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Spring 2007

Bill Isler Reports on TALGS 2007

Notes on a Recreational Reading Activity

New Achievement Profile: Naomi Ossar

Being Yourself

Exceptional Opportunity of the Year

Report from Seattle: TESOL 2007


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Report from Seattle 2007
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The Roman gods had ambrosia; we English teachers, our annual TESOL convention. This year an estimated 7,500 ESL and EFL professionals from around the world communed just west of Mount Olympus in Seattle, Washington, during the week of March 21st to 24th, at the absolute peak of cherry blossom season amid the cool, humid airs billowing off the waters of Puget Sound.

The Washington State Convention Center was the main thoroughfare for these thousands of language teachers and learners, who became very familiar with uphill streets with names like Pike, Union, and Olive Way, and the 5th Avenue, 6th Avenue, 7th Avenue, and 8th Avenue cross streets. Fifteen minutes between sessions was more than enough time to find rooms, whether at the Convention Center or down the street at either the Sheraton or the Grand Hyatt. This year's teal-colored conference bagIt was easy to recognize fellow convention-goers by their distinctive turquoise-colored bags, an apparent effort by the event planners to incorporate some of the typical hues of the cobalt, chromium, and copper elements found in petrified wood, the official gemstone of the state of Washington.

No, the buses were NOT free!

I would like to be one of the first to apologize to the city of Seattle for possibly hundreds of uncollected bus fares that may have resulted from a wild rumor which had many TESOL participants believing that "the buses are free" in this magical city. The truth is that everyone in Seattle--from the homeless to the highest authorities--is significantly more polite than people coming from nearly anywhere else on the planet would be accustomed to, and bus drivers tend to just shake their heads slightly if someone leaves without paying the fare, especially someone with that wide-eyed "touristy" look. It was also a little confusing that during peak traffic times in congested areas there are "free-ride zones," though this means the ride is free only if you also dismount while the bus is still in the zone.

Pike Hillclimb Shops, part of the oldest farmer's market in the United StatesThe famous Pike Place Market was six or seven blocks downhill from the Convention Center, and well worth the more labored walk back up. This is where you can find the original Starbucks, and lots of fish, produce, flowers, and baked goods for sale in the open. Pike Place is the oldest farmer's market in the United States, according to the March 2007 edition of the Pike Place Market News, which also communicated the results of recent voting of the Market community naming Harry Calvo, of Pure Food Fish, and LaRita Walikmaki, of Manzo's Produce, as the 2007 King and Queen of the Pike Place Market. The market celebrates its 100th birthday this August 17th.

By descending via several flights of old steps within the marketplace, it is possible to arrive at Western Avenue and Seattle's busy waterfront area, with an aquarium, and rides and ferries whose attractions include whale watching in the open seas. Along the waterfront buses are free, but walking is very pleasant, too. A view in the new Olympic Sculpture ParkAt north end of the waterfront district is the Seattle Art Museum and accompanying Olympic Sculpture Park, where I stopped for a quarter of an hour one morning on my way in to the convention. The museum opened just this January, and is financed by Paul Allen, co-founder of Microsoft. The outdoor sculpture park is quite breathtaking, in odd juxtaposition to the old Space Needle nearby, which was built for the 1962 World's Fair and whose distinctive shape was reflected in most of the architecture in the cartoon "The Jetsons," also from the early 1960s.

The people of Seattle are polite, friendly, generous, and helpful. Any question you ask is answered with a perfect combination of relevant information and sincere interest in your understanding. The city has a culture of extreme tolerance in which people of all walks of life and all persuasions peacefully coexist in a mainstream of sophisticated communicative rituals. A gentleman at one of the Convention Center entrances high-five-knuckled me after I handed him several quarters. People are more patient than in some other big cities. It is rare for someone to enter a crosswalk without waiting for the walk signal. If you ask for directions, you will have the attention of the person helping you until they are sure that you are on the right track. "Excuse me" is heard many times in the course of a day. The people here are nice.

The TESOL Convention experience

My TESOL 2007 experience began Thursday morning at 7:00 a.m., when I was processed for on-site registration, which took less than 10 minutes. I had not been planning to attend this year’s convention until, in mid March, my home university and Kansas TESOL asked me to serve as the KATESOL delegate at the Affiliates Assembly and receive our 25-year plaque.

Once I was registered, I attended most of a 7:30 a.m. discussion session, "Best Practices in IEP Faculty Assessment," led by Mark Algren (University of Kansas) and Christine Coombe (Dubai Men's College). About 25 people were at this session, and participated in a large group, semi-structured conversation about transparency, fairness, faculty involvement, and relevance of faculty evaluation procedures at the different intensive English programs represented. Their three discussion questions were: 1) What three things do you like most about your assessment system? 2) What three things do you dislike the most about your assessment system? and 3) What do you think are the three most important elements (or considerations) of an assessment system?

It was nice to see familiar faces and meet new officers at the 8:30 a.m. assembly. Outgoing TESOL president Jun Liu made a personal visit to the meeting, and presented the 25-year awards to me and the other three recipients: Mississippi-Alabama TESOL, Korea TESOL, and TESOL Arabia. The Affiliates Assembly also did some business, including a vote not to support a proposal tying TESOL convention planning to plans for an organization with CCCC, the Conference on College Composition and Communication, and a vote in support of a proposal encouraging TESOL to be more proactive and inclusive in communicating with English teaching professionals and stakeholders in other countries outside the United States. In comments during the discussion leading to this affirmative vote on the "Resolution on International Advocacy," affiliate representatives spoke to the importance of three main issues: 1) the need for TESOL to have a collective voice; 2) there being at present too much policy focus on the United States in TESOL initiatives; and 3) the fact that more than 150 countries have TESOL members. The Affiliates Assembly unanimously endorsed the resolution, with the following text:

That whenever possible TESOL frame its position statements and advocacy efforts with reference to international standards and conventions and use language that makes them applicable in multiple geographic contexts.

After the Affiliates Assembly, I ran over to catch the conclusion of a very interesting plenary, "From ESL to Harvard: An Immigrant's Perspective," by Mawi Asgedom, a refugee of the Ethiopian civil war. It was beautiful to be part of the "group hug" at the end of his talk, as more than 1,000 ESL teachers gave each other a traditional African blessing, following Asgedom's directions.

At 12:30, I was so torn between three different things I wanted to see--"Grow Your Own Rural Bilingual Special Educators," "Linking ESOL Students and Senior Citizens," or "Japanese Students and World English," that I tried to go three different directions at once, and then gave up, sitting down to catch my breath and gather my thoughts.

A visit to the Six Arms Pub

It was at this point that I decided to take stock of my situation. A solid start to the day was in danger of disintegrating into hectic flurries to and fro between sessions, and me not being able to enjoy even one complete presentation. As big as TESOL is, with sessions sprawling into two nearby hotels and an overflowing convention center, it is really to the point that attendees ought to have at least a month of exercise in advance--both short distance sprints and longer endurance runs--and the steep inclines of the streets only accentuated this physical aspect of the events.

I started scratching items off my list, to clear the way for sessions which I truly felt I needed to see. I realized that if I was going to see Diane Larsen-Freeman's 2:00 plenary, I would need to forego "TESOLers for Social Responsibility," and perhaps would be able to catch the very end of "Navigating the Special Education ELL Highway," but not "Working Memory Effects on Interlanguage Variation."

My dilemma settled for the time being, I decided to concentrate on getting lunch, taking advantage of the opportunity to search out the "Six-Arms Pub," which a fellow ESL teacher at home had highly recommended. I found the place, had a small glass of their "Terminator Stout," and ordered a black-bean burrito, which I carried back to the convention site to nibble on throughout the early afternoon.

An amazing plenary speech by Diane Larsen-Freeman

Because I was early, I was able to get a great seat for "Dynamics of Change," Diane Larsen-Freecom's plenary. I was very happy that I was there from the start for this session, because I also got to see Keith Folse, of the University of South Florida receive recognition as the 2007 TESOL Teacher of the Year. It was heartening to hear him give credit and praise to his own high school Spanish teacher, and he donated his award check to his old high school in her name. Folse is a co-author of the very well-known "Blueprints" composition practice series.

Diane Larsen-Freeman, plenary speaker at Seattle TESOLI have read large sections of Diane Larsen-Freeman and Marianne Celce-Murcia's "The Grammar Book," and I used Larsen-Freeman's very sensible "Techniques and Principles in Language Teaching" as the main textbook for an ESL methodology course I taught for several years recently. And she was featured in an ESL MiniConference Achievement Profile not long ago. But this was my first time to hear her present. She is perhaps the most articulate and data-driven ESL/EFL professional I have ever heard speak.

In explaining the title of her talk, Larsen-Freeman reasoned that "everything is changing all the time...there is nothing static in life..., but we try to make things static by giving them enduring identity." Yet, quoting Heracles, she said, "You cannot sip twice from the same river."

Larsen-Freeman's dual emphases in her presentation were chaos/complexity theory, and the Seattle TESOL theme of "Spanning the Globe: Tides of Change."

First, she used information from the Web site of the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to define "tides." According to the NOAA, said Larsen-Freeman, tides are related to winds and currents, and ocean levels, which fluctuate daily. The sun, moon, and earth interact, she explained, and their combined gravitational forces influence tides. She noted that there is a phrase in English, "sea changes," which "resonates with tides," or profound changes.

Among the changes affecting the TESOL profession, according to Larsen-Freeman, are the following: an increased need for English around the world; a lowering age at which people are first introduced to English; the rise of computer-assisted and content-based instruction; a number of "world Englishes"; changes in the origins of international students; different adult ed populations; different populations in schools; a growing achievement gap in public schools; and NCLB legislation, bringing "a sea change in how instruction is conducted."

Occasionally throughout her presentation, Dr. Diane Larsen-Freeman would show a PowerPoint slide with a picture, phrase or short quote, and use these as points of departure for the next section of her talk. At this point, we saw a slide suggesting that ocean tides are associated with certain kinds of effects:

transforming shorelines
scouring beaches
seaweed and seashells
flotsam and jetsum

Larsen-Freeman also reminded the audience of a quote from Chaucer: "Time and tide wait for no man," adding her insight that tide-like changes in education "profoundly affect our lives, and those we work with."

"We tend to see changes as something we have to live with," she said, forcing teachers to prepare students for exit exams, mathematics exams, and reading exams. We are "at the mercy of policymakers," explained Larsen-Freeman, who might be positive to education when times are good, but not when times are bad.

Continuing to build her tidal analogy, Larsen-Freeman reported that tides vary not only in time, but in place. In Northern California, she explained for example, there are two unequal tides each day; in the Gulf of Mexico, there is one daily tide.

"Local factors influence tides," said Dr. Larsen-Freeman, listing five of these factors: 1) configuration of the coast; 2) depth of water; 3) topography; 4) wind force; and 5) atmospheric pressure.

She quoted again from the NOAA Web site (, to make the point that tides cannot be predicted based on short-term observation data.

Because of the numerous uncertain and, in some cases, completely unknown factors of local control mentioned above, it is not feasible to predict tides purely from a knowledge of the positions and movements of the moon and sun obtained from astronomical tables....

The important thing to remember, said Larsen-Freeman, is that it takes "years of observation to start to be able to describe and predict tides....You have to look!," giving another example, of hearing a weather report on the radio of clear skies while seeing out the window that you are in the middle of a winter snow. "You have to learn to look!," she repeated. "If you really want to know what's going on at your local scale, you have to look at your local level."

The learning and teaching of language, according to Dr. Diane Larsen-Freeman, are affected by the same factors and the same principles as tides.

To illustrate some of the dynamics of language use, she gave the following quick examples: the idiom, "too many irons in the fire"; non idioms, such as "Have you heard the news?, "Who would have thought it?", "I am simply amazed," "I was just trying to help," "It's none of your business," "Speak for yourself," and "Watch your step/tongue"; word pairs, such as "beyond repair," and phrasal verbs, such as "I ran across an old friend."

Dr. Larsen-Freeman is a professor of education and linguistics, and director of the English Language Institute at the University of Michigan, also the home of the Michigan Corpus of Academic Spoken English (, and she paused to tell the audience that this corpus has nearly 2 million words today. According to data from MICASE, the 14th most common English utterance in academic language is "Um," reported Larsen-Freeman. The 15th most common utterance is "Uh." And the fourth most common phrasal verb is "end up."

Conventional collocations and conventional language constitute 55 percent of spoken and written discourse, said Larsen-Freeman, so "certainly there are aspects of language which are stable." However, she continued, "Language is not a straight-jacket....language systems are constantly changing."

As an example of ways in which such changes can occur, Larsen-Freeman looked at the verb "be going to," which she suggested can be traced at least as far back as Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale, Act V, Scene 2, in which the Clown says, "Hark! the kings and the princes, our kindred, are going to see the Queen's picture...."; and The Merry Wives of Windsor, Act IV, Scene 3, in which Bardolph says, "...the duke himself will be tomorrow at court, and they are going to meet him."

She likens these uses to the phrase "are journeying to" in Shakespeare's Two Gentlemen of Verona, Act I, Scene 3, in which Pantheno says, "To-morrow, may it please you, Don Alphonso with other gentlemen of good esteem, are journeying to salute the emperor...."

"To be going to" originally meant some kind of motion," said Dr. Larsen-Freeman. Yet, in the same play, Two Gentlemen of Verona, she pointed to an exchange between Duke and Valentine in which the meaning of "be going to" seems to shift. In Act III, Scene 1, Duke says, "Sir Valentine, whither away so fast?," and Valentine answers, "Please it your Grace, there is a messenger that stays to bear my letters to my friends, and I am going to deliver them." The Duke's question concerned where Sir Valentine was headed, but the answer explained, instead, to what purpose or intention he was taking an action, explained Larsen-Freeman, "no longer motion, but intention."

This distinction surfaces in the use of what she referred to as the "neural action routine" of phonologically reducing "I'm going to" to "I'm gonna."

Looking at the sentence,
I am going to the park,
it is not acceptable to say
X I am gonna the park,
but it is acceptable to say
I'm gonna go to the park.

"The intention use is routinized," explained Larsen-Freeman, "but not the motion use."


By Robb Scott
Editor, ESL MiniConference Online

2007 ESL MiniConference Online

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