Wednesday, June 22, 2016

The Three Types of TOEIC Test Questions

The last few years at my old workplace I used to teach a TOEIC class. Very soon I saw that just going through the sample exercises and answers would be boring for both students and myself. More importantly, doing TOEIC simulations didn't seem to give students any concrete skills to handle the test.

So I started to 'flip' TOEIC lessons, increasing student interest, motivation, and investment in classes. One strategy I devised that students praised was the idea of a typology of TOEIC questions.

Basically, I realized that all TOEIC questions were based on the 'Three Bu.' These are in order of frequency of appearance:

1) 文法 bunpo, or grammar. Mostly seen in Incomplete Sentences.
2) 文脈 bunmyaku, or context. Mostly seen in Photograph and Short Conversation questions.
3) 文化 bunka, or culture. Mostly seen in Reading

For instance, if a question requires students to choose between verbs (wait, waited, waiting, to wait) it is testing grammar. If it is a phone message left by a job applicant with questions about content, then it is testing contextual knowledge. If the question is a conversation about how to get downtown in New York, it requires some context familiarity, but also a knowledge of NY transit culture.

I have seen these three patterns of question time and time again. Giving students the 'Three Bu' framework empowers them by allowing them to understand what is asked for and thereby eliminate red herring answers better while identifying correct candidates more confidently. This framework also challenges teachers to use a wider range of materials in class, not limiting themselves to drill books as is so often the case, but adding texts that introduce corporate culture and English world content and situations.

Look at the examples below and try to identify where the fit in the Three Bu framework. Questions were taken from

Example One
To: Supervisors
From: Judy Linquiest, Human Resource Manager
Sub: Probation periods
As of January 1st all new employees will be subject to a 3 month probationary period. Medical, holiday, and flextime benefits will not apply to new staff members until the full 3 months have expired. After the three months have been completed, please contact your employees and inform them that their probationary period has ended. The HR department will contact you by email 2 days in advance to remind you of the date. Thank you for your cooperation.

What is the main purpose of this memo?
A) To inform all employees of a new expiration date.
B) To put staff members on probation.
C) To introduce the HR department.
D) To inform supervisors of a change in policy.

Example Two
The person who is taking the minutes will be seated __________ the chairman.

A) from
B) to
C) next
D) by

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

You Know You're From Here When...

Study abroad preparation classes are a contradiction in terms.

By its nature, study abroad will challenge students' cultural assumptions and language abilities, forcing them to grow and adapt to their new surroundings and unexpected circumstances. This means that they are the epitome of experiential learning, and that any attempt to prepare for such an experience will fall short. Conversation drills and city guides may form a limited guide to interaction in the foreign atmosphere, but will quickly be outstripped by on the ground experience and knowledge from local informants.

Yet there is a way to glean some insider local knowledge from the internet. A great resource of local knowledge of any destination city is the "You know you're from (city) when..." list.
These lists exist for just about any metropolitan centre, English speaking or not.

On the plus side, YKYF lists are genuine language, filled with local knowledge and cultural tidbits not in guidebooks, and are a hoot to read. On the minus, such lists don't use easy or safe language, and by their insider nature may include references or expressions that are incomprehensible to even the teacher. Their informtion is also always interesting, but may not be overly practical or useful. Still, they can provide invaluable local knowledge and thus are worthy of consideration. A student who went to Sydney, Australia said the most important thing I taught her was from a YKYF list, namely that cabs could not be found at three am when bars closed.

Here's how I teach YKYF lists.

Have students brainstorm sources of information on their destination, and let them search if they have net access and computers or smart phones. They will undoubtedly find travel websites or tourism guides. Explain that although these have good, reliable information, they are also limited in scope.

Next, have students find a list, decipher it for ten minutes,vthen present their findings. If the class are all going to the same destination, find one list and assign list items to different students. If there are multiple destinations, split students into groups based on city and have them each choose and present an item.

Note that you may have to help them with complex or obscure references, so wander about helping.

For homework, have kids make one or two YKYF items for their own hometown and present next class. For example, a student informed me that his hometown of Takarazuka was spelled TakaraDUka by locals.

Thursday, June 2, 2016

Flipping Vocab Tests

Vocabulary tests.

Usually consisting of sample sentences with blanks where you insert words you guess you're supposed to have learned.

Ho hum. Let's flip this paradigm!

First, we rarely use or learn words naturally by their lonesome. They are always in context, and always either spoken & heard or written & read. Thus my vocab test must provide content as well as a lanuage skill.

I have to give just such a vocab test in a Speaking & Listening class of five students next week.

Here's what I plan to do:


Before the test, I had students come up with a small list of words to be tested. We drew from words that cropped up in discussion during the semester, but could have just as easily used canned words from the textbook.

Next, I had students come up for an explanation and example sentence for one word. We checked their responses then I gave them homework - do the same for the rest of the list.


On test day I will give students a blank sheet with space or their name and eleven numbers. I will have the vocab written on scraps of a paper in a bag on my desk. For the first five, I will have students come up one by one, take a word, and without saying the word, explain it to the other students. They will mark an X for the one they read themselves.

For the remaining words, I will draw and read them, and students will have to write the explanations in English.

I may fiddle with number of items and double the value of the written portion, but as a plan, this seems like a novel, multimodal way of testing vocab that breaks the old, artificial mold.


Friday, April 29, 2016

Introducing Total Physical Response

Total Physical Response (TPR) is a methodology (ie method derived from theory) that made the rounds on the TESL circuit a few years back. The theory goes that by having students actively move their bodies while doing English, they would acquire L2 skills faster and more permanently. Like many other such unorthodox approaches, such as teaching or learning styles, it resulted in lots of creative (mis)applications of the theory to classroom practices, while also failing to inspire corroborative research or large scale implementation.

That is not to say TPR is wrong or useless.

In fact, it does hit on several real gaps in L2 learner repertoires, namely

1) Many learners almost never perform, describe, or hear of physical acivity in L2, and thus are unfamiliar or unable to describe or understand activities in L2. This is a lack of vocabulary and conceptualization.

2) This unfamiliarity with physical activity in L2 is exacerbated by the sedentary nature of SLA past childhood - pantomiming 'Head, shoulders, knees & toes' is the limit to TPR activity for many learners.

To give my students TPR experience, I do the following activity:

First, I have students stand. Then, I tell them I will teach them an English game, then ask them to follow my commands. I break the activity into steps and wath students as I explain without giving any nonverbal clues.

For instance, today I taught the child's game of 'slap hands.' In the past I have used yoga postures, but slsphands requires less physical exertion and lets students in inflexible clothes also participate. I explain the game thus:

"Stand facing your partner.
Put both hands out.
The older of you puts hands palm up.
The younger puts their hands palm down over their partner's hands."

Here I stop and point out mistakes students have made following my simple commands. I explain their unfamiliarity is natural, introduce the idea of TPR, then get a student to come up and gently show them how slaphands is played.

With Set Up finished, I next explain that students will be given ten minutes to explain a Japanese game, physical activity, or movement from sport or dance. Stress that the activity must be physical, as some students may try to teach a word game.

When students have finished working in groups, have a representative of one group come up to explain an activity to you. Turn your back on the speaker so there are no nonverbal clues as to what to do. Do exactly as students tell you so they can see where their description is lacking. For instance, a student trying to make me do Jumping Jacks said "Open hands and feet," so I stood on tiptoes with my hands opened like crabclaws.

Although this is good for lightening the classroom atmosphere, it is also a direct and thought-provoking demonstration of TPR in action.

First, it is easiest to circle errors or awkward parts of student descriptions and have them work together to fix the English or find proper expressions online.

However, this reversion to sedentary language study is a waste of TPR's potential. Instead, I teach a yoga position, such as the Warrior, to students. Next, I hand out different positions to groups, have them make explanations, then let them teach the class. The explanations generated by students can be checked for errors and intelligibility, then used with a visual on vocabulary tests.

Comments or questions? Leave them below!