to be Superman = This talks about something I want.  I can't be Superman but I can want to be Superman.

This is NOT possible - I will never be Superman... :-(
... but if I had Superman's powers then I would be very busy saving people all the time.
Or... if I could fly like Superman then I would save a lot of money.
Or... if I wore Superman's costume, I'd be embarrassed most of the time!
Or... if I were* Superman, I'd probably need to shave.

Let’s look at a few more examples.

Here is a young man thinking about money.

If I won the lottery, I'd buy a mansion.
If I had lots of money, I would move house.**
If I were* very rich, I would get a big red house.
(Pictures from Flickr: Man, Money, Mansion)
Do you see the patterns here?  It is a little bit confusing but I will explain.

Start with 'If I', 'If you', 'If he', 'If she', 'If we', 'If they' and then the past form of the verb (have, had, had; can, could, been able to; wear, wore, worn; etc, etc.)

Continue with 'I would' or 'I'd', 'you would' or 'you'd', 'he would' or 'he'd', etc. and then the basic form of the verb (be, was/were, been; save, saved, saved; buy, bought, bought; get, got, gotten).

Look at the sentences again.  Do you see the pattern?  Do you understand the imaginary situation in each sentence?

If I had Superman's powers then I would be very busy saving people all the time.
If I could fly like Superman then I would save a lot of money.
If I wore Superman's costume, I'd be embarrassed most of the time!
If I were* Superman, I'd probably need to shave.
If I won the lottery, I'd buy a mansion.
If I had lots of money, I would move house.**
If I were* very rich, I would get a big red house.


* 'If I were' - Usually we say 'I am, I was, I have been' but when we talk about imaginary/unreal situations we use 'If I were'.  This is grammatically correct English but you will hear a lot of native speakers using 'If I was'.  This is your choice; lots of native speakers use the 2nd option but the 1st option is grammatically correct.

** 'to move house' - This phrase does not mean to physically move a house.  It is the phrasal verb we use to describe changing your accommodation.

Imagining Situations in the Past

Let's look at imagining situations in the past.  Usually these are regrets; bad situations in the past that we wish we could change.  Here is a picture of a young boy who obviously had an accident.

If I hadn't ridden my bicycle, I wouldn't have broken my arm.
If I had been more careful on my bicycle, I wouldn't have broken my arm.
If I hadn't fallen off my bike, I wouldn't have broken my arm.
If I hadn't worn a helmet, my injuries would have been worse!
(Pictures from Flickr: Bicycle, Boy with Broken Arm, Arm)

Again, this is an area of English that we use a lot.  We often try to imagine things in the past being different.  Can you see the pattern here?

Start with 'If I had/If I hadn't' or 'If you had/If you hadn't' or 'If we had/If we hadn't' and then the past participle (ride, rode, ridden; break, broke, broken; fall, fell, fallen; wear, wore, worn).

Continue with 'would/wouldn't have' and past participle again.

'If the boy in the picture had been Superman, he wouldn't have broken his arm.'

The 2nd and 3rd Conditionals

You probably recognize these as the 2nd and 3rd conditionals.  I don't like these names for this grammar.  I think it's better to think of this grammar as imaginary situations in the present and the past.  Or, if you want to think about it in a different way: 'unreal present' (2nd) and 'unreal past' (3rd) conditionals.

More Practice with the 'Unreal Present'

A World without Planes - This article/story imagines a world without planes and air travel.  It is a great composition to read if you want more confidence with your conditionals.

Change the World by Eric Clapton - This song has a lot of examples of conditionals.  However, some of the lyrics have some confusing mixed conditionals. Can you find them and fix them?

If you are really adventurous, you can try the karaoke version. :-)

More Practice with the 'Unreal Past'

On Time - This short film is 6 minutes long and you can practise your 'unreal past' by talking about this video with a friend.  Share it with another friend who is learning English and use the 'unread past'/3rd conditional to have a conversation about it.

Enjoy these very useful parts of English!  Please comment below and let me know how successful your studies are.

Remember, what you need for confidence and comfort is practice, practice, practice. ;-)

Monday, August 15, 2011

How Green is your Internet? (Working with Numbers in English)

Did you know about this?  Thank you to Tom Walton for sharing this on his blog.

This video has lots of numbers in it, lots of big numbers.  Did you understand all the information in the video?  I have a small challenge for you.

Try watching it again and identify the significance of each of the numbers below.  I've done the first number for you as an example.

0.2 is the number of grams per second of carbon that is generated by 1 second of online video.












Are you surprised by any of this information?

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

What is Cohesion & Coherence? (Cambridge Testing Explained)

This post explains an important aspect of the marking structure of the IELTS exams.  Cambridge exams like IELTS, FCE, CAE and many others have strict guidelines about what makes a 5.5 or a 60%.  Here are the guidelines for marking/assessing IELTS Task 1 and IELTS Task 2 writing.

One of the columns is labelled Cohesion & Coherence.  This is one of the ways the writing is assessed: is the composition cohesive, is the composition coherent?  (Cohesion is the noun, cohesive is the adjective; coherence is the noun, coherent is the adjective.)  This is the focus on this post.

What is Cohesion & Coherence?

Cohesion and coherence aren't too difficult to explain.  Cohesion refers to connectivity in a text.  Coherence refers to how easy it is to understand the writing.

Cohesion & Coherence

"My favourite colour is blue.  I like it because it is calming and it relaxes me.  I often go outside in the summer and lie on the grass and look into the clear sky when I am stressed.  For this reason, I'd have to say my favourite colour is blue."

Cohesive AND coherent: Blue > Relaxes > Clear Sky > Blue (Photos from Flickr)
This sentence is both coherent and cohesive, but let's focus on the cohesion first.  I've highlighted the ways that each sentence is connected to the sentence before.

Cohesion with NO Coherence

Now, here is a sentence that has cohesion but is not coherent.

"My favourite colour is blueBlue sports cars go very fast.  Driving in this way is dangerous and can cause many car crashes.  I had a car accident once and broke my leg.  I was very sad because I had to miss a holiday in Europe because of the injury."

Cohesive NOT coherent: Blue > Sports CarFast Driving > Car Crashes > Broken LegHoliday in Europe (Photos from Flickr)
As you can see, there is plenty of cohesion here.  The sentences connect clearly together but if you read the paragraph, it really makes no sense - I start talking about blue and I finish talking about a holiday in Europe.  There is no coherence in this sentence.

Coherence with NO Cohesion

Now, let's take a look at a sentence that is coherent but not cohesive.

"My favourite colour is blue.  I'm calm and relaxed.  In the summer I lie on the grass and look up."

Coherent NOT cohesive: Blue - Calm & Relaxed - Looking Up (Photos from Flickr)
This is more difficult to understand but basically this lack of cohesion means a lack of sufficient connectors to join the ideas together.  If I try hard I can understand what the person is saying: a short answer, an explanation, an example; however the sentences don't fit together.

Cohesion & Coherence in Conversation

Are your conversations coherent?  Are they cohesive?
Now, in spoken discourse, the easiest example I can think of is a Cambridge First Certificate speaking exam, part 3: the students' conversation.  Two students are asked to talk about some pictures but if they do not respond to what each other is saying and make no attempt to reference each other then the conversation can be coherent but can completely lack cohesion.  For example:

A. "I think these people are having a good time."
B. "It appears these people are enjoying themselves."
A. "They seem to be on holiday."
B. "It looks like they are on vacation."

Obviously there is no connection between A and B in this conversation.  We understand them and they are coherent.  What is missing is cohesion.  They are not connected.  A is not listening to B and B is not listening to A.

On the other hand, take a look at this example:

A. "I think these people are having a good time."
B. "Time is difficult to manage.  I am always late for my social appointments like when I have a date with a girl."
A. "I like girls with long, dark hair and brown eyes."
B. "My dog has brown eyes and a long tail."
etc, etc.

This example shows that there is cohesion but the conversation makes no sense and therefore it is missing coherence.

Next time you are looking at a piece of writing; a newspaper, an essay you wrote, another student's essay, a web article like this one, you should consider the cohesion and coherence of the composition.  It is worth 25% of your IELTS mark and it is an important factor in the other Cambridge exams as well.

Hope this helps you.  Comments are welcome.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

People you should be following, pt 2 (Facebook)

Facebook can provide you with lots of help with your English! Most people reading this probably have a Facebook account and if you are serious about learning English then Facebook can definitely help you.

First of all, put your Facebook in English! From experience, I know you will quickly learn some new and useful vocabulary. Just go to Account>Account Settings>Language.

However, Facebook can help you much more than that. There are lots of organizations, websites, teachers and groups on Facebook that have lots to teach and share with you. Here are a few suggestions:

Pages for Lessons & Activities

The Facebook pages for Flo-Joe PET (Preliminary English)Flo-Joe FCE (First Certificate), Flo-Joe CAE (Advanced English) and Flo-Joe CPE (Proficiency English) are well-organized and always have something new on them. They are great ways to get daily advice and lessons in preparation for the Cambridge exams. You will receive daily information with new vocabulary and providing mini-tests so that you are improving your English every day!

The page is another well-organized page that is updated regularly (meaning there is new content posted regularly). ‘Liking’ this page will ‘keep you up-to-date’ (give you new, regular information) with all the latest lessons and activities.

I’ve mentioned PhraseMix before (you will see mini PhraseMix lessons on the right column of this blog) but there is also PhraseMix on Facebook. If you ‘like’ this then you will see the daily English phrase on in your News Feed each day.

I love the BBC! They provide SO much for learners of English. You can see it all and ‘keep up-to-date’ with everything they are producing for free to help learners of English improve. Just like the BBC Learning English page to get started.

The Speaking English Podcast page is something I found recently but it looks like a great resource for listening. There are over 160 short videos (2-4 minutes long) focusing on pronunciation and spoken English in general. As I mentioned, it looks like a great little resource for your listening skills and to improve pronunciation in difficult areas.

You can also ‘keep up with’ (meaning to follow) this blog on the Understanding How We Learn Page. ;-)

Pages for English Discussion

The English Speaking Club connects you with over 45,000 people interested in improving their English. There are lots of discussions with learners around the world. You can join, learn from others and teach others as well and perhaps make a few new, international friends.

Learn English as Second Language is a smaller group, about 5000 people, but it also has a community of friendly people wanting to use their English with anybody and everybody.

Other Pages

These are some pages of people/organizations I recommended in my previous Twitter article: Spotlight Radio, Voice of America, Learn Pre-Intermediate English as a Foreign LanguageIntermediate English as a Foreign Language, Advanced Learners of EFL/ESL.

In the next 'following' article I will give a few recommendations for English on YouTube.  Let me know what you think and feel free to make some more suggestions!

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

New IELTS Page

Since I know a lot of learners reading this blog are preparing for the IELTS exam, I've made a new page on this blog which has a list of websites and blogs that I think are very useful for IELTS preparation.  I will be adding more links and resources of my own over the next weeks and months so check it out and keep coming back for more help as and when you need it!

Take a look at my IELTS Help page.
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