Friday, June 29, 2012


By: Wendy M. Williams and Stephen J. Ceci

Published: American Scientist;

Level of Difficulty: ****


1.       Are there more women or men doing academic careers in math based sciences?

2.       Why do you think there are more men in these fields? Explain.

3.       Do you think this difference is more pronounced or less pronounced now? Why?

4.       Read the title of the text. What is the implied reason for the difference? Do you agree?


Read the first six paragraphs.

1.       Jennifer never applied to become a professor for two reasons: …………………………………….

2.       What is the contradiction mentioned in the text concerning women with BA’s in science and math’s?

3.       What are the five reasons stated in the text to explain the above situation and what do they have in common?

4.       What is the main thesis of the essay?

Read the section titled “Ability Differences” to the end.

5.       What reason for the difference in number between men and women in math intensive fields is disproved in the text?

6.       The reasons why the above argument is untenable are: …………………………………………………………

7.       What does the phrase “the causal relationship” in paragraph 11 refer to?

8.       The writer reaches the conclusion that mathematical differences between the sexes are not primary factors in women’s underrepresentation in math heavy fields. What practical example does the writer base this conclusion on?

Read as far as “Perils of Motherhood”.

9.       There are three major differences between men and women in terms of career preference and life course. They are: ………………………………………………………………………………………………………

10.   How does the above reflect on the work men and women do?

11.   What conclusion can we draw from the examples stated in paragraph 16?

12.   What is the function of paragraph 18? Don’t give cliché answers; explain in full sentences.

Read “The Perils of Motherhood”.

13.   Summarize the information presented in paragraph 20 in one sentence. Use your own words.

14.   What does the phrase “This reality” in paragraph 21 refer to?

15.   According to the information provided in paragraphs 22 and 23, there is a negative correlation between ………………………………. and ……………………………………; as well as ………………………………. and …………………………………………………

16.   There is a positive correlation between …………………………. and ………………………….. in the case of men.

17.   It is claimed that the tenure system has not kept up with the times and this creates problems in the modern world. How does the writer support this claim?

18.   Young colleagues, postdocs and female students are put off the tenure track due to the fact that ………………………………………………………………………………………………………………..(Be specific; don’t give an answer that requires explanation also)

19.   What does the phrase “This gap” in paragraph 28 refer to?

20.   There is a similarity between the career prospects of women in academia, investment banking, consulting, venture capital, sales and trading because ……………………………………. (You will need to tweak the texts to get the answer)

21.   What is the function of paragraph 30? Which paragraph in the text serves a similar function? Could these paragraphs be omitted?

Read “Policy Changes with Potential”

22.   Read the solutions suggested to address the problem in paragraph 32. What do they all have in common?


Discuss the reasons why fewer women have tenure track aspirations in math based sciences. You may refer to any notes you made while reading the text.


1.       Women are more likely than men to prefer other fields such medicine, law, biology, veterinary science.

2.       Family formation goals extinguish career track aspirations.

3.       The majority of child care, house work and household management is done by women

Solutions (for your conclusion)

Select from paragraph 32 and provide support.


This text is a wonderful argumentative essay which is very well organized. Although the questions themselves are not too hard, the text is, which makes it a four star activity. They will need to make notes as they read so as to be able to do the writing task comfortably. One word of advice, don’t time the writing activity too strictly.

1.       She could not imagine waiting to have children after her tenure at age 40; she could not imagine…

2.       Women who are talented enough to graduate from college with degrees in maths are not progressing through graduate school and ultimately earning full professorships.

3.       Women simply prefer…, early socialization practices, gender stereotypes, disenfranchisement of women once they enter academic science careers, sex differences at the extreme…/ they are instances of sex discrimination.

4.       The effect of children on women’s academic careers is so remarkable that it eclipses other factors in contributing to women’s underrepresentation in academic science.

5.       Sex differences favored men on tests of quantitative ability.

6.       Females outperform women in math classes throughout schooling including college. Also even if among the top 1% ….

7.       The causal relationship between extremely high math ability and success.

8.       45% of undergraduate degrees in math’s go to women as do 29% of PhD’s suggesting that…

9.       Females are more interested in careers that involve living things; more females find temporarily having a part time career acceptable; more females find having a part time career acceptable.

10.   It can lead to differences in research productivity and hours spent at the office.

11.   The frequent claim that women are derailed by sex discrimination in publishing their work, obtaining grant funding and being hired is wrong.

12.   It aims to summarize the arguments thus far. The text is a complex one and that being the case, such a paragraph is necessary.

13.   Possible answer: The process of earning a tenure is a long and arduous one with little room for anything else.

14.   Dealing with pregnancy, childbirth and childcare while simultaneously.

15.   Motherhood and a tenure track; a steady marriage and a tenure track.

16.   Productivity and the number of children.

17.   The tenure system was created at a time….

18.   The fact that women with children work 100 plus hours across all life domains

19.   The gap between the proportion of applications of women and the proportion of doctoral degrees awarded to women.

20.   They are all jobs associated with work weeks of more than 60 hours.

21.   It serves a similar function as paragraph 18 and can’t be left out. It rounds off the argument and looks tidy.

22.   They focus on the problems faced by mothers struggling to raise young families while building tenurable scholarly records.


By: George Friedman

Published: Stratfor and Finance and Townhall; 3/18/2012;

Level of Difficulty: ****


1.       What has the post WW2 strategy of Europe been as far as Germany is concerned?

2.       The text describes a chain of events culminating in a united Germany. What event set the ball rolling upsetting the status quo?

3.       There have always been two courses of action open to Germany in the European arena. They are:

4.       Did the above policy work as far as France and Germany were concerned? What were the results of their response?

5.       Why did Germany start WW1 andWW2?

6.       The German economic miracle was triggered by the perceived need to …………………………………

7.       How did European countries plan to keep Germany on a tight leash?

8.       Which of the following would not describe German strategy post WW2? A balancing act, a softly-softly approach, a play for power or give and take.

9.       Germany’s strategy post WW2 guaranteed Germany serious advantages with respect to ……………………………………………………………………………………… (Use your own words).

10.   The major reason why the EU is vital for Germany is the fact that………………………………….. Trade with the EU was facilitated by two factors. They are: ……………………………………………..

11.   Read as far as “An Alternative Strategy”. What will the immediate consequence of Germany underwriting the debt of troubled EU countries be? What will the ultimate consequence be?

12.   Which view is right in your view; Germany’s or Southern Europe’s? Discuss. What do you think the future will bring?

13.   How would you best summarize the relationship between Russia and Germany? Use your own words.

14.   Germany views its relationship with Russia as an alternative to ………………………………………..

15.    A. In terms of alliance, what is Germany’s first choice? What is Germany’s fall back plan?

B. The latter will become an option if ………………………………………………………………………………

        16. What would the consequence of a German Russian alliance be?


Refer back to your answer to question 12. After doing some more research, write an essay justifying your opinion. It is suggested that you try tedtalks as well as reading material.


Since many students won’t have the background to discuss the topic beforehand, I suggest you find an appropriate video on tedtalks – which is my rock as far listening goes by the way – have the students listen, take notes and then discuss the content before moving on to the text. Alternatively, you could have the students come to class having done their research. It is also possible to cover the text and questions in sections. One thing I can guarantee is a brilliantly written text which will broaden students’ horizons as well as improve their English.

1.       Taking advantage of Germany’s economic dynamism while avoiding the treat of German domination.

2.       Napoleon and his campaign to dominate Europe

3.       Preventing an alliance between France and Russia; defeating France and ending the treat of an alliance.

4.       No. They did form alliances. It not only stimulated their economies but also provided an alternative to British goods.

5.       By the early 20th century, the Triple…………. If they attacked, ………………………….

6.       Contain the Soviet Union.

7.       By binding Germany to the rest of Europe economically and militarily

8.       A play for power

9.       The economy, sovereignty and lack of conflict. The students need to draw conclusions from the information.

10.   Europe is a critical customer. The pricing of the euro; regulations in Brussels.

11.   European bureaucrats heavily oriented towards German policies will be put in charge of the finances of countries receiving aid against default. It would be an assault on democracy and national sovereignty

12.   Answers will vary.

13.   Possible answer: there is a substantial synergy between Russia and Germany economically, politically and militarily.

14.   The EU.

15.   A. An alliance with both France and Russia. An alliance with either France or Russia. B. If France decides it has other options such as its idea of a Mediterranean union.

16.   It would become a challenge on a global basis


Published: June2, 2012; The Economist;

Level of Difficulty: ***


1.       What are the major problems in health care in the modern world?

2.       Which parts of the world are these problems more widespread in?

3.       Can you think of any ways in which the problem of lack of adequate health care be dealt with?

4.       Now read the title of the text and think again about the answer you gave to question 3.

NOTE TO THE STUDENT: As you read the text and answer the questions, make notes for yourself. You will need them for the writing task.


1.       What surprising pieces of information are revealed about Rob Goudswaard?

2.       How can the information in paragraph 3 best be summarized? Use your own words.

3.       Besides the practical advantage, being a doctor brings an added bonus. It is ……………………

4.       How can the information in paragraph 5 best be summarized. Use your own words.

5.       The writer states that doctors will be taking a back seat in terms of treating patients for the following two reasons: ………………………………………………………………………………………………………..

6.       Why have alternative ways of training doctors and alternatives to doctors themselves mostly emerged in poor countries?

7.       Read paragraphs 8, 9 and 10. India’s solution to the shortage of doctors is to ……………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………

8.       What are the two advantages of this solution? You will need to use your own words to some extent.

9.       How does the telehealth service work, and what is the advantage?

10.   What conclusion can we draw about the use of robots in operating theatres from the case of military drones?

11.   Read the section titled “Team Effort”. What are the four advantages to the state of monitoring systems in general?

12.   What radical change in the standard medical degree is in the pipeline according to the text and how successful can we expect the scheme to be?

13.   Why have the solutions discussed thus far not been as successful as they perhaps ought to have been? Use your own words.

14.    According to the text, will the doctors’ current attitude concerning these solutions persist or not? Why or why not?


Many people in the world, especially those living in the developing world, are not receiving the health care they need. Use the notes you made while reading the text and the points below to write a problem solution essay discussing the various ways out of the predicament.

Introduction: Introduce the problem of the growing shortage of doctors and the soaring need for health care.

End you paragraph with a thesis statement: there are various practical and effective ways in which the problem can be addressed.

In our development, discuss the following solutions: Expanding the supply of non doctors ( 3.5 years training, eye care technicians, health care workers, midwives, nurse practitioners, physician assistants, diagnostic medical sonogrophers), expanding home monitoring devices (mobile tools, telehealth services), expanding and improving robot technology.

In your conclusion: Discuss the need to overcome doctor resistance


This reading task gives students the opportunity to practice their summarizing skills as there are chunks of text which can very easily be summarized in one sentence. There are, however, no actual sentences in the text that could be taken as the answer. The students will need to use their own words. Their answers should correspond in terms of content to the answers in the key. A second point, they will need to annotate the text as they read as they will need this information for the text related writing activity.

1.       He is the head of innovation for Philips home monitoring business; he has no medical training.

2.       Possible answer: Medical technology has developed in leaps and bounds making doctors better able to do their jobs.

3.       Respectability or saving lives, which is the reason for the respectability.

4.       The demand for health care is rising and will continue to.

5.       An impossible number of doctors would be required; caring for chronic conditions is not what doctors do best.

6.       The demand for health care is rising faster than the supply of doctors in poor countries; i.e. the developing world.

7.       Ensure that surgeons do only the most complex procedures and that an army of other workers do everything else.

8.       Surgeries cost less; many more surgeries can be performed.

9.       Mobile phones are used to deliver advice and reminders and arrange doctor’s visits; two thirds of patients’ concerns can be addressed over the phone.

10.   As yet robots are enhancements for surgeons more than they are replacements but that may change in time.

11.   Admissions to emergency rooms, trips to hospitals, costs and mortality all drop.

12.   A 3.5 year degree that would let graduates deliver basis primary care in rural areas. Very successful.

13.   The doctors oppose them; they want to keep their power.

14.   No it won’t. As doctors become scarcer………………………………..

Friday, June 22, 2012


When the second president of Turkey, İsmet İnönü, was woken by his aid in the small hours one night in late June, after expressly demanding not to be woken on any account , he was happier than he’d been for a very long time; ever since the start of the second world war in fact. He and his government had been trying desperately to keep the fledgling democracy out of the war and finally their problems were over: the war wasn’t over as such but it had taken a turn for the worse for Germany. The news İnönü was given was that Germany had attacked the USSR. Inönü knew at once what that meant and history proved him right. This ill fated plan was the beginning of the end. Who knows, perhaps if Germany had formed an alliance with the Ukrainians, who desired freedom from the USSR, as the Kaiser had done, The Soviets would have succumbed; however, arrogance and contempt for the Slavs in general prevented this. It was all out conquest Hitler was after, and he never doubted he would succeed. İnönü, as a student of history, knew otherwise. Hitler was beaten by the Russian winter, at least to a large part, as Napoleon had been before him. This event has gone down in history as proof that nothing can be more devastating than an ill planned and ill thought out strategy. The same is true in all walks of life. It is true that the casualties of an ill thought out strategy in the case of teaching are perhaps of a different ilk than those during that terrible Russian winter yet they are just as serious. The road to hell is paved with ill planned syllabi championed by curriculum planners who focus obsessively on that single ill fated plan despite overwhelming evidence that “there is something very wrong in the state of Denmark”. The wrack and ruin they leave in their wake in the shape of destroyed lives is just as serious. Slight exaggeration you may feel, but no; in Turkey, the best universities in the country are English medium universities, which means that the students have a year of prep before their freshman year. Failure at this stage of their education in a country where thousands enter upon a cut throat competition for the few places in these top universities spells disaster as they are not permitted to start their course proper until they have passed the Proficiency exam, the TOEFL or the IELTS. Getting it right becomes a moral imperative for any curriculum planner. The dedication and diligence of those working in these departments is laudable yet the fact that serious mistakes are made is none the less undeniable. It is the three basic factors which spell doom for any syllabus to which we shall now turn.


An Alice in Wonderland Moment

Any intensive language course worth its salt will aim to cover basic grammar, develop reading skills, provide listening practice, teach vocabulary and provide writing practice. If, for the sake of argument, we were to imagine that we had followed Alice through the looking glass into that wondrous yet topsy- turvy land, all logic would go out the window and we would get a syllabus that went something like this: we would have a reading program; i.e. a reading book to which we would stick to like that veritable terrier, we would “teach” vocabulary; i.e. we would have a vocabulary book which would rival the Bible, we would endeavor to cover each and every grammar point in all the detail we could manage; i.e. we would have, wait for it, a grammar book, which we would revere and lastly we would try and teach the students to write well organized and well thought out essays in faultless English; i.e. you have guessed it: we would have a writing book. If we were to add Swift’s crazy scientists out of the third book of Gulliver’s Travels to the mix, they would gather the above, place it all in a hamper and hey presto, you would have a syllabus. The fact that you could be covering the nature nurture controversy in your reading book, while doing some completely different vocabulary, say environmental issues, in your vocabulary book would seem fine provided you were still with Alice and those scientists. The fact that while all this is going on, you cover listening texts concerning management in business and simultaneously strive to teach the past tenses and narrative structures is neither here nor there.  At the end of the day, you would drown the students in vocabulary – which would be completely disconnected and sort of hang there in the ether – grammar, reading in short, EVERYTHING and surely most must stick. The fact that it doesn’t – at least in our dimension – as proved by staggering failure rates is a source of shock, horror and disbelief. What is amazing is that the amount of proof required to persuade such individuals to get their heads out of the sand is staggering.  “All truths are easy once you discover them; the point is to discover them” (Galileo) so it is to the “discovery” that we shall now turn.

Back to Reality: Reading into Grammar

Abraham Lincoln famously said “Whatever you are, be a good one” so the first thing to be done is to do as Scot McNealy recommends and “get the best people and train them well”. Provided this is accomplished, the scenario described above will be shelved pretty promptly. The hamper will be burnt, the looking glass smashed and the crazy scientists will be packed off where they came from. The BOOKS will most likely also go for the simple reason that they are so completely cut off from each other. The reason for this is simple: a good syllabus centers round a good reading program; everything else leads off from it and towards the writing task, which rounds things off. Grammar is introduced with a well selected reading task, then practiced, not out of a soporific book that gives the students the rules in a neat little chart and then demands that they complete the sentences, but with a carefully selected exercise that leads the students to deduce the rules and reach their own conclusions – thus keeping them mentally engaged and focused. This exercise, in turn, leads on to the inevitable grammar related writing task the latter being the culmination of all the learning.  Thus, the day is done. One word of caution at this point: for effective learning to take place, the writing task must, on no account, be considered an optional extra. Doing so would be a fatal mistake as it is the writing task that clinches everything. Pay back comes for the teacher in the form of brilliant pieces of writing which become the envy of the rest of the school later on in the year. Those pesky grammar points are also consigned to the long term memories of students, where they stay.

Back to Reality: Reading into Writing

The reading activity can lead in another direction too; it doesn’t have to be grammar. The reading passage is the font in which the vocabulary items reside and the best way to grasp their full meaning is to observe them in context and then practice them in context: in the form of a reading related writing activity – an essay, a reaction essay or a summary exercise. The latter will also help students develop those invaluable cognitive skills so vital if one is to become a proficient reader.  The reading into writing activity is, in fact, the ultimate reading activity as well. So you have your syllabus which resembles an intricate web starting with reading and ending with writing where everything is linked together, overlaps, joins up and leads to a new reading activity, which leads to the whole process being repeated ad infinitum. There is no end to learning in this way contrary to what some may think. If one were to decide, for instance, to overhaul the writing program in a language school, one would be hard pressed indeed to accomplish the task without dealing with the reading program. That such an overhaul on its own reminds one of Swifts scientists who wished to construct a building from the roof down to the foundations need hardly be mentioned. Any revision of a syllabus starts with and revolves around the reading program, and when that is in place, so will everything else be. The fate of a writing program which is completely cut off from everything else and is sort of floating feely cannot be imagined. The writing program needs to be tethered to something; this being the reading program. When such isn’t the case, it gets tethered to something else with disastrous and bizarre consequences. This type of writing program can best be explained with the following “outline for a sample essay”:


Use the thesis statement, the concluding statement and the points below to write a causal chain. Remember to provide examples to support the points you have been provided with.

Thesis Statement: Essays with no grounding in reading are in danger of becoming devoid of all meaning and sense.

1.       Pat phrases, clichés, transition words and formulas  as a substitute for English proper

2.       The extensive use of fixed formulas for writing essays as a substitute for reasoning

3.       The consequent emergence of the “essay writing grid” a template to fit all essays to be filled with relevant terminology to complete a formulaic, empty piece of writing.

4.       The posting on websites, mass production and sale of the above by websites or photocopiers.

5.       The purchase and memorization of the above by a student body who have been honing their memorization skills since the age of six.

Concluding Statement for the development: As is obvious from the arguments thus far, the pieces of writing resulting from such an approach bear no resemblance to essays as we know them; a problem that needs to be remedied forthwith.

In your conclusion, it is suggested that you use the following solutions:

  1. The existing writing program should be scrapped
  2. Reasoning should be emphasized rather than formulas
  3. Reading into writing should be the norm rather than unconnected titles
  4. Only titles should be provided on tests

Concluding Statement for the conclusion: Such solutions, were they to be implemented, would provide the added bonus of raising the standard of writing and consequently the grades and the pass rates. It would also help address the suspected problem of purchasing essays to place in portfolios.

When writing your conclusion, remember to justify the points you make. For instance, you could explain that native speakers don’t use transition words the way our students do as evidenced by all the texts they read. You might also explain that this isn’t physics and there is no one (or two!) way to plan, say, argumentative essays so long as the reasoning is correct – i.e. supporting your own view while refuting the counter arguments.

The prevalence and championing of such formulaic writing is truly surprising as most institutions will state vehemently that their goal is to endeavor to develop students’ cognitive skills. Yet no reading activity can be said to be truly exploited unless it is followed by a reading into writing activity to clinch matters. That those all important reading skills thus also fail to be adequately developed hardly needs to be mentioned. Compartmentalization on its own will do immense damage to a syllabus but the damage would be far more extensive were we to add another key ingredient.


Think Oliver Twist

When Oliver Twist asked for more porridge, he wasn’t guilty of gluttony; far from it; he was famished. On consideration though, can one honestly say that this is always the case? Most often “need” has nothing to do with it; one just covets it ALL. This is precisely why greed, in all its forms, is deemed one of the seven deadly sins. In all its forms includes coveting every obscure grammar point and every outlandish vocabulary item as well. In short, it applies to curriculum planners as well. One point we as a species need to come to terms with – and sooner rather than later – is the fact that we never have and we never shall have it ALL. Again, this is also true for anyone planning a syllabus. There is no point in pushing and shoving and stuffing things in here and there; it just won’t do. EVERYTHING will never fit and efforts to do so will lead to disaster. I remember going on vacation with a family friend once. The idea was to go away for a week in midsummer. She arrived with six suitcases and a carry on; I just had the carry on. As things transpired, since we spent most of our time in bathing suits, we never needed the wraps, the jackets, the best dress, the matching shoes and so forth.  Consider another example if you will: imagine you are heading for the summit of Mount Everest with the famous climber Nasuh Mahruki and you included leafy greens and broccoli in your back pack, for example, on the assumption that the latter is a wonder vegetable. What do you think Nasuh Mahruki would have to say about? You would never be able to live it down. And here is the crunch: this is true for items stuffed into syllabi as well.

What to Pack: Grammar

You may be forgiven for thinking that students need it ALL. The truth is that they don’t; not really. What they need and consequently what goes into the syllabus is determined by the aim of the program and the time allowed in order to complete the task. A weekend language course for young businessmen where the purpose is to enable them to converse does not need to cover phrasal verbs for example – the book I have in mind actually has 38 in one unit. Nor does it need to include that weird structure the subjunctive – the same book.  The students actually asked me whether I thought they could get by without this structure and were greatly relieved when I replied that they could. They were too polite to go on to enquire why the book included it. Consider the prep school of a reputable university where the purpose is to equip the students with the necessary skills an average university student needs. The students in such a program need to be able to listen to a lecture, follow it and take notes, read and annotate reading material and base papers on the said notes, write term papers, dissertations and do projects. With this in mind, take a look at the average grammar syllabus: two weeks on average are spent on noun clauses, including reported speech and quoted speech, for instance. This is one unit of grammar that serves no useful purpose in such a program and can be omitted quite safely. What about “what clauses” I hear you enquire. “What” can be contrasted with “which” and included in the feedback provided on written work very early on in the year. In fact, since one can’t write descriptions without relative clauses – which students invariably confuse with “what” – I really fail to see how one can avoid doing so. This will take care of relative clauses as well. A multitude of issues like this can be laid to rest during feedback on essays. In the institution I work in, it is Betty Azar’s “ Understanding English Grammar “that is used, and two weeks are assigned to each of these subjects. Four weeks can easily be shaved of the grammar syllabus thus but this isn’t all.

Let us now turn our attention to those infamous gerunds and infinitives and before you throw your hands up in horror and accuse me of trampling under foot all that teachers hold most sacred, hear me out.  In “Understanding English Grammar” this subject is covered in two deadly chapters of about two dozen pages each. The poor victims – the students – are required to commit to memory the interminable lists in the book on which they are tested mercilessly. Done and dusted you may feel; dusted certainly but done? I somehow doubt it. Those lists, so painfully committed to the “for test purposes” compartment of the brain (every student has one) are pretty promptly deleted. Where is the harm in just picking up these structures and sort of absorbing them (through osmosis) while reading, the way native speakers do? This is the view I have always held and feel most apologetic when I have to tackle them in the aforementioned way. One word of caution though: this approach presupposes a good reading program and plenty of writing; the first to introduce all the various aspects of the language and the latter to provide practice.

Another subject that could face summary justice as far as I am concerned is transition words. The perverse obsession of most grammar books with these words is extraordinary as native speakers don’t use them. My personal view is that many feel it is easier to teach students to use one of these words to signal a cause effect relationship than it is to teach basic reasoning skills. This is probably why they opt for these words rather than cognitive skills. Lately, I have been reading and relishing a set of essays written by the CEO of Stratfor: George Friedman. The essays analyze the strategies of various countries and are intellectual and linguistic masterpieces. There is not a transition word in sight yet the texts are all about relationships of cause and effect. The brilliance with which the main thesis is introduced and developed stage by stage and the beauty with which the conclusion ties back to the main thesis will make any teacher feel that s/he has reached nirvana. The essays can be viewed on the Stratfor website or on . I would recommend them to anyone who feels opinion essays cannot be written without transition words. The take home point from all that I have stated thus far is that one has to be disabused of the idea that there is one universal grammar program which amounts to a prescription: you do it all and leave no stone unturned. The grammar program will vary according to the purpose of the program.

What to Pack: If Vocabulary is Involved, Think Gollum

Those of you who have read Lord of the Rings will recall that odious creature Gollum crooning for ever to his “precious”. The attitude of most us – members of the teaching profession – to vocabulary items is very much the same. English is probably one of the languages with the largest vocabulary with about 490.000 words and about 300.000 additional technical terms. The educated native speaker probably uses, on average, 5000 words in conversation and about 10.000 in writing. But English teachers, in their heart of hearts, set their sights much higher than this. Shakespeare is said to have used over 30.000 words. If you feel that this is, perhaps, high enough, you would be mistaken. The guilty secret of most of us is the fact that ideally, we would like students to be able to use all 750.000. This fact will never be mentioned at staff meetings as it sounds deranged, but it is an ideal that is cherished by one and all. This dream has spawned vocabulary books as the answer to all our prayers. I have written at length about vocabulary in previous papers so I won’t repeat myself. Suffice to say that vocabulary items are the building blocks of the language, as is grammar, and for the same reasons, are best studied in the context of the reading material assigned for that week. A reading text which is properly exploited will enable vocabulary to be learnt painlessly and efficiently. The disjointed, free floating vocabulary books are universally detested by students, which in itself should be reason enough to discard them. When this is suggested, most curriculum planners will throw their hands up in despair and exclaim “But they need to learn the academic word list!” I don’t dispute that; what I do have issues with is how the vocabulary is taught. Should the amount of time devoted to the vocabulary book be spent reading and studying a greater number of well targeted reading texts, more vocabulary would be learnt and remembered. The take home point from all that I have said thus far is that we need to be less ambitious about the amount of vocabulary we try and teach students and we have got to teach vocabulary in context. A good syllabus at an intensive language course like the prep year at our university needs to have a well thought out reading program with one good reading task every day. The vocabulary acquired by means of such a program will be a pleasure to learn will be remembered and will, eventually, surpass, in quantity, anything a vocabulary book could achieve. More efficient use of time is within our control as teachers.

What to Pack: If Reading and Writing are Involved, Think Skills Rather than Endless Activities

Another area of the syllabus where precious time can be needlessly wasted with time consuming and fruitless endeavors is in the teaching of the skills. The aim of any half decent reading program is to enable the students to master those all important cognitive skills any proficient reader has at his finger tips; this is an aim which no one would disagree with. It is the methods applied to achieve those aims where controversy occurs. You would be forgiven for assuming that “reading skills” are best learnt through “reading” and “writing” skills are best perfected through “writing practice”. In a cluttered and compartmentalized syllabus there are books that profess to “explain” all the intricacies of these skills. The reading book, for instance, has a short little text followed by pages and pages of time consuming and deadly exercises. I remember voicing the concern on such an occasion that the students were not doing nearly enough “actual reading” – with one single- page text a week – to be told that they were “learning the skills”. I remember the frustration I felt at not being able to make some of my colleagues see that one can’t teach reading skills without plenty of reading. I have also watched with concern the proliferation of such “reading material” on the market.  There is one guaranteed consequence of such books: they will teach students that reading is one of those things that you have to put up with, like a visit to the dentist, and can forget about once the test is over. For such people, reading will remain a chore and never be transformed into a truly pleasurable activity. Such books clutter the syllabus and are ineffective due to the inordinate amount of time it takes to cover a unit with a minimal amount of actual reading of a text. That those all important cognitive skills also remain elusive need hardly be mentioned. My personal view is that a good reading syllabus in an intensive program such as our own should involve one decent reading activity a day rather than a one page text a week, and a lot of the activities should be in the teacher’s notes only to ensure focus on the actual text and the lesson. For more on how to teach reading, refer to my papers on the teaching of the said skill.

I remember discussing the teaching of writing with two colleagues, Mr. Waterhouse and Mr. Gilchrest, many years ago now and how we agreed that the only way to teach someone to write decent essays is to provide plenty of opportunity for practice and constructive criticism. We all believed in effective feedback and at least two drafts. More, I feel, could defeat the purpose as it could get boring. There is one itsy bitsy problem with this method: it involves a lot of work for the teacher. It is worth it many would think since it works very well and after all, paperwork is part of the job description.  Why, in that case, is the market awash with books that “talk about writing”? In a compartmentalized and cluttered syllabus, the writing activity has been severed from its natural companion, the reading task, and confined within iron clad formulas. The essay writing template rivals the Ten Commandments in terms of the rigidity with which it is applied. Nobody would disagree with the fact that essay writing involves reasoning and that logic is universal, but formulas? Writing books championing these formulas and sprinkled liberally with “sample essays” have flooded the market and been snatched up by one and many. As indicated in the sample essay plan earlier, “essays” written along these lines look as if they have been written by zombies rather than human beings and could easily be mass produced by means of, say, a computer program, and in fact are. They contain very little original thought and are sprinkled liberally with pat phrases, clichés and transition words. This is the kind of writing that has taken the language learning community by storm; at least where the teaching of English is concerned. That the ABITUR and the MATURA are a completely different kettle of fish need hardly be mentioned. There, still, the norm is a reading into writing activity of about 1200 words. There has been a shift in the TOEFL and IELTS too with the move towards reaction essays and similar reading into writing activities; this trend is yet to hit the market though. Another very important point: there is very little actual pleasure involved in writing formulaic essays. When an activity is deadly, learning will be minimal too. It is impossible to fault such essays provided you are concerned with the actual language but that they are not, in the real sense of the word, essays should also be noted. Another point: they do not fulfill their duty of helping to develop cognitive skills in reading either as they have been cut off from the reading task. There is one last nail in the coffin that we should turn our attention to at this point:


Among the three fundamental problems a syllabus can be crippled by, an erratic pace is probably the most deadly. There is a very good reason for this: getting the timing wrong often means that the syllabus falls short of the target leaving the students to face a proficiency exam for which they haven’t been prepared – through no fault of their own. My personal view is that if one considers all the factors external to the program as well, one will find that in fact one doesn’t have as much freedom in determining the pace as one would like to think. It is very rare, in this modern world, for someone to set about learning a language purely for his  own pleasure with no end in sight. In such a case, one can make the pace as erratic as one likes. A prep year before the freshman year is a very different kettle of fish: there is a proficiency exam at a fixed date in June, the school year starts on a fixed date as well, holidays are clearly marked in the academic calendar, which means the number of weeks one has each term are also predetermined. Given that students sit a placement test at the start of the year to determine their levels, I fail to see what the problem is. The pace of such a program is set in stone rather like that sword set in stone in the legend of King Arthur. All one has to do is to determine the weekly pace so as to meet the yearly target. A syllabus designer who knows what h/she is doing needs to be like a good chess player thinking many steps ahead about the consequences of what h/she decides to include in the week’s program and can never be off the clock. As someone once said, he who fails to plan, plans to fail and this is certainly true when designing a syllabus.

Course Books and Pace

One factor that often has an adverse effect on the pace as it should be is a course book dominated program. Handing over the reins to an author and a publishing company both of whose knowledge of the particular circumstances of one’s institution is nonexistent is very unwise. Most course books envision a much longer time frame than the syllabus in a country like our own where the students need to be ready for a proficiency exam in eight months. They have an elementary book, a pre intermediate book and an intermediate book. Sometimes they even have an advanced book. If you sit back and allow yourself to chug along at twenty miles an hour with such a program, the students will be ready for their test in two years time, which won’t do at all. What, then, is the answer? Do we abandon course books? Naturally not; but we do reduce the time allocated to them in the syllabus. In the institution where I teach, at intermediate level, we use Betty Azar’s Understanding English Grammar as a grammar reference book and build our syllabus round grammar related reading and grammar related writing. We have been unable to find any other way out of the predicament described above. It is very difficult to have such a program at pre intermediate and beginner level right from the word go but what one should do is revert to it as soon as possible. A pre intermediate program should start with the pre intermediate course book say, Language Leader – the book we use at that level – and revert to the intermediate program briefly outlined above as soon as it is completed. Going through the whole series would mean that come June, students would be nowhere near ready for that famous test. The same logic can be applied at beginner level by starting with the beginner book, moving on to the pre intermediate book and then changing to the intermediate program. In the institution I work in, the number of hours students have a week increases as the level drops making such a syllabus feasible. One reminder though: it is very important to remember everything else that has been said about syllabus design up to this point: reduce the clutter, eliminate compartmentalization and have one reading task, one listening task and one writing task a day (the assumption is that all these activities are linked thematically to enhance learning).

Skills and Pace

Postponing these skills since the students are beginner or pre intermediate in level would constitute a grave mistake. There is this surprisingly common view that reading skills and writing skills cannot be acquired at beginner and pre intermediate level. This means that these skills are postponed until quite late in the year, so much so that students are not prepared for that famous test in June. It should be remembered that writing of some sort can and should be done from the word go. The same goes for reading, which can also start quite early on and be linked to writing, listening and grammar. Cognitive skills can be taught with a simple text at beginner level just as well as with more advanced material. Summary writing activities, paraphrasing, sentence squeezing activities and the like can and should start very early. The teaching of basic reasoning, especially to the modern youth, who has been reared on a diet bite of sized chunks of information and multiple choice questions, is time consuming. This is why the earlier one starts the better. With a syllabus of the kind I have attempted to describe, it will just be the context (the reading activity, the related listening activity and the writing task) that will get progressively more challenging; work on the cognitive skills, which will start as of day one, will run very smoothly.

Teachers and Pace

The last factor that can adversely affect the pace and the one that the curriculum planner finds, by far, the hardest to combat is teacher resistance to the required pace.  The problem is twofold.  Firstly, we need to come to terms with the fact that in the modern world, things do happen a lot faster than we would like and there is precious little we can do about it. As yet, physically slowing down time is not possible and pretending that one can is, in the case of teaching, the eighth deadly sin.  Endeavoring, with the best of intentions, to allow students to take their little baby steps, to have as many breaks and rests as they like and generally holding them back bodes ill for any syllabus as tight as our own. In an institution such as our own – and there are numerous others in Turkey alone – students need to be pushed to the limit. The correct determination of that limit requires experience and know- how.  

There is a second point: we teachers as a species have remarkably strong convictions which we have great trouble letting go of despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Preserving a much loved book becomes a matter of life and death, which can bode ill for any syllabus designer trying to reduce clutter or address issues of compartmentalization. This instinct to cling, tenaciously, to cherished material and methodology needs to be resisted.  After all, it is an addiction like any other. Herein lies the most important negative impact of teacher resistance.


It is very easy to avoid the pitfalls discussed above provided one is truly desirous to change current applications for the better. Doing so involves keeping on the lookout for any clues that provide feedback. Student dissatisfaction is one such clue. Students who don’t see the benefits of what is being done are not going to learn. There is nothing like an overall negative attitude to kill learning. Sometimes the students need to be made to understand the reasons for a certain activity. I am a firm believer in justifying the way I do things and making my students understand the underlying reasons for what I do and how I do it. However, often they are right and the teacher is wrong. The teacher or curriculum planner needs to be able to see this.  Huffing and puffing in class, not just one day but every time a book is produced, is a dead giveaway.  Low grades that reach epic proportions are also an irrefutable clue that something is very wrong indeed. Insisting on the same course of action despite high failure rates is very unwise indeed as such an attitude will lead the already existing negative attitude to what is being done to become yet more firmly entrenched, thus aggravating the situation. Very rarely, there are exceptional circumstances leading an obvious clue like failure rates to be disregarded. Something of this kind happened in Turkey some years ago when lycée education was raised to four years and there were no graduates to enter the university entrance exam one specific year. Those who entered that year were failures from the previous years and we ended up getting a very inferior bunch of students to the ones we usually get in terms of educational background. I remember remarking at the time that taking that specific year as a yard stick would be a mistake. This doesn’t happen very often though; only once in a blue moon. Curriculum planners also need to listen to teachers. After all, they all share a common goal of desiring high success rates. For more on syllabus design, check my previous papers on my blog or my academia site. Suffice to say that provided one looks, listens and then learns, there is no hurdle that can’t be overcome.