Hey reddit! I am an ESL teacher and author. Because I became dissatisfied with the old-fashioned way English was being taught, I founded Thompson Language Center. I wrote the curriculum for Speaking English at Sheridan College and published my course textbook English is Stupid, Students are Not. An invitation to speak at TEDx in 2009 garnered international attention for my unique approach to teaching speaking. Currently it has over a quarter of a million views. I've also written the series called The Backpacker's Guide to Teaching English, and its companion sound dictionary How Do You Say along with a mobile app to accompany it. Ask Me Anything.

Edit: I've been answering questions for 5 hours and I'm having a blast. Thank you so much for all your questions and contributions. I have to take a few hours off now but I'll be back to answer more questions as soon as I can.

Edit: Ok, I'm back for a few hours until bedtime, then I'll see you tomorrow.

Edit: I was here all day but I don't know where that edit went? Anyways, I'm off to bed again. Great questions! Great contributions. Thank you so much everyone for participating. See you tomorrow.

Edit: After three information-packed days the post is finally slowing down. Thank you all so much for the opportunity to share interesting and sometimes opposing ideas. Yours in ESL, Judy

Comments: 1133 • Responses: 34  • Date: 

MahoganyJoy379 karma

What’s the hardest thing about English for ESL students to grasp?

JudyThompson_English933 karma

English spelling doesn't make sense. Other languages are logical in that their alphabets were developed to represent the oral language (spoken languages come first - writing second), this didn't happen with English (a capitalist name William Caxton made a mess of English when he wrote it down in 1476 and didn't modify the alphabet). Students bring the logic software of their first language to the table when they study English. When it doesn't work out - they blame themselves. Heart breaking.

rawrebound201 karma

As a former ESL student in my early years and the spouse of someone taking ESL in their 20s I can see the difference between learning english in the early stages and learning english in their 20s. How can someone learning english now try and pick up the language faster and be able to turn english from a second language to a primary one?

JudyThompson_English459 karma

Listening is the access to speaking and reading is the access to writing. There is a bad myth out there (propagated by education sadly) that adults don't learn languages as fast as children. What studies (as far back as 1972) show is that adults learn languages differently than children and in many ways better. First and foremost, if you are learning any language force yourself to authentically engage in it. Listen to podcasts, talk to strangers... let go of trying to do it perfectly. You are going to make mistakes, everyone loves you more for them, learn from them. Be brave.

TheDevilsAdvokaat161 karma

What did you find most disatisfactory about the way English was being taught?

JudyThompson_English365 karma

We, (when I say 'we' I mean trained native English speaking ESL teachers) were taught to teach mostly grammar. Grammar is not the best way to teach/learn a language and our poor results bore that out. What I came to learn in my career was that English Speaking and English Writing are unconnected. The alphabet doesn't make sense so there is no logical bridge from reading and writing (26 letters) and listening and speaking (40+ sounds). When I teach them separately the students do well in both.

Pieutenant106 karma

How often should an ESL teacher use the student's native language to explain a grammar point, especially when teaching beginners. Is it ever acceptable?

JudyThompson_English165 karma

I love this question! When I was teaching in Korea - all Korean students, only one student had to 'get' the lesson and 'Korean telegraph' understanding swept through the class in seconds. First language can be used to expedite information. The part of this question I am most excited about is all major languages use about 40 sounds and any two languages use almost identical sets of sounds. There is a great tool out now for any one to compare the sounds and rules of their first language with the sounds and rules of English to ONLY LEARN THE DIFFERENCES. I harvest similarities between first language and English. I know what you are saying though - should people be allowed to chat away not in English i class? If it is about English - yes. If it is about their new boyfriend - no.

Onepopcornman89 karma

What do you think about the idea of abandoning teaching written Foreign language in schools and instead focusing on teaching verbal language as the place to begin language instruction?

JudyThompson_English87 karma

It depends on what the students need the language for. Both are viable places to start teaching as long as the teacher is clear about the separateness of the two halves of English and understand when they are teaching the alphabet, spelling, grammar, capitalization, punctuation, composition... those are reading and writing skills only. (listening and speaking skills are EPA, word stress, sentence stress, linking, expressions, humor, innuendo...)

MeerkatUltra77 karma

Your books and website seem to distinguish 'English' from all other languages, as if there's something special about this language linguistically.

It's kind of a pet peeve of mine. English isn't the craziest, wackiest language out there. Sure, it has tons of oddities, but most languages do. Saying things like "English is Stupid" makes it seem like it's different than other languages and needs special techniques to be acquired, which I really don't think makes sense linguistically.

What would you say about this critique? Thank you.

rolfisrolf41 karma

It's usually said by people who only speak English. Personally I think the best EFL/ESL teachers are the ones who have learned a second/foreign language themselves.

JudyThompson_English35 karma

I can't disagree. That said, I think the biggest challenge for any ESL/EFL teachers is they haven't been taught there is no access to Listening and Speaking from Reading and Writing and we were only taught Reading and Writing. (No one learns to speak their native language in school. Listening and speaking are in place before we attend school. In native English speaking countries when we study 'English' in school or even in teacher's college - it is only written English that is being taught. With no bridge to spoken English, our students don't achieve the results in speaking their hard work deserves. We are sent out into the world as trained 'English' teachers, but we only know what we learned in school - alphabet, grammar, spelling... which never lead to speaking fluency. We have no idea how to teach speaking even though we are 'Certified English teachers. This is the problem.

JudyThompson_English31 karma

Thank you for your question. I think a lot of people wonder this. The English alphabet doesn't represent sounds. This is unique and crippling about English. The title 'English is Stupid' works very well in English speaking countries where learners are constantly confronted with the craziness of English ('up the road' and 'down the road' both mean the same thing - future...) That title doesn't work nearly so well in countries where English is a learned language. People work hard and pay lots of money to learn English and don't appreciate it being called 'stupid'. Out of sensitivity to these learners the title was officially changed in 2011 to English is Stupid, Students are Not to soften it and respect others.

Quouar5 karma

I agree that English isn't the weirdest language out there, but as a second language that is commonly learned, it's pretty difficult, particularly for non-Indo-European speakers.

JudyThompson_English4 karma

It isn't that English is difficult (it's a fairly simple language) but it is taught badly. Education steps over the fact that the alphabet is inadequate and spelling is random. When you face the root problem, solutions abound.

JestersLastStand4 karma

As an American who's fluent in Mandarin Chinese and Korean, and has dabbled in 4 other languages, YES - English is the craziest language on Earth.

English has more dialects, foreign language cognates, and debated pronunciations than any other I've ever seen. But that's not even the hardest part - we don't follow the rules of grammar or sentence structure MOST OF THE TIME.

I should know. Can grammar.

JudyThompson_English4 karma

I'm glad you brought up grammar. The grammar we are so committed to teaching isn't even English grammar. In 1762 a clergyman named Robert Louth took Latin Grammar, substituted 'English' and his book 'A Short Introduction to English Grammar' went viral. There is one person who has cracked true English grammar and it's Rita Baker in Lydbury England. (she figured it out like a Rubik's cube. Every piece of 'English grammar' You have ever studied or taught - is garbage. As for all the dialects - who cares. The fundamental structure of all versions of spoken English is exactly the same. That's why an Irishman can understand an Australian and a Canadian can understand and Englishman... the bones of English are the same everywhere. It's a damn shame we don't teach those in school and teach fluffed over Latin Grammar instead.

gmod91647 karma

Would you use a different strategy to teach for someone with adhd?

JudyThompson_English66 karma

What we are learning is that many of the smartest people have ADHD. That said, ADHD individuals may have less tolerance for onerous theory and for sitting still. I'd get to the point with the lesson and exercise experiential learning strategies. Less say, more do.

AlgolApe5735 karma

How can I become more fluent in english? what will be your advise to people who learn by their selves? Which international exam to prove a proficient level in English would you choose and why? Thanks in advance !!

JudyThompson_English99 karma

If you want English for academic purposes the existing tests are all skewed for that. If you want to speak fluently, talk to strangers. "Excuse me, could you spare 5 minutes of your time to help me with my English?" Most will say yes, some will say no - don't be discouraged. Ask the same questions over and over again to different people. "How do I get to the museum from here?"... "Excuse me, could you take my picture in front of the statue?"... Be prepared to make lots of wonderful, interesting, even embarrassing mistakes. There is no short cut. You can only become fluent in English by speaking English.

subtlelikeatank24 karma

I’m an ESL teacher too, and I tell my students all the time that English is stupid. What is your opinion about SIOP?

JudyThompson_English23 karma

Surprisingly I have reservations about research-based - as in it is always old, and often deeply theoretical. The experiential learning, using first language, separating written from spoken English in meaningful academic ways...these approaches were not even thought of until after the SIOP program was released. The internet is bringing a lot of crap to our doorstep but a lot of leading edge material too. Think for yourself.

Klendy23 karma

To what extent do you teach the history of the convergent language trees of older versions of German, French, Norse, and English to become modern English?

JudyThompson_English31 karma

I start teaching every single course with a 10 minute presentation on The History of English or what I like to call, How English Got to Be so Messed Up. Yes, it is critical for learners to understand as the boiled down combination of German, French and Norse, English is actually a fairly simple language. I'm happy to give you the chart. It's context. Significant moments like William Caxton splitting English into two separate languages impacts learners significantly. And it's a perfect opportunity for students to listen to you talk. They have to 'get an ear' for your speaking and this is the perfect topic to do that. (Two birds with one stone)

bustawolf0717 karma

How do your co-workers feel about your work and calling English "stupid"?

JudyThompson_English24 karma

Great question! There is definitely some push-back from some of my co-workers and the industry in general, especially 10 years ago. I had a plumb job with the Board of Education with benefits and a nice pension until I started making noise about better ways to teach English, especially Spoken English. I was invited to leave my cushy job (they couldn't fire me because of the union). Waaaah. Never mind, it all worked out. I got a better job teaching my own course for Sheridan College. (It was scary though) Oh funny story - when English is Stupid was published the first big order came from the Board of Education where I used to work!

inky9513 karma

I'm a recent graduate in a non-teaching-related field and I've somehow found myself teaching English in Germany. I'm struggling to get a handle on it. Do you have any tips,perhaps specifically for classroom management, making lessons fun or just remembering all the student's names?

JudyThompson_English23 karma

An icebreaker game I use for student names is the student has to think of an adjective that describes them that begins with the same sound as their name. I say, "I'm Generous Judy" the first student says, "She's Generous Judy and I'm Musical Maria" and so on around the room. (you can write them on the board for beginners if you like) I'm lucky my name starts with a /j/ so I can use an adjective with the letter G but the sound /j/. It sets the stage for teaching how to manage crazy English spelling. I save the class list for a specific exercise later in the course when they have learned to write phonetically (JEnerus JUwdEy/ and /MYUwzikul muREya/ If all that isn't enough! I have also tricked them into speaking - mine is a speaking class after all. Students are meticulous about finding the exact adjective that describes them. Other students can help. You learn a lot about the individual students, and you remember their names.

q2038 karma

In your opinion, how much interaction should an ESL teacher have with students’ native language(s)? (In terms of using it in class as well as general background knowledge)

JudyThompson_English7 karma

It really depends on a lot of things. I use learners' first language in a variety of ways. I don't strictly believe in 'English Zone - never use first language in class' but the point is to experience and learn English so keep that in sight.

iff_true7 karma

What are some issues that a teacher should deal with differently based on the mother tongue of the learners?

JudyThompson_English27 karma

Fabulous question. Major languages are either sound-based (Korean, Chinese, Japanese, Hindi...) where each and every sound is equally important and a 'mistake' in one sound can change the whole message OR stress-based (English, all European languages) where one and only one syllable in any word is longer, higher and louder than the other syllables. The meaning in stress-based languages is in that one syllable (this is the most important thing you are ever going to learn about English). If the stress is missing or wrong - every sound can be perfect, grammar, spelling - everything, but the meaning will be lost. English has infinite tolerance for accents, grammar mistakes and individual sound pronunciation as long as the stressed syllable is accurate there is intelligibility. English conversation is a function of context, word stress and non-verbal cues (body language) not grammar or individual sounds. Speakers from sound-based languages need to stop worrying about grammar mistakes and individual sound variations - no one cares. Speakers from other stress-based languages can stop being so self- conscious about their accents they don't speak at all. Your accent is charming and everyone knows what you are saying. It's time we stopped holding students hostage with information that doesn't make a difference and encouraging them to speak with the English they know now. It will all work out.

oh_jebus7 karma

Hi! I’m an English teacher student in my second year of university. I was wondering: how do you go about the less intriguing, or “not as fun” aspects of teaching English? Teacher grammar for instance.


JudyThompson_English8 karma

You are asking the wrong person. I am the Antichrist of grammar and avoided it by creating my own course that students reviewed with 5 stars. That wasn't helpful but there are ways to spice up grammar. Always show how the point you are teaching shows up in authentic conversation. Jawanna gedda cuppa coffee? Where is the grammar in normal spoken English? It's reduced to tiny insignificant grunts...

typed_this_now5 karma

My girlfriend and I were looking at teaching English in Vietnam for 6 months in a few years, we’ve both visited before we met and think it would be fun. (We’ve also backpacked SE Asia for 6months). I have a masters of secondary education from an Australian uni and she we’ll have a social/early childhood education degree from Denmark where we currently live. She speaks English perfectly but her first language is Icelandic. Will that hold us back? Any tips you could share with me?


JudyThompson_English6 karma

Backpackers have been a much maligned segment of our industry and I don't think that is right. Armed with the right information - killer assessment and tools to address exactly what is missing or different from first language and English - backpackers can make a significant viable difference for learners in a very short time. Dare I say it a backpacker unburdened by a lot of the clap-trap, myth-ridden garbage of a traditional English teacher education can make more of a difference than a 'trained' teacher. This will probably ruffle some feather but there it is. You have a lot to offer Vietnamese learners - especially in speaking. They are dying to talk with you. I support you even if you have to hang up your shingle and teach privately.

yayabananaman5 karma

I'd love to get into teaching English as a second language! How many languages do you speak?

JudyThompson_English13 karma

Almost every Canadian student studies French for years in school. French is one of our official languages. I also went to school in French-speaking Switzerland - many, many years ago, to hone my French. I studied German in high school - mostly because there was a cute boy in the class. Ironically, today my German is much better than my French - what does that tell you about how to learn a language?

baconbitz05 karma

How do you describe or understand the stages of an ESL student and how they move through them towards ‘native speaking’?

JudyThompson_English8 karma

Let's look at the end first. Speaking fluency is in humor (making and getting jokes), expressions, confidence, body language, appropriate cultural behavior and willingness to learn from mistakes. Unfortunately, not many of the earmarks of fluency are taught in ESL school. Grammar study isn't a feature of fluency. Grammar is two dimensional or linear and English is idiomatic and abstract. In the beginning learners rely heavily on information delivered and tested by teachers. That's fine, wonderful exposure but it will only take you so far and I'll say - not far enough. Ultimately, learning is the learner's responsibility. I'm seeing more and more focus on training teachers in coaching students to become self directed and life-long learners. More and more and more and more grammar is not the answer, it never was.

Codykb15 karma

I’ve been interested in doing some TESOL( locally and then abroad, ideally) but I do not have a bachelors degree. It seems like it’s difficult getting a visa to teach abroad without a degree, do you have any advice or thoughts on this?

I’ll check out your book! Thanks!

JudyThompson_English10 karma

I'm sorry I don't. It's a widely insisted upon prerequisite as far as I know. Maybe someone else will give you a better answer.

KTheOneTrueKing4 karma

What is you LEAST favorite thing about English as a language, or at least the funniest?

JudyThompson_English17 karma

I'm a bad speller so I have to say spelling. It is surprising how many native English speakers - even teachers are terrible spellers. It's probably not a coincidence that I wrote a sound dictionary - a dictionary where you look up words from how they sound not from how they are spelled! That's funny as heck.

SquareOfHealing3 karma

Hi! First year chemistry teacher here. I have a lot of ESL kids mixed in with my classes because our school's demographic includes a large immigrant population. I often see a couple groups of my students crowding together and speaking in their native language. I don't want to discourage them, but I do want them to practice using English as well, especially since my class requires writing portions as well. What would you say is the best way to foster an additive attitude towards learning new languages?

JudyThompson_English3 karma

I understand their pain but you are right, we have to foster their relationships with English speaking students. I'm sure others will have ideas but what about teamwork school projects and break them up that way? Or fundraising activities, team-based again - whichever group makes the most cookies for a bake sale in aid of homeless or the drama club...

SirCodey3 karma

What advice would you give to someone trying to teach English in a school where the school only wants their teachers to use worksheets and written work to learn how to speak English?

JudyThompson_English3 karma

Ha. That is a tough one. What about starting a club? Conversation club or drama club, cooking, model trains... it doesn't matter, it's all a ruse to expose learners to your methods of teaching and get around those dastardly, misguided administrators.

jarliy3 karma

I'm an international school teacher trying to transition to online teaching full-time. How would you go about it?

JudyThompson_English3 karma

Find a niche and be the best in the world at what you do. Corporations want solutions quickly. Find their pain in banking, mining, insurance whatever industry and solve it. Do it for free at first if you have to and get great testimonials (don't forget to ask permission to use them) and roll your successful formula out for other corporations to benefit (and pay of course). Get working on your LinkedIn connections and flesh out your profile. Be selective and only choose people in your field for your LinkedIn community. Fewer great contacts is way better than thousands that have little to do with what you offer.

daisy-chain-of-doom3 karma

I’m a high school English teacher teaching in a conservative school, with conservative pedagogical values.

What are small ways I can beat the system?

I teach mostly second language speakers (non cognate languages) at a home language level with high literature expectations. Any pro tips?

Any suggestions on how best balance my students classroom experience?

JudyThompson_English2 karma

Great question. If this is ESL-based you can seamlessly add a Speaking component to your program because I can almost guarantee your students aren't getting enough of the kind of Listening/Speaking training they crave. I doesn't interfere with or compromise the existing reading/writing-based curricula. Be sneaky, make it interesting, attach it to what they are already doing in subtle ways, stay under the radar, serve your students the best way you can in spite of administration - that is what most of us have to do anyway.

Jacqques2 karma

Are you happy with the tittle of the post?

JudyThompson_English4 karma

I haven't given it much thought. This is my first Reddit event. I want to be authentic and not break any rules. I have had a few comments on LinkedIn that people liked the title. I'm still not sure what makes a good title.

Shitty_Wingman1 karma

Do you have any advice for people planning on teaching english abroad with a tefol certificate?

JudyThompson_English4 karma

Not specifically. You will come to a point in your career that you realize you didn't learn anything useful in your certificate course. For loads of us it was the very first day in front of our very first class. But you'll survive that horrible moment and then fun begins. I love teaching ESL because it forces me to draw on every tool, skill, memory, story that I've accumulated in my life in order to find the thing that helps me reach my students. I've used card games, ballroom dancing, music, poker, made flashcards, voice recordings... It makes you a better person and it's a great job, but don't count on your formal education to save you. lol

mmscomic1 karma

What languages do you know and teach with?

JudyThompson_English4 karma

I know German, French and English and I know a lot about many other languages. Arabic, Spanish, Korean, Mandarin... I only speak English in class but my specialty is identifying critical similarities between English and other languages so I'm learning about other languages all the time.

SilverRidgeRoad1 karma

Do you have any speculation as to the future place of English in the world stage as other languages (French, Arabic, Mandarin, Hindi-urdo) continue to grow at a faster pace?

JudyThompson_English6 karma

I speculate English will stay strong on the world stage but not the version of English we teach today. We teach Modern English and the Modern English era began in 1476 when English was finally written down. Shakespeare spoke Modern English - Whether it is nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrow of outrageous fortune... We teach a really old, outdated version of English. About every 500 years a new version of English emerges and we are about 35 years into the next incarnation of English known as International English (The turnover started with the launch of Microsoft in 1982). International English is much simpler than Modern English. Modern English uses about 208 grammar rules and International English uses 10. (David Graddol - English Next) International English uses fewer words and each word has only one meaning... It's a viable English. It works perfectly. More than half of all business transactions are done in International English. My money is on International English. A friend of mine is an engineer who worked in Zhangzhou a big shipyard in China. He was stunned that all the Chinese engineers worked in English. When he asked about it they told him there are so many dialects they didn't understand one another in Chinese languages.