Friday, October 28, 2022

The Purpose of Education

I know why most of my students are studying ESL.  They simply need to speak English in order to get along, living in the US.  Those who already use English OK want to speak it better because people realize the importance of good communication in today's world.

I hope that in addition to these practical reasons they come to enjoy, as much as I do, simply exploring all the crazy quirks of our eccentric language.

After reading the "aims and purposes" set forth by various courses and schools, I have been thinking about language in relation to education in general.  I remember the stated purpose of education in the public schools I attended eons ego.  It was: "to create good citizens".  It's true that for a democracy to succeed, it needs an educated population capable of logical thought and sound decision making. They must vote for reasonably sensible regulations and representatives. (In the intervening years, much of our country has been woefully deficient in living up to this educational goal.)

However, when I quoted that stated purpose to my parents they were appalled and unhappy.  This was the McCarthy era.  I didn't realize, at the time, how the slogan carried definite connotations of brainwashing!

In graduate school, a French teacher brought up the subject of educational goals; so I tried out the slogan on her.  She, too, reacted very negatively, exclaiming, "Non!" She was adamant that this was incorrect.  I cannot remember the lofty goals that she then stated were the true aim of learning.  However I know I was more than a little annoyed that she totally dismissed my understanding of the aims of the school systems in which I would be teaching.  This was MY country and this was the viewpoint that MY schools held, for better or for worse.

Personally, of course, I value education simply for its "entertainment value".  I am happy if I'm increasing my knowledge and enjoy nothing more than an "aha" moment.

So what is the ultimate purpose of education, or what SHOULD it be -- regardless of an individual school's motto?

Friday, October 21, 2022

Minimal Pairs Again -- Finally -- Part 2

You would think that "a CUP of MUSTARD" would be the easiest vowel to produce in English.  And yet, it is so close to OLIVE SOCK that the two are often confused.  PURPLE SHIRT is also close in pronunciation, though the addition of an "r" makes it a little easier to distinguish.The Color Vowel Chart, Anchor Images & System were created by Karen Taylor and Shirley Thompson in 1999.  Learn More at

Did Ron run?
Did Fawn have fun?
Did the pawn make a pun?
Is the dawn now all done?
He sung the song well,
But rung the wrong bell.
Then shucked the hard shell
And struck a strong smell.
I paid big bucks for the box.
With luck you'll open its' locks.
And stuck in a slurry of stocks
Find the sumptuous gold from Fort Knox.
You follow the furrow
Then borrow the burrow.
Clean dirt from the dart
And the hurt from your heart.
Then jog with the jug
And drink grog from the mug.
I wonder as I wander,
What color is that collar?
The scarf is really scuffed!
It's duller than this dollar!
Poppy bought the puppy.
While Gerda got a guppy.
The bug lived in the bog.
In the dugout with the dog.

Minimal Pairs Again -- Finally -- Part 1

I've finally started work again on minimal pair poems.

For Spanish speakers, the SILVER PIN vowel is the most difficult, especially compared with the GREEN TEA pronunciation.  The contrast with RED PEPPER can also be tricky.  Here's the poem so far.

Felix fell fifty feet down the hill and past the street.
The field was filled with winter wheat.
He grinned and leaped the ditch and said,
"At least this is better than being dead."
Green Grendel grins and grits his teeth.
He greets the tree and h[i]des beneath.
I begged Bill Beal to bid on the bell.
I willed widow Williams to wed by the well.
Minnie the meany just missed with her mit
When Pete pitched the peach or maybe the pit.
Nick has a unique neck.
Rick reeks; he's a total wreck.
Dina dips a silly mink
In the stinky, steely sink.
I'll leave the last list for Lina
And ten techy teens, along with Tina.
Phil feared the filling feast and said, "I found a snack. It fits."
Izzy and Ezra took it easy, eating the grilled and greasy grits.
The chick checked the cheap, cheesy chip
But chose the pickles and pink pretzel dip.

The Color Vowel Chart, Anchor Images & System were created by Karen Taylor and Shirley Thompson in 1999.  Learn More at

Friday, October 7, 2022

The Importance of Teaching Tools and Resources

James A. Garfield, the 20th President of the United States, famously said, “The ideal college is Mark Hopkins on one end of a log and a student on the other.” 

Although the most important asset in a classroom may be the teacher, textbooks, libraries, maps, labs and so forth do play a part.  This summer I considered taking a Bridge Micro-Course on the subject of teaching with limited resources but dropped the idea in favor of other projects.  The first assignment would have been to consider the question, "In teaching, how important are resources, anyway?" So I've been thinking about this.

My answer?  Surprisingly: "Absolutely vital!"

For everyday note-taking and messaging, the Romans employed a wax tablet which could be smoothed over and used repeatedly using a stylus.  Papyrus was expensive.  Parchment, once invented, was better quality but even more costly.  Even after the invention of the printing press and wide use of paper, this resource remained out of reach for everyday use.  People made notes in the margins of books or newspapers or flyers or even bills and receipts.  In the US, students wrote on slates up through the first part of the 20th century!  

Can you teach people to read and write and do math without having a portable medium on which individuals can write and take notes?  I don't think so.  Writing in sand on the beach or on the side of a rock near your village just isn't adequate.

And what about having the materials necessary to create your own plans and records, as a teacher?

In the one-room schoolhouse my grandfather attended in Ohio, there was just one math book, held by the teacher.  Students copied problems onto their slates.  Although that worked, it would have been better if everyone had been issued textbooks.  

With ESL, you could teach students the spoken word without any use of written language whatsoever.  If they are to "do homework", however, they would need to "take notes" by drawing pictures or making audio recordings, once more involving some sort of record-keeping medium.  Then, too, does the student doing their ESL homework with the aid of a QR code reading a passage to them have an auditory advantage over the student simply reading, relying on their rudimentary knowledge of phonetic spelling?  Yes, there is no question in my mind.  This is a powerful resource.

I suppose the student with the biggest advantage is the one whose parents are rich enough to fly them to a foreign country every weekend so they can routinely be immersed in the second language.  Failing that, though, how shall we best spend our educational budget?