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Steven Pinker on why academic writing stinks

Posted by Anne on October 20th, 2014

Most peer-reviewed scientific writing commits four sins, says Steven Pinker (link to talk at Harvard University, Steven Pinker: Stylish Academic Writing, May 20, 2013):

  1. It discusses what scientists do, rather than the phenomenon of interest
  2. It is weighed down by unnecessary meta-discourse, i.e. sign-posts (We have just… Next,… But first…)
  3. It indulges in excessive apologising (extremely complex…, It is difficult to… more research needs to be done)
  4. It engages in compulsive hedging (somewhat, fairly, predominantly…, to a certain degree)

He explains that this terrible language is the result of an inherent  mismatch between ordinary thinking and speaking and what we have to do as academics. He sees three principles at work:

  1. Your inner primate:
    The mind is concrete, abstraction requires a laborious process. You perceive and understand the world, then make an abstraction, then reverse engineer the abstraction into a metaphor. I.e. your mind has processed and chunked your thinking.  You then label that chunk into an abstraction.
  2. The curse of knowledge:
    You have learned something and can no longer imagine what it was like not to know it. You forget your own history of chunking
  3. The difference  between naive Realism and Postmodernist self-consciousness:
    Writing is an ‘unnatural’ form of communication, since the audience is unknown, differs in time and space, and has not experienced what you have. Especially to graduate students, the peer group seems to know everything, so it’s hard to gauge how much knowledge your reader has.
    Pinker refers to Francis-No’el Thomas and Mark Turner and their book Clear and Simple as the Truth: Writing Classic Prose (Second Edition 2011). The authors propose ‘classic prose’ as a tacit model of the prose communication process to aspire to, aiming for joint attention between the writer and the reader as the writer guides the reader to something in the world that the reader can see with his or her own eyes, using conversation.
    Pinker says there are several assumptions at work in the classic prose model:
    1. truth can be known
    2. prose is a window into an objectively existing world
    3. thought precedes writing
    4. thoughts are concrete images so the writer can get someone else to see something that is objectively out there. These assumptions denote naive realism, which is incompatible with the stance required by science: relativism, self-consciousness and irony.
    Pinker’s recommendation to overcome the conflict is not to continue to use the language of science, but to adopt the classic prose model to create good, readable texts. He says, keep your stance, but write as if what you are saying is in fact true, and let the reader fill in the hedges, apologies and find his/her way without (too many) sign-posts.

Pinker has recently published a very useful style guide: Pinker, S. (2014). The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century. New York: Penguin.

Let’s Talk Business workshop

Posted by Anne on October 12th, 2014

It was a good challenge to give a workshop on B1-C1 books to teachers whose mainstay are A1-2 learners. The teachers were great, and jumped into things.

It was very interesting to me to listen to the teachers talk about the unwillingness of their students to go along with activities, even to make the effort of getting up and walking around the room to change partners. I remember that well from my own classes at the VHS. I think the key is to introduce a certain culture in your classroom that feeds back to learners how they are actually making progress as a result of their increased efforts. We discussed writing reflections in class as a free writing activity, and I think that can be used very productively to get students to start thinking about what they are actually doing in class.

We did 4 activities that let them walk in their students’ shoes in terms of feeling what such activities are like. This is something I learned from Rolf Tynan at his dictogloss workshop for MELTA back in 2009. Jo Westcomb wrote it up in her great teacher’s column in Spotlight Online. His trick was to use a level of English in the dictogloss that was a bit challenging for us, too, and that was what I did yesterday, using a dialogue and playing it from a recording. I actually think we need to do that sort of thing more often, to better appreciate the effort our students are making, and to get a sense for what type of effort is actually worthwhile.

We discussed building memory as an integral part of language learning, and how to get learners to work harder by going from dictation to grammar dictation aka dictogloss, and going from role-play with a set of instructions to reading a description of a scenario, and relating that scenario to others in the first person without referring back to the text.

I recommended Nick Bilbrough’s wonderful resource book, Memory Activities for Language Learning, as well as Gillian Porter Ladousse’s classic Role Play Resource Book for Teachers.

Here’s the blurb for the event:

11 October 2014
Informationszentrum der Cornelsen Schulverlage, Friedrichstr. 149, 10117 Berlin
Let’s talk business – Building speaking and business skills from B1 to C1
These days even at lower language levels, our learners are expected to think on their feet and show skills in typical business situations. How can we get them a) to use the language of the workplace in the classroom setting, and as they progress, b) to think through how well they are communicating and where they can make improvements?
In part one of this Cornelsen Business English Day we’ll go through the approach taken and the role-plays and simulations developed in the Basis for Business series, which get learners to use the language they need at work in class. We’ll discuss the pros and cons of building on the units as input to create more personalized tasks, and present/practice numerous ways to personalize the material.
As learners progress to the higher language levels, they will be expected to handle more complex business situations. We will look at the language they need based on research into the real language of meetings, and explore communication frameworks recommended for difficult conversations. In part two of the Cornelsen Business English Day this will form the basis of simulations for C1 learners that will help them become more spontaneous in English. Trying these out in groups, we will look at each situation and the language that would be appropriate in it, and pool ideas on how to model the language and give related feedback.
Anne Hodgson, anne.hodgson@t-online.de

Basis for Business wins bronze in secondary school /adult education materials at the Best BeBELMA 2014

Basis for Business wins bronze in secondary school materials at the Best European Learning Materials Awards (BELMA) 2014

Today at the Frankfurt Book Fair the Basis for Business series was awarded a bronze medal in the annual Best European Learning Materials Award (BELMA) competition.
We’re delighted the series has received this international recognition and would like to take the opportunity to thank you all once again for your excellent contributions to this highly successful coursebook series. We look forward to meeting as many of you as possible at BESIG in Bonn this November.
Best wishes from Berlin,
Sinéad Butler
Programm- und Marketingmanager Englisch in der Erwachsenenbildung”

The evaluation criteria make my heart sing.

Mike Hogan started this series so well, and then he and Carole Eilertson teamed up for B1 and B2. I did much of the writing for C1, and then there were all the great advisors and Janan Barksdale, the wonderful editor who held things together from B1 on. Overall, Cornelsen and the team did a great job. It’s a privilege to be part of this winning team.

I’ll be doing a 2-part workshop for Cornelsen here in Berlin on Saturday. Over 40 people have signed up for an activity-and-reflection-packed day:

Let’s talk business – Building speaking and business skills from B1 to C1

These days even at lower language levels, our learners are expected to think on their feet and show skills in typical business situations. How can we get them a) to use the language of the workplace in the classroom setting, and as they progress, b) to think through how well they are communicating and where they can make improvements?
In part one of this Cornelsen Business English Day we’ll go through the approach taken and the role-plays and simulations developed in the Basis for Business series, which get learners to use the language they need at work in class. We’ll discuss the pros and cons of building on the units as input to create more personalized tasks, and present/practice numerous ways to personalize the material.

As learners progress to the higher language levels, they will be expected to handle more complex business situations. We will look at the language they need based on research into the real language of meetings, and explore communication frameworks recommended for difficult conversations. In part two of the Cornelsen Business English Day this will form the basis of simulations for C1 learners that will help them become more spontaneous in English. Trying these out in groups, we will look at each situation and the language that would be appropriate in it, and pool ideas on how to model the language and give related feedback.

Location:
Informationszentrum der Cornelsen Schulverlage
Friedrichstr. 149
10117 Berlin

Schedule:
10:00 Welcoming with tea & coffee
10:30-12:30 Let’s talk business – Part 1
12:30-13:15 Lunch-break
13:15-14:45 Let’s talk business – Part 2
15:00 Farewell

PowerPot – An English lesson for e-lab technicians

Posted by Anne on October 6th, 2014

Imagine that you’re on a camping trip out in the wild, far away from buildings with power socket. You can’t connect any equipment to the power supply. Your mobile phone needs recharging. Luckily, you and your friends have invented a device that will let you recharge it. What technology is it based on? What spare parts do you carry with you?

Guess what, such a device has been invented. Watch this video, and answer:

  1. What technology is it based on?
  2. What components is it made of?
  3. How does it work?
  4. What devices does it provide power for?
  5. What problems did the inventors have to overcome?
  6. Which users and what markets do the inventors want to reach?
  7. Is there more than one model? What for?
  8. Kickstarter is a crowd-funding platform. Did this invention get funding? Check the website.
  9. Find out at least one more fact about this invention by googling ‘PowerPot’.
  10. Would you buy one? Why or why not?


Read along in the transcript and do language exercises in the pdf worksheet after the break below:

Read the rest of this entry »

Heute fragte mich Ewa, wie ihr Sohn sein schriftliches Englisch verbessern könnte. Nun, man braucht Motivation und Praxis. Gut Schreiben lernt man jedenfalls, indem man mit Engagement schreibt, und dann von einem interessierten Leser Feedback bekommt. Hier sind für den Anfang schon mal zehn Tipps:

  1. Fang an zu lesen. Suche eine Muse, eine Inspiration, einen Schriftsteller, der packend über das, was Dich interessiert, schreibt. Surfe und suche Artikel, die Dich interessieren. Lasse Dich auf das geschriebene Wort ein. Fine Texte zum gleichen Thema, und vergleiche sie: Welcher gefällt Dir besser, und warum? Laß Bilder und Filme im Kopf entstehen.
  2. Fang an, jeden Tag auf Englisch zu schreiben. Keine Angst vor dem leeren Papier/ der leeren Datei/ dem leeren Blog. Mache daraus ein Ritual, wie Sport oder Essen. Variiere die Umstände, unter denen Du schreibst, bis Du Dich wohlfühlst und alles passt.
  3. Schreib 10 Minuten lang drauf los. Egal was. Der Text soll fließen. Wenn Du nicht weißt, worüber, schreibst Du, “I don’t know what to write about, but Anne said I have to write for 10 minutes, so here I am, …” und scheib einfach weiter. Aufhören darfst Du nicht. Denk nicht darüber nach, ob etwas korrekt ist oder besonders schlau klingt oder ob Dein Stil gut ist. Durchgelesen wird später. Selbst wenn Du meinst, Du müsstest eigentlich Material und Ideen sammeln bevor Du loslegst, laß Dich nicht ablenken, bau Dir erst einmal ein lockeres Gerüst aus Gedanken auf Papier.
  4. Lese das, was Du geschrieben hast, Dir selbst laut vor. Du kannst es auch aufnehmen. Indem Du das, was Du schreibst, genau anhörst, wird es im Laufe der Zeit authentischer. Es gibt zwar auch auf Englisch deutliche Unterschiede zwischen dem geschriebenen und dem gesprochenen Wort, aber wenn Du einen guten schriftlichen Stil anstrebst, dann sollte der Text inhaltlich klar gegliedert und damit einfach zu verstehen sein.
  5. Mach aus dem Schreiben ein Spiel. Suche z.B. 3-5 Wörter, die in Deinem Text vorkommen sollen. Schreibe sie auf, und schaue im Laufe des Tages öfters drauf. Wenn Du abends dann schreibst, benutze sie. Oder schreibe nach dem Alphabet jeden Tag über etwas, das Dich beschäftigt: Airport, B…, C… Das Spiel lebt von den Regeln, die Deinen Handlungsspiel einschränken und Dir somit Kreativität abverlangen.
  6. Probiere Webseiten aus, in denen Leute gemeinsam Texte produzieren, z.B. http://foldingstory.com/ – oder wo es fertige interaktive Geschichten gibt, die Du dann selbst ebenfalls schreiben kannst, wie https://writer.inklestudios.com/
  7. Im Englischen gibt es standardisierte klassische Modelle für Aufsätze. Suche nach “Essay writing”, und Du findest z.B.
  8. Grammatik:
    Erklärungen auf Deutsch gibt es auf http://www.ego4u.de/
    Eine Seite für Sprachliebhaber: http://www.quickanddirtytips.com/grammar-girl
  9. Es gibt Systeme, die Dich unterstützen können, wie der Online Grammatik Checker Grammarly: Dieses Programm findet alle möglichen Problemstellen in Deinem Text – auch dort, wo es keine Fehler gibt, aber wo die Syntax leicht zu Fehlern führen könnte. Kopiere Deinen Text hinein und lese das Feedback sorgfältig durch. Es erstetzt nicht das Gespräch mit jemandem, der Dir persönliches Feedback gibt, aber es kann es im Vorfeld entlasten.
  10. Style guides sind sehr hilfreich. Hier eine Reihe nützlicher Links:

The IATEFL BESIG Summer Symposium was a wonderfully intimate event with a wide range of excellent presentations. On Friday, Evan Frendo provided the excellent keynote, Exploring business English. He’s got a clear vision that is enormously helpful to anyone working in the field. Then I went to Simona Petrescu’s presentation on how to create a customized syllabus (see her blog, Enterprise English).  Her key message was that you need to base the curriculum on a very specific needs analysis of the communication situations all along the standard flow of work processes, and working through these in their logical sequence. Pete Rutherford presented his work in process in developing a competency radar chart (=spidergram) to supplement the CEFR, an interesting suggestion including a range of communicative competencies in addition to linguistic competency. I presented on day 2, and then heard a number of talks including Paul Walsh’s on Decentralized Teaching and Clarice Chan’s on What we can learn from interaction in learner roleplays, which I’ll review separately.

In my talk I introduced the concept behind Basis for Business C1, I explained that the book is rooted in my reflective teaching approach of reconstructing the communicative situations my  clients experience at the workplace in class, discussing these with both them and my business mentors, and applying research on discourse and culture to work on better ways of handling those specific situations.  The presentation is here.

Thanks to ELTpics for the great photos!

Speaking on behalf of the publisher, Cornelsen, I suggested 4 activities to personalize topics, language, communication skills and business skills in any intermediate or advanced coursebook:

1. Topical personalization: Freewriting reviews

In the first lesson with a new book, use a free-writing activity to get ideas flowing and agree on how to use the book.

Have students to write 3 headings a sheet of paper:

  • An article about…
  • A picture of…
  • Something about…

(This activity and the headings were suggested by Jo Westcombe here in her column, Try it Out)

Give them a few minutes to browse the book. Then ask them to write down under the 3 headings what they found. Encourage them to note down anything that comes to mind, and keep writing. Full sentences and accuracy are not important.

Put them in pairs to share what they’ve written. Encourage them to explain to their partners how what they saw relates to their experience. Then have the pairs look through the book together.

Use to lead into a group discussion on how you will use the book in class. Those selecting a particular topic or skill could be engaged to chair that particular lesson and provide additional materials from their workplace, field, or area of interest.

2. Linguistic personalization: Dictogloss (“grammar dictation”)

Learners reconstruct a dictated text in a grammatically acceptable form. Initially the learners work individually to take notes. They then get together in small groups to pool their ideas and work towards a final version. Texts can be up to ca. 12 sentences, and should be challenging. In Basis for Business C1, “Outside view” will work well, but you can easily use materials supplied by your learners,  i.e. short business reports, press releases, involved business emails, presentation scripts… any genre you want them to notice the linguistic details of.

Read the text once at normal speed. Students listen. Then read the text again and have learners take notes on key words and phrases. Recommend leaving room between words and lines to be able extend their notes. Pause very briefly after each sentence.

Put them in groups of about 4 to reconstruct a grammatically correct version of the text containing the same information.

Follow up with feedback, comparing the group versions with the original.

In the Basis for Business C1 Teachers Book, Andreas Grundtvig’s worksheet 5 “Don’t let it escape your notice” is a listening dictogloss to help students identify relevant language and adapt structures for their own purposes that uses a visual organizer to compile smaller units of language.

3. Communication skills personalization: Listening trios

This activity practices all skills, but especially listening, and encourages collaboration and learner autonomy. The aim is to produce a 3 sentence written summary of three separate texts.

Take three short texts – A, B, C. You could take an article in the book, e.g. Unit 7C on Nutella, and 2 similar new articles by bloggers e.g.  something by Seth Godin or Daniel Pink on trends in social media marketing, and a short article on social media overload). Make one copy of one of the textx per student. Make three groups, A, B and C. Give the A texts to the A group, and so on. Give the students a few minutes to read their text, and to check understanding in their group. Everyone needs to fully understand their text. Then divide the large groups into groups of three containing an A, B and C student. Have the students share the information in their texts with each other. Student A  reports on the content of his or her text. Student B listens and will write the summary. He or she asks any necessary questions. Student C monitors to make sure English is used and they are on task. After a few minutes, ask the Bs to make notes on what they have heard. Repeat the steps for the second round: student C tells the story, A listens and B monitors. Once the three rounds are completed and notes have been compiled, the groups polish each of the summaries collaboratively to produce three sentence summaries.

Compare the summaries by pinning As, Bs and Cs in groups.

4. Business skills personalization: Storytelling

In Basis for Business, business skills (e.g. SWOT analysis, report writing, performance review…) are connected to the business content of any given unit, often featuring in Part C. For example, in Unit 5, stories loom large, suggesting ways of using them in their own business context. Storytelling as a business skills introduced in Part A in a presentation recounting the rise and fall of a company in hindsight – listening, accompaniesd by a look at language markers. 5B shows that not every presentation should be a monologue, as here the focus on the dialogue aspect of pitching. 5C contrasts persuasive and objective reporting, and storytelling is discussed in Outside View 5 on speaking, summarizing Robert McKee’s reflections on storytelling as a persuasive cultural skill. Business File 3 also involves storytelling, i.e. looking back on a decision making process as part of a simulation.

Students can bounce off the book’s presentation of and practice with stories at many points here. I would  have them tell business stories repeatedly throughout this unit, both orally and in writing, with the aim of persuading others to see the issues from their point of view.

I couldn’t make IATEFL, so it’s really great that some of the sessions are recorded and uploaded. I particularly enjoyed David Heathfield’s workshop “Storytelling and Mental Imagery”. The flow of the lesson he proposes is great. He has learners

  • listening to the teacher tell the story
  • visualizing the highpoint of the story with a partner+
  • drawing 6 pictures on your own
  • retelling the story to a partner, then the listener becoming the teller
  • going from imitating to innovating (as differences emerge)
  • perhaps acting out, or at least working on the physical aspects of storytelling

He shows (in minute 24) that students build different kinds of mental images when they are retelling the story: still/rolling film, colors/black and white, life scenes/cartoons, remember the voice and cadences of the teacher/don’t remember the voice at all, imagine sounds/don’t hear sounds, feel physically involved/feel outside the story.

Thinking about the images we remember, I stumbled across Charles Simic in the New York Review of Books blog writing about “What’s left of my Books“, and highlighting how it is images that we remember when all else is forgotten:

I recall, for example, Flaubert saying that it is splendid to be a writer, to put men into the frying pan of your imagination and make them pop like chestnuts; St. Augustine confessing that even he could not comprehend God’s purpose in creating flies; Beckett telling about a character in his early novel Murphy whom the cops took in for begging without singing, and who was jailed for ten days by the judge; Victor Shklovsky, recounting how he once heard the great Russian poet Mayakovski claim that black cats produce electricity while being stroked; Emily Dickinson saying in a letter, It is lonely without birds today, for it rains badly, and the little poets have no umbrellas; Flannery O’Connor describing a young woman as having a face as broad and as innocent as a cabbage and tied around with a green handkerchief that had two points on the top like rabbit ears; and many other such small and overlooked delights.