Monthly Archives: June 2015

Learning Part 6: Deep Learning Revisited (1 of 3)

Hello again, and welcome to another post about my favorite topic: learning.

About a year ago I started posting about learning.  Soon after that I started talking about deep and surface learning approaches.  If you don’t remember what they are, please check out the link.

In any case, I’d like to expand on that topic today.

There are many reasons to believe deep learning is a more effective approach to not only learning more effectively and efficiently, but remembering what you learned and being able to use what you learn better, too.

Before, I explained briefly how you can become a deeper learner, but today I’d like to offer one practical step towards that goal.

Ask what

What is the most basic, central question to learning.  Whenever we ask “What is ___?” we are engaging in learning, and the person who answers this question for us is engaging in teaching.  The problem often is, we don’t develop this type of questioning to get even more information.  So here is a list of various what questions you can ask your teacher, or even yourself, the next time you are studying or learning English:

“What does ___ mean?”

“What part of speech is it?”

“What is its connotation?”

“What is the difference between ___ and ___?”

“What does it collocate with?”

Ask confirmation questions

In addition, there are lots of really simple but useful yes/no questions you can ask that will help you develop even more knowledge about English.

“Is it formal or informal?”

“Does it have a positive or negative connotation?”

“Do you use it often?”

“Is it very common?”

“Does it mean ___?”

“Can I use it when…?”

“Can I use it with ___?”

“Can I use it as a ___?”

Let me show you a couple examples:

Student: “Teacher, what does ‘elaborate’ mean?”

Teacher: “It means ‘explain more’ or ‘explain in detail'”.

S: I see.

Now, this is where most students would stop, but not you!

S: Is it a verb?

T: Yes, it is.

S: Can I use it as a noun or adjective?

T: Actually, you can!  ‘Elaboration’ is the noun, ‘elaborate’ is the adjective.

S: So elaborate is a verb and an adjective?

T: Yes, that’s right.

S: What’s the difference between ‘explain in detail’ and ‘elaborate’?

T: Hmm.  Good question.  Well, elaborate is shorter, so it’s more common, but it sounds a little formal.

S: Do they mean the same thing?

T: Yes, basically.

So, as you can see, with a few simple questions you can get a lot more information about anything new you learn.  Let’s try it with an idiom.

S: Teacher, recently I was watching a TV show and one of the characters said “that’s over my head.”  What does that mean?

T: It just means something was too difficult or complex to understand.

S: Ah, I see.  So can I say “English is over my head”?

T: Haha!  No, because we only use it for explanations.  English is not an explanation, it’s a language.

S: I don’t really understand… can you give me an example?

T: Sure.  For example, “Their discussion on quantum physics is over my head” or “the details of this transaction are over my head, can you explain it more simply?”

S: I see.  Does it have a negative connotation?

T: Kind of.  If something is difficult or confusing, that’s bad right?

S: I think so.  Do native speakers use it often?

T: We use it pretty often.  It’s a useful idiom.

S: I see.  Thank you.

So next time you have the chance to ask a native speaker some questions about something you learned, try some of these simple questions!  Good luck, and I’ll see you next time with some even deeper questions!


Learning Part 5: Modalities

Hey guys!  It’s been awhile since I’ve written anything about learning, so I’d like to get back to it.

Today I’d like to talk about something called “learning modalities”.


So what the heck are those?

Well, consider how you take in information.  How does it get from the outside world into your mind?  A lot of it is visual.  We see people’s faces and we remember them (and things about them).  We use diagrams or pictures to learn and understand things.   We read books.  A lot of it is auditory.  People tell us information.   We communicate with others.  We listen to the radio or audio files.  A lot of it is kinesthetic.  We practice doing things we want to get good at.  We imitate others.  We try out new things.  We draw pictures for ourselves.  We role play.

These are the three modalities:

  1. Visual

  2. Audio

  3. Kinesthetic

Some people adding a fourth one: reading.  Others consider reading to be part of the visual (since you have to see the book to read it!).

The point is that learning can happen through many “channels” or modalities.  It’s not just “teacher outputs information and students all take it in the same way.”

In fact, one reason that I wanted to write this post is that I think this is one of the biggest problems teachers and students face: they don’t take modalities into consideration at all!


Think about this as a student: have you ever had a teacher who just seemed to “get it” with you?  They just knew how to teach you in a way that you could understand easily?  They made it seem like the topic wasn’t that hard, and that you could actually understand it?

Have you ever had a teacher who just didn’t seem to get it at all?  No matter how many times they explained or showed you something, you just couldn’t understand?  You probably felt like it must have been your fault, like you just weren’t smart enough to understand it, or the topic was just too difficult for you.

There’s a very good chance that, with that first teacher, she just used the same modality to teach as you do to learn (but it’s also possible she was just a really good teacher!) and with the second teacher, you just used very different modalities.

If we understand our modalities, it can help us figure out the easiest and most effective ways to learn things that seem very difficult for us.

For example, if you are a visual learner and you are having trouble understanding something, you can just ask your teacher a question like:

“Could you draw a picture of that for me?”

“Could you show me?”

“Can you describe a situation when you would use that?”

This type of information will present the information to you in a way that’s easy for you to figure out.

If you are an auditory learner, you could ask:

“Could you explain that for me?”

“Could you write that down?”

“Could I ask you some questions about that?”

Auditory learners like communicating, so getting verbal feedback is really helpful!

If you are a kinesthetic learner, you could ask:

“Could you give me some examples of that?”

“Could I try using/practicing that?”

“Could you give me some exercises/homework to do so I can practice that?”

“Could you make a role-play for me so I can practice using that?”

Kinesthetic learners need to use and practice the information that they get so they can really understand it.

So how do you determine your strongest modalities?

There are lots of free online tests (in English) that you can take.  This is one of the simpler ones:

So give it a try and see if you agree with the results!

One important thing though!

Remember, knowing your strongest modality is only helpful when you are having trouble learning something.  In many situations, you will have to use other modalities, so you should be exercising and improving all of your modalities as much as possible!

If you are looking for more information on learning modalities, Ms. Dillard’s Classroom has some great and easy-to-understand information (in English) on the four modalities.  Check it out!

I hope this was helpful, and I can’t wait to talk more about learning again in the future!

Prepositions of Direction and Location

A couple weeks ago I talked about some very common prepositions (in, at and on) and how to use them to talk about time.

This week I’d like to talk about how to use those same prepositions to talk about locations and directions.

So let’s get to it!


In means inside or within certain boundaries.

So any time there are clear boundaries, like walls or the sides of a box, you can use the preposition “in”.

For example:

“I think it‘s in the basket.”

“I put it in the basket.”

“They have a really nice couch in their living room.”

“Don’t throw that in the garbage can, throw it in the recycle bin.”

“I work in Osaka.”

A quick note about the differences between location and direction.

  • Location tells us “where?”
  • Direction tells us “which way?”

You may have noticed that we use verbs like “be” and “have” to talk about locations, put actions like “throw” or “put” with in as well to talk about directions.


On means contacting or touching, usually in a higher position (but not always!)

For example:

“He knocked on the door.”

“The vase is on the table.”

“Don’t drive on the sidewalk.”

“There’s gum on the table!”

“He just jumped on the table and started dancing.”

“That’s a nice picture on the wall.”

As you can see, it can also be used to talk about location or direction.

However, on is also used in one very important way: when talking about larger objects or areas (like houses or streets), on can mean approximately in or in the same general area.

For example:

“His apartment is on the south side of Umeda.”

“That house is on the highway, so it’s probably really noisy.”

“They‘re constructing a new building on my street.”

Note that in all of those examples, none of them are actually contacting the places, but just very near or approximately inside them.


Finally, we have at.  At is probably the most confusing one, but it’s actually fairly simple.

At usually means in or near.

Here’s where it’s confusing: if we already have the prepositions “in” or “near”, why do we use “at”?  Why not just “in” or “near”?

Sometimes we use it because it doesn’t really matter whether the thing or person is precisely inside or not.  For example:

“I’ll be at the shopping mall for the next 30 minutes.”

“I think they have some drinks at the convenience store.”

Does it matter if I will be inside the shopping mall or near the shopping mall for the next 30 minutes?  Not really.  Does it matter if the drinks are inside the convenience store or outside?  Not really, they should be easy to find either way.

Another reason we often use “at” instead of “in” or “near” is because we don’t know whether the person or object is inside or outside.  For example:

“Ben?  I think he‘s at the shopping mall.”

“I think they have parking spaces at that store.”

In both cases, the speaker is not sure whether the person or thing is inside or outside of the place.  Is Ben inside or near the shopping mall?  The speaker isn’t sure.  Are the parking spaces inside the store or near it?  Probably near it, but the speaker isn’t sure.

You may have also noticed that all of the examples had to do with location, not direction.  When we use at with directions, it means something different.  It means in the general direction of.  For example:

“Take a look at your computer screen.”

“He threw the rocks at the window.”

“Stop yelling at me.”

You also may have noticed that “at” often has a negative connotation when we use it with actions!  If you want to express the same idea (in the direction of) without the negative connotation, use “to” instead.

I hope that helped!  Keep practicing these very important prepositions and let me know if you have any questions!  See you next week.

Dealing with Communication Difficulties

One of the biggest problems that English learners in Japan face is that schools and teachers do not give them enough communication practice, and so they don’t have enough intercultural communication skills.  As an English teacher, this is my main focus: to teach my students not just what words mean, or how to use grammar, but how to communicate with real native speakers.

Maybe the most important part of this is learning how to deal with communication difficulties.

No matter  how much you study or how much vocabulary you memorize or how much grammar you understand, you will have problems communicating with native speakers.  But it’s not your fault.  Communicating in another language in a foreign setting is difficult.  There are many things to consider and it takes a lot of practice to get used to it.

I’ve spent a long time teaching and paid attention to when communication breakdowns happened and what caused them.  I’d like to share with you some very simple strategies that I’ve taught my students to help them deal with three very common communication problems that happen when speaking to native English speakers.

1. Sometimes Native English Speakers talk really fast

It’s an exaggeration, but this video illustrates how English sounds to English learners sometimes.


Have you ever felt like this?  It’s enough to make someone panic!  But what can you do?

Well, as I often tell my students, trying to practice English enough so that you can understand everything he says is going to take a long time, and when someone is talking to you really fast right now, you can’t say “please wait a few years until my listening improves.”  You have to respond.

That’s what communication is all about: knowing how to respond.  You have to say something so the speaker knows he or she is talking too fast for you.  What should you say?  That’s simple:

“(I’m sorry), Could you speak more slowly (please)?”

Very simple.  But it lets the other person know very clearly that they are speaking too quickly for you.

However, even though this is a clear response, don’t expect every native speaker to slow down, or even continue to slow down.  For some people, speaking very quickly is a habit, and it’s hard for them to slow down.  Most native English speakers do not understand how hard it is for non-native speakers to catch everything they’re saying.  But don’t give up!  Keep responding using the question above (and hope that they slow down!).

Another important note, especially when you are talking to people who speak fast: you may have to interrupt them.   In Western culture, interrupting is not as rude as it is in Japanese culture.  We often expect to be interrupted, so it’s okay.  Think about this: which would be better:

A. To talk to someone for a long time and realize they didn’t understand anything you said (so you have to say everything again) or

B. To be interrupted after just a few seconds, but be understood by the listener?

Most native English speakers would probably say B is better.  So even though it feels awkward, please don’t hesitate to interrupt if you are having trouble understanding a native speaker’s English!

2. Sometimes it’s really hard to hear someone

Have you ever talked to someone really quiet, or in a really noisy place or (I get this one a lot) on the phone and just couldn’t hear them?  It can be frustrating, not knowing if your listening is bad or if you’re just not hearing them clearly.

Your response in this case is also very simple:

“(I’m sorry) I can’t hear you.”

You could also ask

“(I’m sorry), could you (please) speak up?”

The second one is a request for the other person to increase the volume of their voice.

This almost always works, especially on the phone.

The last one is a very common and very important one.  I highly recommend using it and – if you can – practicing it when you meet foreigners.

3. You don’t recognize a word or expression that a native speaker uses.

English is filled with difficult vocabulary, complex grammar forms, weird idioms and a plethora of ways to use even the simplest vocabulary.  It’s impossible to memorize everything before you have conversations.  That’s okay, but what that means is there will be times that a native speaker uses a word or expression you will not understand, or even have trouble catching.

What do most English learners do in these situations?

  • Ignore it
  • Pretend they understood
  • Respond in an interculturally inappropriate way (more on this in the future)
  • Parrot (more on this in the future too, I promise!)
  • Panic

Are any of these responses appropriate?  Well, if the information is not too important, they might be fine.  But if it is important, then no!  You need to get that information!

So what do most people do?

“What does [sounds they caught] mean?”

This is fine if you are excellent at catching English, but most people aren’t, because English pronunciation is really hard.

The reason that asking this question first is a mistake is because it makes a false assumption:

“If I heard a word that I didn’t recognize it means it’s a word I don’t understand.”

Notice I use the word recognize.  Why is this?

Because before you can understand a word, you have to be able to hear it!

This is really, really important, so please take note of this: when speakers send their message to you – that is, when they speak to you – it has to be filtered through your ears before you can understand!  So if you misheard it, then of course you won’t understand it: you caught the wrong word or words!  So many times a big problem started because I said something that my students actually understand, but because they didn’t hear it correctly, they thought I was saying something new!

Okay, so what can we do about this?  Glad you asked.

Ask this question FIRST instead:

“Did you say [word or words you heard]?”

This does two things:

  1. It’s a simple confirmation question, so it keeps the response simple.  The other person will either say “Yes” or “No, I said…”.  Keep the communication simple!
  2. It confirms that either you heard the word or words correctly, or that the problem was that you misheard them (and you get to hear them again!)

After you are able to confirm that you heard correctly, THEN you can ask:

“What does [word or words] mean?”

So remember:

Step One: Confirm your listening (Did you say…?)

Step Two: Ask about the meaning (What does… mean?)

Hope that was helpful!  Don’t hesitate to comment or ask questions!  You can leave me a message here or catch me on twitter.

Take care, and keep studying!