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 1.

I am thrilled to present a guest post by my student Nadezhda Borisova, in which she shares her IELTS journey to Band Score 8 (Academic). In the first part, she is going to talk about her background, preparation time, listening and reading skills.

Part 1. Background and Preparation time. Listening and Reading.

Hi there, my name is Nadya Borisova, and I’d like to share my experience in getting 8.0 in IELTS Academic as well as my list of top-5 resources for preparation. My first attempt was in 2014, with the second one following two years later.

My background

Two years ago I worked as an IT recruiter, now I’m a copywriter. I don’t have a university degree in languages, nor did I go to the school focused on English language. I went to an ordinary school with two hours of English a week. Most of the learning after that, I did on my own.

I took my first exam not because I needed a certain band score to enrol to a university. I just wanted a clear understanding of my level. I wanted to know exactly where I was. So I tried a mock IELTS test with no preparation at all, got Overall 5.0, and decided to get better results in a real one.

Preparation time

I think setting a clear deadline is crucial. You can prepare for an exam forever, but you need the result by some point in time, right?

I personally gave myself three months to prepare both times. For me it’s ideal timing. More makes me lazy, every day I think, “I still have a lot of time, I’ll start tomorrow”. Less, I may not have enough time to actually improve my scores significantly. For you timing might work differently, but still, I suggest you give yourself enough time and set the exact test date. Booking your place in advance might be a good idea.

You have to keep in mind that you cannot achieve overnight success in learning a language. Like in a gym, you have to grow your language muscles by working out every day. The process is not easy, nor is it quick. There’s no magic, only hard work… and a little bit of luck at the test. A significant part of your score is how familiar you are with the test, how well you know the techniques and approaches. But hey, IELTS is a language test after all!

Listening

I got 9.0 for Listening last time, and to be honest, I was surprised. I knew I was good at listening, but I thought I actually made a couple of mistakes.

There are lots of online radio stations and podcasts available that are helpful in IELTS prep. I listened to BBC Radio. Tried CNN, but didn’t really like it. I also listened to TED Talks, and I must say that gave me a huge improvement. Not only did I learn to understand different accents from all over the world, but I also got lots of valuable information for speaking topics.

One more tip is to learn to move on if you missed some answer. This is a must. You missed an answer — go ahead.

Lastly, don’t be surprised or distracted if you’ve answered the last question in the section and the recording still goes on. Such situations are common, so nothing to worry about. Focus on the next task instead of trying to find where you’ve done something wrong. Remember, you’re on a tight schedule.

Reading

One more 9.0, which was not a surprise for me. I like to read, and by the time of the exam I was reading in English just as easily as in Russian. So I can advise reading books you like, no matter what genre. Every time I needed to learn something, say, related to my work, I opened Wikipedia and — yes! — read this article in English.

A good idea is to learn how to scan a text for dates, names and other keywords, which makes some questions really easy to answer and gives you more time to focus on harder ones.

Finally, a small thing which is not related to the language knowledge at all, but which improved my scores in Listening and Reading significantly. I often made mistakes while transferring answers from the question booklet to the answer sheet. Even when I circled answer B in the booklet, somehow in my answer sheet I put C or D. So I started not only to circle the right answer, but actually write down the letter in the booklet near the question. Believe it or not, this improved my mark at least by 0.5.

To sum up

You can prepare for Listening and Reading on your own. Truth is, you need to work hard. You need to surround yourself with English, which will help you to get high marks in Listening and Reading sections. You can prepare for free as there are lots of online resources.

Stay tuned for Part 2, where Nadya is going to talk about Speaking and Writing.

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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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The benefits of being a Fulbrighter

In this post, I am elaborating on what makes participating in Fulbright FLTA program an experience of a lifetime.

The benefits of being a Fulbrighter (based on personal experience)

The benefits of participating in Fulbright FLTA program are numerous and I am only giving a small portion here. (If you need some background on my participation in the program, read this and this.) Here goes:

– You meet lots of great people.

Before you even leave for the USA, you meet your fellow FLTAs from your own country. Applicants go through a rigorous selection process, so the ones that do get selected are intelligent, creative, enthusiastic, and a lot of fun. Then you meet your fellow FLTAs from all over the world. Again, you meet intelligent, creative, enthusiastic, and fun people, but this time there is an added benefit of meeting people from other cultures (around 50 countries all told). You get a chance to see these people dance national dances, wear national clothes, and try authentic home-cooked national foods. The experience just opens your eyes to how fascinating and diverse the world is.

– You get first-hand experience of American education from two perspectives: as a teacher and as a student.

I did all the mundane things students do – I took notes in classes, did homework, wrote quizzes, sat exams, worried about my grades, checking blackboard 3 times a day, just like an average American student.

At the same time, I did all the mundane things teachers do – I graded homework, assessed exams, filled in online attendance after every class and so on. Fortunately, I got a lot of guidance and support from Professor Daria Kirjanov, who not only shared all her materials with me, but also gave me insights into what to expect from students and how to deal with any issues that arose.

– You get first-hand experience of American life.

Let me give you just some examples of things I got first-hand experience of. In the USA, everything is well-organized and made convenient for people. Everything starts and finishes exactly on time. Mass transit is not very well-developed (at least compared to Russia) because people don’t need it because they go everywhere by cars. When you get on the bus, you have to have exact change because tickets machines or drivers don’t give change. You get a grocery store discount even if you don’t have the store card. People hold doors and give up their places in lines for you. Everyone, regardless of age, race, gender, sexual orientation, or disabilities, is included and respected.

– You improve your English skills significantly.

First and foremost, living in an English-speaking country for a year definitely boosts your fluency and breaks down the speaking barrier that most learners of English have even if they have been learning English for 10 years. Additionally, you learn real-life and natural language that you don’t always find in books. I don’t think any book I’ve ever used to learn or teach English introduced the phrase Have a good one! (which means “Have a nice day” or simply “Bye”). Or, Are you all set? (which means something like “Do you need anything?” or “Can I help you?”). Or, I’m good. (which means, “I don’t need anything, thank you.”). All these phrases are ubiquitous in the USA, yet they aren’t usually taught in books.

– You develop professionally in the direction you like without the pressure of completing a degree or graduating.

 Since I write a blog, I wanted to improve my writing skills and took “Speaking and Writing for Professionals” and “Introduction to Creative Writing”. Since I was not very confident about my speaking skills, I decided to step out of my comfort zone and take “Introduction to Public Speaking and Group Discussion”. And I did it just for me, just because I wanted to.


– You can travel the country more cheaply and effectively.

Fulbrighters are scattered all over the country. So when you travel, you can stay at their places saving money on hotels and time on researching what to see in the area. I might never have visited Oregon, if it wasn’t for an FLTA there.

– This is just my personal benefit: I did everything I had on my bucket list during my Fulbright year!

There were only two things though: 1. See whales (which I did on both the Atlantic and the Pacific Ocean!); 2. See Mayan pyramids (which I did because a fellow FLTA suggested going to Mexico during the winter break!).

To cut a long story short, there are myriads of benefits of being a Fulbright FLTA on many levels, definitely more than I’ve described. Feel free to expand my list in the comments!

Lutsenko_benefits

Some of my Fulbright memories. 
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10,000 hours of English

Being a teacher of English, I deal with piles of course books on a daily basis. The course books are really engaging these days (hats off to the authors!) and I inevitably draw a lot of inspiration from them. Sometimes a single sentence can start a long train of thought. In this post, I want to give you an example of one such train.

Lesson 9A in English File Intermediate (Third Edition) centers around the topic of luck. In this lesson the students read a text called ‘A question of luck?’ which explains why certain people become extraordinarily successful and what factors contribute to their success. Have a look at the final paragraph of the text:

I don’t know about the specific number – 10,000 hours – but the theory makes a lot of sense for language learning.

When deciding to embark on a wonderful journey of learning English, many students pin their hopes on the teacher (after all, it’s a qualified and experienced professional) and the course book (after all, it was written by a team of qualified and experienced professionals). Unfortunately, just going to classes and following a course book is not enough. You do need to put in a lot of extra hours to become a successful language learner.

(Oh, don’t give me the old excuse of having very little free time. It’s lame. And you know it.)

I now want to talk about how you can (and should) effortlessly increase the amount of time you spend on English.

We’ll need to do a little math here. Let’s say you have English classes 2 times a week and each class is 1,5 hours long. That’s 3 hours of English a week. If you don’t do anything else – that’s just 3 for you. However, you can (and should) do the following:

  • Do your homework. That’s at least 1 hour per week. I love giving my students ‘enormous’ (in their words) homework. That’s at least 1-2 hours more. Add: 3 hours.

When I say 1 hour, I mean doing the bare minimum – your workbook exercises. The ‘enormous’ homework I give usually involves learning things by heart, retelling, preparing talks and/or writing.

  • Start your day with a TED talk. These are short – 15 minutes on average, which gives you around 2 hours more per week if you start every day from listening to a TED talk. Add: 2 hours. 

TED talks are great, I love them. They are short, professional and there are a myriad of them on any topic. All of them are downloadable and are accompanied by an interactive transcript. I share links to my favorite talks on my social media profiles: facebookgoogle+ and vk

  • Read or listen to something in English on your way to work / school. Read a book if you go by metro or listen to an audio book if you go by car. Optimistically speaking, your way to work takes 30 minutes, multiply it by 2 and then by 5. Add: 5 hours. 

At this point you might be itching to say that reading books in English is hard. But you are in luck – it doesn’t have to be! There are literary hundreds of abridged books for all levels – from Beginner to Advanced. All major publishers of educational materials for ELT have such series – MacmillanOxford, Longman. All of these books are accompanied by CDs. You see, reading in English can be easy and enjoyable. 

  • Watch a series and/or a film in English. Most episodes of most series are only 20 minutes long, but let’s say you pause from time to time to check vocabulary, so it’s 30 minutes. One episode each day multiplied by 5 working days gives you 2,5 hours. At the weekend, watch a film. Add: 4,5 hours. 

Again, if you are itching to say that watching films in the original is challenging, I have a couple of counter-arguments at hand. First off, most films and series show everyday life and are therefore quite simple. If they are not, start from watching them with subtitles (English, of course) and move on to switching them off later. Or, watch something you’ve already seen in your own language. This way you won’t have to focus on understanding what’s happening and will be able to concentrate on the language. 

  • Do a little extra speaking. Find an English-speaking partner online, speak to your friends, join a Speaking Club. Add:1,5 hours.

There are plenty of websites that give you an opportunity to find teachers and learners of English from all over the world. Some of my students allocate time to speaking English with their friends just for extra practice. As for Speaking Clubs, finding one to join won’t be a problem as most language schools have them nowadays. 

  • Let’s throw in an additional hour for times when you check some vocabulary and/or make notes. Add: 1 hour.

Let’s add all the hours now, shall we? 17 additional hours of English! Plus 3 hours of classes with a teacher. Combined, they total 20 hours of English a week!

It is overwhelmingly obvious that students who put in 20 hours of English a week will be more successful than those who put in just 3. The extra hours – tens turning into hundreds, hundreds turning into thousands – work wonders!

This concludes my train of thought. I hope you inevitably drew some inspiration from it!

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