Future Coaching Opportunities

If you have finished four or five coaching sessions,   I hope you are able to practice the goal setting and strategic actions you have learned.    If you feel you want to get more coaching in the new year,   while English Language Support cannot provide it for you,   you are welcome to make use of VIU’s  Student Success Coach in the library.

You can find out more from their webpage here.


Having a passion in life


What is your passion?     Do you have a passion in life?   Is there some activity that you love to do?    For some people it is cooking, for others playing a sport or a musical instrument.   Helping other people could be your passion.    The opportunities are limitless.

When you engage in your passion you almost forget yourself.   You achieve flow.   When you have a passion,  you look forward to doing it.    It provides balance in your life.   It is a key ingredient of happiness.

The writer Henry David Thoreau observed that most people live lives of quiet desperation. What he meant was that they had no passion in their lives.   They lived dull, meaningless lives.    Thoreau’s passion was nature.   It was said he would walk five miles to see his favourite tree.

One of my favourite poems is a powerful  reminder to have some passion in life.


from:    http://mrsmindfulness.com/if-i-had-my-life-to-live-over-again/

The happy and successful life is one that is goal driven, but not to the exclusion of passion,  and not to the exclusion of unplanned moments of joy.

Don’t bury your passions.   If you don’t have one,  find one.   Look deep inside you to find what you love.    You may not be good at something yet, but maybe you have the potential.  You don’t have to be good at your passion, but you have to enjoy it.    That is key.   A passion should be nurtured,   as one would grow a flower from a seed.   









Another metaphor

Sea of Life

As your coaching draws to a close — you should be having your 4th or 5th session this week or next — it is worth considering your academic path and your progress this semester.

How have your goals and supporting actions worked out?  Have you succeeded to your satisfaction?   What worked?   What failed?   Why?

As with surfing,   a student sometimes  feels like an elephant on a surfboard.  This is particularly so when you are studying in Canada and English is not your first language.   Most days I hope you do not feel like this.     On good days you have flow — you are in control,  the waves cannot crash you,  all is going smoothly.   Some days you are on top of the wave, you are the master.        But as with all surfers,  eventually you will crash.   It happens. Then you pick yourself up and start again,  if not that day,  then another day.   Beauty surrounds you if you look.  Take it in.  Be one with it.     Surf the sea of life.

One coachee provided perfect vocabulary to connect surfing and life.  Thank you Tae-eun. Three elements are essential for success in both surfing and life.  The happy and successful student does not neglect these, but rather nurtures them.

  • balance
  • technique
  • strength


Like the yin and yang of oriental philosophy,   balance must be attended to.   You cannot study only, but must provide some time for  exercise,  for eating,  for sleeping,  for friends, family,   and play.     If you value balance,  you will plan and manage your days to allow time for other things than only studying.

Technique is founded on actions and strategies that work for you.    Good technique leads to success;  bad technique leads to failure or mediocrity.      Do your study methods reflect good technique?    How is your reading?     How do you go about writing an essay?    The best thing about technique is that it can be learned, it can be practiced.    We can learn from others what works and try it out ourselves.        You should ask yourself for every action you do whether you are using effective technique or not.

Strength comes from good technique and from balance.   It is here that you should be concerned with your knowledge and skills about English and academic performance.   Where are your strengths and where are your weaknesses?   We build on the former,  and build from the latter.    Do you remember discussing this in your first coaching session?    It is unfortunate that so many people never examine their strengths and weaknesses.   They just live day to day in the same fashion,   never improving,   wasting  the opportunity they have.

I love bamboo as a metaphor for strength.    The following presentation nails it.
Be like the bamboo

Think on these things as you enter the final stretch of this semester.    Good luck and enjoy the journey.      One of my favourite quotes comes from an extremely successful Canadian entrepreneur,     Peter Thomas.   (You can learn a great deal by studying the lives of successful people.)    He once said:

Luck is the crossroads of opportunity and preparation.

How to read more efficiently


The issue of reading is paramount for university students.     Outside of class lectures,  it is the primary mode of gaining knowledge.   Whether it is reading textbooks,  academic articles,   internet materials,   novels,  course outlines,  assignment instructions,  or discussion forum posts,   reading efficiency and effectiveness needs to be considered.

Are you an effective reader?  Are you an efficient reader?  Most international students at VIU will answer with a resounding no.    But degrees of effectiveness and efficiency vary among students.

What are the elements of reading effectiveness?                                                                                          You as the reader …

  • Can build meaning out of what you read
  • Can connect what you read to your reading purpose
  • Can connect what you read to your course and yourself
  • Can relate what you read to Canada and the world,  not only your own country
  • Can remember what you read (not everything, but enough … the important bits)
  • Can discuss what you read
  • Can and do annotate (this is invaluable for the former point)
  • Can and do pre-read and post-read (annotation helps with this)
  • Can vary your reading speed depending on what you are reading
  • Can be critical of what you read
  • Can quickly find and understand the main ideas and supporting ideas
  • Approach reading as a conversation between you and the writer


What are the elements of reading efficiency? You as the reader …

  • Can read  at a suitable speed.   At university,  for most (but not all) materials this means 200 to 250 words per minute at 65-75% comprehension.   Unfortunately too many international students read at around 100 words per minute.
  • Know which parts to read, and which parts to ignore.  Know which parts to skim, and which parts to analyze.
  • Can read in chunks instead of word for word, therefore reads ideas, not words
  • Can read from top down, not only bottom up.   This means seeing the big picture,  not only the individual details.
  • Can concentrate and focus when reading.
  • Do not say the words as you read them
  • Have a sufficient vocabulary AND manages unfamiliar words appropriately
  • Have a good place to read — where it is comfortable but does not make you sleepy, and and does not have too many distractions
  • Take breaks at appropriate times and spacing (neither too long nor too short)

Once you understand all this,  how do you get from where you are now to an acceptable (for you) level of reading effectiveness and efficiency?

  1. Know your  reading strengths and weaknesses.  Fix any bad reading habits.
  2. Know and understand the above listed elements of reading effectiveness and efficiency.
  3. Make a plan involving goals and supporting actions.
  4. Follow KPAME
  5. Read a little bit everyday (15-30 minutes) for pleasure about different topics.   A great app for this for your smartphone or tablet is Flipboard.   Reading novels in English is helpful too.   You can do this on the bus.
  6. Improve your vocabulary.
  7. Try not to read materials that are too difficult for you.

And don’t forget to do your readings before class.    Although you have less context for the readings when you read them,  you will be better able to follow and engage with the class. And you can go back after and do a quick post-reading of the material.


For further study …

How to read efficiently

70 tips to read faster

Reading Exercises (try the speed reading bits)


Improve your conversation by watching sitcoms



Many of my coachees want to improve their conversation skills so as to better engage  with other students,  and  better participate in class seminars and discussions.    Observing natural conversations between native English speakers is one way to pick up the techniques,  the knowledge,  and the vocabulary necessary.     One way to observe such conversations is to watch sitcoms.   Sitcom means “situation comedy” and are usually 20 or 30 minute long television comedies that show every week.      Some famous American sitcoms are Friends,  Seinfeld,   Family Guy, Modern Family, and many others.     Conversation between funny and interesting characters is what makes for successful sitcoms.


One recommended sitcom for learning English is Big Bang Theory.     You can watch it on Netflix or on CTV or other internet venues (i.e. Youtube).




Watch for another blog post that gives you some strategies about what you can do when you watch these sitcoms.


Take your academic writing up a notch — to graduate level writing



Hopefully you have a some idea of what the difference is between undergraduate level university writing and high school or elementary school writing.  How about the difference between graduate and undergraduate level?  If you are studying in a  graduate program,   it is important that you know this, and that your writing reflects this.  You can read an interview with a professor about graduate level expectations here.

While expectations and standards will vary among teachers,  most have higher expectations for students at the graduate level.    Your writing should demonstrate greater depth and complexity,  while remaining clear and succinct.    Usually (but not always) the length of writing is longer, particularly with research and other papers.   This is certainly the case with a thesis or dissertation.   The level of detail and support for your arguments should be strong and extensive.

At the sentence level it is expected that you use plentiful academic vocabulary.   Sentence length may be longer,  but not just for the sake of being longer.  If you can make your point in ten words,  then use ten words rather than 20.   But as your points at the graduate level tend to be more complex,  the ideas embedded in the sentences will be more complex and therefore require more words.

Compare these two sentences:

According to the life cycle of a tourist destination (Butler, 1980), destinations must be planned accordingly so that they will maintain their attractiveness rather than lose their appeal or become over-saturated and enter into the decline stage.  (34 words)

Source: Dodds, R. (2012). Sustainable tourism: A hope or a necessity? the case of tofino, british columbia, canada. Journal of Sustainable Development, 5(5), 54-64. Retrieved from http://ezproxy.viu.ca/login?url=http://search.proquest.com/docview/1013840404?accountid=12246


People will make better decisions based on what they know. (10 words)   Source:  http://ap5rmviu.blogspot.ca/2013/07/the-task-of-how-to-be-super-achiever-10.html

Graduate level sentences make greater use of academic and technical vocabulary.  For example,  in the first sentence provided above,   3 words from the academic word list were used.   This is not a lot, but it is better than none.

According to the life cycle of a tourist destination (Butler, 1980), destinations must be planned accordingly so that they will maintain their attractiveness rather than lose their appeal or become over-saturated and enter into the decline stage.

The second sentence contained no academic words.

You can analyze any piece of writing by copying and pasting it into the academic word list highlighter here

An excellent way to learn to write to this standard to to notice the reading you do at the graduate level.   Pay attention to the sentences — how many words long are they?  what vocabulary do they use?  what grammatical structures do the sentences make use of?

Notice that the first sentence is rather complex.    It contains several dependent and independent clauses,  and makes use of various connecting words (conjunctions) such as so, rather,  or,  and.    The sentence also begins with an adverb (or adverbial) phrase  According to the life cycle of a tourist destination (Butler, 1980),   to add context and detail to the sentence.       Just as effective academic writing makes use of multi-syllabic (many syllables) and academic words, it also  contains many compound and complex sentences.

To understand sentence complexity,  you may want to refresh your knowledge about grammar here.    Especially pay attention to  the building block of  English sentences,    the clause here and here.

Compound Sentences:

A compound sentences is a sentence that contains at least two independent clauses (each containing a subject and a verb).   The two clauses are typically joined using a coordinating conjunction or a semi-colon.

Example:   The news media is changing rapidly around the world,   and one of the main causes of this is the proliferation of free digital news providers.

This could have been written as two short sentences, but because the ideas are so connected,  they can be written as a compound sentence.  Two independent clauses have been joined by the common conjunction “and”.

Complex Sentences

Like a compound sentence,  a complex sentence is a sentence containing two clauses,  but one is independent and the other is dependent.

Example:   Newspapers around the world are suffering declining readerships because people can get their news for free from the internet.

Complex sentences  are used to add complexity,  depth and detail to sentences.



Helpful Internet Resources

Learning Matters   (VIU’s Digital Learning Commons)

VIU English Language Support    (A blog for international students studying at VIU)

Academic Writing Advice (from Purdue Online Writing Lab)


                                                         Not the right attitude here …


Improving your listening skills

What is listening and how can it be improved?

What exactly is listening?   How does the process occur?   How can we improve our listening?

These are important questions to consider as it is estimated that 40-50% of the time we are engaged in listening of some type or other.

The first point to understand is that we listen with our brain, not our ears.   If our brain is turned off or only engaged in a limited way, then our comprehension will be similarly limited.   Good listening is active listening.

This relates to the concept of processing (the mental bit) the sounds that enter our ears (the physical bit).    We engage in two types of processing:

1.   top down processing — using our previous knowledge of the topic the words are concerned with;   having a purpose for listening;   predicting what will be said;  here we use a lot of ‘chunking’

2.    bottom up processing — this is very inefficient and we all do it to varying degrees — we attend to the individual sounds and words;

Comprehension, which can range from 0% to 100%,  occurs as a combination of the two processes.

So why on a listening test do you maybe only score 50%?

(Of course, this may be partly due to poor reading or test-taking skills, but that is besides the point of this page.)

The biggest barriers to listening comprehension are:

1.  poor vocabulary — if we don’t know the important (and common) words, then we are stuck.

2.  poor pronunciation — if we don’t know how words are supposed to sound, then we can’t recognize them.   Spoken correctly, they may not be as we say them and hence believe  they should sound like.

3.  poor accommodation strategies:

  1.  words are spoken in connected strings  — they are often slurred and said quickly whereby they blend together ( ex.  for getting vs.  forgetting; watchagonnado?)
  2. we often don’t catch bits of what we hear, but we can guess or infer what we miss based on context — like filling in a puzzle

4. unfamiliarity with different speaking formats

5.   weak knowledge of the world and its many different domains

  • Strategies to Improve ListeningIf you want to improve your listening, then you must attend to the weaknesses just discussed.As you listen, you should be interpreting what you hear.   People create understanding of oral input in different ways because people are all different.   As you listen, you should be making a story and hence meaning out of the various strings of sounds/words.Here are the top ten macro strategies to improve your listening ability.1.   Listen to stories —  this develops the top down processing skills.

    2.   Practice cloze and dictation activities — this develops the bottom up skills

    3.   Do extensive listening — on many different topics; from many different voices; from         varied  formats    (ex.  news; interviews; lectures; songs)

    4.   Immersion — surround yourself with English — minimize L1 oral input; minimize translation

    5.   Improve your vocabulary — first the top 3000 words; then the top 5000 words; then the top 8000 words

    6.   Study the English sounds — productive and receptive phonetics

    7.   Interact in English — have a friend with whom you must speak English; speak to                       homestay  family frequently

    8.   Listen and make a summary — then check with someone else

    9.   Practice listening activities with a partner

    10.  Use the many different listening resources on the Internet

    Here is a list of many micro strategies: (from Listening and good language learners; Goodith White in Lessons from Good Language Learners, ed. Carol Griffiths.  Cambridge:Cambridge University Press. 2008)

    1.   Cognitive strategies:   mental activities learners use to remember and develop language and enhance comprehension

  •  predicting what a piece of listening will be about, or what language/information will come next;
  • drawing inferences when information is not stated or has been missed;
  • guessing meaning of unknown words
  • using intonation an pausing to segment words and phrases;
  • other micro-strategies to do with processing language — identifying stressed words, listening for markers, listening for structures, etc.;
  • using schematic and contextual information (top down) together with linguistic information (bottom up) to arrive at meaning;
  • visualizing the situation they are hearing about; piecing together meaning from words that have been heard.

2.  Metacognitive strategies:  these are activities learners use to organize, monitor and
evaluate how well they are understanding.

  • focusing attention, concentrating and clearing the mind before listening;
  • applying an advance organizer before listening (I think the topic is going to be … so …);
  • going in with a plan (I’m going to listen for … words I know/key words);
  • getting used to speed and finding ways of coping with it;
  • being aware when they are losing attention and refocusing concentration;
  • deciding what the main purpose of listening is;
  • checking how well they have understood;
  • taking notes;
  • paying attention to the main points;
  • identifying listening problems and planning how to improve them.

3.   Socio-affective strategies: activities in which learners interact with other people in order to help their comprehension and encourage themselves to continue listening.

  • asking for clarification;
  • checking that they have got the right idea;
  • providing themselves with opportunities for listening;
  • motivating themselves to listen;
  • lowering anxiety about listening;
  • providing a personal response to the information or ideas presented in the piece of listening;
  • empathizing with the speaker and trying to understand the reason for a particular message.


Your listening ability will not improve overnight, but an organized and effective strategy implemented over many months can indeed have dramatic results.

Online Listening Resources

Try to do some focused listening every day or two — about 15-20 minutes.   BBC Learning English is a good site for this,  or TED Talks,   or  CBC Radio here  or here.   The key is to be able to look at a transcript after to check your notes,  or use this transcript to prepare a listening cloze.

Here are some useful websites to practice these skills (plus note-taking).  Explore these resources and find some tools that work for you.

BBC Learning English   (I recommend “6 minute English” within this website.)

English Central  (This is a great tool for practice listening in short spurts.)

200 Listening Dictation Exercises

Randall’s ESL Cyber Listening Lab

Manythings Listening

Listening and Speaking Pages

Focus English:  Conversation 

Video-based Listening  (Watch and listen to a variety of movie clips and answer questions)

George Strouboulopoulos Interviews (CBC)   You can listen to some of these interviews