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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What I do on Sunday mornings or Dasha’s Speaking Club

In this post, I am talking about how I prevent my speaking skills from going rusty.

With language, it’s use it or lose it. Language skills, speaking in particular, go rusty in a flash. Teachers are not an exception here; let’s face it, teachers’ speaking skills deteriorate too (for a variety reasons that I won’t go into now). Sitting around and complaining is a tempting, but counterproductive approach to solving this problem. In this post, I am going to talk about the solution my colleague and I came up with to stop our speaking skills from going rusty.

… It all started on a gloomy, hopeless, rainy November afternoon from Dasha’s message. The message went like this, “How about starting our very own speaking club? We could meet once a week (Skype, of course) and just talk about stuff. What do you say?” I jumped in excitement and immediately replied, “I’m in!” We discussed the possible time and scheduled a session for Sunday 10 am.

You are now probably wondering who the hell Dasha is. Dasha, officially known as Daria Maslovskaya, is this top-notch English teacher, author of the blog and website Anglofeel. We went to university together.

So, the speaking club…

Being experienced teachers, we knew full well that we needed a foundation and ‘just speaking’ wasn’t going to work. We went for Ted talks as these are topical and can easily spark lengthy discussions. Other materials will work too. (We are trying New Scientist today. We’ll see how that goes.)

We have gradually arrived at the following procedure, which has proven effective.

First, 2-3 days before the session, we give each other links to talks we find thought-provoking or insightful. As we watch the talks, we take notes of useful vocabulary or ideas we want to discuss. We then put our notes in a collaborative online doc. (I try to create topic word lists, which I write by hand first. I’m going to let you take a peek at one at the end of the post). As we discuss the talks, we do our best to use the words from our word lists. Vocabulary use is pretty much inevitable if you have the words right in front of your eyes and try to use them really hard. Each session lasts 1,5 hours, which is long enough to discuss 2 talks. At first, it was only two of us, Dasha and I, but we are occasionally joined by other people we went to university with.

And that’s it. It’s that simple. Granted, what I am describing now sounds old-school and unoriginal. But I’ll let you in on a little secret – the simplest methods that you put a lot of effort into work better than complicated methods that involve zero effort from you.

The initial purpose of the Speaking Club was to keep up our English level. Surprisingly, it turned into something more. It became a kind of support group. We discuss how to set and achieve goals, be more productive, develop new habits and things like that. We didn’t intend to at first, but these are the topics Ted talks deal with, we have no choice :). More importantly, we support each other in doing those things and hold each other to our intentions.

Can you do it, too? Absolutely! Contact your English-speaking friends, set the time (be strong, no cancellations!), decide on the resources and Godspeed!

Here is what my notes look like. This word list is based on the talk by Steven Johnson “Where good ideas come from” and deals with the topic of ideas.

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Academic IELTS 8 without a degree in linguistics. Part 2.

This is the second part of the guest post by my student Nadya Borisova. This time she is going to talk about Writing and Speaking, as well as share online IELTS preparation resources.

Part 2. Writing and Speaking. Resources.

In Part 1, I talked about my background, preparation time, reading and listening skills. Now I want to talk about the active sections, Writing and Speaking.

Writing

Here comes the tough one. Last time I got 7.0 for Writing. I used Irina’s help, and I can’t stress it enough, you need a look from another person to tell you what you do right and wrong.

In Task 1 the hardest thing for me was to decide what’s important and what’s not. I practiced a lot with Irina, and now I feel more comfortable with distinguishing meaningful information from the less important on the graph or pie chart.

The best tip I got for Task 2 is the way you brainstorm ideas. Sometimes I got a topic and I was stuck as I didn’t know what to say. IELTS essay questions are in a formal style, so I tried to think about my arguments and reasons academically, which is, of course, not easy. But then I read about “the cafe technique”. The point is, imagine yourself in a cafe with a friend talking about this topic. What are you going to tell them? I’m pretty sure, you’ll come up with a couple of ideas fast enough. Now the only thing left is to structure your ideas and write them down.

And here goes the most important part: planning. All teachers always say planning is a must. If you’ve made a plan, you’ve made the whole essay, and all you have to do is to write down your sentences. Some are afraid that if they waste five minutes on planning, they will not be able to finish the actual writing in the given time. You don’t need to worry about being late. Let’s count:

You are supposed to spend 40 minutes on Task 2 and write 250+ words. You also need to check your writing in the end. Say, you spend ten minutes on planning and five on checking. This leaves you with 25 minutes to write 250 words, which means you have one minute to write ten words, six seconds for each one. That’s a lot of time, really. Don’t take my word for it, just try to see how much time you need to write a sentence.

Speaking

I didn’t do very well in the first exam, I panicked and really couldn’t say a word, even though I practiced hard. The second time was easier, I got 7.5 for Speaking in 2016. Actually I think I could have got 8.0, but in the middle of Part 2, when I was talking about Andy Weir’s The Martian, I forgot the English word for “эксперименты”. Happens :).

The examiners are not your enemies, nor do they want to give you a lower score. Their job is to evaluate your performance, nothing more. So look at them as friends or neighbors you’re talking to on a sunny Sunday afternoon.

Speaking’s all about you, your passion and emotions. One of my friends got a topic about travelling. In Part 2 he was asked to talk about an auto or moto trip he had been on. And in real life he’s a hopeless motorcycle lover. Guess what? He got 8.0 for Speaking. I know that his grammar is not quite perfect, but I can imagine the passion he talked with.

And TED Talks again. You know, many times you get a topic like “climate change” and you have absolutely no idea what to say. Now, with TED Talks you can learn something new on topics that are common in IELTS in an easy way, because the info in talks is easy to digest, compared to reading an encyclopedia. For example, here is an inspiring talk by Al Gore on climate change.

Do you need to insert a phrasal verb, proverb or a fancy expression into every sentence you say? No. Definitely no. Your speech would sound unnatural, meaning you’re not actually able to command the language properly. If you want proof, go talk to your friend in a cafe and try to saturate your speech in your native language with proverbs and fancy expressions. The look on your friend’s face will tell you everything.

To sum up

Practice. Practice. And practice a little bit more. You can do tremendous work on your own. You probably don’t need help to prepare for Listening and Reading, but in Writing and Speaking you do. I suggest you have a teacher to help you with these two sections.

Top 5 free resources to prepare for IELTS

BBC radio — several online radio stations. And yes, they speak proper British English.

engvid.com — about 1,000 videos on how to take IELTS, how to master grammar and enlarge your vocabulary. My favorite teacher is Adam.

eslpod — podcasts brought to you from beautiful Los Angeles, California. The host explains new vocab as well as tells stories about american history and famous people.

TED Talks — short inspiring talks on various topics: culture, climate, equal rights, arts and everything else.

IELTS Advantage with Chris Pell — free lessons and paid classes from an experienced teacher.

That’s my IELTS journey. Please feel free to ask questions, if you have any, as I love sharing IELTS tips and can talk about the test for ages. You can contact me on VK or Facebook

This was a guest post from my student Nadya Borisova, which I think she did a tremendous job on! Kudos and thanks, Nadya!

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Living in an English-speaking country and your English level

In this post, I am explaining why living in an English-speaking country might not lead to fluency in English and what to do so that it does.

Why living in an English-speaking country doesn’t automatically improve your English level and how to make sure it does

First, I want to clarify a couple of things.

  • This post is about non-native speakers who go abroad for a longer period than an ordinary tourist trip, for example, to work or study.
  • This post serves to bust the myth that “Learning English in your home country isn’t effective anyway. As soon as I get to an English-speaking country, my English level will skyrocket in the blink of an eye.”
  • This post is based on personal experience of living in the USA for a year, so I am going to use English and Russian but the ideas are probably true for other languages and countries too.

So why doesn’t it?

– You are overwhelmed by the sheer volume of language you are exposed to. When you arrive, you are instantaneously immersed in English. You speak English to your colleagues, bus drivers, cashiers, and bankers. You read pages of contracts and manuals. You come across massive amounts of new language and familiar language used in unfamiliar ways. And you aren’t able to absorb all of it fast just because it’s too much. In the end, the more you learn in your home country, the less overwhelmed you are and the more new language you can absorb.

– Learning English is not your priority. Before you worry about the improvement of your English level, you worry about everyday things like, renting an apartment, getting settled at your job, setting up a bank account, buying health insurance etc. You are happy that you found an apartment, there is furniture in it and everything works. You sigh with relief and forget about learning all the new words you came across along the way. When you learn a language in your home country, on the other hand, you focus on it. Teachers and course books make you practice certain language material, which makes learning more effective.

– You keep using your native language regularly. Voluntarily. You speak Russian with your friends and family on Skype; you probably keep reading Russian news and watch Russian television; you find Russian speakers in your area and spend time with them. People underestimate how hard it is to speak a foreign language 24/7 and how stressful it is not to speak your native language. But now it’s possible – and very tempting – to be completely immersed in Russian even while living in an English-speaking country. I’d say this point is by far the largest obstacle on your way to significant improvement of your English level!

– Native speakers you are communicating with don’t correct your mistakes. Of course, they don’t. Error correction breaks the flow of the conversation and exchange of ideas. Your mistakes might remain mistakes.

– Language, just like everything else, doesn’t improve magically. You have to put effort into improving it regardless of whether you are in Russia or in the USA. You have to put effort into learning new vocabulary, you have to pay attention to the phrases people use in different social situations, you have to look after your grammar.

So how do you make sure it does?

– Keep your ears open and pay special attention to the way people speak. Otherwise you will keep speaking the way you have spoken before, which might not have been perfect.

– Take notes. Take notes of any new language you come across on your phone, laptop, and on paper. “I will remember this” is an illusion.

– If you find yourself being exposed to more Russian than English, go out and do stuff. Go to public lectures, workshops, on guided tours; join a club, join a group class at the gym; volunteer.

– If you find yourself spending all your time with Russians and speaking Russian, one thing you can do is make sure there is always at least one person with you who doesn’t speak Russian. It’ll stop you from speaking Russian even with Russians (speaking your native language in front of people who don’t speak it is extremely impolite). At the same time, it’s not weird (while speaking English with Russians for no other purpose than ‘for practice’ often is).

Be active and get out of your comfort zone. For example, if you are lost, ask a police office or a passer-by for directions rather than use a map on your phone. Using a map on your phone feels more comfortable, but is less beneficial to your speaking skills.

To conclude, of course living in an English-speaking country does help you to improve your English level. But it won’t work unless you do.

nothingwillwork2

http://www.designlovefest.com/2015/01/dress-your-tech-78/

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How public speaking is similar to essay writing

The world is full of opportunities to learn.

During the winter holiday, when I had a lot of free time, I discovered an incredible learning tool called MOOC, which stands for “massive open online course”. It turned out, to my surprise, that nowadays many leading universities offer their courses online free of charge. They do it on different platforms; the one I started from is edx.org.

In an amazing stroke of luck, the very first time I opened the “courses” page, the very first course I saw was Introduction to Public Speaking which, coincidentally, was to start in a week! I thought “Great! It never hurts to practice speaking!” and registered. I’m now glad I did! The course turned out to be excellent. It would take me a lot of time and effort to write about how useful the course was, so I’m not going to do it. Just take the course, I promise, you won’t regret it. There is, however, one task we did which I simply have to tell you about.

In this course we studied and prepared different types of speeches – Introductory, Impromptu, Informative,Persuasive. All of them fascinating and useful, but the most valuable one for those who are preparing for international exams is the impromptu speech.

Impromptu means “not planned or prepared”. So the impromptu speech is a type of speech you must be able to make without preparing beforehand. And the goal the teacher set for us went like this “My main goal for this speech is that you are able to quickly arrange and deliver a clear and well-supported argument. Your speech must be clear, which requires you to include previews, reviews, and transitions. Your speech needs to have, at its heart, a well-organized and solid argument.” What’s so special about this goal? Well, the thing is, it is almost word-for-word one of the assessment criteria for essays in all international exams!

Now look at the structure of the impromptu speech

What does it look like? Correct. It looks like an essay structure.
Or, in more detail:

Introduction

State your thesis

Preview of your main points

First main point

Statement of your first main point

Provide and explain two pieces of support illustrating the first main point

Conclude your first main point

Second main point

Statement of your second main point

Provide and explain two pieces of support illustrating the second main point

Conclude your second main point

Conclusion

Restate the your thesis statement and review your two main points

Conclude your speech

This structure helps you to quickly and spontaneously generate and express your ideas in a way that makes it easy for the listener / reader (for example, the examiner) to understand what you are trying to get across and why. Of course, you can change this structure a little and adapt it to your needs and time frame, but on the whole, it’s a great foundation not only for a speech, but also for an essay.

On top of all that, the instructor – Matt McGarrity – is outstanding! If you ever see this MOOC on any platform, register immediately!

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