Monday, June 11, 2018

Teaching the Tweenage ESL Student with VIPKID

You're at your computer at the ripe time of 3:00am wearing your orange T-shirt. You have your Dino plushie, your 5 apple mug, and you've written your students' name in wonderfully bold colors on the board behind you. You wait and watch the timer count down and right at the 2-second mark you flip on your computer and smile brightly at the student who is not there.

You begin to watch the timer counting up to the 30minute mark, anxiously wondering if your student will arrive. You then change lines or refresh your screen a few times just to be sure. You might even open a second window, log into your VIPKID teacher account on this window just to make sure there wasn't a last minute cancellation or're in the wrong classroom. Nope. Everything is kosher. The 5minute mark passes and finally, you hear a noise and the camera flips on. You beam at them, yelling "HELLO! How are you?" and Baobao sits back in his chair, crosses his arms, and glares at you. It is Saturday afternoon Beijing time. He is 12. He does NOT want to be in the classroom.

What do you do? How do you engage the raging tweenager sulking angrily in front of you? It's only 25-30 minutes you tell yourself, but he doesn't understand that...a tweenagers sense of time works in leaps and bounds where 10 minutes can feel like 10 hours. It's going to be a long class. What should you do?

For starters, dial it down a bit. Most of the tween crowd aren't as enthusiastic about all the bells and whistles. Try something different with students this age. Usually, students in this age group already know some spoken English and don't feel that they need to play the "silly games" on the slides. This is perfectly OK! Yes, you need to go through each slide but you do not have to do it the way the instructions say to do it. It's OK to get creative, to shake things up a little. Do things out of order, rearrange the lesson plan. And ask the student what they think they need to work on.

You can throw in some interesting vocabulary. Ask them if there is an American movie that they would like to see, were there any words they didn't understand? It's OK to encourage your student to try to think of a word that isn't a part of the lesson so long as they are learning what the meaning of the word is, are spelling the words correctly, and are pronouncing them correctly as well.

Saturday, January 27, 2018

TEFL, TESL, TESOL?! What's the difference?

This seems to be a question that gets asked very often on the ESL forums, Facebook, and other teacher centered places I inhabit. These terms can be confusing and are often used interchangeably but usually mean different things depending on what college you attend and what State/Country you work in which is why it can get so confusing! Why do we have so many different acronyms if we are teaching the same students the same English language?

One of the simplest reasons is that every State must follow its own laws on the designation and education of students who speak English as their second or foreign language. The other reason is that the teaching of English to children versus adults is much different. Yet another major reason is that ELL/ESL students and EFL students come to English with a completely different skill set and often vastly different backgrounds that affect the reasons why they are learning English and (more often these days) where they are learning English. Before we go any further into the subject, lets look at the different acronyms and what they mean:

ESL = English Second Language
ELL = English Language Learner
EFL = English as a Foreign Language
TESL = Teaching English as a Second Language
ESOL = English Second or Foreign Language
TESOL = Teaching English as a Second or Foreign Language

TEFL = Teaching English as a Foreign Language
TEYL = Teaching English to Young Learners

All of these terms mean (almost) the exact same thing in that you are either a student of English or a teacher of English. So whether your degree, certificate, or teaching license is labeled as ESL, EFL, TESL, ESOL, or TESOL it is pretty much the same as far as your education goes. You will be expected to have taken classes in Phonology/Morphology, Culture, Reading/Writing, etc. There are differences (usually when we speak of ESOL/TESOL we are referring to adult students) but most people believe that they are not enough to matter by very much unless you are focusing on children, and then you will get a TEYL certificate, but the basic theory and pedagogy is the same. Different Universities/colleges call it different things (for whatever reason) but in the end, you learn the same basic strategies for working with students who are learning to speak English. And, in general, most of your learners are going to be tested on their knowledge of the English language in some form or another and usually, this will be via the TOEFL.

TOEFL = Test of English as a Foreign Language.
Not to be confused with a teacher certification of any type. This is the huge exam that students take to get into American (or other University where English is required) and is usually taken by adults but MANY schools across the world now offer the TOEFL as a way to test their students English abilities for class placement or for prestigious school acceptance.

The differences in how learners are taught continue to be something of a debate among teachers but it can be best summed up in two quotes:

"My MA is in TESOL. It includes EFL and ESL. While the "second" language part of it may not be literally true, what does matter is whether or not they are living in the country that speaks the language they are learning. This completely changes what and how you teach." - S.P. (VIPKID Teacher) 4/15/2017

In regards to how "teaching EFL and ESL are the same":

"Oh how I wish this were true, but they are actually VASTLY different. ESL is when a student is LIVING in a country where their native language is NOT the primary language being spoken. TESOL is when a student is living in a country where their primary language is spoken, but they are attempting to learn another language. The pedagogy is vastly different primarily because you're talking a difference in NEED and WANT. EX: The Spanish speaking children in my classroom NEED to understand English as a means of survival. The Chinese children in my online classroom WANT to learn English (in theory) to have a leg-up in the world economy. You can't worry about Bloom until after Maslow is taken care of." - K.E. (VIPKID Teacher/Public School Teacher) 4/16/2017

So what is the difference? It is both many things and none at all. You might use the same basic strategies for all your English language student but the strategies will be used in varying degrees based on their age, their current level of English ability, and even their country of origin and why they are learning to use English. After all, you wouldn't use an exercise such as counting sheep with an adult nor would you practice applying for a job with a child. With experience, you will quickly be able to select which strategy will work best with your particular set of students.

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

VIPKID - A 6 month update.

As you probably already know I have been teaching for VIPKID since the first week of October of last year. I am about to hit my 6 month mark and am entering into my second contract. In these past 6 months VIPKID has changed dramatically.

For the better!

Since I began 6 months back, these are the changes that VIPKID has fully implemented:

No more 15 class minimum. You can teach as little as you want or as much as you want. But like any job be prepared to only take on as much as you can handle as the 6 class cancellation/no show policy is still in place. Additionally be aware of your ability to constantly produce top-notch output. These kids are excitable and their energy is felt even through the screen. You will suffer teacher burn out much faster if your focus is to teach as much (and earn as much) as fast as possible. Take it easy, only teach what you can handle. Recently I went back to doing early mornings. My son is old enough now that he generally sleeps through them and rarely wakes up which means I've been able to take advantage of those peak (98% booking rate) classes.
For instance, my work week currently looks like this:

I take alternating Mondays and Tuesdays off to sleep in and refresh myself.

You don't have to wear orange. They decided that you are no longer required to wear an orange shirt unless you want to however it is highly recommended to promote teacher unity within VIPKID and the families and students that depend on us. I often bemoaned the color when I first started but now you'll never find me teaching without my official orange VIPKID shirt.

International TESOL Association partner. VIPKID is now an official International TESOL Association partner which is a BIG deal in the world of ESL teachers. Membership in TESOL, especially as a partner, means that you are the cream of the crop.

Background Checks. VIPKID has realized that children are especially vulnerable to online exploitation. They now require that all of their current teachers and all new incoming teacher pass a background check. This is a huge deal because it helps to safeguard these children. I often see things I wouldn't normally see while teaching because of the cultural differences, Mia has no problem going to the potty while holding her iPad to take class. Grandma doesn't mind changing clothes in the background. And more, much more. On top of this VIPKID is one of the first foreign education companies to require this.

Pre-VIP. In the past few months VIPKID has rolled out their Preschool Curriculum. These lessons are specially designed for the 3 - 5year old crowd that had been *somehow* sneaking into the regular VIPKID curriculum and (amazingly) finding it too difficult. With the addition of Pre-VIP there are even more options for teachers to expand their hours. I have found myself being booked for odd daytime hours (I am PST) as while my regular students are in school, these little guys are at home and free to take their Pre-VIP kid lessons.

I requested to become a Pre-VIP kid teacher because of this and, yup, I'm now officially a PreV teacher as well. I get roughly 8 to 10 PreV a week. 

Jack Ma Foundation - Rural School Project.VIPKID is now running a pilot program where VIPKID is being offered to groups of students in public schools! The teachers are required to know at least a little Mandarin Chinese (because the locations are rural, meaning the teachers and students will most likely  know very little to zero English. Another requirement is the ability to be able to teach for 1hr time blocks instead of the usual 25m. So far it is off to a good start!

Teacher Phone App and the Teacher Browser: VIPKID now has a fully interactive Teacher App (you cannot teach from it) that you can use to check your schedule, cancel classes, review previous teacher and parent comments, and receive notifications from. The Teacher Browser allows you to teach your classes independently of Firefox or Chrome. I love using it and ever since I started using it I have had very few IT issues and you can access all your usual teaching tabs through it as well. I use it for every class I teach now.

Incentives. Every month VIPKID offers additional bonus incentives. You can work extra classes or aim to get top notch ratings, it is different every month but most people can earn a little extra cash. Right now for the month of April they are making it rain (cash) by offering up to $5 extra per class taught over your usual amount for the "peak peak times" (BJT 7:00, 7:30, 8:00, 8:30pm) which means if you taught only 5 classes you can get up to $5 extra for every class you teach beyond that.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Does Pronunciation Equate Fluency?


The elephant in the room when interacting with speakers of English as a foreign language. In teaching ESL, and especially when working with children, this is something I often see stressed over and over. They really like to beat that horse and make sure he is good and dead. And I can understand why this is such a hot issue. After all we can look to popular media to see examples of pronunciation faux pas being the main stereotype for all peoples of certain countries/regions. And the students and their families know this. They are very much aware of the profound effects their accents have on their English and how they are perceived because of it. We only have to look so far as our everyday social media.

Facebook is splattered with meme after meme. South Park City Sushi is by far the most racially charged example of this. The TV series, Fresh off the Boat, follows a Taiwanese family’s adventures in America. The actress, Constance Wu, speaks with a slurred English accent that is often over exaggerated for the show. In films, TV, social media and even in books individuals with a non-native English accent are often the butt of all jokes. And they are almost never the heroes. Even Glenn of the Walking Dead (as portrayed by Steven Yeun) was on the receiving end of racial slurs despite having a perfect American accent both on and off the film set!

But is pronunciation really that big a deal? Especially in this era of acceptance?
VIPKID has been an amazing opportunity and I feel that it has a direct hand in many of the changing views these kids and their families have. VIPKID is taking part in spawning and entirely new generation in China. But would not a learning platform for kids be the perfect place to begin to spread the acceptance of native accents as being the beautiful, interesting, and uniquely diverse thing that it is? Much like how they are currently trying to spread cultural diversity through acceptance of skin colors and tones by introducing new learning characters from around the world. Are not natural accents also a part of this cultural diversity? I speak with a Southern accent as I am originally from Tennessee. I’ve only lived in California for 3 years and will soon be moving back South so any accent I lost will quickly be picked back up again. I try not to use words like ya’ll and ain’t when speaking with the kids online but I have slipped several times and used those words to which I simply explained that they were conjugations from my Southern American English dialect and that although not everyone uses them they are still acceptable words and my accent is an acceptable English accent (Yes, I HAVE had parents ask me about my accent).
When I was earning my MAT in ESL our instructors stressed over and over that we are not supposed to stress pronunciation.  These days the ideal was to build up conversational and academic vocabulary and that pronunciation was an issue of the past, and issue that was often self corrected with continued exposure to the language. We were taught to allow pronunciation errors because to try and correct them too much would not only work against the students learning but would also create an air of you’re accent is wrong, your native language makes you flawed, you should have been born speaking English and that is not the message we want to send. Now then, I understand that the correction of pronunciation is very important to the parents of our Chinese students for the reasons I wrote above...they don’t want to be made fun of. They don’t want people thinking they are less superior to anyone else simply because they cannot pronounce certain letter combinations. Correction of pronunciation is the number one comment that pops up when searching the VIPKID teacher forums, facebook pages, websites, and especially the parent comments. Teachers have been given bad ratings by parents simply because the teacher didn't correct their student enough. I am one of those teachers.

Recently I was give a "3 apple" rating which isn't terrible but it isn't good either. The "apple" system is what determines if parents want to attempt to book your classes or not. Her only comment was that I didn't correct the pronunciation enough. And I will swear that100% hands down that this student did not need to be corrected. She spoke fluently enough that despite a few unusual blending of certain VC/CV words I could understand her 100%. She didn't need to be corrected. In fact, stopping to correct every single little slight would have stopped the lesson completely. Why and when did correct pronunciation overtake actual language learning?

I think my main point though is that many parents (and teachers) seem to equate pronunciation with fluency and this is how we end up with students that can read the sentences with great clarity of pronunciation but then are unable to speak in a more natural sounding conversation. There is so much stress placed on pronouncing every. single. word. that there is no time to actually practice conversation and I think this is a mistake. A huge mistake. Even native English speakers don’t speak the way we are often trying to get these kids to speak.

I shared this (nearly) exact post on the VIPKID teacher forum to see if others had any opinion on this, one teacher had this to say:

"I agree, but only to an extent...the difference for me is not necessarily an "accent", but rather the actual pronunciation of the word. There is a difference. I have many students that say "to-mah-to" instead of "to-may-to", I don't correct this, but I do say something to them so that they know that the way they say tomato is how it is pronounced in England/Britain, and that in America and Canada, it's pronounced as "to-may-to". My mother has an accent, and when she speaks, it's just an accent, she's pronouncing the words properly, but with an accent....with the exception of two words: "crown" and "brussels sprout". She says "clown" instead of crown, and when she's speaking, even with her accent, mispronouncing crown is a you wear a clown on your head? When I correct her, she says "crrrrrrown" pronounced properly, but with an accent. Our students are learning simpler words, of course, but there's no denying that there's a difference in the words "but", "bat", and "bet"....not only in pronunciation, but in meaning as well."  - NS 3/18/17

To which I also agree with NS to a certain extent. This is something that I think about often, the difference between accent and mispronunciation. I've experienced this very misunderstanding when working in the public school system. I had students that were failing their reading tests because mainstream teachers continued to give them low marks because they felt that their accent meant they did not know what they were reading. They failed to take their accent into account. Naturally, when the students were later able to test with a trained ESL teacher, their scores went up! Those students absolutely understood what they were reading. Of course this is not always the case, but it happens so often that I seriously begin to wonder how we are training teachers and how we are portraying the acceptance of accent among non-native English speakers. I feel that many ESL faux-pas are directly related to pronouncing the words wrong but that context smooths over most of these potential embarrassments. There are words (such as those NS pointed out) that we don't use without some kind of conversational context behind them. I feel that some over eager teachers don't really understand the difference between an accent and mispronunciations to the point that over compensate with the corrections. Yes, it might make Mom happy to see you spending so much time on pronunciation but it makes the student feel miserable and then learning English becomes just another chore. I just feel that somehow, someway, something should be said that Yes, our teachers will work on pronunciation but mainly on where it directly impedes communication.

Another VIPKID teacher, I will call her CA, shared a wonderful book author with me. His name is Paul Seligson and he writes often about non-native English speakers. She has even attended his workshops. Carla shared that:

"Similar to the way we learn to play a musical instrument or ride a bike, we learn language by a process of trial and error. Mistakes are unavoidable, a natural part of the learning process and often evidence that the student is experimenting and attempting to communicate. If we're too negative about them, students won't say anything, so we need to be careful how we react."
Then he poses a question: "Is your aim ACCURACY or FLUENCY? This will make a big difference. If it's pure ACCURACY and they're all making far too many mistakes, then the activity is probably too hard, and you should find a simpler one". If it's pure FLUENCY, aiming for students to use what English they do know and can say to exchange ideas and information, them making mistakes is acceptable, indeed inevitable. However, what they can't do accurately they can often do fluently".  - CA 3/18/17

 I couldn't agree more with this. 

So, how do we tell the difference between accent and mispronunciation? This will be the subject of another blog post at a later time.

***I hope to continue this discussion on the teacher forums and add additional viewpoints as more are added. This is an issue that I feel is very important as it directly effects not just the VIPKID students but students of ESL.***

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Flipped Classroom in China, my experience with VIPKID

Alright, by now some of you have seen the flurry of Facebook posts about a company called VIPKID. It is a relatively new company having only been active since 2013 which naturally makes people suspicious. Many people often wonder if this company is legit, can your really make up to $20 an hour? Do they actually pay you? What hours do you work? And, can I replace my current income with a VIPKID income?

Well, I can now answer some of those questions as I currently teach for VIPKID.

The hiring process is simple. You submit your resume through their website (use my recruiters link, we both get a bonus if you're hired) VIKPID Apply Now. You DO NOT need a teaching credential but you do need to have at least a B.A. or higher in anything thought Education is preferred. They also require that you have at least one year of experience working with kids though this experience can come from anywhere, even babysitting. After you submit all of this you will usually receive an email inviting you to schedule a practicum. The practicum is for one hour, they give you the materials you need to practice with. Your elevator will pretend they are a young ESL student and will evaluate how well you teach the lesson. Most people will complete two practicums but a few people will only do one, it just depends on your score. If you're hired you will need to sign a 6 month contract agreement and will take part in some training videos/quizzes before you are able to open you're slots for booking.

The booking page looks like this: 
All of the orange spaces are what we call 'Peak Hours' which means that if you click on these as open for booking, you are very likely to book and teach during those sessions. All of the green lines are classes that I am booked to teach, the white ones with time notations are open classes that are not booked yet, the orange ones are time slots that I have not opened. As you can see I teach mainly the early morning hours, evenings, and weekends. This is because I live in the west coast which is 14+hours difference.

So how does the pay work? A LOT of people try to claim that VIPKID is a scam and that you only make $7-$8 an hour. This is NOT true, you make $7-$8 a class. Each class is 25 minutes long and so if you teach two classes back to back (like I often do) you are actually making quite a bit more than you thought. You also get a bonus of $1 for showing up to each class, and $1 for finishing each class at the 25 minute mark (up to the 28th minute) as well as several monthly incentives. You can also get a raise for each renewed 6 month contract and if you take on additional roles within the company (such as practicum elevator).

Here is a break down of my pay:
Since I have a degree is ESL and I have a few years experience I started at $8.50 per class.
If I teach 2 classes back to back: $8.50 + $8.50 = $17
Add on the bonuses for attending/completing: $2 + $2 = $4
I just made $21 for ONE HOUR of teaching...yes I make $21 an HOUR.

And you can see just how many classes I'm teaching up there and this is a slow week. I taught 82 classes last month, that is 41 hours of teaching. I made $861 this past month. And this wasn't including the additional $200 I got for their Thanksgiving incentives, and I even won a contest and received an official VIPKID shirt mailed to me to wear while teaching.

My current pay from Dec. 1st to Dec. 7th! I've already earned almost $250.

Its not a lot of money, no. Not compared to what I made as a public school teacher. But it is more than enough to help pay down some debt, save up for a vacation, make some car payments. And it is certainly much more fun than my public school job was. I also have the satisfaction of sitting in my PJ bottoms while I teach and being able to stay at home with my kids, I don't need childcare for my job so this is one less expense I have to worry about!

This is what my 'classroom' looks like:

 For contractual reasons I cannot show you what the computer classroom actually looks like, but if you decide to apply to join VIPKID you'll quickly learn how much fun it actually is. I've been with VIPKID for almost 2 months now and so far I love it.

On a side note, VIPKID recently teamed up with TESOL. You can read about that here, they are offering VIPKID teachers membership with TESOL which further paves the way for VIPKID becoming a game changer when it comes to online ESL education. Check out the article here on the TESOL website.

Final Judgment: It IS legit, they DO pay you, the kids are awesome and appreciate your time as do the parents. So far I have had nothing but great experiences with VIPKID and I'm looking forward to continuing to teach with them for a very long time. Remember to use the link at the beginning of the article if you decide to apply so that we both get a bonus!


Andrea K. Gill