Why you will get your lowest IELTS score for writing and how not to

In this post, I am talking about the reasons why most people get the lowest score for the writing component of the IELTS test. I am also revealing the magic formula that will help anyone get any score they want.

Most people get the lowest score for the writing component of the IELTS test. My experience as an IELTS trainer and the official statistics completely agree on this. In this post, I want to look at the reasons why and at the ways how not to.

Here is why you might get your lowest score for writing too:

1 You don’t write enough.

Tell me if that sounds familiar. The teacher gives you task after task, but you just can’t muster the willpower to write them. Finally, you become overcome with guilt, write one or two tasks, pat yourself on the shoulder and stop writing until the next fit of guilt occurs in a week or two. That’s not enough and you know it.

I usually give my students two writing tasks 1 and two writing tasks 2 per week if the test is 3 months away. Two W1 and two W2 over 12 weeks add up to 24 of each. This is about the number I think is necessary to get the score you will be happy with. Now think about your last IELTS test – how many tasks did you write?

2 You don’t write consistently.

I always nag my students to write regularly. Sometimes I even give them the number of works I expect them to write. They procrastinate and procrastinate, but at one point, as the exam approaches, they suddenly write 20 works over one week. Granted, it’s better than nothing, and it helps to practice writing within the time limit, but it doesn’t help to improve.

You see, if you write 20 works over one week, all of them will be pretty much the same quality because there is no time to follow your teacher’s recommendations and overcome your weaknesses. If you don’t write regularly over a longer period, you don’t improve, you stay at the same level – the level you pretty much were at without any exam preparation at all; hence the low score.

3 You don’t rewrite.

What I mean is rewriting your poorly written works after the teacher has corrected them. More often than not, I ask my students to rewrite poorly written works correcting all the faults I have pointed out. “But it is boring. I’ve already described this graph. Give me another one, I won’t make the same mistakes again.” This is what you think if you are asked to rewrite your works. If you don’t rewrite, you will keep making 80% of your mistakes. You think you won’t, but it’s an illusion. Rewriting is especially vital if you need to work on more abstract or complicated aspects like coherence or sentence structures.

Don’t worry, rewriting is not as annoying as it sounds. It usually takes around 3 rewritten works for me to stop asking my students to rewrite.

4 You don’t know the assessment criteria.

You might think that writing is all about grammar, so writing grammatically perfect sentences is the key to a high score. It isn’t. There are 4 assessment criteria, all of which contribute to your score equally. Grammar is just as important as coherence or task response / task achievement.

The public version of the criteria is available on the official website. If you prepare with a good IELTS teacher, you can rest assured that their corrections and recommendations are based on the assessment criteria.

5 You will be tired.

Just think about the test day. You will wake up early, you will have exam nerves, and before you start writing, you will have completed reading + listening. By the time you get to writing, you will be so tired that your brain will refuse to come up with ideas or remember any good words you have memorized. Writing at the exam is not the same as writing in the comfort of your home.

I tend to think that you actually need to be 0.5 band above the desired score to get the desired score. So if your teacher says, your works deserve 6.5, there is a chance you will only get 6 even though your language really is at band 6.5. Stress and exhaustion will take their toll. That said, the more you practise writing before the test, the less toll stress and exhaustion will take.

Luckily, there is something you can do to get a high score for writing.

The magic formula: 

– write a lot;

– write consistently;

– rewrite poorly written works;

– write with the assessment criteria in mind;

– get a good night’s sleep before the test.

The formula works wonders. Good writing scores are guaranteed!

PS: Many of the reasons stem from a faulty assumption that writing is just speaking on paper, so if one’s speaking skills are good, one’s writing skills are automatically good too. However, writing isn’t the same as speaking. It plays by its own rules and requires special training. Please give writing the attention it deserves.

 

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What kind of students do you find difficult?

In this post, I am answering my student’s question “What kind of students do you find difficult?”

A student once asked me, “What kind of students do you find difficult?” I couldn’t reply immediately, but this question lingered in my mind for months. In this post, I want to answer my student’s question.

First, I’ll give some context. I don’t teach at a state school or a university. I do in-company training and prepare students for international exams. My students take classes voluntarily because they use English at work or because they want to enrol in university programs taught in English.

For me, difficult students are people who:

  • don’t know what they want.

Some students come and say they want IELTS preparation. They don’t know anything about the test, but they think it’s a good idea to have the certificate. Sooner or later they realize they don’t really need it, so they decide they want to work with TED talks because they are sick and tired of coursebooks. But working with TED talks turns out to be harder than working with coursebooks, so they change their mind. They decide they want to focus on their writing skills. And then professional articles. And then something else. This juggling continues non-stop and produces no result (except for wearing me down).

  • don’t tell me what they want.

Some students are very secretive and superstitious about their needs, goals, and deadlines. They tell me they want to brush up on their English skills, but they don’t tell me what for because they are afraid to jinx it. This obscurity makes teaching hard because I don’t know what to focus on and for how long. Knowing the context and the time frames helps me choose the most appropriate methods and materials.

  • don’t trust me.

Some students don’t trust me as a teacher; they don’t do what I tell them and start teaching me how to teach them. But I know what I am doing. I know how to teach, what to teach, and in what order. I actually know several ways to teach. If something that works for most students doesn’t work for you, I will notice and change it. If you don’t get something right, I will see it and cover the topic again. If you struggle with a certain skill, I will make sure we practise it more. I have the learning process under control, and there is a purpose to everything I do.

  • don’t help me.

I am not omnipotent, I need help. The least students can do to help me is homework. But it’s not just that. It’s also watching movies, reading and many other things. Because having classes two times a week is not enough. Neither is following the coursebook. Find out more in my post “10,000 hours of English.

  • don’t want to get out of their comfort zone.

Examples of getting out of your comfort zone include but are not limited to using English-English dictionaries, explaining the word you need rather than saying it in Russian, speaking English with me at all times. Doing exercises that ask you to open the brackets or match the words with the definitions feels more comfortable, but let’s face, you are never ever going to do that in real life. If you are going to travel, work or study abroad, you will need to get real life skills. To get real life skills, you need to get out of your comfort zone. An English class is actually the most comfortable place to start doing it.

  • don’t want to work hard and hope for life hacks.

There are no life hacks, there is no magic, there is no perfect coursebook, app or teacher. There is hard work, day in, day out.

I have two questions for my readers:
1) If you are a teacher, what kind of students do you find difficult?
2) If you are a language learner, what kind of teachers do you find difficult?

Photo by Irina Lutsenko.
The photo features an art piece spotted in front of King John’s Castle in Limerick, Ireland.

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How to choose an IELTS school

In this post, I am giving practical tips on choosing an IELTS school.

Since I am an IELTS trainer myself, I sometimes make internet searches related to IELTS. As a result, I end up being bombarded with advertisements of IELTS schools, which I sometimes click out of curiosity. There are so many schools offering test preparation that potential test takers may find themselves at a loss as to which school to choose. In this post, I want to talk about what to pay attention to when browsing IELTS schools’ websites.

My recommendations are based on the analysis of IELTS schools in St Petersburg, Russia. I am not going to reveal the names of the schools.

1. Look for teachers’ profiles

Some websites have a lot of text about how good their school is, but no photos, names or bios of teachers. If I don’t see any profiles, I immediately get suspicious and can only come up with two explanations why: 1) The school doesn’t employ any teachers full-time and starts desperately looking for teachers as the clients come along; 2) The teachers the school employs have no bragging rights. The explanations aren’t soothing, are they?

To be fair, many schools do showcase teachers’ profiles. Literally all IELTS schools call their teachers ‘IELTS experts.’ To understand if they really are, try to find out the answers to these questions:
How much teaching and IELTS preparation experience does the teacher have? Have they taken IELTS themselves? Academic or General Training? How many times? When? What scores did they receive? Have they attended training courses on exam preparation?

In my opinion, no teaching experience, no qualifications and an IELTS score lower than 8.5 is a shaky ground.

2. Look at promises

Due to cut-throat competition, schools don’t even promise high scores, they guarantee* them. First, no one can guarantee you any score (not even the test center or you yourself). Second, you have to keep in mind that scores and English levels go hand in hand. Here is the truth. If your level of English is Intermediate (B1), it is impossible to get IELTS 7 after completing a two-month course even with the best school in the city. Impossible, seriously. And you will only get IELTS 8 if your level is already Advanced at the time of preparation. Improving your English level to IELTS 7 or 8 will take time and hard work. No school can work magic.

*When schools use the word “guarantee,” I get confused. I can’t wrap my head around how exactly they do that. Scores are impossible to guarantee. In fact, I’ll go out on a limb and recommend that you steer clear of schools that claim to guarantee scores.

3. Look through the content the school produces

Many schools have blogs or videos related to IELTS preparation. Do check them out. How much do they have to do with exam preparation? Are they meaningful? Are they helpful? Are they unique?

Some schools lure you in with headlines like, “How to crack IELTS.” But when you click them, you end up reading / watching about the structure of the test. You can find this material on the official website and in every IELTS book. Such material is not unique, nor does it live up to its headline. Some schools lure you with IELTS tips, but you end up reading / watching tips like, “Watch movies in English and pay attention to the language,” or “Improve your grammar” (well, duh!). While there is nothing wrong with the tips as such, they are not IELTS-specific. They are generally true for learning foreign languages.

Here are some examples of meaningful materials: assessment criteria analysis, tips on writing essay introductions or conclusions, reading strategies, explanation of the differences between formal and informal letters, explanation of the differences between essay types. Helpful materials have to be very specific, something you don’t already know, something that hasn’t been copied from the official website.

The content the school produces is an indicator of how knowledgeable and serious the school is.

4. Look out for free seminars

Many schools offer free seminars and hold open houses. Go. Meet the teachers, ask them the questions from #1, look at their soft skills, just see if you like the vibe you get.

5. Use common sense

Some schools try so hard to sound professional and outrun their competition that they write ridiculous things. I am not going to go in more detail publicly not to hurt anyone’s feelings, but message me if you want specific examples. So think twice, question what you read and use your good judgement.

To sum up, there are a lot of professional IELTS trainers and schools out there. And there are a lot of those which don’t really cut the mustard (and don’t necessarily realize it). Take all those promises and self-praise with a grain of salt. Do your research and ask questions. Hopefully, with this post making your choice will be easier. 

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8 more mistakes Russian learners of English often make

In this post, I keep correcting most common mistakes Russian learners of English make.

I didn’t initially plan to write a sequel to my post about common mistakes that Russian learners of English actually make, but the post proved extremely useful. Instead of explaining the mistakes over and over again, I simply gave my students the link and the number of the mistake they kept making. Seeing how well it worked, I’ve decided to put together one more list of common mistakes Russian learners make.

The root of all the mistakes below is the direct translation from Russian. Again, the list is based on my personal teaching experience. The order is almost random.

#1 Feel yourself good 

Feel good. If you think about it, isn’t ‘yourself’ redundant anyway? Of course, it’s yourself you are talking about, so you don’t need to say it. On top of that, ‘feel yourself’ actually means something you probably don’t want to say. Google it. Seriously, do.

#2 Weekends

Weekend, just one. If you are talking about your last or next weekend, a combination of two days Saturday and Sunday, it’s singular. For example, “My last weekend was entirely devoted to editing this post.”

#3 Nearest future

Near future. Just accept it. And I hope I won’t hear this mistake again in the near future. I actually hope I won’t hear it in the distant future either.

#4 In the street

Outside, outdoors. This is what ‘in the street’ means in Russian. In English, ‘in the street’ means ‘on the road in a city with building along it.’ So if you go jogging in parks or play football on open-air pitches, you do it outside / outdoors, not in the street.

#5 Variant

Option, choice, alternative. A variant is a different form of the same thing. For example, “Other variants of the game are known in other parts of Europe,” or “This is the American variant of this word.” But those 3 different things you are choosing from are options, choices or alternatives.

#6 Understood

Realized. You understand rules and people. But when you tell stories and share epiphanies, you realize things. For example, “… and then I realized I had left my phone in the office,” or “This was when I realized that something was wrong.”

#7 (In the) last time

Lately, recently. You haven’t talked to your best friend a lot lately. You’ve been chainwatching “The Big Bang Theory” recently. ‘Last time’ has a meaning of its own, which is ‘an occasion when you last did something.’ For example, “The last time I went to the cinema was in August,” or “When was the last time you watched a movie in English?”

#8 Do mistakes

Make mistakes. Yes, make mistakes. But do homework and do exercises. Certain words that are used together are called collocations. Collocations have to be memorized. There is no way around it. Make an effort and do your best to memorize them.

Mistake #8 is my student’s suggestion. He messaged me because he noticed somebody making mistake #5 in my previous post. He then noticed a mistake that he did made in his message, corrected it, and suggested adding it to my list. I thought it was a great idea. It is also a great conclusion to my post.

PS: It really and truly is OK to make mistakes, but it’s not OK to keep repeating them.

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Top 8 mistakes Russian learners of English actually make

In this post, I am correcting the most common mistakes Russian learners of English actually make.

Due to the nature of my job, every once in a while I stumble upon an article about N most common mistakes that learners of English make. I look at them and go, “Who makes these mistakes? Russians certainly don’t.” (For example, Russians don’t confuse your and you’re.) In this post, I want to talk about 8 common mistakes Russian learners actually make. These mistakes persist on different levels, but are not usually addressed in EFL course books.

The list is based on my personal teaching experience. The order is random.

#1 I with

I often ask students “What did you do at the weekend?” and what I hear is “I with my friends went to the cinema.” The right way to say something like this is “My friends and I went to the cinema,” or “I went to the cinema with my friends.” In English, the word order is “subject+verb” and prepositional phrases can’t go in the middle.

#2 How to say

When students don’t know how to say something, they ask me or murmur to themselves “How to say this?” The right ways to say this include, but are not limited to phrases like, “How do I say this? / How do I put this? / What’s the word for this? / What do you call this?” (“How do you call this?” is another common mistake, by the way.) ‘How to’ can be used in positive sentences like “I don’t know how to say this,” or “I will show you how to do it,” but not as a question.

#3 Meet this word

My students do a lot of independent work. They watch movies and read articles in English. When they want to share something new they learned, they say something like, “I met an interesting expression yesterday.” In English you meet people, not words. The right ways are “I came across / saw heard / learned an interesting expression.

#4 Deal 

When students didn’t their homework, they sometimes say they were busy and had a lot of deals. Business people make deals. The right way to say you were busy is “I had a lot of things to do,” or “I had to run some errands.” (“To run errands” is used to speak about small everyday jobs, like going grocery shopping or dropping by the bank to sort out some documents.)

#5 Look forward to

Yes, “I look forward to hear from you.” is wrong. Yes, you have to use the ‘-ing’ form after ‘to’ and say “I look forward to hearing from you.” No, it’s not an exception. The thing is, ‘to’ can be a particle before a verb (I want to go) or a preposition (go to Moscow). When ‘to’ is a particle, you have to use the infinitive, but when it is a preposition, you have to use the ‘-ing’ form. More examples of phrases with ‘to’ as a preposition: “I am used to getting up early”; “I devote a lot of time to writing my blog”; “We must commit to working hard.”

#6 I think no

When I ask questions like, “Do you think he’ll come to class?” or “Do you think paper books will disappear?” students often reply, “I think, no.” The right way to reply is “I don’t think so,” or “I don’t think he will.

#7 I am late. Late for 10 minutes.

There are two common mistakes that students make in text messages that they send me 10 minutes before class.

a) If you send a message “Irina, I’m sorry I am late,” 10 minutes before class, it’s wrong because you are technically not late yet. What you want to write is “I am going to be late,” or “I am running late.

b) Sometimes the message goes, “I am going to be late for 10 minutes.” Any preposition is wrong here and the right way is “I am going to be 10 minutes late.

Hm… something tells me that it was only Part 1. Stay tuned?

P.S. The poster “Ready to spring” used to hang in one of the offices I work in. I love it. What it says is so true. 

Photo credit: https://www.printcollection.com/products/ready-to-spring#.We4OieNuKUk

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How to choose a freelance language teacher

In this post, I am outlining the aspects you might want to pay attention to when looking for a freelance language teacher.

This is the time of year when many of you might be considering hiring language teachers for yourself or your children. It makes a lot of sense to cut out the middleman (a language school) and hire a freelance or a self-employed teacher directly. But if you decide to do that, you might find yourself browsing through tens of profiles a day and still unable to make a choice. In this post, I want to outline several aspects you might want to pay attention to when looking for a freelance language teacher.

Degree

A degree in teaching is not a 100% guarantee of good quality teaching, but it definitely helps. People who get a degree in language teaching do not only study the language in-depth, they also study teaching principles and methods. It is, of course, possible but less likely that a person with a degree in engineering will make a great language teacher. They might be a proficient or a native language speaker, but they simply might not know how to help you learn the language.

Experience

The more, the better. However, the experience must be relevant. The teacher who has worked in state schools for 10 years might not be the best match for a project manager who wants to be able to make presentations or negotiate in a foreign language. And vice a versa. The person might be an excellent teacher in their sphere, but might not be able to meet your needs.

Growth and development

This aspect boils down to questions like,

  • Has the teacher done anything related to language learning or teaching since they graduated?
  • Have they attended any teacher development courses?
  • Have they taken any international tests? When? What scores did they get?
  • Have they taken part in any teaching contests, projects, programs?

The more “yes” you get, the better.

Social media

It sounds like a cliché but social media profiles speak volumes. Do check them out. I can’t give any guidelines as to what constitutes an appropriate profile, so you have to go with your gut. Personally, I wouldn’t hire a teacher whose profile had countless shares of cooking recipes and nothing related to languages or teaching.

More

This aspect boils down to questions like,

  • Does the teacher produce anything related to teaching or languages (in any form)?
  • Does the teacher create their own handouts or exercises?
  • Does the teacher use videos, podcasts, newspapers articles to supplement the material in the book?
  • Does the teacher make videos? Does the teacher write a blog?

If the teacher doesn’t do any of the things above, it doesn’t necessarily mean they are a bad teacher. But if I was going to hire a language teacher, I would definitely look for one who does and wants to do more than just follow the coursebook.

Finally, after you’ve done your research, call, message or meet the teacher. The way the person interacts with you will help you make the final decision. 

I teach. That’s it from me.

Disclaimer 1. None of the aspects above guarantees anything, but some of them combined will give you an idea of what the teacher is like. 
Disclaimer 2. Sometimes, in rare cases, even if the teacher’s profile is perfect, things might not work out anyway. Because of a personality mismatch, because of the position of the stars or just because.

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Fulbright FLTA memories. Part 2. Translating Dovlatov back into Russian with my American students.

In this post, I am talking about using Dovlatov’s book to teach my American students.

What I want to share in this post was probably my favorite part of my teaching Russian as a foreign language experience, which was teaching language with the help of literature (or is it literature with the help of language?).

In the second semester, the Russian teacher at UNH, Daria Kirjanov, taught a course called, “Stories of Displaced Lives: Russian and Eastern European Memoirs of Exile.” As part of this course, the students of Russian were supposed to attend a language lab class, the purpose of which was reading some of the course materials in the original. I got my own language lab class with three beginner level students. The beauty part was I didn’t have a rigid program to follow and had the freedom to create my own materials.

Talking about Dovlatov in this kind of course was absolutely inevitable. But his works came later in the semester.

What we started from was Silver Age poetry. Since my students had only been learning Russian for 5 months, we started from the easiest and most obvious thing to do – reading and translating the poetry into English.

It went well, but at some point I got this nagging feeling that “variety is the spice of life.” I needed and wanted to vary my tasks. I thought long and hard. When we got to Dovlatov, it hit me, “Why don’t we reverse what we’ve been doing and translate literature from English back into Russian?”

I decided to work with Dovlatov’s “The Suitcase.” Firstly, because it suits the topic perfectly; secondly, because I found it online in both English and Russian; thirdly, because it is written in the past tense.

The past tense might be the single simple aspect of the overall complicated Russian grammar. There is only one past tense and all you have to do is change the ending of the infinitive. For example, жить – жил, работать – работал, ответить – ответил (masculine)It’s beautifully straightforward.

We only worked with the foreword as we didn’t have time for the whole piece. I cherry picked the portions I knew the students could handle and provided a glossary of the words they didn’t know. We then compared their translations with the original. You will find an example below and you are very welcome to give translating Dovlatov a shot too. (I have included the beginning to give you some context.)

Чемодан. The suitcase.
Foreword

So this bitch at OVIR says to me, “Everyone who leaves is allowed three suitcases. That’s the quota. A special regulation of the ministry.”
No point in arguing. But of course I argued. “Only three suitcases? What am I supposed to do with all my things?”
“Like what?”
“Like my collection of race cars.”
“Sell them,” the clerk said, without lifting her head.
Then, knitting her brows slightly, she added, “If you’re dissatisfied with something, write a complaint.”
“I’m satisfied,” I said.
After prison, everything satisfied me.
“Well, then, don’t make trouble…”
A week later I was packing. As it turned out, I needed just a single suitcase.
I almost wept with self-pity. After all, I was thirty-six years old. Had worked eighteen of them. I earned money, bought things with it. I owned a certain amount, it seemed to me. And still I only needed one suitcase – and of rather modest dimensions at that. Was I poor, then? How had that happened?
Books? Well, basically, I had banned books, which were not allowed through customs anyway. I had to give them out to my friends, along with my so-called archives.
Manuscripts? I had clandestinely sent them to the West a long time before.
Furniture? I had taken my desk to the second-hand store. The chairs were taken by the artist Chegin, who had been making do with crates. The rest I threw out.
And so I left the Soviet Union with one suitcase. It was plywood, covered with fabric and, had chrome reinforcements at the corners. The lock didn’t work; I had to wind clothes line around it.
Once I had taken it to Pioneer camp. It said in ink on the lid: “Junior group. Seryozha Dovlatov.” Next to it someone had amiably scratched: “Shithead”. The fabric was torn in several places. Inside, the lid was plastered with photographs: Rocky Marciano, Louis Armstrong, Joseph Brodsky, Gina Lollobrigida in a transparent outfit. The customs agent tried to tear Lollobrigida off with his nails. He succeeded only in scratching her. (1) But he didn’t touch Brodsky. He merely asked, “Who’s that?” I said he was a distant relative…
On May 16 I found myself in Italy. I stayed in the Hotel Dina in Rome. I shoved the suitcase under the bed.
I soon received fees from Russian journals. I bought blue sandals, flannel slacks and four linen shirts. I never opened the suitcase.
(2) Three months later I moved to the United States, to New York. First, I lived in the Hotel Rio. Then we stayed with friends in Flushing. Finally, I rented an apartment in a decent neighborhood. I put the suitcase in the back of the closet. I never undid the clothes line.

 

Glossary
(1)
Бродский, m., adj., Accusative, animate, the ending is –ого.
to touch = тронуть
to ask = спросить
merely = всего лишь
to reply = ответить
distant relative = дальний родственник
(2)
later = через (is written at the beginning of the sentence)
to move = перебраться
with friends = у друзей
finally = наконец
decent = приличный
to put (in a vertical position) = поставить
in the back = в дальний угол
The original
(1)
А Бродского не тронул. Всего лишь спросил — кто это? Я ответил, что дальний родственник…
(2)    

Через три месяца перебрался в Соединенные Штаты. В Нью-Йорк. Сначала жил в отеле “Рио”. Затем у друзей во Флашинге. Наконец, снял квартиру в приличном районе. Чемодан поставил в дальний угол стенного шкафа.


 

The students did a great job. Curiously, they made two types mistakes: writing everything in direct word order (subject+verb) and including every single pronoun in the sentence. For example, they wrote “Он не тронул Бродского.” for “А Бродского не тронул.” (At this point, I would like to remind you that these students had only started learning the language 5 months before.)

Thanks to this perfect combination of Daria’s course on immigrant writers, “The Suitcase” and the simplicity of the past tense in Russian, my beginner students could have a go at translating Dovlatov. How cool is that?! 

Special thanks:
I would like to thank Daria Kirjanov for giving me the language lab class and the freedom to teach it the way I saw fit.
I would also like to thank Alma Classics for the foreword in English and multiple resources for the whole book in Russian.  
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Fulbright FLTA memories. Part 1. Teaching Russian from scratch: my proudest achievement.

In this post, I am sharing my experience of teaching Russian as a foreign language.

I am a teacher of English as a foreign language, but last year, thanks to the Fulbright FLTA program, I got an incredible opportunity to teach Russian as a foreign language at the University of New Haven (CT, USA). In this post, I want to share a tiny portion of this experience.

When you win a Fulbright FLTA grant, you don’t get to choose your host institution or your duties there. The only thing you can do is accept or decline the grant offer (but why on earth would you do that?). I got an offer from the University of New Haven and happily accepted. According to my terms of appointment, I was going to be a primary teacher for beginner level students.

Truth be told, teaching beginners was the last thing I wanted to do. In my defense, I just didn’t know how rewarding it would be because I had never taught beginners in my entire life. Anyway, I went through with it and I don’t regret it for a minute.

When I say beginners, I mean absolute beginners – people who literally knew zero Russian. In the first semester, we worked on the basics, like the Cyrillic alphabet, pronunciation, noun cases and verb conjugation. The second semester was when I started doing what I enjoy most – develop my students’ speaking skills.

 We actually started working on speaking several weeks into the semester, but speaking basically went like this, “What is it? – It’s a cat.” or “Where do you live? – I live in West Haven.” These and similar questions were introduced in the course book we followed. Answering these questions, while admittedly necessary, wasn’t particularly exciting because the answers were so obvious and predictable. My aim was to engage the students in more natural, relevant, and meaningful conversations. In pursuing this aim, I discovered that Russian is an incredibly difficult language to learn. Just kidding. … I discovered that I could get by with very little grammar or vocabulary. And I didn’t need a lot of time either. My class started at 8 am. The time slot between 7:55 and 8:05 was enough.

Achieving my aim was simple. All I did was ask questions, consistently and relentlessly, five minutes before and after the beginning of every single class. That’s it. No more, no less.

We started from “Как дела?” (How are you?) which, fortunately, is a very simple question in Russian. The students already knew two ways to answer this question, “Хорошо.” (Good / Fine.) and “Отлично.” (Excellent.) because I had been using these words to comment on their performance since the very beginning of the school year.

Little by little, I added more questions and answers basing them on the material covered in the book but making them more relevant. For example, the book introduced the conjugation of “хотеть” (to want) and used such examples as “I want to study Russian. / I want to live in Moscow.” I thought to myself, “How relevant are these sentences if they are already studying Russian and have never been to Moscow?” and added the following to my morning QA session, “Do you want to sleep?” – “Yes, I want to sleep,” which sounds very relevant in the morning, doesn’t it?

As a result, my students could have a conversation that went something like this:

 1 Some phrases might sound awkward in English because I am giving direct translation. 
2 Some phrases might look complicated in English but aren’t in Russian due to differences in grammar. 

If you think about it, this is a conversation you might actually have with your friend at the beginning of the day. I went through these questions at the beginning of every class, so the students got used to them and answered effortlessly. And the beauty part is the students enjoyed the freedom to vary their answers depending on the circumstances of the day, which made the conversations truly meaningful.

I consider these short conversations to be my proudest achievement in teaching Russian in one year. Helping students get there from scratch gave me the satisfaction that advanced groups don’t.

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Verbs worth spreading or how I work with TED talks

In this post, I am showing how I bring powerful verbs to my students’ attention with the help of TED talks. The post includes an exercise you can try doing here and now.

I have inexplicably taken a special liking to verbs recently. What’s inexplicable is why recently. Verbs are a powerful part of speech and deserve special attention.

Verbs are one of the reasons why English is so easy to start speaking. I am talking about basic verbs, like do / get / have / make. You can often substitute any verb with one of these and construct a correct, meaningful sentence. However, as you move along in mastering the language, these verbs turn into an obstacle. Because you can express almost anything using the basic ones, your brain resists using any others. These are, after all, correct. As a result, you get trapped – you want to progress to the next level, but your language lacks any verbal variety whatsoever and sounds disappointingly simple.

But enough chit-chat. Let’s see some powerful verbs in action.

I work with TED talks a lot. I work with advanced students a lot. Here is what I started doing with both recently.

I choose a TED talk for my students, we watch and do the usual listening for gist / listening for detail stuff. But then I give them a portion of the talk with gaps and say, “Try to fill in the gaps from memory. All the missing words are verbs, by the way.” They remember the ideas so what happens is they come up with verbs that suit the sentences, but the verbs are ‘bland’, like do / get / have / make / give / say. We then listen to check and our jaw drops at the diverse verb choices the speakers go for. To make sure the verbs remain engraved on my students’ minds, I ask them to give me the main idea of the passage using the verbal phrases* from the talk. After a couple of such jaw-dropping exercises, my students are on the constant lookout for powerful verbs and even engineer them into their speech.

 Now you try. Here is a ted talk by Ben Cameron “Why the live arts matter.” He is talking about the changes that live arts are undergoing due to technological progress. First, listen to the talk to get some context. Then read the two portions of the text and think of verbs you would use in the gaps. (Alternatively, you can try to fill in the gaps without listening first). Then listen to compare.

Portion 1 6:23-7:18

This double impact is occasioning a massive redefinition of the cultural market, a time when anyone is a potential author. Frankly, what we’re seeing now in this environment is a massive time, when the entire world is changing as we move from a time when audience numbers are ____________. But the number of arts participants, people who write poetry, who sing songs, who perform in church choirs, is ____________ beyond our wildest imaginations. This group, others have called the “pro ams,” amateur artists doing work at a professional level. You see them on YouTube, in dance competitions, film festivals and more. They are radically ___________ our notions of the potential of an aesthetic vocabulary, while they are challenging and ___________ the cultural autonomy of our traditional institutions. Ultimately, we now live in a world defined not by consumption, but by participation.

Portion 2 10:37-12:15 

Especially now, as we all must confront the fallacy of a market-only orientation, uninformed by social conscience; we must seize and celebrate the power of the arts to ___________ our individual and national characters, and especially characters of the young people, who all too often, are subjected to bombardment of sensation, rather than digested experience. Ultimately, especially now in this world, where we live in a context of regressive and onerous immigration laws, in reality TV that ___________ on humiliation, and in a context of analysis, where the thing we hear most repeatedly, day-in, day-out in the United States, in every train station, every bus station, every plane station is, “Ladies and gentlemen, please ___________ any suspicious behavior or suspicious individuals to the authorities nearest you,” when all of these ways we are encouraged to __________ our fellow human being with hostility and fear and contempt and suspicion.

The arts, whatever they do, whenever they call us together, invite us to look at our fellow human being with generosity and curiosity. God knows, if we ever needed that capacity in human history, we need it now. You know, we’re bound together, not, I think by technology, entertainment and design, but by common cause. We work to _____________ healthy vibrant societies, to ____________ human suffering, to ____________ a more thoughtful, substantive, empathic world order.

How many verbs did you get right? Did you come up with some powerful verbs? Was your verb use diverse?

*I am focusing on verbs in this post, but verbs should be memorized as part of a phrase, in combination with a noun. I have highlighted the examples of such phrases in Ben Cameron’s talk.

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The phone that transformed the way I work

In this post, I am giving insights into how Blackberry PRIV has transformed the way I work.

I used to be very old-school. I used to own phones that could only make calls and send messages. I used to think that smartphones were just toys. That was until January 2017, when I got a new phone – a smartphone, which has completely transformed the way I work. Please give it up for my current phone – BlackBerry PRIV!

What has changed?

First and foremost, PRIV comes with a physical keyboard, thanks to which I have started writing consistently. The physical keyboard is so convenient that I can easily type long texts. I have never written so much in my entire life, even though I have a blog which dates back to May 2013. Writing used to to require a lot of discipline because I had to sit in front of the computer and focus. I now enjoy the freedom of writing in any place and at any time – on the metro (sitting at off-peak times or standing in the rush hour), at an airport (killing time waiting for my flight), on the plane (when there is absolutely nothing to do without internet connection), you name it.

Second, PRIV comes with Android OS, which means that all Google services are pre-installed and ready to use. As a result, I have started writing on Google Docs, which means everything I write on my phone is available on all my other devices and vice versa. Additionally, I collaborate with students on their writing on Google Docs. More often than not, I do it on my phone. I encourage my students to write a lot and they do. Collaborating with them on Google Docs saves me masses of time.

Third, PRIV and Google Docs allow me to create beautifully-formatted documents with portions of texts underlined, put in italics, highlighted, or changed in any way I need. Text formatting is of paramount importance for me because I create my own handouts for class on a regular basis. Let me give you an example of how I do it on my new phone. Say, I have a Ted talk in mind for my students. On the way to the office, I go to ted.com, copy the script, paste it into a Google Doc, type several listening-for-gist questions at the beginning, create a gap-fill exercise, type a wordlist, type several discussion questions at the end, and by the time I get to the office, I have a handout that is completely ready to be printed out.

Last but not least, PRIV is helping me to go paperless. I used to print out a ‘teacher’s copy’ of every handout I was using (a copy with all the answers, for my own use). I don’t any more. Most of ‘teacher’s copies’ are on my phone and I don’t have to carry around or store piles of paper.

I didn’t expect a smartphone to revolutionize the way I work. But there is no denying that it did. I absolutely love my Blackberry PRIV. It allows me to do more and be more.

 

Photos by Irina Lutsenko

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