Saturday, 21 April 2012

Saigon Skydeck, Bitexco Financial Tower

The Bitexco Financial Tower is probably the most iconic building in Saigon.  It is currently the tallest (though that is likely to change before too long) and is instantly recognisable by the helipad protruding from one of the upper storeys.  Interestingly, one of the snippets of information we discovered on our visit was that the helipad was not an essential part of the design, but rather, an afterthought for its aesthetic value, seeing as the designer wanted to evoke the idea of Vietnam's national symbol - the lotus flower.  We were inspired to visit the Tower and, more specifically, the 49th floor Skydeck offering 360 degree views of the city, after reading TJ Vargas's (@herdailydigest) blogpost.  We were not disappointed!  We felt it was well worth the 200,000VND entrance fee.

After leaving our bags in the free lockers provided at the entrance, we were whisked up to floor 49 in record time, our ears popping en route!  When we emerged on to the Skydeck, we were blown away by the view laid out before us.  We were greeted by a guide who spoke excellent English and was very knowledgeable.  When she realised that we were residents and could recognise the city's landmarks for ourselves, she switched her commentary to more details about the construction of the Tower and the plans for the further development of certain areas of Saigon.  It was all very informative and interesting. 

We spent a long time making the complete circuit and taking in the views before going upstairs to the 50th floor where we had probably the most expensive drinks in Saigon, but, after all, the view was amazing!!

The plan is to open a restaurant and bar on the 52nd floor (the same level as the helipad) within the next few months.  It is likely to be very pricey, but we will probably pay it a visit because I would love to see the city by night from such an incredible vantage point!

Address and opening times:

Saigon Skydeck
36 Ho Tung Mau
Ben Nghe Ward
District 1

Sunday to Thursday: 9.30am - 11.30pm
Friday & Saturday:    10am - 10pm

See more of my photos here.

How to Memorise Things

This is a snippet from a recent talk given by Tim Murphey which you can read about here.
Five ways to help us remember:
1.   Chunking from back to front; that is, taking a sentence you have to remember and splitting it into short chunks which you then build up from the end back to the beginning.
For example:
“I’m afraid he’s not here at the moment.”

                                     at the moment.

                        not here at the moment.

                 he’s not here at the moment.

 I’m afraid he’s not here at the moment.

2.   Using rhythm – marking a beat by tapping on the palm of your hand or stamping your foot or touching your head.  The actions help you to remember the words.

3.   Putting words into song tunes – we all remember learning the alphabet as children by singing it – in fact, I’m sure a lot of us still remember the tune!  This is an extension of that.

4.   Shadowing – repeating in your head everything that you hear.  Studies have shown that this is even more effective if you move your lips whilst you do it!
5.   Use it or lose it! – practise all the time!!

I’m sure that we can all think of ways to apply these memory techniques in the language classroom.  I welcome your comments.

The Thrill of Student Agency in Classroom Management

This was the title of the first presentation of the recent Cambridge Day I attended.  The speaker was Tim Murphey and what follows is a summary of his workshop.
Tim began by defining his terms and explained that, in this context, ‘agency’ meant ‘control’ or ‘choice’.  He went on to hypothesize that:
                   agency        +        altruism     =        thrill
In other words, giving people the choice and the control to be able to help others is thrilling, exciting and, ultimately, fulfilling.  If we can pass on this thrill to our students, then they will be helping themselves and each other.
As an example of this, Tim gave us a speed dictation which, in a language classroom, would be too difficult for an individual student to write down by themselves.  The aim, therefore, is to get students to collaborate, both before the activity by deciding what each of them is listening for, and after, by helping each other to fill in what they’ve missed.
The main thrust of Tim’s presentation was the importance of student curiosity to keep them engaged and make them want to learn.  He suggested using split stories, beginning the lesson with a story, but leaving the punch line until the very end of the session.  Pique the students’ interest and then leave them wondering until the dying moments of the lesson. 
As an alternative to a story, you could ask a philosophical question at the beginning of the lesson and answer it at the end.  The example Tim gave was, ‘Why is a turtle trying to fly more beautiful than a bird sitting in a tree?’  The answer – because the turtle is striving for something beyond its present capabilities.  This is what we are trying to inspire our students to do!
When students are asked questions, it makes them curious; just giving them information is like water washing over rocks – it doesn’t sink in!  (I love this analogy!)  It’s imperative that we, as teachers, cultivate curiosity in our students.  This idea is supported by anthropological study.  Consider this question:
Why did we stand up 6,000,000 years ago?
a)    To reach more food.
b)   To reduce the body’s exposure to the sun.
c)    Because we were curious and wanted to see further.
All three possibilities have some truth to them, but the third seems to carry the most weight with anthropologists.  Humans are curious by nature and because of this curiosity altruism came to the fore.
Let me explain.  As a result of us standing up, the birth canal in females became narrower provoking earlier birthings – at nine months instead of thirteen.  Babies were born, and still are, prematurely.  Caretakers, therefore, had a longer and harder job in that they had to spend more time with their babies.  There were positive consequences of this, however:
Ø  There was increased emotional bonding between babies and caretakers.
Ø  There was increased communication – the beginning of real language came out of parental babbling.
Ø  There was a more rapid development of cultures and communities – the advent of slings, babysitting and the beginning of mutual aid in the form of midwives.
So, this was the beginning of altruism and we already know that humans have innate curiosity.  Now, Robert Sapolsky, a neuroscientist, added to our knowledge with his ‘signal – task – reward’ theory.  He argued that humans respond to a signal to fulfil a task in the expectation of getting a reward.  This reward doesn’t need to be a physical prize.  Merely fulfilling the task is reward enough because it triggers a dopamine rush to our brains.  If challenge is added to the equation, then it is even more motivating – it is exciting; there is an element of risk.
So, how do we use this to advantage in our classrooms?  Well, by changing activities frequently – every five minutes for young learners and lower levels.  This increases the number of times students can expect to get the dopamine rush and so it keeps them highly motivated.
This is all very well, but we need to remember Maslow’s hierarchy:
In other words, people’s basic needs of food, water and shelter are paramount and need to be satisfied long before they can self-actualise or learn.  Two billion people still live in the bottom level and if we can’t lift them out of poverty, then they can’t learn.  We need to help these people so that we can help ourselves for the good of mankind.  A noble thought and not one that necessarily has practical application in our daily lives, but, nevertheless, something to bear in mind as we teach.
So, what gets students motivated and keeps them motivated?  Motivation triggers neurons in the brain:
  •   Most nerual firing - DOING IT!!
  •   Next – WATCHING a person doing it.
  •   Next – SEEING a thing and imagining doing it.
  •   Next – HEARING the word.
  •    Next – THINKING about it on your own (random association).
  •    Finally – AUTOMATIC FIRING (neural obsession, like love).

    We produce mirror neurons; that is, to understand what other people do, we imagine ourselves doing it. These are empathy neurons. In the classroom, therefore, near peer role modelling (learning from people most similar to ourselves) is really effective.
    Darwinism talked about collaboration, and even cross species collaboration, as having a bonding effect. It put forward the idea of ‘social capital’ – people of like minds working together – and of ‘bridging social capital’ where different types of people work together. In the language classroom, this manifests as cross-age or cross-level teaching.
    Social evolution, therefore, can be summed up as:
    Examples of this in the real world are:
· Wikipedia – the online collaborative encyclopedia
· The increasing number of NGOsoperating globally
· The growth of micro-financing
    In the classroom, we need to encourage students to help each other. We can ask them to write their ‘language learning histories’ and publish them for others to read. By giving each other hints and tips we give all of our students agency which, when combined with altruism, gives them the thrill of learning leading to effective, measurable outcomes for students and teachers alike. We provide value added education!
    For further information, see Tim Murphey’s videos here.

Cambridge Day, Vietnam - 21st March, 2012

I recently attended Cambridge Day, Vietnam in Ho Chi Minh City, a free seminar for teachers organised by Cambridge University Press in conjunction with Fahasa, Ho Chi Minh’s biggest English-language bookseller.  It was held in the plush surroundings of the Kim Do Hotel in District 1.
Tim Murphey

It was a full day made up of four presentations, two given by each of the two speakers.  These speakers were:

Tim Murphey – a researcher from Kanda University of International Studies in Japan.  He is the co-author of ‘Group Dynamics in the Language Classroom’ and his current research is into Vygotskian socio-cultural theory with an emphasis on community, play and music.

Stuart Vinnie
Stuart Vinnie – the Senior ELT Training Consultant for Cambridge University Press in South-East Asia.  His background is as a teacher, examiner, teacher-trainer and coordinator.

All four presentations/workshops were participatory, interesting and thought-provoking and I and my colleagues came away with lots of ideas to apply in our classrooms.  You can read about each presentation in separate blogposts.

Thursday, 19 April 2012

A Wet and Windy Weekend in Mui Ne

We recently had a long weekend here in Vietnam to commemorate Hung Kings.  We didn't know until the last minute, however, whether we would get the Friday off or the Monday or, perhaps, both, so we were unable to book flights or accommodation in advance.  When we were told, a couple of days before, that we would have the Monday off work, we made a decision to go to Mui Ne, a coastal resort some 200km from Saigon.

We booked a nice hotel through our favourite booking site, Agoda, and then tried to book train tickets to get us there.  No chance!!  Apparently, you need to book months in advance to guarantee seats on the one service of the day, especially during a holiday weekend!  So, we ended up going by tourist bus from Pham Ngu Lau, a journey we were assured would be as quick as the train, with the added advantage of getting dropped off at the door of our hotel.

With everything sorted, we booked a cheap hotel in the backpacker district of Saigon for the Thursday night and took the staff bus into the city after finishing work.  We spent the evening in our favourite Indian restaurant, Baba's Kitchen.  Back at the hotel, we went online to catch up with the news and check our e-mails before going to bed.  I clicked on a link to the latest blogpost by @SaigonNezumi, a fellow blogger based in HCMC, and this is what I saw!  Scary stuff!!  And it appeared that Typhoon Pakhar would hit land at the very place we were headed to for the weekend!  We followed a few more links as we tried to decide whether we should call off our trip.  The BBC world weather site confirmed that Pakhar was indeed in the South China Sea heading for Vietnam, but predicted that it would have been downgraded from a typhoon to a tropical storm by the time it made landfall.  So, armed with this information, and paying more heed to the measured response from the BBC rather than the near-hysterical (our interpretation - no offence meant to my American friends!) information being put out by the American Embassy, we decided to go ahead with our plans.

Next morning, after a good breakfast prepared by our hotel owner, who assured us that the storm would be at its worst much further north than we were going, we made our way to the travel agent's office round the corner.  There, they were all smiles and dismissed any idea that we would be in any danger from 'a little bit of wind and rain'.

We, therefore, boarded our bus (rather later than scheduled as is the norm here in Vietnam) and headed out of the city with, seemingly, every other inhabitant of Saigon!  The journey was tortuously slow due to sheer volume of traffic.  We had already been on the road for over four hours (the predicted time for completing the entire journey) when we reached our hal-way stop!  After buying refreshments, we got back on the bus for the final leg.  As we got closer to our destination, the weather worsened, the sky grew dark and visibility was reduced to almost nothing.  When we were dropped off at our hotel, the bellman rushed across the road with a large golfing umbrella to try to protect us from the torrential rain that was now falling!

On checking in, we were told that, instead of the 'partial seaview' room we had booked, due to the number of weather-related cancellations, we had been upgraded to a luxury room at the front of the hotel with a 'full seaview' - all the better to watch the storm rolling in off the sea, as it turned out!!

Souvenir anyone?
We decided to venture out as soon as we had dropped our bags as it was only raining and all the indications were that it would only get worse!  We walked the full length of Mui Ne's main drag, ducking into a couple of bars and restaurants along the way to avoid the worst of the rain.  Our first impressions were good, in spite of the weather!  There was a wide selection of eating and drinking places, some shops selling souvenirs of varying quality and plenty of travel agents offering half-day and day trips to local attractions.  There were a number of beach-front resorts and we were able to catch glimpses of what appeared to be a beautiful wide sandy beach.  Had the weather been better, we were sure this would be a great place to spend a few days!  Judging by the number of signs written only in their language, this opinion was obviously shared by many Russian tourists, too!

With darkness approaching and the weather showing no sign of improving, and having reached the end of Mui Ne's main street, we hailed a cab to take us back to our hotel where we dried off and changed before venturing out again for dinner.  We stayed close to the hotel this time!!

Rebuilding the beach
Typhoon Pakhar, as predicted, did make landfall during the night, but I'm pleased to report that the BBC had got it right and it was 'only' a tropical storm by the time it did.  Even so, the next morning found us confined to the hotel.  It just wasn't worth battling the strong winds and rain.  We watched out of the window as one or two brave souls fought in vain against the elements.  By late morning, however, we were going a little stir-crazy and decided we had to get out.  We got a taxi to take us back down to the far end of the resort where we had seen one or two bars offering comfy seats and free wi-fi - all we needed to while away the afternoon.  We settled on Jibe's, a surfer bar right on the beach, where we could sit and watch the waves lashing the shore whilst enjoying good food and a few beers.  As is usually the case in these situations, we were kept entertained by 'people-watching' - there were certainly a few characters around us!!

By the next day, typically (as we were due to leave at 1pm!) the storm was abating and we were finally able to go for a walk along the beach.  There were a few intrepid guys kite-surfing, making the most of the still-strong winds, but, otherwise, the beach was largely deserted.  There was a lot of debris left behind by the storm and the clean-up operation was already in full swing.  The 'beach' at the far end of Mui Ne had been washed away completely and we were fascinated to watch an army of workers filling sandbags to rebuild it!

As we walked along the beach, we could more clearly see the resorts which we'd glimpsed from the road and agreed that this would indeed be a nice place to come in better weather.  So, we decided to investigate a couple of hotels a bit more closely and then made the rash decision to book one, at a ridiculously expensive price, for the next long weekend at the end of April.  So, we will be returning to Mui Ne soon and have everything crossed for a sunny weekend!!

See more of my photos here.

Saturday, 14 April 2012

Baba’s Kitchen, Bui Vien, Saigon

After ‘discovering’ this restaurant a couple of months ago, I googled it and found that I was rather late to the party – that it was being talked about all over the net and that several other bloggers had already posted about it, singing its praises.  Nevertheless, I want to add my twopenn’orth, as we say in my home county of Yorkshire!!
We’ve been visiting Saigon regularly at weekends since first coming to Vietnam back in September.  We usually stay in the Pham Ngu Lau area.  In fact, we usually stay on Bui Vien Street just a few hundred metres from Baba’s Kitchen.  Until about seven or eight weeks ago, though, we had never even noticed it was there.  It was a tip-off from some colleagues that sent us looking for it.  They were raving about it as ‘the best curry house in Saigon’.  Well, all I can say is that I concur!!

On that first weekend, we ate there on the Friday night and went back again on the Saturday!  Then, the following weekend, we were there again – just the one visit this time!  Since then, we’ve been back several times, most recently a couple of days ago.

So, it’s an Indian restaurant offering a wide range of dishes from different regions of India as well as the ubiquitous English Indian dish – chicken tikka masala!!  That’s what my husband ordered on the first occasion we ate at Baba’s Kitchen, on the assumption that, ‘if they can get that right, then everything else will be good’.  I’m not sure about the logic of his argument, but the chicken tikka masala met with his approval, as has everything else we’ve sampled from the menu.  The dishes have all been well-flavoured and well-presented.  When ordering, you are asked about how spicy you would like your dish to be.  Mark (my husband) likes hot and spicy food, but the medium-spiced curries in Baba’s are hot enough for him, meaning that ‘mild’ is about right for me!!  Their korma is the hottest I’ve tasted anywhere!  The side dishes and breads have all been as equally delicious as the main dishes and they are not afraid to use spice in everything – even the poppadoms!  We have also visited Baba’s with a vegetarian friend who was impressed with the choice and the quality of the meat-free dishes.

The prices in Baba’s are reasonable and the staff are extremely friendly and efficient.  The only problem might be that, as the popularity of the restaurant spreads, and with only seven tables downstairs and a few upstairs, you may find that you have to wait a while, or, worse still, that you can’t get in at all!!  If that’s the case, I suggest you use their takeaway service and go and eat in the nearest park!!

You can find Baba’s Kitchen at: 164 Bui Vien | Pham Ngu Lao, District 1, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.

Extensive Reading – An #ELTchat

This is a summary of the #eltchat which took place at 12 noon BST on Wednesday 11th April, 2012.  The full title of the chat was:

How can we introduce, implement and evaluate an extensive reading programme and convince administrators of its value?

The chat was, as usual, expertly moderated by @Marisa_C and @Shaunwilden.
I voted for this topic and was particularly interested in taking part in the chat because I am currently trying to set up an ER programme for a course I am coordinating at my university.  As always, I picked up lots of useful ideas and links to articles for further reading.
What is ER?
Extensive reading involves students reading long texts or large quantities of texts for general understanding, with the intention of enjoying the texts.

Using graded readers
I am going to try using graded readers, one chapter at a time, in our Edmodo online classroom and was keen to get ideas and feedback from my PLN.  The consensus was that graded readers are a good choice when launching a reading programme, but there was a difference of opinion as to whether you should have a class reader or whether students should be allowed to choose their own titles.  I intend to start with a class reader in the hope that students will then be inspired to read more, an idea supported by @Marisa_C.  As was pointed out, though, the trick is to find something that suits the whole class. 
@Books4English suggested that the best low level reader is Penguin K's first case by L.G. Alexander, a whodunnit with suspect interviews.
Graded readers are good because it is easy to the organise materials by level. This is particularly important at the beginning of an ER programme when getting the right level is crucial to its success.
It was pointed out by @daveclearycz that, whilst there are excellent alternatives to graded readers, these can be hard to source, although @cioccas told us that she often prefers using children's books, such as titles by Roald Dahl.  Obviously, it is easier to use original adult texts with higher level students.  Alternatively, you could write your own level-appropriate material!
Ways to implement an ER programme
  • Use class libraries - whether with graded readers or other texts, the disadvantage here is the start-up cost, though if considered a long-term investment, the cost is negligible.
  • If no library is available, a class box can be equally worthwhile.
  • Have a dedicated reading class or book club - students read their text and then meet to discuss and do language and skills work.
  • Have reading stations, as a follow-up to reading a novel, with short texts (for example, comics) related to the main theme.
  • Have a class blog or wiki with links to articles about the reading material.  Use it as a platform for written book reviews which generate interest in the texts, give writing practice and build a reading community.  These reviews could also be recorded as interviews as a pairwork speaking activity or collected in a binder for use with future classes.
  • @cioccas suggested that, instead of having a formal ER programme, it might be just as effective to talk to individual students about favourite books that you think they might be interested in and able to manage.
  • Have a swap programme where students exchange books after reading them.
  • Have a silent reading programme in class time - for example, 15 minutes where students just read - either the class text or something of their own choice.  By doing this, students really get the message that reading is important.  On the other hand, though, 'forcing' students to read like this might actually demotivate them.  Also, @Shaunwilden suggested that class time should be used to encourage reading, but not necessarily to do the actual reading.  Reading can be done at home - class time should be for talking.  @reasons4 told us that if his Czech teacher did this, he'd complain!
  • You could have the students listening to the text whilst reading.  Although not strictly an ER programme, it might encourage reluctant readers, especially if it is a text which lends itself to evocative sound effects or if the story is read by a famous name (Stephen Fry reading Harry Potter or Tony Robinson reading Terry Pratchett books, for example) .  It might help dyslexic students in particular.  It could, though, turn students into slow, voice-dependent readers.
  • Use the set texts with Cambridge ESOL exam students.
  • Have a lot of short articles available for students to read - they read as many as they can and fill in a form about them.
  • Use blogs or RSS readers as an alternative, non-fiction ER programme.
  • A suggestion from @llea_dias - set up a Facebook group where students post as characters from a book they are all reading.
Why should we use ER in our teaching?
  • It's the best way for students to consolidate their grammar.
  • It's the best way to acquire vocabulary.
  • It's a great way to access the wider world of English.
  • It accelerates students' progress in second language acquisition.
Overcoming problems
The main problem when trying to introduce an ER programme was felt to be the reluctance by some students to get involved.  If students don't enjoy reading in their L1, they are unlikely to be engaged in reading in English.  Whilst teachers generally agreed on the benefits of ER, we had to accept that it cannot be forced on our students.  We can lead the horses to water, but we cannot make them drink!  @hartle suggested giving students a choice between listening and reading projects.  In her experience, most students choose listening, but some opt for the reading.  @Marisa_C proposed giving some incentive, especially for YLs or teens - a chart with prizes, for example.  Engaging pre- and post-reading tasks, such as giving presentations on what they have read, also help to motivate students to read, as does allowing them to change texts if they are not enjoying what they're reading.  Dramatising scenes from a story or book can be engaging and might also help with pronunciation and intonation.
A success story to finish
Gentle persuasion might work on even the most reluctant readers, though!  @kevchanwow told us about a student who read her first book in any language only two months ago and is now an avid reader.  She started at level 1 (400 headwords) and is already reading level 3 (1000 headwords).  For her, it was all about confidence!

Suggested by @Marisa_C:
Other links:

Sunday, 1 April 2012

Correcting Speaking Errors

What follows is a summary of a talk Scott Thornbury gave during a recent webinar on error correction.  He proposed that there are at least ten ways to correct an error in spoken English.

Let’s take as an example the common mistake:

‘My sister’s very beautiful.  She has got a long hair.’

1.   ‘No.  She has got long hair.’

2.   ‘No.’

3.   ‘No.  Anyone?’

4.   ‘No.  She has got ………?’

5.   ‘No. ‘Hair’ is uncountable.’

6.   ‘Oh, a long hair?  Where is it?  On her nose?’

7.   ‘Oh, she has got long hair, has she?’

8.   ‘Oh, really?  My sister has got short hair.’

9.   ‘Sorry?’

10.                ‘Good.’

Methods 1 – 5 are explicit error correction, where the student is clearly told that they have made an error.  Methods 6 – 9 are implicit error correction, where the students are not actually told that they’re wriong, but their error is implied.

Number 6 is correction through humour (or sarcasm!), perhaps reinforced through drawings or mime.

Number 7 is recasting or reformulation – a benign way of giving the learner a chance to correct themselves.

Number 9 indicates misunderstanding and invites self-correction.  Another way to do this would be to make a clarification request.

Number 10 is the humanist approach – that is, to ignore the error completely!

Dismissing the last method as being totally ineffective in the language classroom, which of the others have merit?  Well, all of them to some degree.  Over the last 20 or 30 years of EFL teaching, implicit methods of error correction have been favoured because they are more like original language acquisition.  However, current thinking is that we need to be more direct as teachers and that explicit correction is best.

There is clear evidence that corrective feedback contributes to learning.’

So, in conclusion, when your students are wrong, tell them! 

And a final tip from Scott – have students write their errors down in their notebooks to focus their minds on them: ‘My Favourite Errors’.