All posts by John DePonte

I began my teaching career at the age of fifteen when I began giving piano lessons. I added latin dance and language to my teaching repertoire as soon as I acquired those skills. While my undergraduate degree is in music, my Master's is in TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages). I have taught ESL in the New York City public school system as well as on the college and adult levels. I even had the opportunity to bring my language teaching techniques to Shanghai, China. I now offer my approach to language acquisition to anyone who may need it on my website: speakenin.com.

What is the Speakening Method of Language Learning?

As I have explained before, the word “speakening” is a combination of the words “speaking” and “listening.” It describes the technique of silently and simultaneously repeating what a speaker is saying to you, thus: speaking while listening. This technique makes the native speaker’s fluent speech clear to the student. It is not, however, the only feature of the Speakening Method of Language Learning.

In fact, while the technique of speakening as described above is the answer to the ultimate problem of understanding native speakers of your new language, it is not the most important feature of the Speakening Method. The Speakening Method of Language Learning is a way of practicing that every successful language learner uses to some degree or other. I use it to the exclusion of all other methods.

With all the complicated, pretty language learning software out there, why do I restrict myself to only one practice method? The answer is simple: it is the shortest route from beginner to fluent speaker that I have yet discovered. If I find a shorter one, I will share it with you. Games, graphics, exercises, and tests take you further from, not closer to the goal of a serious language learner: to learn a new language. We are not looking to be entertained, amused, or amazed by technological detours down dead ends that delay the gratification of achieving our goal.

So what is this magical practice method? It doesn’t require any software, let alone expensive software. It doesn’t even require a computer or a mobile device. Blasphemy in the 21st century! In fact, once you understand the pronunciation of the language, all you need is enough printed material to continue increasing your vocabulary and knowledge of the structure of the language, that is, its grammar.

The practice method I extol is this:

1. Divide a sentence into phrases of no longer than 2-3 words.

(It may be necessary to occasionally practice 4-5 word phrases, but they can usually be broken down to 2-3 word phrases.)

2. Read the first phrase aloud until you can say it smoothly, not necessarily rapidly.

3. Repeat the phrase without looking at the text.

4. Repeat it silently, without looking, as rapidly as possible.

5. Repeat it one more time while looking at the text, smoothly, not necessarily rapidly.

6. Move on to the subsequent phrases in the same manner until the end of the sentence.

You can use this method with any text, even the news.

That’s it. There is no need to put the whole sentence together. The brain knows what to do with the information you’ve already given it. It’s what the brain does. Trust it.

I have spent my entire adult life honing my language learning skills so that I can learn new languages as quickly as possible. What’s the rush? First, it’s fun to speak newly acquired languages with native speakers. Not only do they appreciate the effort, many actually light up when they hear you say something in a language they never thought you could know. Next, we all have other things we both have to do and enjoy doing. I, for one, love to play the piano and guitar, write songs, dance salsa, and play chess, among other things. All these things require practice. Practice takes time. If I can get the same result in less time, it would be madness to do it any other way.

One other thing: The Speakening Method of Language Learning requires practice. Practice is just another word for repetition. Don’t let anyone tell you that repetition is of no value. Whoever believes that has never mastered any skill. Ask the greatest athletes, musicians, spiritual masters, language learners, you name it, what they did to achieve such spectacular results and they will tell you: practice, i.e. repetition. “What should you practice?” is the next question. Any good beginner’s book in your language of choice will suffice, provided you understand the pronunciation. After that, any text will do. At speakening.com, English language learners practice all the sentence patterns commonly used in English with the guidance of a native English speaker, i.e. me.

So learn the Speakening Method and practice your new language this way. You won’t be sorry. Quite the contrary; you’ll be amazed. If your language of choice is English, please feel free to join us at speakening.com. You can take your time practicing your new technique because the first ten lessons are free. By the time you’re finished working through the free lessons, we’re sure you will see the value of the method and will want to join the Speakening community of English language learners.

by John DePonte

More is Less: The Common Core Standards

The Common Core Standards Initiative is in full swing in the United States and the outcry from students, parents, and teachers is deafening. Adoption of the standards is not mandatory. However, while some states have indeed rejected the initiative, this means that they will not be eligible for federal Race to the Top funding, a significant consideration. The No Child Left Behind Act was forced on our schools in the same way. It is important to point out that education, as specified in the U.S. Constitution, is within the purview of the state governments, not the federal government. By bribing educational autonomy away from the states, the federal government denies our families a significant amount of freedom in choosing how their children should be educated.

The Common Core Standards were devised by politicians and business people without any input from those who know the needs of the students: their parents and teachers. The curriculum, which remains a mystery, will be determined by assessments developed by and for the federal government. The standards were unleashed without provision of resources, teacher training, or field-testing. In fact, the 2013 NYSESLAT (New York State English as a Second Language Achievement Test) was changed mid-year to accommodate the new standards. This means that English Language Learners had no materials with which to prepare for the exam and their teachers had no resources with which to help them.

Because the standards have been initiated without a curriculum that takes into consideration the needs of the students, elementary school children are working deep into the night on homework they simply cannot understand because it is not developmentally appropriate for their age. They are developing a real fear of the classroom because it has become a forum for failure. High school students who were already having difficulty are now losing all interest in secondary education. English language learners, whose challenges have never been properly appreciated, will fall even further behind their American-born peers, resulting in an even higher dropout rate. Teachers who realize the futility of what they are being mandated to do to their students are leaving the profession.

The Common Core Standards Initiative is motivated by a reasonable idea: students at the same grade level should be learning the same material throughout the country. In addition, this material should be appropriate for ultimately preparing the students for college and the workplace. However, the development and implementation of the standards have ignored one minor detail: the needs of the students. Demanding that all students learn the same thing in the same way in the same timeframe ignores everything we know about how human beings learn, and it ignores English language learners altogether. Our students are already struggling, failing, and dropping out. Arbitrarily increasing and homogenizing their workload is, to be euphemistic, counter-intuitive. Making it incomprehensible is incomprehensible. At least some thought should be given to how our students can learn what they need to know while still being able to enjoy growing up in America.

by John DePonte

It’s Not Polite to Point

Since the year 2000, students from the United States have been outperformed by students from countries of comparable wealth like Canada, Finland, Germany, Japan, China, Singapore, and South Korea. This time, Ireland and Poland joined the winners’ circle. Even the richest students in America failed to match the results of equally well-off students from other countries.

The idea that American educators and academics should not be concerned because there are already more students graduating from college than can be utilized by the labor market is unacceptable on two counts. First, the implication is that our students are already too successful, and we should slow them down. Is there anyone who doesn’t find this position absurd? Second, education is not just about joining the labor market. Among other things, it is about developing the intellectual tools to create new and inventive niches in the market. Who remembers vinyl records? CDs anyone? How about MP3s? You get the picture.

If we agree that there is a problem and it should be solved, if possible, then we should first look at the solutions that have already been in place for quite a while now and assess them. That’s easy. They haven’t worked. Overburdening teachers with producing “accountability data” keeps them away from their chosen profession at the expense of the students. Insisting that teachers spend the majority of the year preparing their students for standardized tests has taken the students even further from their hope of actually being educated. The proliferation of standardized tests has resulted in the plundering of academic skills across the board and the country.

Basing a teacher’s success on the students’ standardized test scores is as meaningless as it is illogical. Test prep is not teaching, and it is quite possible for a student to learn what is legitimately important in a subject and still do poorly on a standardized test. It would be unfair to assess the student’s ability based on the results of such a standardized test; it would be criminal to assess the teacher.

Improving our public schools, offering more training and “support” for teachers, the federal government “encouraging” states to agree on common education standards, demanding “stronger” math and science education, requiring more “rigor” in the nations high schools, providing additional resources to prepare students for college-level studies, demanding “stronger” math and science education, etc. are all code for, “The teachers are to blame for the failure of our students to compete academically with their international peers.” Why not? Teachers are an easy target and a relatively small voting block.

The idea that we must “cure” poverty in order to set the educational ship aright at least begins to take a look at what just might be the most significant problem in American education today. The problem just might not be in the schools, and if it is, it just may not be the teachers. Instead of mindlessly pointing fingers, why is no one asking the question, “What is going on inside the walls of today’s American household that is affecting the academic performance of our children, both positively and negatively?”

Where are the longitudinal studies that follow students from placenta to PhD that will give us real insight into who succeeds, who fails, and why? There are billions of dollars being spent in this country on studies to determine things like “What really makes men happy?” No kidding! This was recently reported on the nightly news in New York City. It seems we could throw some of that money at trying to find out why so many of our children are not learning, why some are learning, and how can we bring the conditions of the successful students to bear on the lives of those who are not successful. After all, the first step to finding a solution is identifying the problem, not pointing a finger at the easiest target.

by John DePonte

It’s Not Polite to Point

Since the year 2000, students from the United States have been outperformed by students from countries of comparable wealth like Canada, Finland, Germany, Japan, China, Singapore, and South Korea. This time, Ireland and Poland joined the winners’ circle. Even the richest students in America failed to match the results of equally well-off students from other countries.

The idea that American educators and academics should not be concerned because there are already more students graduating from college than can be utilized by the labor market is unacceptable on two counts. First, the implication is that our students are already too successful, and we should slow them down. Is there anyone who doesn’t find this position absurd? Second, education is not just about joining the labor market. Among other things, it is about developing the intellectual tools to create new and inventive niches in the market. Who remembers vinyl records? CDs anyone? How about MP3s? You get the picture.

If we agree that there is a problem and it should be solved, if possible, then we should first look at the solutions that have already been in place for quite a while now and assess them. That’s easy. They haven’t worked. Overburdening teachers with producing “accountability data” keeps them away from their chosen profession at the expense of the students. Insisting that teachers spend the majority of the year preparing their students for standardized tests has taken the students even further from their hope of actually being educated. The proliferation of standardized tests has resulted in the plundering of academic skills across the board and the country.

Basing a teacher’s success on the students’ standardized test scores is as meaningless as it is illogical. Test prep is not teaching, and it is quite possible for a student to learn what is legitimately important in a subject and still do poorly on a standardized test. It would be unfair to assess the student’s ability based on the results of such a standardized test; it would be criminal to assess the teacher.

Improving our public schools, offering more training and “support” for teachers, the federal government “encouraging” states to agree on common education standards, demanding “stronger” math and science education, requiring more “rigor” in the nations high schools, providing additional resources to prepare students for college-level studies, demanding “stronger” math and science education, etc. are all code for, “The teachers are to blame for the failure of our students to compete academically with their international peers.” Why not? Teachers are an easy target and a relatively small voting block.

The idea that we must “cure” poverty in order to set the educational ship aright at least begins to take a look at what just might be the most significant problem in American education today. The problem just might not be in the schools, and if it is, it just may not be the teachers. Instead of mindlessly pointing fingers, why is no one asking the question, “What is going on inside the walls of today’s American household that is affecting the academic performance of our children, both positively and negatively?”

Where are the longitudinal studies that follow students from placenta to PhD that will give us real insight into who succeeds, who fails, and why? There are billions of dollars being spent in this country on studies to determine things like “What really makes men happy?” No kidding! This was recently reported on the nightly news in New York City. It seems we could throw some of that money at trying to find out why so many of our children are not learning, why some are learning, and how can we bring the conditions of the successful students to bear on the lives of those who are not successful. After all, the first step to finding a solution is identifying the problem, not pointing a finger at the easiest target.

by John DePonte

The Demonization of Repetition: Education’s Biggest Blunder

My sister needed to take a science course to fulfill a college requirement. So she registered for a biology class. The only problem was that she had inadvertently chosen a biology course for medical students. She was in a class filled with aspiring doctors. Come final exam time, she couldn’t understand a single word in the required text. Let me repeat that in case you don’t believe me. She did not understand a single word.

What could she do? It was too late to drop the class. It was even too late to try to find someone to explain it to her. Her only choice was to read the required passage over and over and over again. Repetition. Why? She could think of no other course of action. Each time she read the passage, she didn’t understand any of it. She read if again. No good. Again. Nothing. Many, many more times. Still nothing. One last time. What? Wait a minute. It’s all clear now. Not part of it. Not most of it. All of it!

In my sister’s words, “It was like a light went on in my head.” It’s not a coincidence that most people who have a revelation of some kind describe it as a light going on. In fact, something electrical does happen in the brain when understanding occurs. Forget the science of it; why did it happen to my sister? Repetition. That’s right. Repetition: education’s favorite whipping boy. Teachers in training are actually taught that repetition is a “lower order learning operation.” It doesn’t require “critical thinking.” Some have even gone as far as to label repetition corporal punishment and therefore, abuse.

The result? Our schools are churning out illiterate, innumerate graduates who are in no way prepared for graduate work or the job market. Teachers are forever looking to engage their students in critical thinking when they should be employing the irreplaceable strategy of repetition. Of course critical thinking is appropriate for things like exchanging ideas and debating positions. However, it is not appropriate for a large proportion of what students need to learn in order to excel. Mental math and second language learning immediately come to mind.

The Russians have a saying: “Repetition is the mother of learning.” In my sister’s case, it was the brute force of repetition that actually caused understanding. In fact, she was the only student to get an A in that Medical Biology course. As a pianist, I was already quite familiar with the magic of repetition. So are athletes. As a language learner and teacher, I know that if I could choose only one technique in order to learn or teach a new language and I could not have recourse to any other technique, it wouldn’t take me as long as one second to choose repetition. Not only is it underrated; it should be the number one instrument in every student’s toolkit.

by John DePonte

Language Roulette

Don’t get me wrong. It’s not that I like to study. It’s just that I like knowing the things that you can only learn through studying. Since speaking a new language is one of those things that require constant study and practice, I’m always on the lookout for ways to make the language learning process more efficient and fun.

My latest experiment involves cutting the material down to even more digestible chunks. Since I need to practice more than one language at a time, it simply isn’t realistic for me to work through an entire chapter for each language every day. After all, each sentence has to be broken down into several useful phrases each to be repeated many times. So I practice one page of one language three times before moving on to the next language.

This week it’s Italian, Spanish, and Japanese. The texts I use have beautiful grammar sections complete with translated sentences that I practice for total fluency. When I’ve completed one page of Italian, I move on to Japanese, and then to Spanish. It’s a sort of language roulette. It’s quick, effective, and fun. Any book with translated sentences will do. There are some great books of idioms in many languages that are quite useful for this purpose.

Let’s look at an example. If you’re learning English, your page may have five to ten translated sentences you need to practice. Let’s say the first sentence is: If I practice English this way, I’ll be fluent in no time. This sentence divides nicely into four useful phrases. Read the first phrase while looking at the text: If I practice English. Now say it without looking at the text: If I practice English. Imagine you’re saying it to someone you know; you’ll remember it better that way. Now read it again while looking at the text: If I practice English.

Now, apply this technique to the next phrase: this way. That’s a short, easy one, but very, very useful. Then with I’ll be fluent. And finally: in no time. Each one of these phrases can be used in an infinite variety of contexts. That’s why this method of language practice is the best. You never need to memorize an entire sentence, unless the sentence itself is a short, useful phrase.

When you’ve completed the first sentence, continue through the rest of them until you’ve worked through all the sentences on that page. Now do the entire page the same way two more times, for a total of three repetitions. Depending on how many sentences there are on the page, this can take anywhere from around five to twenty minutes. You can continue through as many pages as you want in one language, or switch off to another language. It’s entirely up to you. If three repetitions of the page take too long, do two, but no fewer. The brain loves repetition; humor it.

by John DePonte

Beginner’s Luck

I used to think that learning a new language was a matter of finding a good course book presented in three volumes: beginner, intermediate, and advanced. Once you’ve mastered the material in these three volumes, you were fluent in the language. Of course, experience has once again taught me humility.

Don’t misunderstand. I’ve found some superb books, usually in two volumes that certainly lay the foundation for becoming fluent in a new language. However, after working so hard to establish that foundation I still found myself unable to understand the native spoken language. Naturally, I had to ask myself: “What did I miss?”

Well, I made the same mistake I made when, as an aspiring musician I assumed that once you learned to play the piano, you were a pianist, period. A gunslinger in the old west would never make it to his final ride off into the sunset with that attitude. If he, or she, did not practice his skills every day, and I mean every single day, it wouldn’t be long before someone younger and faster made him regret his sloth. Of course, unless it’s possible to actually die from embarrassment, the pianist and the language learner would probably be spared such a fate. The lesson here is that you never acquire a skill, “period.” You acquire a skill, “comma,” and then you practice.

Now I know that the gunslinger, the pianist, and the language learner all have to practice all the time in order or their skills to prove useful. The two questions for gunslinger, the pianist, and the language learner are, “What do I practice?” and “How do I practice it?” I can imagine what the gunslinger has to practice, and I know what the pianist has to practice. But I’m not writing this article to send you back to the OK Corral or to off to Carnegie Hall. I want to share one of my most entertaining and effective language learning techniques with you. I call it, “Beginner’s Luck.”

Most beginner language books cover pretty much the same grammatical material. Where they tend to differ is in the vocabulary. While the topics covered in these volumes will not vary wildly, they will be different enough to offer an extensive, useful daily vocabulary if you work through enough of them. I find it both effective and fun to work through several beginner books in one language over and over again. “Over and over again” is just a way of saying, “practice.”

Practicing through multiple beginner books in one language, even before moving on the intermediate level, has some surprising effects. In addition to developing an impressive vocabulary of high frequency words, the grammar of the language becomes etched in the brain in a way that is far more permanent and practical than memorizing rules. Also, the work in each book supports and simplifies the work in all the other books. This makes the process of acquiring the language easier and a lot more fun. Finally, but far from least, practicing regularly through at least three beginner books leads not only leads to fluency, it gives you an easy way to maintain it, period.

by John DePonte

Chopping Ice

It’s winter in New York and the freezer is on the fritz. We’re chopping ice inside, and we’re chopping ice outside. It’s painstaking work, but it’s necessary. If we don’t chop the ice in the freezer, we lose all the food that’s buried underneath it. If we don’t chop the ice outside, we can’t use the car, we’ll get fined for leaving the ice on our sidewalk and stairs, or worse, someone might slip and get hurt.

As I’m working through my book of Japanese idioms, I’m noticing the similarities between working through unfamiliar language and chopping ice. You don’t always feel like you’re making progress, but you know you have to carry on. You may have to make several passes through the task before you reach your goal. Once you do reach your goal, there’s always maintenance, or “salting the sidewalk.”

What’s at once fascinating and difficult about my book of Japanese idioms is its sample sentences. Sure the explanations of the idioms are interesting. Most of them are from long ago in Japan and China, and the stories behind them can be charming or mortifying. But what interests me is the employment of these idioms in sentences that use the colloquial language of the Japan of today.

While most language books teach the “text book” language that you would learn in the classroom, good books that offer ample coverage of the idiomatic language of daily life are far and few between. No, I’m not talking about those ugly little volumes that purport to teach you the language that “you never learned in the classroom,” in other words, profanity. I’m talking about comprehensive coverage of the non-standard way that native speakers of any language combine their words, phrases, and ideas. This natural linguistic process is essential to the understanding and use of any language.

All speakers shorten their native language in ways that would be incomprehensible to a learner of that language who had only studied the “standard” language. Finding good books that teach this natural way of speaking can be challenging, but they do exist. Once you find one, start chopping ice. I like to work through the entire book, making sure I understand all that I can during the first pass. Will I understand everything the first time through? Probably not. It doesn’t matter; I know I’m going to be working through this book many times, so I just keep going.

The second time through the book, I choose those phrases that I think will be most useful and I practice them for fluency. The other phrases I just work through again as I did the first time. Then I repeat this process, adding new phrases to the fluency practice process each subsequent time through the book. If I find a phrase that doesn’t seem to be useful, I ignore it. You don’t have to do something just because the author included it in her book. Finally, I salt the sidewalk by reading through the book either until I don’t need to any more, or for the rest of my life.

by John DePonte

Death, Taxes, and Student Loan Payments

There are only two things that are certain in this life: debt and taxes. I’m sorry: death and taxes. And if you are a student, you will most likely be looking at a lifetime of student loan payments. You will pay taxes. If you need a student loan to go to college, you will pay it back. And you will probably die before your loan is paid off: tough break for the federal student loan program.

So what if you must pay back your student loan? You used the money, now you should pay it back. Fair enough. However, situations change. The American economy reflects this truth. The European economy suffers from this truth. The Asian economy experiences this truth. All the individuals who live and work in all the economies in the world are bound by this truth. The American bankruptcy laws exist because of this truth.

An American who experiences overwhelming economic hardship can get a fresh start by filing for bankruptcy. Of course, this means that the person will have to change some habits moving forward, but this is a good thing. You really can live without credit cards. Trust me. The debt can be restructured to make repayment possible or, under extreme circumstances, the debt can be dismissed. Not so with student loans. You will pay your student loan back, in full, or die trying. Period.

There was a time when this was not the case. As a result, students took advantage and abused the system by not repaying their student loans at all. The federal government over-reacted and now we all suffer. How is it that we all suffer, and not just the students? We hear a lot of lip service from every level of government about how education is essential for a stable, productive society. Our students are our future. We hear this as we watch our public schools churn out graduates who are not prepared for college level work. We hear it as most college freshmen must take remedial courses in English and math in order to have even a shot at understanding college coursework. We hear it as college tuitions exceed all reason.

So, the average college student must borrow an enormous sum of money that will be paid back come hell or global depression. Affordable education can now only be found online, but not through college or university online courses. These too are exorbitant. As far as our government is concerned, online college courses are just another income stream for their student loan programs.

If our government really believes that education is the key to the stability and productivity of our society (a big “if” by the way), there is only one course it can take: The federal government must make education affordable for everyone. If shackling our college students with a debt that most of them will spend their entire lives trying (and failing) to pay off is serving anyone, it is not the students. Nor is it our society. Indiscriminately lending money to students without giving any consideration to whether or not they will be able to pay it back is not responsible.

When our banks misbehave, our federal government bails them out with our tax money. When big businesses misbehave, our federal government bails them out with our tax money. And the federal government never refers to these institutions as “our future.” When college graduates find themselves in a position that makes it impossible for them to repay their student loans, they’re on their own.

Forcing students to pay back what they will never have is not reasonable. Our college graduates don’t even have to misbehave in order to find themselves in this position. Things change. Economies change. Family situations change. Students’ lives change. Student loan laws have only changed once in this lifetime, of course to serve the lenders, not the borrowers, nor our society. In this case, the borrowers are our future, where three things are certain: death, taxes, and student loan payments.

by John DePonte

Data-Driven Instruction

As I peruse the positions offered by the New York State and New Jersey Departments of Education, I see in almost every ad one of the reasons I resigned from public education: data-driven instruction. What was the first thing your professor said to your class of aspiring power brokers in Statistics 101: “There are lies, there are damn lies, and then there are statistics.”

Instruction is always driven by two things and two things only: the students’ needs and the students’ capacities. That’s it. We can all go home now. But let’s look at what data-driven instruction could possibly mean. Ostensibly, it means that educators and administrators can use student performance, i.e. grades, as the criterion for what should be taught in the classroom and how it should be taught. This seems reasonable. The operative word here is “seems.”

The quintessential example of why this does not work is the vaunted Common Core Standards Initiative. The students were underperforming. So naturally, it only made sense to require only higher order thinking tasks (i.e. no memorization of times tables or learning how to spell, etc.), increase the workload, and make the exams more difficult (only testing higher order thinking skills). Now our streets are teeming with geniuses. Not quite.

The Common Core is doomed to failure because, as is always the case with everything our educational leaders do, it ignores the students. If a student doesn’t understand a math problem, you break it down into digestible components and explain it in terms that the student can understand. You don’t give him/her ten more problems that are even more difficult, assign more homework, and administer exams that he/she has no chance of understanding, let alone passing. The situation requires less work and more time, not more work and less time. I understand this. I know that you understand it. How can it be that educators, administrators, and politicians always get this wrong? They would almost have to be trying to fail.

An even easier example of the disingenuous intentions behind data-driven instruction is the graduation rate. The powers that be love to cite rising graduation rates as an indication that we have turned some kind of educational corner. What these rates actually measure is the plummeting standards for graduation. Our students simply do not have to know or do anything anymore.

So why are our educational leaders insisting on data-driven instruction? The answer is obvious. Producing numbers is a much easier way to justify a salary than producing an educated student. After all, someone had to be doing something in order to produce all those pages upon pages of data. Let’s not kid ourselves. There are no more teachers in our public schools. They have all been coerced into becoming data entry technicians for their administrators. And our students…

by John DePonte