Michelle's independent resources for ESL Students at Vancouver Community College

This is a Canadian ESL blog for Intermediate and Advanced Students who want to learn and improve their English. Each PAGE above contains thousands of free English lessons, tutorials and practice exercises to help you learn and improve your English grammar, reading, listening, pronunciation, speaking, writing and editing. Some of the resources are Canadian. Others are from around the world.

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Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Improve Your Speaking : Use Your Cell

Your cellphone can be a wonderful tool to help you improve your English speaking. Today I want to discuss one specific feature that you probably haven't even thought about.:the voice recorder on your cell. 
Now, I know most of you use your cell to send texts, take pictures, and video tape friends, but have you ever tape recorded yourself speaking English?  

I suspect that many of you probably haven't. Certainly none of my students had until today. For the next few weeks,  my students will be giving speeches about famous people who have made a difference in the world. They have all been doing research, and several students are now practicing  their delivery. They only  have one problem. How should they pronounce some of those difficult three and four syllable words, or some of those strange names like Mahatma Ghandi.

Use your voice recorder to help with your pronunciation 

My answer to that was" bring your cellphone and your list of difficult words to me after class."  One student did just that. We then turned on the voice recorder, and I  read out each of the difficult words, pronouncing them as clearly as possible, emphasizing which syllable should receive the most stress. My student then repeated each word after me.  When she had problems, we went through the procedure several times until she got it right. When the word was particularly long or difficult,  we used backward pronunciation. That is, we worked from the last syllable, added the next one, and the next until she had the word down pat. 

After checking to make sure all of the work we had done had been properly recorded, my student  went home feeling much more confident than she had ten minutes earlier. Now, she had something to listen to and  practice with as she rehearsed. 

Who is going to benefit from this exercise? Every student in the class as well as the speaker herself will reap the rewards, and so will I. 
Of course, you can use the voice recorder on your cellphone for much more  than just learning how to pronounce difficult words. Tune in to my next post for more tips on how your cellphone can help you improve your speaking.  

Let me know what you think.  I love your feedback. 

Sunday, January 29, 2012

It's vs Its

If you are having problems with deciding whether to use it's  or its, you are not alone. Many people, including native speakers, get this one wrong. The answer is simple. 


It's is a contraction for   "It is,"  and occasionally  "It has" in speaking.   
  • We had a lovely time, but it's time to leave.
  • I brought in some dry cleaning. Do you think it's ready?
  • I read your article. It's very good .
  • Where is my coffee cup? It's on your desk.
  • It's wonderful to see you. It's been a long time.
  • What time is it? It's ten o'clock
Its is the possessive pronoun for it.  It means something belongs to it. 
  •  That's an interesting tool. What is its purpose?
  • What a cute cat. What is its name?
  • This car has its own built in telephone.
  • My garden has lots some of its colour because it 's winter.
  • The bird cleans its feathers. 

How  to use them correctly in your writing: 

If you practice, it's easy to see the difference. Here are a few tips to help you.

  • Active verbs never take the verb "to be" unless they are expressing an ongoing situation He is arriving. She has been working.  For example, you can never write it's arrives.  or it's works.  If you see that you have it's in front of an active verb, get rid of the apostrophe entirely. You only need the pronoun "it" 
        My English is quite weak. It's needs a lot of work. It is needs a lot of work can't be
        right.  The verb "need" is an active verb. You can't use "be" in front of it. Change it's
        needs  to it needs.
  • Try replacing the word it's with it is in your sentence. If the sentence obviously sounds wrong,  you probably meant to use "its". If  it is sounds right, keep it. 
         1.   I love the car. I love it's design. This can't be right because  I love it is design is
                nonsense. It doesn't make sense.
         2.  It's not easy to speak  English fluently.  You CAN say It is not easy, so keep it's .

  •  Try replacing your its with his or hers in the sentence. If it sounds correct, keep it.
          Don't worry about the dishwasher. That's just its  way of making noise. The last
          sentence must be okay because ''That's just his way of making noise" makes sense
         In general, its as a possessive is like his. You wouldn't write hi's would you?

  Here's a last tip  for using its vs it'
    Look for the word that follows its, or it's . If it's followed by a noun,use its (its house, its
    door). If it's followed by an adjective, or a passive verb use it's. This isn't 100% true, but
    applies most of the time.
Here's a practice to see if you understand 

 Its / It's or It 
1        (Its/ It's/It)   a pleasure to see you again sir. 
2.       The bird injured    (its/it's/it )   wing when it flew into the window. 
3.       Cassie says that    ( its/it's/it)    easy to jog five kilometres.
4.       (Its/It's/It)   too early to go home.
5.       I love the smell of the rose. (Its/It's/It)  scent is wonderful.
6.       I enjoy the smell of bread baking. (Its/It's/ It) makes the house smell great.
7.       I love that plant because    (its/ it's/it)    leaves are so bright and shiny. 
8.       Let's go inside. (its/It's/it)    time for dinner.
9.       The buffalo cares for    (its/it's/it)     young until they are about three years old. 
10.     I didn't know it was a ring because   (its/it's/ it)  came in a small package. 
11      Why don't you try water skiing. (Its/ It's/ It)   not as difficult as you think. 
12.     Don't make your decision too quickly. (Its/It's/It)  too important for that. 
13.     I parked my car in (its/it's/it)   regular parking spot. 
14.     Can you hand me that coat? (Its/it's/It)   belongs to me. 
15.     Don't take the green umbrella. (Its/It's/It)   mine. 

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Happy Lunar New Year 2012 !!!

Welcome to the Year of the Dragon

Happy New Year to all my Asian students.  As we all know , Chinese New Year,  also known as the "Lunar New Year" or the "Spring Festival"-- falls on a different date each year, ranging from late January to mid-February. This year, The Year of the Dragon began on January 23rd and runs until the Lantern Festival on February 6th.   
The dragon is the most recognized image within the Chinese culture, and  symbolizes power, strength and good luck. In contrast to European beliefs, in which dragons are considered evil creatures, in Asia dragons are considered to have  "auspicious" powers. In fact, the dragon is believed to be the most powerful of the 12 Chinese Zodiac elements. 
Some famous dragons include: Joan of Arc, Sigmund Freud, John Lennon, Florence Nightingale and Mae West.

In China, the Dragon symbolizes the emperor or the male. It represents power, and leadership. The Chinese consider the Year of the Dragon to be the best year, as people under this sign are highly intelligent, lucky, healthy and full of confidence. They are extroverts and have strong will-power. They are not always easy to get along with and can become dangerous enemies. However, if you get on the right side, they can be supportive and helpful friends. The Chinese call the Dragons the guardians of wealth and power, certainly a prosperous sign to belong to.

Dragons are compatible with people born in the Year of the Monkey, or Year of the Rat.  Apparently Dragons make good priests, artists and politicians. 

The New Year, or Spring Festival is an occasion for family members to come together from all over the world, and welcome the year ahead with a variety of traditional food, customs, rituals and cultural activities. In China, Hong Kong,. Singapore, Taiwan, Thailand, Viet Nam and many other Asian countries, the celebrations all began with a bang yesterday.  

Click on the following link for a slide show of Chinese New Year Celebrations in different parts of the world. Chinese New Years In Pictures  

Unfortunately, although millions of Asians from all over the world do return to their home country to celebrate with their families, millions of others can't do this because of work, school, and family obligations in the country they are living in.

This does not mean that Asians living in other parts of the world don't celebrate the New Year. Far from it. Canada has a significant Asian population, with major cities like Vancouver, Montreal and Toronto featuring bustling Chinatowns. 

But it is not only Asians who celebrate. Canadians, Vancouverites in particular, are a very multicultural bunch of people. We like to participate in other cultures'  festivities. We have even begun incorporating elements of China, Japan, Korea and many other countries into our own lives.  We call it fusion - blending more than one culture to create an entirely new one. 
 Gung Haggis Fat Choy Celebration
Fusion in Vancouver 

Here's a little example of what I mean. One of the more memorable events in Vancouver is the Gung Haggis Fat Choy Dinner on January 22nd.  This "culture bending event" celebrates Chinese Canadian and Scottish Canadian heritage and combines two holidays: Chinese New Year and Robbie urns Day, the 253rd birthday of Scottish national poet Robert Burns (born January 25, 1759).

To find out what  kind of  celebrations are taking place in some of the bigger Canadian cities  click on the links below .

Chinese New Year, Vancouver, British Columbia:

The biggest event in Vancouver is the Chinese New Year parade, but there are many other events in all parts of the Lower Mainland. 

Chinese New Year, Calgary, Alberta:

  • The Calgary Chinese Cultural Centre offers a 3-day celebration of Chinese New Year that culminates in a gala evening that includes the Dragon and Lions Dance.

Chinese New Year, Toronto, Ontario:

Chinese New Year, Montreal, Quebec:

Meanwhile, here is an interesting story comparing Chinese New Year in Vancouver and China. 

"After four years of living in Beijing, Herman Cheng has come to appreciate the way his family celebrated Chinese New Year's while he was growing up in Vancouver."  read rest of story North and South Traditions Differ with Canadian Traditions Closer to the South

For more information on Lunar New Year click on the following links:

Chinese Fortune Calendar
Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About the 15 days of Chinese New Year  

Let me know how you are celebrating

Friday, January 20, 2012

Improve your Writing: Add Some Action

Put some action into your sentences
English is a verbing language. We like to put action into our sentences, and to say things as clearly and directly as we can. As a result we use use a lot of verbs to get our message across. 

If you want to improve your writing, stop using all those abstract nouns in your writing and replace them with the real verbs they often come from.  
Abstract nouns are words for things you can't touch or see such as discovery, agreement, observation, and development. They  come from verbs such as discover, agree, observe, and develop. When  you turn a verb into a noun, you nominalize it, creating nominalizations.

When you nominalize the action of a sentence, you reduce the clarity of the sentence because  hide the action in a noun instead of letting the action of the sentence remain in the verb.This creates sentences with a lot of unnecessary words. Most readers find it easier to understand clear sentences in which the subject is the "doer", and the verb conveys the action. They don't want to have to read the sentence several times in order to get the point.  

Consider these examples:  
 1  Little Red Riding Hood’s suggestion was that the wood chopper complete the killing 
     of the wolf with quickness.    
     Little Red Riding Hood suggested that wood chopper quickly kill the wolf.
 2.   We had a discussion on disciplinary actions parents should take on their children. 
       We discussed how parents should discipline their children.   

3.   There was agreement in our group.
      Our group agreed. 
Do you notice how in each example, the second sentence is much clearer and direct than the first? . 

Five Types of Nominalizations
Here are some ways in which nouns are overused. You may think you sound  more "academic." Unfortunately, the result is the opposite. You simply sound pompous  and wordy - without clearly communicating your meaning.  

1.   Nominalization follows verb 
      The police conducted an investigation into the matter.
     The police investigated the matter. 

2.  Nominalization follows "there is", "there are"
    There was  erosion of the land from the floods.  
    The floods eroded the land. 

3  Nominalization is the subject of empty verb 
     Our discussion concerned a tax cut. 
     We discussed a tax cut.                                                                                                               
4.  Consecutive Nominalizations 
      There was a review of the growth of the women's movement. 
       We reviewed how  the women's movement grew.

5.   Linked nominalizations 
      The cessation of hostilities was because of their personnel losses.   
      They ceased hostilities because they lost personnel.  

 Correcting and Improving 

Iimproving your sentences is not difficult. Put the action back into your sentences. Here are two specific methods you can use. 
  • Go  back to your writing. look for obvious nouns such as recommendation, observation, consultation, improvement, developmentt, and turn them into verbs. Then , find a real subject and rewrite the sentence with some action in it.
  • Whenever you see general purpose verbs such as carry out, have, undertake, conduct, there is, there are " look for the noun that names the action. Then, turn the noun into an active verb and make the sentence more direct and easier to read  (Christopher Turk and Alfred John Kirkman, Effective Writing: Improving Scientific, Technical, and Business Communication, 2nd ed. Chapman & Hall, 1989)
More examples: 
Here are a few more examples of how you can turn abstract nouns into real action verbs, which will strengthen your writing and make it more readable.

 Too many nouns 

There was a  recommendation to change.
There is an improvement in your work.
There is rapid development in my city.
My parents made a suggestion. 
The government  made an announcement.
Our group made a report.
There has been a suggestion.  
Overuse of the land has caused destruction.  

 Change the nouns to verbs

We recommended a change.
Your work is improving.
My city is rapidly developing.
My parents suggested....
The government announced....
Our group reported...
The boss suggested.....
Overused of the land has destroyed it.

What do you think about this?  Let me know.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Revision vs Editing

There is a big difference between revising and editing in the writing process.In fact, real writing doesn't even begin until a writer begins the revision process.

Revising means improving the content, organization , vocabulary, sentence structure and clarity of your paper.  It means going back and revising every word you have written and looking for ways to make it better.

Editing involves two steps: proofreading for grammar, sentence structure, punctuation, spelling and capitalization mistakes. 

If you are writing out of class, the revision process comes first. Proofreading and editing are the final steps in the entire writing process.

However, if you are writing in class, the process is reversed. Because you are writing under pressure, you won't have much time to revise your content, other than to make a few quick changes. You must, however, make time to proofread and edit, or there is a strong chance you will fail the writing test.  Grammar and sentence structure matter.

Rewriting In-Class Paragraphs or Essays 

In most ESL writing classes, instructors return students' papers with symbols indicating grammar and structure errors AND with comments, or questions giving suggestions about  how the content and vocabulary should be revised.  We then expect the student to rewrite the paragraph or essay. The rewrite should include revisions to the content, organization and vocabulary as well as corrections of grammar mistakes.

How to Revise

When you revise a paper, you go back and look for ways to make it better. If you are revising a paper that has been handed back, you often get some guidance from an instructor. However, even if all you get are comments such as " too vague" " needs more details", weak vocabulary , " work on your organization,". you can still make changes by rereading your essay with those specific comments in mind.

Most new writers assume their readers know what they are trying to say because they know and understand the content so well themselves . Unfortunately that is not true for readers. They can't see, or read what is in your mind. Nor can they ask questions. Vague, general ideas or sentences leave them confused,  and unsatisfied.

One of the first questions you should ask when you are revising your writing is: " Am I writing for myself, or for someone who doesn't know anything about this topic? A second question should be: "Have I provided enough real detail for my reader to understand this, or would he/she have questions?"  Put yourself in the readers' shoes, and ask " if this was someone else's paper and I were reading it, what questions would I ask."  If you think the reader might have questions, ask what they are. Then, answer them in your revision.

Other things to do:
  • Change general, vague information and ideas to more specific, detailed, meaningful ones. For example, don't say something like "The people in my hometown are very hospitable "  without providing some proof of ways in which they show this quality.
  • Add extra or missing details so that your information is complete. For example, if you are writing about your hometown, make sure you tell to the reader its name, and where it is located. Don't just write about "my hometown"  as if the reader knows.

  •  Get rid of sentences and even entire paragraphs that do not support your point. These details might be interesting, or great in another piece of writing, but they are irrelevant to the point you are making in this particular essay. 
  • Get rid of sentences that simply repeat what you have already said. Repetition isn't support, nor is it  extra detail. Repeating your point might make your writing look longer, but it doesn't add information. 
  • Add topic sentences, or thesis ( main idea) sentences  if they are missing, or improve them if they don't seem to mean anything. 
  • Move sentences, and even paragraphs around so that they make better logical sense and flow naturally.
  • Add transitions and other sentence connectors help connect ideas, and help the flow. 
  • Replace weak verbs such as "is/are, have, get, do + noun. Use real verbs.  Find better words for overused words such as "nice, beautiful, interesting, sad, happy etc. 
  • Try to add sentence variety so that all your sentences don't sound the same. Combine short, choppy sentences into sentences with adjective, adverb or noun clauses.  Shorten very long sentences with two many connectors and too many ideas. 
Good writing means both revising and rewriting, proofreading and editging - sometimes up to 30 or 40 times if you write novels.   

As ESL writers, no one expects you to write as many drafts of a paper as a professional writer. But, your instructors do expect you to rewrite at least once, or even twice or three times if they think you can benefit from the process.

When your instructor asks you to rewrite,  he or she  means pay attention to the comments  and questions on your paper, and do something about them. Revise. Improve the content, the organization, the vocabulary, or the sentence structure as needed. Then, edit  and correct the grammar, punctuation and  spelling mistakes.  

 If you go through the complete process rather than limiting yourself to grammar corrections, your writing will improve much more quickly.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Two Helpful ESL Sites

Five years ago, ESL/EFL learners only had a few websites specifically aimed at helping them to improve their listening and speaking. Today, there are an increasing number of sites they can click on to practice listening and speaking, and pronunciation.  This is all due to the increasing amount of technology that is now available, as well as to the good will and dedication of many ESL teachers all over the world who are designing free practice activities for learners.  

In the post I will discuss two specific sites that are helpful, but before I do, readers should seriously think about expressing their thanks to those hard working instructors out there who truly want them to have the opportunity to practice out of class.  

English Central: Learning English with Video  

 English central logo

EnglishCentral is a Japan-based company backed by Google Ventures which "aims to become the premier, web-based conversational English language learning destination for desktop and mobile users."  The site is designed to help  students  improve their spoken English by watching and listening to videos and then recording their own version of each phrase they hear. Currently there are 196 categories including daily life, social, health, education, environment etc. The site's speech recognition technology evaluates your performance and gives you a score.  Each video has three levels of difficulty: easy, medium and hard.  As things stand now, the site is free and lets hope it remains so. You do have to register, but this only takes a few minutes.

 I haven't personally tried it out, but others who have tell me that although the system seems a little off at the beginning - probably because you are getting used to it - it seems to work well after several tries.

Here is another site you should take a look at   [via Larry Ferlazzo]

VOA News.com Learning English: The Classroom

VOA News Classroom

Voice of America has had its excellent Special English section for a while now, offering accessible news stories for learners of English. They've now added a new feature: The Classroom.  Here you will find Articles and Activities at 3 different skill levels, as well as an Idiom Dictionary and a Wordbook.

A very attractive site, which makes good use of Flash animation and sound. The only problem I have is that all of the articles (including the Advanced level ones)  are read in
slow ESL speak. While this is helpful for lower level English learners, students at the advanced level need to  be listening to  material that has been recorded at native speaker speed..

Let me know what you think.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

How To Set Achievable Goals

How are you doing with your New Year's resolutions? Are they already beginning to look like wishful thinking - a dream, rather than something achievable? 

According to research by Stephen Shapiro and Opinion Corporation,only 8% of the 45% of Americans who make resolutions are always successful in achieving their resolutions,19% achieve their resolutions every other year,49% have limited success, and 24% NEVER succeed and have failed on every resolutions every year.” 

So... what's the problem? 
Making Resolution vs Setting Realistic  Goals 
There's a big difference between making resolutions and setting goals.  When you make a resolution, you make a  promise to change yourself, or the way you do things. This or these promises are often unrealistic, or wishful thinking. When you set goals,  you make a plan to achieve something specific. 

If you expect to succeed, you need to use strategies to help you achieve your goals. Psychologists and other specialists, say setting SMART goals will increase your success rate. The word SMART is an acronym  for Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Timely. 

Using SMART goals is learning how to take small steps before you walk, then walking confidently before you start running.
Think about smart goals as a series of smaller easy-to-accomplish action steps towards achieving your bigger goal. If you use this method you are more likely to develop the self-discipline , dedication and the belief that you can eventually achieve your bigger goal. By using this method you can feel proud that you HAVE achieved yet one more step towards your end goal in instead of always being disappointed with yourself and your progress.

What exactly are SMART goals?  

S= Specific: Make your goal(s) specific, not general. What do you want to accomplish? Saying you want to improve your English grammar is general. It doesn't really mean anything because you don't really know what you really want, or how to measure it. On the other hand, if you are an advanced level student, start with something like " I want to be able to write with only a few verb tense mistakes by the end of the term,  or I want to understand and use prepositions properly 80% of the time."   Don't say you want to improve your communication skills.Try something like this: I want to be able to comfortably carry on a ten minute conversation with a stranger.  

M=Measurable.  Make your goals measurable.  For example, if you want to make fewer verb tense errors in your writing, start working towards that goal by learning which tenses to use in your writing. Start proofreading and editing  your writing. Finally, count the  number of verb tense errors your teacher has marked. Are you making fewer errors each time? Don't give up after one or two tries. Keep doing this over a period of time, and measure the improvement. Are you getting closer to your goal? If you do reach your goal- extend the goal,or develop another one. 

A=Attainable:  Be realistic.  Keep your goals achievable and don't set too many at the same time. For example, if you are not comfortable speaking English out of class, don't think you will be fluent and comfortable at the end of three months. Be realistic. For example, decide that you want to be comfortable speaking in a few non-survival situations.  Then, make a plan and stick to it.  If you never speak English outside of class, decide to join a church, a club, a meet-up group, or a sports team. Do this regularly, and as often as possible. Participate, become engaged rather than sitting back and letting others do the talking. Become as comfortable as you can with that particular group. After a few weeks, try to determine if your comfort level has increased. Continue measuring it. Are you now using your English spontaneously with strangers, at work?

R= Relevant. Make sure you goal is relevant to your needs. Focus on areas you are weak in  rather than on stronger skills.  For example, if your  pronunciation is OK,  leave it alone.  Decide what you DO need to work on now. How about your vocabulary? Do you still use simple words like bad, good nice, interesting, have, be, and do instead of better words that show you are not a beginner.  Determine the  kind of vocabulary you want to be able to actively use correctly in three months. Make sure these words are useful ones for your life - NOT  the kind you will only use once on a TOEFL test. Then, make a plan as to how you intend to accomplish this. Make your plan specific, measurable and realistic.

T= Time-bound: Set a time frame within which you want to achieve your small goals. As I said before, your English will not be perfect in three months. There is no magic. It takes time. But, you can make fewer mistakes in your writing and speaking. You can improve your ability to listen to the news, or understand more complicated instructions at work. You can start feeling more comfortable stepping outside your comfort zone and speaking to English speakers. 

Using the SMART goal approach is one way to work towards becoming successful. In my next post, I will discuss specific methods to use in the SMART goal system  as well as provide some other tips to help you succeed in meeting your goals. I will also discuss specific small steps you can take in each of the skill areas: listening, speaking, reading, writing, pronunciation and grammar.

Let me know what you think, or if you have some suggestions of your own.   

Any Plans to Turn Over a New Leaf?

Have you promised to turn over a new leaf , and break some bad habits, or develop some good habits in 2012? You are not alone. Every year millions of people around the world make New Years resolutions to lose weight, start exercising, quit smoking, spend more time with their family, or even study harder.

A New Year's resolution is a promise to yourself to improve your life in some way. You can improve your life by starting something new, by trying harder at something, by cutting down on something, or even quitting something OR  you can just keep doing what you are doing now. 

When did it start?  

The idea of making New Year's resolutions is not a new one. Although historians don't agree on exactly when the concept first began, one theory is that the tradition began in 2,000 BC ( before the Christian era) in Babylon. Apparently the ancient Babylonians celebrated New Year's on March 23, and marked the day by returning something borrowed from neighbours the previous year.

In 154 BCE the Romans decided to be different and declared January 1 the first day of the new year instead of March as before. At this time the Romans began the custom of making new year's resolutions by promising to be good to others.

So.....how about you?
What are YOUR goals or resolutions for this year? 

Since this is a blog aimed at helping you to learn, or improve your English, have you thought of making New Year's resolutions aimed at improving specific English skills?  How about using some of your newly learned vocabulary immediately as soon as you leave class?  Why not try speaking to more English speakers at the park, the community centre, or in the cashier's line-up.

In my next blog, I will discuss some ways to make your New Year's resolutions realistic and achievable. In  the meantime, try out this resolution generator Resolution Generator from Monin Verlarde.

Just for fun, have a look at  Top 10 Resolutions for 2012