Let’s Talk About Food: Five Ways to Do So

To a student, an ESL class can be drudgery. It can be brain-draining, frustrating, and worse of all, boring. As many of our readers know, it doesn’t have to be that way. It shouldn’t be that way. The ESL class, like any other class, should be fun.

There are many ways to make it fun. You can read some of our ideas here. We also wrote about fun props you can use in the class.

Another way to have a more fun class is by having interesting conversations. Finding things that students not only like to talk about, but find fun and humorous, is an excellent way to keep the class engaging. Whereas not every subject is interesting to every student, one topic we have found to be interesting is “food.” I have yet to find a student not interested in food. There is something to talk that is interesting to everybody.

Here are five different food topics that we have found to be fun and engaging.

  1. Fast “Junk” Food

Hamburgers, hot dogs, French fries, pizza, fried chicken; if it’s bad for you, the more we seem to enjoy eating it and talking about it.  In fact, the junkier the better. Students from other countries, particularly Asia, marvel at the assortment of “fried eats” in the American diet. At first, they shake their heads in disapproval, but quick peeks into the cafeteria often show them enjoying their French fries with melted cheese. It’s not just great eating, it makes for great conversation in the ESL classroom.

  1. Unusual Food

Ask students to talk about something they have eaten that is unusual. Whereas many different “foods” will be mentioned, the one thing they have in common is that students like to talk about it. Every student from every country will have something to say. What is strange to someone in a foreign country might be normal to someone in another country. Kujira, anybody?

  1. The Cafeteria at Work/School

Asking about the food at the office or school is another good conversation starter. What is the cafeteria like? Is it free or do you have to pay? How long do you get to eat? What seem like simple, straightforward questions can occasionally pull out a fascinating answer. I recently had a Taiwanese student tell me that after lunch comes nap time. No, not in the lower levels of elementary school, but at the office filled with adult workers. It is customary for employees to either bring in a small, folding bed or just put their head down on the desk and take a short snooze after lunch. How cool is that? Napping aside, the student/office cafeteria can be a good conversation topic. Like the type of food offered, the dining customs and social interactions make for good chit-chat too.

  1. Breakfast

Of the standard three meal periods of the day, breakfast is usually the most conversational. Who doesn’t enjoy breakfast? It turns out that many people do not. The busy student or professional in your ESL class is usually in a hurry in the morning. Just because they don’t always eat it, does not mean they don’t enjoy talking about it. It’s fun to hear what breakfast is like across the globe. From beans, fish, and vegetables to hash browns and grits with gravy, breakfast is subject that always gets students talking. Whether you eat it or not (yet you know you should), the international breakfast table in the ESL classroom is rarely boring.

  1. Ice Cream

No matter what age the student is or what country students are from, who doesn’t know and like ice cream? I always keep a fake, plastic ice cream cone or prop nearby to break out in conversation emergencies When do you eat ice cream? How do you eat ice cream?  What types of ice cream do you enjoy are always good to conversation starters. An ice cream wrapper or box works well in the face-to-face classroom, but when I’m on camera, fake ice cream is always a winner. One thing I’ve learned from my ice cream discussions, chocolate is a popular English term, no matter what language your students speak!

Making the ESL class fun is more than just props and shtick, it can be conversational too. Find the right subject and your students will start talking and continue talking. And while they are enjoying themselves, they will be learning English.

Learning a New Language: My Story

by C. Brown

Learning a new language is a wonderful endeavor, full of new and interesting challenges. I tell people that it is possible for everyone, no matter what age you are.

At first, I did not know if I could learn another language. In my case, it was Spanish.  Learning the new language, however, was something that I really wanted to do. My family and I were going on a vacation to a seaside, Spanish resort. I wanted to be able to talk to the locals. I was determined to learn.

 I took classes and did my homework. I became a good student. I practiced every day. At first it was hard, and I wasn’t very good. But over time, and with much practice, I was speaking a foreign language!

It’s Not Rocket Science

In most cases, learning a second language is perceived as an impossible achievement, reserved only for talented individuals. Nothing can be further from the truth. In my experience, I can easily say that anyone can learn another language if they “need to” or “really want to.” You do not have to discover complicated physical formulas or chemical reactions. Just follow a few basic study routines and repeat them over and over again.

Second, the major challenge of learning a second language is that you have to practice, again and again, day by day, week to week, year to year. You must continue to practice no matter how boring it may be. It requires motivation and strength of will. Perseverance is key.

It’s Like Building a Muscle

You must exercise regularly to develop your muscles. As soon as you stop exercising, your muscles will begin to deteriorate. This is also related to language learning. Even if you speak the language well today, it will begin to get worse as soon as you stop speaking it. So, it should a continuous process until you are able to master it very well. Like going to the gym regularly to build muscle strength, the mastery of your new language will build strength with regular practice.

The Vacation was Wonderful

Learning Spanish made the vacation that much better. The seaside, Spanish resort was wonderful, and I understood much of what the locals were talking about. I even made some friends, some of whom I keep in touch with (in Spanish, of course) to this day.  

One day I realized something. I was a young man and I spoke to strangers in their language. It was a thrill that many people older- and even younger- than I was had not yet reached the level I had attained in speaking another language. It wasn’t easy at first, but it was a challenge which I faced, and I am glad I overcame it.

So, what are you waiting for? Learn that new language. You will so enjoy it!

Five Funny Props for the ESL Classroom

In a previous post I discussed the importance of humor in the ESL classroom. For all the jokesters and punsters out there, sadly, jokes and puns are for the most part ineffective in the English language learning environment. Most students simply won’t get the joke. The teacher must therefore rely on other ways to make the classroom funny and the student learning experience more enjoyable.

One such way is with the use of props. Whether in the face-to-face classroom, or the distance learning, virtual classroom, props can be a great way to create some levity and ease the anxiety the language learner may feel. Their effective use can tear down the barrier between “teacher” and “student” and make the nervous ESL learner feel more at ease.

Here are five simple but fun props I like to use:

  1. A musical instrument

You don’t have to know how to play a musical instrument to benefit from what this prop can do. In fact, the worse you play it, the more smiles you can bring. Whether it is a guitar, horn, accordion, or even a drum kit, you can add fun and life to any lesson. I have an old, hand-me-down, beat up ukulele.  I can’t play very well. In fact, I stink. But that doesn’t matter. I like to open my lessons with a made-up song, sung off-key, strumming away on the worn-out strings. It’s not a big deal but it sets the right tone.

  1. A funny hat

Look in your closet for the silliest hat you own. You might have bought it as a joke during an inebriated shopping spree, or, it might be a dopey gift from an old relative. It’s not dopey anymore. Break it out, brush it off, put it on, and start teaching.

  1. Fake pizza

No matter where in the world your students are from, chances are they know and love pizza. Careful scouring of the budget bin at the local Target or Walmart, or even a visit to the chewy toy aisle at  local Pet Supermarket can turn up this prized prop. This fake food may work best in the virtual classroom, but it’s o.k. to give it a go when teaching face to face. You may not even need to use it. Just have it lying around on a nearby table should be enough to add a touch of irreverence and bring a smile or two to your students.

  1. A silly wig

Walking into class with an out of place, silly wig, is another great way to get the students to smile. I bought an 80s, long blonde wig, suitable for any aspiring rock-and-roll musician. I use it sparingly, but when I do, students always burst out laughing. It’s a great ice-breaker, and another way to lighten up the classroom environment.

  1. An empty KFC box

The one common food denominator from around the world I have found is not McDonald’s, but KFC. Both young and old from almost any country get a smile when thinking of this quintessential example of American culinary decadence. Even the more health conscious students know about KFC. All students will smile when they see the box. And of course, segueing into a food conversation is usually a very good thing in ESL.

Of course, every teacher uses props in a different way. I’ve known teachers who wear the hat on a test day, or even some who like to play a few off-key notes of a musical instrument to introduce a student presentation. It’s a great way to relieve student nervousness and reduce classroom anxiety.

What’s your favorite prop? When do you use it?

Let’s hear from you!

Metacognition and the Language Learner

The teacher walks into his foreign language classroom for the first time and sees a wide variety of students. It is a combination of male students and female students, younger students and older students, and students from different ethnic and racial backgrounds. He thinks he has the diversity of the class figured out. Or does he?  Apart from the obvious diversity lies a less-obvious but highly relevant classroom dynamic. If not noticed and assessed properly it can be a mighty learning inhibitor. What could it be?

One answer is metacognition. Simply defined, metacognition is learning how to learn or thinking about how to think. In the case above, the teacher has a classroom of students with a variety of learning skills. Some students might have poor study and thinking skills while others have good ones. Some students might think they have good thinking and learning skills but in reality, they do not. While others, on the other hand, have much better skills than they realize. The teacher that is quick to recognize each student’s ability can be a more effective teacher as he strives to better prepare his students for their learning journey.

But who is responsible for student learning, the teacher or the student? The answer is most likely both parties. Teachers need to provide a pathway for learning to accommodate all students, while the students must do their part and practice what they have been taught. This needs to be recognized by both parties.

Originally studied to analyze cognitive development in young children (Baker & Brown, 1984), researchers soon realized that metacognitive practices were applicable to everybody (Hatano & Inagaki, 1986). Most notable is its relevance in the classroom, or anyplace there is a teacher and learner dynamic. Intuitively, students who know about different learning strategies, and can better understand their own learning will be better learners. They will be aware of their strengths and weaknesses and adjust their approach accordingly. Students who are not proactive learners, or think they are better learners than they are, will struggle with their learning and become frustrated. This is quite common and something teachers need to address.

To begin the process of understanding the metacognitive process, teachers might begin the class with a pretest, demonstrating how much each student remembers from a previous learning experience. From this point, benchmarks can be set and teaching strategies identified. As the class progresses, teachers can monitor each students progress thereby reinforcing, or not reinforcing their teaching approach. Once students with poor metacognitive skills are identified, teachers must next teach them how to think and study.

An effective way to reduce the impact of poor metacognition is to use formative assessment techniques (Lang 2012). Formative techniques are brief, low-key activities that students can give both themselves and the teacher feedback about their level of understanding. Examples or formative assessments would include: Think-pair-share activities, minute papers, using social media and/or clickers, or self-assessment. These simple techniques can make learning fun and get students excited about being in class. The more passion they have for learning, the easier it becomes to learn new things.

Formative methods allow students to assess their learning in a more comfortable, less threatening manner than summative assessments which tend to be more formal and pressure filled.  Formative techniques help students study and learn more effectively before exams and are less likely to intimidate when the larger, summative exams are administered.  Moreover, they allow teachers to assess how all their students are learning so they can adjust their techniques accordingly.

In my opinion, nowhere is the variety of thinking and learning diversity more pronounced than in a foreign language classroom. This is why metacognition is an important area to understand. People are most likely learning the English language for a variety of reasons. Some might really want to learn as they need it to improve their work standing, while others might not share the same level of importance. The new language might be a casual hobby to them and learning it therefore becomes a lower priority. Some students might be really good students by nature, while others might not be. Some might have college degrees while other might simply have a basic reading level.  The teacher most therefore understand why all the students are there and do what they can to stimulate their learning level. Because each student is in a different “place” in regard to their thinking and learning teachers must work extra hard to insure their students are learning.

A student saying they are not good at something is not an excuse for not learning. It only means that they must have to work hard at it. That means that they must be willing to commit the time. If a teacher can use techniques to improve metacognitive skills by making it easier for the student to think and study, the student should learn more and the teacher will enjoy showing him the way. Watching students learn and become better thinkers is what teaching is about. Above all else, effective teaching is a labor of love.

Baker, Linda, and Ann L. Brown. “Cognitive monitoring in reading.” Understanding reading comprehension (1984): 21-44.

Hatano, Giyoo, and Kayoko Inagaki. “Two courses of expertise.” (1986).

Lang, James M., “Metacognition and Student Learning.” The Chronicle of Higher Education (2012).

Becoming Bilingual

Of course, we want to learn a second language.  Besides being a cool skill to have, many cognitive scientists now feel being bilingual is good for the brain. It can improve one’s ability to stay focused and maintain a good attention span. Moreover, many now believe it can put off memory loss and keep our brains healthy. Unfortunately for most of us, after the age of 18, research has shown the brain becomes less equipped to learn a second language

Still, many adults gamely fodder along and give it a try. Lessons, apps, classes, social media, websites, movies and television can guide us along, yet the challenge of becoming bilingual is daunting. Clearly, our aging brains aren’t quite as nimble as they were in our brain-developing younger years. It can be as frustrating as it is rewarding.

As we take on this challenge, and embark on this journey, there are things we should be aware of. They can help us achieve our learning goals and may even save us some money along the way.

Here are three important learning criteria we should know:

1. Metacognition

Simply put, metacognition is the awareness of one’s ability to learn. In many cases, it centers on “learning how to learn.” This is something most people don’t think about, but as an adult second language learner, it is an important first step in the ability to master that new language.

We must first ask ourselves, “How badly do I want to learn this language?” If knowing a second language is ‘nice to have,’ vs. ‘have to have,’ we may not be as driven, and your learning can take longer. The more important learning a new language is to us, the stronger our metacognition, or willingness. Obviously, the more willing we are to learn, the more—and quicker—we will learn.

It is also a good time to reflect on how we learn best. Studying language material while sitting on the couch, watching television, directing the kids, and checking the phone is probably not indicative of good learning. Regular time to ourselves, be it a podcast on the commute home, or 15 or 20 minutes in the local Starbucks might be a better option.

 How we learn best is up to us. No one style is best for everyone. Give that a serious think before you embark on your second language journey.

2. Persistence

In our very busy lives, who has the time to dedicate on a big, new project such as being bilingual? Between time spent working, commuting, and being at home with family, the leftover time for ourselves seems to shrink every year. But what if we gave your new learning project five-minutes a day?

Learning gurus often say that spending five minutes every day learning something new can be as beneficial as spending hours on the same thing two or three times a week. In other words, “micro-learning” keeps the brain on track to receive new information. That being said, persistence can be an important part of learning something new. Ideally, several days a week can be dedicated to more than five-minutes, but what’s important is that the new language be studied, one way or another, every day.

We should take the time to learn something every day. Perhaps listen to a foreign language station or podcast on the drive home from work, rather than what we normally listen to. We can read the paper in the new language every morning; or watch a little foreign language television. Whatever we choose to do, we should just be persistent.

  1. Resourcefulness

Obviously, having money to invest in language learning can be a plus. Spending time with a private tutor, whether face-to-face or virtually, can be quite impactful. But how much money are we willing to spend on this new learning project? How many lessons will we need to become fluent? 100? 200? 500? 1,000? More? At $20-$30 an hour for a private tutor, that can certainly add up. How many of us are willing to spend $30,000 just to be able to communicate better with our car mechanic, maintenance man, or foreign speaking neighbor?

For the thriftier of us, there are other, more resourceful options available, which given proper time and thought, can be just as effective. Foreign language websites can build up our reading skills. Foreign language television or videos may also be quite prevalent, depending on the language we are pursuing. And if there are subtitles, even better. We can also scour the ap store for free aps, or social media for foreign language posts. The point is, foreign language exposure options are out there, we just have to take the time to find them.

Ideally, a good option would be to make a small investment in a tutor; either for a private lesson or a small group lesson. But that should be supplemented with other learning options. Perhaps we can have our formal lesson twice a week, listen to a podcast three times a week, and the other two days can be spent reading something in the new language. We spend some money, but we do not go overboard.

Being bilingual, especially as an adult learner, can be a real challenge. It doesn’t mean that it is not doable. It is important for the learner to understand what the challenges will be, and plan accordingly. It will take time and probably a little bit of money. But if we know the difficulties going in, develop a learning plan, and stick to it; that foreign language will be there in our brains slowing down its aging and helping stay focused.

“¿Estamos listos, amigos?”

Humor and the English Language Learner: Five Ways to Make Class Funny

It’s widely known that humor has a great impact on learning. It breaks down the barriers between teacher and student, reduces classroom anxiety by making the students feel more comfortable, and stimulates the brain to think critically and creatively. But what impact can it have in an ESL classroom?

It is certainly possible to tell your ESL students that you know 25 letters of the alphabet, but you don’t know why (Y); however, the chances are you will only get blank stares. Even the advanced learners may get stuck on the wordplay. The weather in Mexico? Chili (chily) today and hot tamale (tomorrow)—forget about it. Even the old standby: this lesson will be fast and not half-fast, falls flat. Clearly, puns, riddles and other types of clever wordplay are out, but what is in?

Competent use of humor can have a tremendous positive impact on student learning in the ESL classroom. Whether the learning environment is virtual or face-to-face, the teacher can make the student laugh—and learn. It is still possible.

Here are five ways:

1. Funny Props- A visit to the local Dollar Store, Party Supermarket, or pet shop can find a plethora of silly, irreverent and inexpensive props to use in the ESL classroom. Anything from funny masks and wigs to fake plastic food can be useful. The odder the better. You just need your imagination.

2. Physical Comedy- Whether teaching online or in a face-to-face classroom, it is easy make yourself physically look funny. Silly hats, lavish clothing, and dopey mannerisms can add life to the dry ESL classroom. The burst of levity can ease the stresses of language learning by students of all ages.

3. Funny Sounding Music- Go ahead and Google funny sounding music (copyright free), and you will get a host of options. Find a few that work for you and start your class with them. Or if the class is starting to drag, play them anytime. Music in the classroom is always refreshing. Fun music makes things even more special.

4. Humorous/Oddball Conversation Topics- In most cases, ESL teachers have a dedicated curriculum and teaching plan. That does not mean you cannot veer off into areas that provide more levity. Certain subjects are naturally funny (funny stories, crazy family members, a bad cooking experience, and your first date come to mind). If funny tales are not part of the curriculum, it is usually o.k. to veer off the dull subject of the day and dabble in the world of silly.

5. The Bad Joke- Even though your students probably won’t understand it, tell it anyway. Always have a “Knock-Knock” joke at the ready. It might not be funny to the students, but if you laugh at it they will laugh at you. Besides, what makes the joke funny is a teachable moment to a foreign language student…..and it sure beats grammar.

So, ESL teachers, take a chance. Work outside your “comfort zone.” Put on that silly looking wig. Sing off-key to your young students. Good teaching is all about taking risks. Your students might not always laugh along, but they will appreciate your attempt to make their learning fun.