The Power of a Simple Tweak

Naomi EpsteinThe Power of a Simple Tweak

by Naomi Epstein.


Imagine you are required to write a 120 -140 word essay. In the essay you must express your opinion on an assigned topic, not one you have chosen. Your work will be assessed on fluency, accuracy, and the ability to use rich and varied vocabulary.

Now, imagine you study English as a foreign language. Essay writing is certainly a challenging task.

NOW imagine that you are a Deaf student studying English as a foreign language. Writing such an essay well is significantly more challenging.

I always give samples of excellent essays to my Deaf and hard of hearing high-school students. Unfortunately, it has always been difficult to get the students to read an essay more than once. The point of looking at a text in depth is to really notice the vocabulary and grammar used and how they are employed to create a coherent and cohesive text. But the students don’t see that. They’ve understood the main idea after a single reading and want a new text even though they are missing so many fine details.

All this changed after I read the chapter on “Read and Look Up” in John Fanselow’s book “Small Changes in Teaching, Big Results in Learning.” I had heard of the method before but had no idea how to implement it in class. In fact, what I hadn’t understood at all before reading Fanselow’s detailed explanations and suggested activities with variations, was that reading a sentence (or two) silently, pausing, and then looking at someone before saying what was read, is not simply an exercise in memory and parroting. I was amazed to see that not only did the students learn from the experience, they reported feeling that they had learned something.

Here’s an example.

I gave one of my students, whom we’ll call R., a sample essay on whether high school students should be required to do volunteer work or not. I asked her to read to herself a sentence or two, turn over the page and say what she read while looking at me. R. has cochlear implants and her speech is fairly clear. The room was quiet and there were no other students at the time.

R. did as I asked.

She replaced some words with others as she spoke.

I was delighted!

I praised her, explaining that replacing words was wonderful and told her that I wanted us to examine together what exactly she was doing. I pulled out scrap paper and a pen and asked R. to begin again and wrote down every word she said. The situation amused R. –  she was speaking and I was the one writing furiously (note: the part about the teacher writing is not in the book but is necessary when working with Deaf students in a foreign language).

We paused after every two sentences (more or less) to compare what R. had said with the original text. We noted which words she had replaced with others and whether they meant the same as the original or not. If not, I suggested other words she could have used. For example, she said “in the beginning” instead of “at first”, which is great. When she said “the experience has donated far more to me” instead of “contributed,” we discussed the difference between the two words. We paid special attention to connecting words such as “however” and “therefore.”

Then R. read (with page turned over, remember?!) two long sentences verbatim. She hadn’t replaced a single word or omitted a single one. R. then looked at the text and asked:

” I used the words in the text. I don’t know other words to use here. Can you tell me?”

Needless to say, I was happy to oblige.



Note from the editor: Naomi has been trying out other activities from John Fanselow’s recent book, and the blog posts with her reports and reflections on how they went in her classes are available on Naomi’s own blog Visualizing Ideas.


T Stands for Tired Teens

Naomi EpsteinBy Naomi Ganin-Epstein

Teens are a tired bunch. Any high school teacher will attest to that. In fact, so will the students themselves. They certainly complain about it and exhibit their tiredness clearly, especially if they suspect you aren’t taking note of the fact.

Teens are tired in many ways.

For starters, teenagers are physically tired because many of them are in the midst of a growth spurt, their bodies are changing and their hormones are raging. Their body seems to be begging them to sleep while their mind’s response seems to be: “Are you kidding? Only little kids go to sleep early!”

Then there are the students who work after school. Juggling schoolwork and a job is a new experience for them and some don’t balance the two well. School may seem to have a lower priority for the adolescent than the job because schools don’t usually fire students for not paying attention.

Naturally, there are those who party till late or others who cannot tear themselves away from their electronic devices…


However, physical tiredness is just part of the picture. You had better wait a minute if you think handing out cups of coffee to the students will be a marvellous idea. Factor in “Tired of being at school for so many years”, “Tired of following rules”, “Tired of being told what to do by adults”, and “Tired of not being considered an adult yet” – and you won’t bother bringing in the coffee cups. Coffee won’t keep these tired teens on target.

“Hold it right there”, you may be saying after you’ve read this far, “I’ve seen teenagers spend tremendous energy on producing a school play, planning a party, or fighting to save a tree particularly favored by owls from being chopped down.” It is true. Teenagers ‘wake up’ when they care passionately about something, when they are all fired up about a project.


But then, what is a teacher to do? Even the most hard-working teacher with the best of intentions can’t make every single lesson one that each and every student will care passionately about. At least I don’t believe that can be done.

What can be done is making sure your teenage students know exactly why the tasks they are expected to do are being assigned, why they are now learning this particular topic, and exactly what the stages are that they need to work through in order to achieve any clearly defined outcome (such as passing a high-stakes test). Busy work is a bad idea in class at all ages, but it is especially disastrous with teenagers. In order to truly get ‘on board’ they have to have a clear understanding of the journey they must undertake and how it’s related to achieving the goal.

Oh, and one more thing… It helps to turn a blind eye sometimes when you see a teenager slacking off (or even nodding off!). You saw them, they know you know, but you didn’t ‘rat on them’ or make fun of them. Your status in their eyes will rise…

Assessment is Sometimes Heartbreak

Naomi EpsteinIt’s that time of year again at the high school. The twelfth graders are about to take a series of final exams before graduating. Every year there are a few students who break my heart. But this year one student seems to stand out in particular.


We’ll call him P. Just like the other heartbreaking students before him, he “bought” the school system’s slogan “hard work = success”, worked hard, did his homework, missed very few classes and reviewed the material. Unlike those other students, he remembers vocabulary items better than most of the students in all my classes. He’s curious about words, and brings in brings in words he encounters online. Even more remarkable, he demonstrates a more extensive world knowledge than many of the other Deaf & hard-of-hearing students I teach.
This week we had another Mock Exam in preparation for the finals. Unseen reading passages are the main and most important section of our final exams. Students at his level are required to answer questions that summarize the main idea of a paragraph and demonstrate a command of vocabulary and grammar.


The topic of the unseen reading passage was changes at NASA. P. knew what NASA was — not something to take for granted in my classes. He remembered to use the highlight-marker the way we practiced. P told me proudly that he had remembered some of the words without using the dictionary.
Once again P. got the lowest grade in his class: a barely passing grade. Lower than students who, to put it politely, are not model students at all.
Despite all the ways we work on reading comprehension, he can’t seem to integrate the information in the text well. Some things (in every test) baffle him even after we discuss them in mother tongue. In the aforementioned text there was a paragraph explaining how in the past only NASA employees could work on space projects (today the situation is different, that is one of the changes presented). P. simply could not understand the answer to the question related to who used to pay the people who worked on space projects (P. was able to translate the word employee correctly into his mother tongue). We discussed it for 10 minutes afterwards and he still did not see the connection between the word “employee” and how it implied the source of the payment. I tried to give examples closer to his reality, (in mother tongue!) such as the fact that I teach him at school (I’m not his employee) vs. a private tutor who could come to his home (he is then the employer). P. still didn’t understand it. Other students did not have a problem with this question!


After every test P. looks so disappointed to see his peers get higher grades, while he barely gets a passing grade. He knows he works harder than they do. He looks at me and what can I say?!!
We just continue practicing…

Homemade Materials Issue – Naomi

Naomi Epstein

New Uses For Old Calendars  – Naomi Epstein


Many teachers around the world have recently replaced their classroom calendar with a new one for the New Year. Seeing a calendar hanging in a classroom is a common sight. Calendars are useful, every teacher knows that!


However, calendars have a hidden quality – they continue to be useful, particularly for an EFL teacher, well after the calendar-year has ended.  So, make sure to ask everyone you know to save their old calendars for you, because once you begin using old ones, you can never have too many!

Here are a few things you can do with old calendars. Even better, try the following suggestions with your students. While some lines may end up crooked and the lettering of the signs not uniform, involving the students is greatly beneficial.

1)     Liven it up!

Decorating the classroom with pictures cut from old calendars is a great way to begin. Liven up unattractive surfaces such as old doors:

or ugly binders:

2) Visualise Prepositions!

Calendars tend to portray –

* pictures of places (in, at, on)

* pictures related to the weather (seasons – “in”),

* pictures of sunsets and nighttime shots (“at night” “in the evening”, etc.)

* names of months (in) and days of the week (on)


(our classroom cupboards)


3) Utilize the Paper!

* Many calendars are made of good quality paper. Some are made of thicker paper, resembling (to varying degrees) construction paper. The parts of the calendar that have been written on, crossed out and marked, make an excellent backing for pages/worksheets (paste them on!) that need to be laminated or hung on the wall.

* Students often prefer to create their own personal set of flashcards. Many schools limit the amount of construction paper they will supply. All the empty white spaces around the “date section” of a calendar make great flashcard material.

4) Destroy and Enjoy!

Have the students practice following instructions by cutting out corresponding words and pictures from the old calendars. The instructions can be simple or complex:

  • Paste something blue here.
  • Paste the name of the month after March here.
  • Paste a picture of a person. Then paste pictures of three things you could give this person.

Remember! The sky is the limit so save those old calendars!


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Working with difficult students – Naomi Epstein

 Will The Real Difficult Student Please Stand Up?

— Naomi Epstein

Naomi Epstein

Put your hand on a hot stove for a minute, and it seems like an hour. Sit with a pretty girl for an hour, and it seems like a minute. THAT’S relativity”

Albert Einstein

photo by Gil Epshtein

In every class in every year there will always be at least one student whom we would call difficult but difficult is a relative term. The reasons that cause us to feel that a certain student is harder to teach than the other students in the same class are not objective and not even constant. The student you found that most frustrated you (or brought you to a point where you were consciously aware of repressing anger) in one class that you taught, may have nothing in common with the difficult student in another class.

Two years ago, my most difficult student was a very clever girl who constantly interrupted me when I was explaining something on the whiteboard. She either had to inform me at once that her previous teacher had explained it differently (and better!) or needed a clarification question answered without delay.

Last year’s most difficult student was a boy whose sole aim in the classroom seemed to be proving that he had no need for a teacher and didn’t need to pay attention when he so obviously needed help and guidance.

This year my most difficult student is a girl with a constant whine in her voice. In her previous school when she whined enough she was either excused from the task or received a great deal of help.

The really slow learners or the hyperactive student who regularly knocked over the tin of pencils on my desk didn’t make it on my most difficult list. Making sure the hyperactive student had an excuse to move around during the lessons and ensuring the slower learners had support material was a very clear-cut and effective move. It’s those other ones that got under my skin.

So what did I do?

The first two students are still my students, but aren’t on my list anymore. I let off s lot of steam with my colleagues and my supportive husband. I took deep breaths before their lessons and tried to stay patient. I talked to them outside of the lesson. I looked for things I could compliment them on, unrelated to the lesson. But the main thing that happened had to do with time. Eventually, to different degrees, they learned to trust me. I really am trying to help them succeed.  Unfortunately, one can’t rush that realization.

The main thing that happened had to do with time. Eventually, to different degrees, they learned to trust me. I really AM trying to help them succeed. Unfortunately, one can’t rush that realization.

The penny has begun to drop with my  whining student but hasn’t reached that cha ching sound yet. Next year will be so much easier. Of course, then, there will be someone new.

— Naomi Epstein

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