Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Improve Your English, Edit a Wikipedia Page!

A few months ago I gave my students in Argentina a project and I think it worked very well.  We took the English Wikipedia page of the local city, GualeguaychĂș, and we improved it.

How did the students do this?

My students looked at the Wikipedia article in the original language (Spanish) and then used this information to improve the English version.  Here is a comparison between the original Spanish and the English article before the students started the project.  As you can see the English article is MUCH smaller.

We copied the English article into Google Docs, shared the document with everybody and then the students started to work on building and improving the article.

Here is what they achieved.

As you can see, the English article is still shorter than the Spanish but it has significantly more information than it had.  This is okay, the English article doesn’t need to be as big as the original Spanish.

Click here to get higher resolution pictures of the Spanish, the old English article and the new English article.

What has this project done?
  • The students worked together, learning from each other and improving each other’s English.
  • The students have improved their vocabulary and their translation skills.
  • The students have helped to advertise their home town.
See the Wikipedia pages here: GualeguaychĂș (English) and GualeguaychĂș (Spanish)

The Rules

If you want to improve your English with some friends or classmates then I think this type of project is a great way to do it.  However, if you want a project to succeed then you need to have rules.  These are the rules that we had.
  1. Try to use the original Wikipedia article (if it exists) as a guide to help you build the English article but don’t worry if they are not exact translations.  Remember, good translations are often not exact translations.
  2. Very Important - Don’t be afraid to make corrections of paragraphs that other people have written.  This is a collaborative piece of work.
  3. Don’t invent information - everything in the article must be fact, not fiction.
  4. You are not allowed to talk about personal opinions - these will be removed by Wikipedia.
  5. Only do as much work as you want to do.  When it stops being fun, take a break!
  6. If you are going to add photos, they need to be your photos or photos which are not copyright.  Copyrighted images cannot be used on Wikipedia.
  7. Set a deadline and stick to it!  Give the project a week or a month.  Any more time than this will cause people to lose motivation.  At the end of the project deadline, take your work in Google Docs and update the Wikipedia page.  The article doesn't need to be perfect at the end - you can always continue to edit and improve it on Wikipedia.

Writing about your hometown is a good topic.  Other topics you could work on might be famous local people (actors, authors, poets) or famous local people from history (inventors, military people, authors, etc.), maybe events in local history, or local buildings of historic significance.  If you don’t like history then you could important areas in the area (parks, theatres, museums, etc.).  Wikipedia doesn’t need to be your only source of information for your English article, if you do start doing some research you might learn something new about where you live.

Let me know how it goes!

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

I Beg Your Pardon? a.k.a. What? (The Importance of Intonation)

Learning a language is not just about the words we say, it’s also about how we say them. Listen to the different ways that this question is asked, “Is that your car?

Did you hear the differences? Each of these questions has a different purpose and a different meaning.  We understand these differences from context and from intonation.

Intonation is very important.

Look at the different focus of each of these sentences in the slides.

Did you understand the slides? If we stress that ‘David wanted to buy a red shirt.’ that means we are focused on David, not someone else (meaning another person). Take a look at the sentences again, can you complete the sentences based on the stressed word?

As well as understanding, it is important to focus on intonation for reasons of politeness. Some languages change the words used based on who you are talking to – there is a formal form and an informal form. In fact, I know that in some languages it is even more complicated than that! In English, we don’t change the verb form to show formal respect (like in Spanish, for example) but we do have polite phrases and we depend on polite intonation.

Would you mind helping me for a moment?” is a polite request for help but if I speak with my friends I will probably say “Can you give me a hand for a sec?” (where ‘give me a hand’ means help, and ‘sec’ can mean ‘second’ but often just means a short period of time, not an actual second).

There are other examples that are much shorter. “What?”, for instance (‘for instance’ being another way to say ‘for example’). ‘What’ is a great word and ‘What?’ an easy way to get more information. BUT be careful, because how you say it will give your audience a lot of extra information. Look at this video about all the different ways one man can say “What?

In these examples you can identify confusion, frustration, anger, disbelief and amazement. Sometimes he asks this to mean ‘Repeat what you said, I didn’t hear you.’ and this is a different “What?” than ‘Explain what you said, I didn’t understand you.” and these are both different from “What?” to ask ‘Why are you unhappy/angry with me?’  Watch again and see if you can identify these specific differences.

Obviously, when you are talking with friends intonation and polite phrases are not so important because you all know each other but if you are talking to someone you don’t know or you don’t know them very well (meaning you aren’t close friends) then this is important.

Try practising the different ways you can ask the same question. Try practising the different ways you can ask “What?” However, sometimes it is safer to not use “What?” and to use another, more polite phrase.

How many alternative phrases to “What?” can you find in this short video?

Many thanks to Kevin Cuckow for inspiring this post by sharing the Horrible Histories video, and thank you to Martin Sketchley for his wonderful blog and the example sentence for intonation.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Why Do I Like English? - A Guest Post by Maru Talavera

This is a very special post and the first of many, I hope. This is a guest post - this article has not been written by me but by one of my students, Maru Talavera. Maru has been a student of English for a number of years now and recently got the opportunity to use her language skills on a trip to England this summer. I was very interested to know her story about what motivates her in her English studies, so I asked her to write this article to share with all of you. I was very happy when she said yes and this is what she provided. Thank you very much, Maru!

Anyway, here are her opinions and her analysis on her passion and enjoyment of English. There are a couple of her ideas that I thought were so good that I highlighted them!  Please feel free to give Maru your comments.

Why I like English

While being a student you find many people that ask you “Why do you like English?” However, I think the answer to this question only gets complicated when you ask yourself, “Why do I like English?” As an advanced student I guess I should have figured it out much earlier but considering I’m seventeen it (kind of) makes sense that I haven’t yet.

I took up English because my parents thought I would need it at some point in my life.  They were aware of the importance of knowing another language to not only broaden your mind but also push your limits.  However difficult the start was I instantly felt comfortable.  The atmosphere was wonderful, and by atmosphere I mean the warmth of teachers who – I bet – knew how difficult it can be for a little child to start something new.  They made English look like an easy game to play since, as we all know, if you enjoy what you do you give your best.

English also has opened my mind to new perspectives because by reading books or listening to music I realize distances are nothing, we’re all part of the world which turns out to be pretty small as we can feel something similar no matter where we are.  For me, English is that bridge that can lead you to see that there are a lot of people who have felt or are feeling in the same way you feel.

Further to the points I highlighted before, English is considered to be the lingua franca (language people use to communicate when they have different first languages) and companies which are trying to make it to worldwide success are looking for people that have English among their various skills since it’s a great way to enter other markets.

Photo from Wikipedia
Nowadays, English doesn't belong to one place, it’s everybody’s world language.  And I think it would be great if it were taught to children as they’re little because it’s the best time to learn as it’s easy.

Having English as a lingua franca doesn’t mean we have to have an English lifestyle as well.  This is the best of it, we can have a mixture... making our culture evolve in a different way, acquiring new things but preserving out essence.  It’s all about opening our minds and trying to see that others are not that different and that we can get to know them better if we share a common language.

Other ways of learning English

As I grow up (Yes! I’m still at it!) I discover that it’s not always easy to keep on working on my English as I have less time to study but in a way this has helped me realize there are fantastic ways to learn, improve and use your English.
  • Watching series or films online: the Internet can be something more than just a way to gossip or keep up with Hollywood trends, it can also be a place to catch up with your favourite series or movie.  At times it’s hard to understand the dialogues so I suggest starting with series you are familiar with, and it’s great when you add the subtitles so that you know exactly what they’re saying.  Free online films and series are available online and you don’t need to be registered.  (Gordon's NoteI agree with this idea and I know there are some free films online but also remember that iTunes is a great and legal way to do this get movies and TV shows.)
  • Reading from books to magazines, you will find a wide range of useful vocabulary and phrases.  Although sometimes it seems difficult to get an English book in a country like Argentina it is not impossible, indeed there are several bookshops where you can get them.  There’s also the possibility to download the book you want from the net. (Gordon's Note: I love my Amazon Kindle and you can also get Kindle apps for computers and smartphones.)
  • Music: I think this is my favourite way of learning English.  There’s nothing better than listening to a good album with meaningful lyrics.
To sum up, I would say English has a very important place in my life.  Indeed, I can’t imagine my life without it and I think the world helps that.  I like having it in my life since I have developed a kind of love for English because it has made me discover a whole new world that has always been there but I didn’t have the key to enter.  This tool also leads me to independence and sharing my knowledge, feelings and ideas with people from all over the world.  When I went to London this July,  English also helped me to make friends with people who were foreigners just like me, who were also still unsure and adjusting in a different country and we ended up creating a bond which I hope will continue to grow day by day.

During my life I’ve encountered people who encourage me every day to go on in this way, learning around the things I enjoy is certainly the easiest way to progress.  On the other hand, I also find people who try to bring me down, saying that no matter how hard I try it is pointless to try to acquire another culture that’s not mine.  However, as with many things in life, it is important to follow the way you think will make you happy, because none of the people who discouraged you will come to repair the damage of having made a bad choice.  People that think English is boring, unnecessary or just a waste of time is because they don’t know, they have no idea of the vast world that hides beyond their ignorance.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Sharing Understanding How We Learn

Thank you! We did it! This blog reached 50 fans on Facebook just over a week ago! That means a lot to me, thank you.

I would love more people to know about this blog so I’d like you to 'do me a favour' (phrase meaning do something that will help me): I want you to ask one of your friends to join us! If everybody does that then I’m sure I will be sending you another message soon to say we have 100 fans! :-)

Meanwhile, keep reading, keep commenting and keep learning. Have a great day!

Friday, September 2, 2011

Interview with Lewis Richards, teacher and co-author of IELTS Advantage: Writing Skills

Mr Lewis Richards!
Two good friends of mine have just published a book to help students improve their writing skills for the IELTS.  The book is called IELTS Advantage: Writing Skills and the authors are Richard Brown and Lewis Richards.

Lewis kindly agreed to a small interview, answering a few questions about himself and the book.

If your students were to describe you with 3 adjectives, what would they be?  I hope they would say: fun, hard-working and passionate about teaching.  But some would say 'strict' as well, I think!

You’ve just finished writing a book together.  Why did you write it?  We've been teaching IELTS for about 15 years between us, and there are lots of good IELTS books available, but we couldn't find one book that had everything students need to pass the writing part of IELTS.  So we started writing our own exercises, and over the last few years we've written hundreds of exercises that we use in class to help our students get a good writing score.  We decided to put all our ideas into a book, and hopefully it will help lots of students to get at least 6.5 in writing.

Who is the book for?  Well, the idea of the book is to show students step-by-step how to get a good writing score, in particular 6.5 or above.  We wrote the book so that you can use it as a self-study book, or with a teacher in class.  We know that lots of people don't have time to go to a language school to study an IELTS course, so the book is designed so that you can study it by yourself if you want to.  For example, many nurses or doctors who want to work abroad need to get a 7.0 in IELTS, but maybe don't have time to go to a school because of their jobs.  This kind of student can use the book at home.  We think it's clear and easy to read, and helps you improve your writing step-by-step.   Of course, you can also use the book in a class with a teacher, and in fact this is one of the best things about the book - every exercise in it has been tried out in class by us many times, so we know that it works.  Hundreds of students in our classes have got high scores using our material, so we feel confident it can help many other students as well.

If you weren’t a teacher, what might your profession be?  It's hard to say, I've been a teacher for 13 years, and I love it, I can't imagine doing another job, but I really enjoy writing, so maybe journalism.

What was the last book/movie you read/saw, and what have you seen/read way too many times?  At the moment I'm reading a book called 'Solar' by Ian McEwan, which is fantastic, but the book I re-read all the time is 'Catch 22' by Joseph Heller.  It's the funniest book I've ever read.  If you haven't read it, I recommend it.

What do you like to do to unwind (relax)?  I play tennis a lot, which helps get rid of stress.  Drinking beer helps too!

Why are you an English language teacher?  I think learning a foreign language is a really beautiful thing, which helps you to understand other cultures and ideas, and also of course to be successful in your studies or job.   When I was 23, I lived in France for a year, and the experience of learning to speak in French was wonderful.  Also, I really enjoy working with people from different countries, and I feel really proud when my students improve their English, and do really well in IELTS, for example.

Final Questions

If there were one thing you could remove from the English language to make it easier for learners of English, what would it be?  Articles.  Most languages don't have articles, and you don't really need to use articles - people will understand you whether you use articles or not.

Where will students be able to buy your book?  In September it will be on and in all good bookshops, or you can look at the website of our publishers for more information about how to buy it in your country.

Thank you for the interview, Lewis.  I’m sure the book will be a great success and help many students around the world.  Here are the links to the various Amazon sites where the book is available now:

For more information from Lewis about the book, watch this video:

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