Setting the Scene: Atacama Desert

I´d forgotten about the quality of light in the desert. The sky is so clear, with few trees or other obstructions, between me and the bare mountains in the distance. Sometimes in Hawaii we have light like this in that ¨golden hour¨just before sunset, but here in the Atacama Desert it seems like that hour lasts almost all day.

View of the desert hills behind my friend’s house

I´ve been in Chile for a little more than a week now and am finally adjusting to the time zone (although it didn´t help that they went into daylight savings this weekend and moved yet another hour eastwards). When I landed in Santiago, it was cold and smoggy. I went out to walk around and spent several hours in the Museum of Memory and Human Rights (with a highly moving permanent exhibit focused on the 1973 military coup and subsequent 18 years of Pinochet dictatorship, plus a temporary exhibit on the voices of indigenous peoples of Chile) and the Museum of Precolombian Art (which astounded me with both the creativity of the artists and the state of preservation of textiles from 1000+ years ago).

3000-year-old jar depicting a lady holding her pet, from the Chavín culture

1000-year-old wool llama toy on a 1000-year-old pillow, from Peru

Our Fulbright orientation was scheduled for Monday and Tuesday of last week. I had assumed it would be full of boring sessions, people talking at us about things that don’t really matter. Instead, we had a fascinating discussion about higher education in Chile (since all Fulbright Scholars are associated with and financially supported in part by one or more universities), followed by an excursion to the Concha y Toro winery, where we had a long and delicious lunch (with wine) and a wine tasting. Day two we presented our research plans (you can watch mine here), received a low-key safety briefing from the US Embassy representative, and then had another long and pleasant lunch (this time with more wine!).

Wednesday I flew up to Copiapó, where I will spend the next five months working with colleagues at the Universidad de Atacama in the Department of Languages, helping the teaching credential students learn about reflection and the instructors develop their research skills. With only 4000 students, UDA is small compared to UH Manoa or Ubon Ratchathani University. The campus is also small and quite walkable. I’ve been given an empty office (no distractions from all the books that normally surround me when I’m trying to work!) with a computer that is underlining every English word I type since I can’t figure out how to turn off the Spanish spell check.

View of the Copiapó River from the UDA campus

Something interesting about Chile is that the university students regularly go on strike to protest things large and small. This year they were on strike for the entire month of June, meaning that they didn’t finish the Fall semester in July before their winter holidays started. Classes are back in session now, but instead of starting the Spring semester at the beginning of August, they are still wrapping up their Fall classes. They will take exams at the end of August and begin the new semester in mid-September. I’m not quite sure what my schedule will be or when I will get to start teaching the writing class I proposed in my Fulbright application, but until then, I am sitting in on other teacher’s classes and attending meetings related to research and the e-portfolio assessment system. Today I guest taught a part of a teaching methodology class for 4th year students, leading them through some activities to practice classroom observation note-taking. They will be designing action research studies to conduct next semester in their teaching practicum, when they work in middle and high school English language classes.

*** My colleague just stopped into my office and asked if I can prepare a proposal for workshops 1) for the instructors and 2) for the teacher education students to support both groups in doing research on their teaching and finding places to publish their research. I will write more later this week.


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Teaching Through English


I found this great collection of resources (via Functional language games/ worksheets) when looking for some tips to share at the workshop I’m giving next week for content-area lecturers in Thailand.  I’m still working on the plan, but I will share my resources on my website.


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Rethinking Literacy (and All) Assessment

In this post, Paul Thomas shares some practical school and classroom level recommendations for upending how we think about literacy assessment: Rethinking Literacy (and All) Assessment

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Learning languages isn’t rocket science…

… but it does take a lot of work! I suppose there are adults who can pick up new languages without putting in much effort, the way kids do naturally, but for most of us, learning a new language or improving on one we already know (even our L1 or home language) requires some time and brainpower. Nevertheless, it is possible, and the rewards are great.

I just read this short article and agree with all its advice: “Tips for Learning a New Language”

The author doesn’t shortchange the effort it takes, but she also reminds readers that it’s completely do-able, even for those who aren’t able to travel to countries where their goal language is spoken. Nothing in this article is revolutionary, but it’s a good reminder that routine practice, with communicative goals, is the key. Listening, reading, and speaking as much as possible on a regular basis are the core recommendations.

I also like that the author makes it clear that what it means to be “fluent” depends on the learner’s goals. She quotes a source: ‘As Nagel says, “For some, [fluency is] being able to order a coffee. For others, it’s being able to discuss economic policies.”’

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(Reads, reading, has read): 5 smart tips for teaching grammar through extensive reading

My TESOL buddy Nigel Caplan offers some very practical and important ideas for helping language learners develop their grammar knowledge through extensive reading.

Oxford University Press

extensive reading teenagersNigel A. Caplan, PhD, is an associate professor at the University of Delaware English Language Institute in the United States and the co-author of Q: Skills for Success and Inside Writing. In this post he provides some useful tips for teaching grammar skills through your reading program.

We often encourage language learners to read for pleasure, read for comprehension, and read for vocabulary. But reading is also an excellent way to learn and practice grammar. It is important for teachers and learners to recognise that grammar is not a separate skill divided into discrete chunks (or textbook chapters!), but rather the resources which make meaning in a language. In other words, grammar is everywhere, and everything a learner does with the language is an opportunity to improve their grammar.

Here are some activities you can suggest to your students to help them discover the grammar of their reading beyond…

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Reading to Eat

One of the strongest motivations I have to learn Thai is so that I can expand my diet while I’m here. (Two years ago I subsisted mainly on fried rice and pad Thai.) Hence, I have bought flash cards that will teach me all the vegetables and fruits (to complement my coloring book of fruits). I am also working on reading menus on food stalls and ingredients lists on packages.

The flash cards are meant for Thai kids to learn English, hence the English name writ larger than the Thai. But it’s also useful for me, since I don’t actually know what all these fruits are called in English, let alone Thai.

A bonus I hadn’t expected is that a lot of Thai words for non-traditional foods are direct transliterations of English words. The coffee stand outside my office has a menu that is mostly translated (the proprietor knows a bit more English than most food vendors). One line at the end of the menu wasn’t translated, however, so I started sounding out the word I saw there: อิตาเลียนโซดา. By the time I got about halfway through, I realized it meant Italian soda, exactly what it sounds like. Some of the flavors I could have were กีวี่ (“gee-wee” aka kiwi) and แอปเปิ้ล (apple).

Since I have had some digestion issues that have prompted me to seek out simple carbohydrates, I am also reading packages of things like honeycomb-like cereal. A new word from that delicious snack is น้ำผึ้ง, which I guessed correctly means honey. How did I guess it? I know that น้ำ means water and ผึ้ง means bee… so honey is literally “bee-water.” I’ve been confirming my guesses with Google Translate, which also helped me learn that the word after honey is แท้, meaning genuine.

Across the top it reads “Copp Sky Flavor Honey.”

I was also in search of something like Gatorade since I knew I should be replenishing my electrolytes. I selected this beverage mainly because of its color. Then I started sounding out words on the label and realized (thanks to the help of some Facebook friends) that I had actually picked up a drink that has guarana in it (the words over the little beans to the left of Zaa) and is naturally caffeinated (the words under the beans). Apparently it does still work to keep me hydrated, but I should probably lay off it close to bed time.

The unnatural yellow color contrasts with the natural caffeine from the guarana beans. (Also comes in very unnatural purple color.)

The next challenge is to decipher this menu, from a roadside restaurant near the university. I think I should be able to read most of it, but the font makes some of the letters different from what I learned in class, making it a lot harder than it might otherwise be. I am very pleased I was able to spot pad Thai (top left of the first board) quickly, since that was what I actually wanted to eat today at lunch. But I know there are some delicacies that I could learn about, and since I’m vegetarian, I need to know which are straight up meat and which are mostly veg, noodles, or rice and could be easily modified with a request to not put in the meat.

There’s pad Thai at the top! Very delicious it was, too. Actually, I think the header indicates that this restaurant’s name has something to do with pad Thai, although I don’t know what the rest of it is.

This one starts with fried rice and gets more complicated. Lots of fried things (พ้ด) on this board.


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Teaching myself Thai

Since the last post on this blog, I have given up on taking Thai classes at UH (I did pass Thai 101 in the fall thanks to a cram session the night before the final exam), but don’t want to give up on learning Thai. I arrived in Thailand yesterday and have already settled into my dorm/hotel room at the university where my grad students will be teaching English. I do have to get to work planning the two seminar classes they will also be taking with me, but first, I wanted to get to work on my own language learning.

We took the song taew (pickup truck-base fixed route taxi) out to Big C, the Walmart of Thailand, for supplies. I bought a pile of children’s books, including an alphabet book (with space to practice writing letters), a numbers book (with space to practice making the shapes of Thai numbers), a book about Thailand, a children’s English-Thai dictionary with the words in categorical lists (including a list of shellfish and one of insects), and a bunch of bilingual English-Thai story books.

My haul from the children’s books section of Big C today.

IMG_0563I wonder what kind of shellfish a hippopotamus is.

Since the rainy season has already started with a vengeance, I anticipate there will be a lot of time where I am confined indoors and need to entertain myself. Here’s my language-learning plan:

  1. Review the consonants that I already know and then make sure I know the sounds made by the ones I don’t know.
  2. Make sure I remember all the vowels.
  3. Start reading! The bilingual books should be useful because I can also work on deducing grammar and word order by comparing the sentences in Thai and English. One of my books is called “Fruity Sports Day” and tells the story of a group of anthropomorphic fruits (grouped by color) who like to wrestle and take breaks to eat vegetables.
    There’s something just a bit disconcerting about this group of fruits getting excited about eating vegetables. Does this count as cannibalism?
  4. The book about Thailand does not have any English connected to it, so I imagine it will be a bit harder. I will be very happy if I can read it by the end of this summer.
    An added reward will be getting to read about elephants, which are awesome.
  5. And as an added bonus, I also bought a book that will teach me how to draw tropical fruits as well as how to write their names. This should come in handy when I go to the fruit stand and want to order some chopped fruit without resorting to pointing.
    I must confess that I will probably do better at learning to read Thai than I will at drawing bananas.

I’ll try to post some updates on my progress. In the meantime, now I need to start thinking about what I will teach my grad students next week.


I also bought some cute penguin office supplies (plastic folders and a notebook) in which to keep my research and teaching materials.

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