All posts by Naomi Epstein

Hi! I teach English as a foreign language to deaf and hard of hearing students in Israel and am a national counselor in this field.

7 in 2017 – When Teaching Literature in EFL Intersects with Life


You know that teaching the literature component of the high-school EFL program has influenced you when…

  1. Getting a beautiful piece of artwork as a post reading task on the book “The Wave” makes you ridiculously happy…
  2. You foolishly carry too many books and papers in the hallway and manage to drop half. A few kind students, whom you’ve never seen before, help gather the scattered items. You thank them but what you really REALLY want to say is “Well, you can now count this day as not lost”! 
  3. The name of the game “Quoits” was a new addition to your vocabulary, but you are old enough to remember that “Patience” was the name for “Solitaire” when it was played with real cards.
  • Pondering age… Photo by Gil Epshtein

    4. When you reach the sentence about Mrs. Luella Bates Washington Jones’ icebox, it suddenly dawns on you that it might not be such a good idea to suggest that the kids talk to their grandparents for further information about ice boxes. If some of the students’ parents were once students of mine, then I’ll soon be the age of their grandparents.  I seem to have been in the classroom forever yet I never had an icebox…

  • Not a yellow wood but most certainly two roads diverged…
    Naomi’s Photos

    5. You find yourself pondering the fact that you actually took the road most taken by women, becoming  a teacher, a wife, a mother, a daughter (of parents in their “golden years”) , juggling roles while trying to exercise and blog too. Which naturally leads to the question whether I shall be telling this with a sigh of joy or regret ages and ages hence… Or perhaps the question of whether there will be anyone interested in listening…

  • A Smart Move
    (Naomi’s Photos)

    6. You have to bite your tongue every time you reach the end of the story “The Rules of The Game” – Waverly had no more moves to plot! I read “The Joy Luck Club” by Amy Tan, I know what happened! From the moment Waverly supposedly insulted her mother, she never won a chess match again!!! Unlike Waverly’s mother, we teachers do give students second chances (and third, or more) but that isn’t something I can point out to the students because their story ends before that. Maybe it’s just as well…

  • Missing information… Naomi’s Photos

    7. You actually feel the weight of all the hours /topics cut from the national  curriculum, particularly history. Over the years more extensive background information of all sorts is needed for the stories and poems, ranging from the rise of the Nazi Movement to the fact that the early African-Americans DID NOT come voluntarily to the US as illegal immigrants who decided to stay…

Forget the students for a moment – how has teaching literature in the EFL classroom affected YOU?


Which Book Related to “TEACHING” would YOU add to “Incidental Comics'” Bookshelf?

Something to tie the books together…
Naomi’s Photos

Grant Snyder’s latest comic strip “My Bookshelf made me wonder – which books related to teaching (in the broadest sense) would a teacher pencil in under each of the  categories he presented?  Which ones would YOU add?

Yes, I am using the phrase “pencil in” intentionally. You see,  you may change your mind about the choice of book. More than once.

And you may want to rewrite your choice in smaller print inside the grid of his  comics so that there’ll  be room for a non-teaching-related book as well….

Meanwhile, until you tell meabout your books, here are my choices.

“The book I couldn’t put down”

“Animalia” by Graeme Base. Oh, this most certainly is a book related to teaching. Teaching through the joy of wonder and curiosity! Base has drawn such an elaborate and beautiful alphabet book, with such an incredible number of drawings of words beginning with each letter that you can’t take it all in at once. My sons and I have gone back to this book time and time again and keep discovering more hidden words, looking up possible words and roping in any guest willing to join the fun. There’s even a “Dalek” in there…  What a way to learn vocabulary. Thought provoking…

“The book I couldn’t pick up”

Whisper: Apologies.  “Second Language Research Methods” by Seliger and Shohamy is still sitting patiently on my bookshelf…

“The book you gave me (I haven’t read it yet, sorry!)”

“Being a teacher” by Lior Halevi , which was a gift from the school and the parents of the graduating class.  I feel guilty. The book does look interesting but somehow books I’ve gotten on my own always seem to take precedence…

“The book I brought to the beach” 

No, no no. I don’t take books to the beach. Only magazines. Particularly not books related to teaching, which I hope to use and keep for many years! They are usually expensive and must be ordered from abroad or were a gift that I’m grateful for.

What we really need is the ladder, not the hose, for all those books a mile high…
Naomi’s Photos

“The book I tried so hard to like”

“The Power of Teacher Teams” by Troen and Boles. The book seems so readable and friendly and is supposed to be awesome and helpful but I can’t see the helpful bit… Embarassed…

“The book I somehow own three copies of”

OK, not three, but two. Since I teach Deaf and hard of hearing students, there was a time people thought the perfect gift for me would be “Seeing Voices” by Oliver Sacks. For a while, every time I had two copies of the book I would give one of them away. Shortly after, I would get another copy! I believe I now don’t have a single copy left on the shelf…

“The book that saved my life”

“The Courage to Teach” by Palmer. It isn’t a very easy book to read but it is so powerful and important. A “slow read” makes you think. Being a good teacher can’t be disconnected from thinking about who you are and what you bring to the classroom. Everyone loves to tell a teacher “don’t take it personally” – but why not? How not to? This is a book to own!

“The book that I lent you – can I have it back?”

“Teaching Reading to Deaf Children” by Beatrice Ostern Hart. This was the very first book on education I owned and I read it from cover to cover, certain sections more than once. It was a powerful introduction, with wonderful examples, to what it means to approach reading comprehension in one’s mother tongue with a very limited vocabulary. Very useful for teaching a foreign language as well. This was back in the early 1980’s. Perhaps parts of the book are now outdated but I’ll never find out. I stupidly lent the book to someone, didn’t record the name, and never got it back…

“The book I fall asleep to every night”

NOT A TEACHING RELATED BOOK! Bedtime books are not for work! Regular readers of this blog are well acquainted with what I’m reading as I delight in posting about them. NOT WORK RELATED!

“The book I mistook for a hat”

This is an obvious reference to Oliver Sacks but I’ve already mentioned him.  Let’s change the “hat” to ” hard hat” along with a toolbox. The book “Switch” by the Heath Brothers isn’t officially about teaching,  but changing behaviors, bad habits and norms are issues a teacher certainly needs to read about. It is easy to connect it to the classroom. Another book that is good to reread from time to time.

“The book I’m desperately trying to write”

A blog, not a book…

“All the books that changed my life”

Here’s to all the books I’ve read and those that are waiting to be read! Life is good!





Lost (not) in a Book: “The Sea” by John Banville

Moving in place…
Naomi’s Photos

I feel almost apologetic about it.

Perhaps like the cliché “No, it’s not you, it’s me”. The book won the Man Booker Prize in 2005 and it’s not that I can’t see why.  Banville’s use of language is impressive, his descriptions are rich and I used the dictionary a few times to look up words I had never encountered.

But the skillful use of language was the only thing that kept me reading as far as I did. And that’s not enough.

I found myself not looking forward to my “reading time”.

The combination of the very slow pace of the book,  the fact that very little actually happens ( mostly memories and thoughts) and the fact that the hero is mourning the recent death of his wife was too much for me at this time.

Perhaps if the timing had been different I would have been able to hang in there and see where all these thoughts led the protagonist but there it is.

I have moved on to the next book.

Being Sniffed At & Getting a Nod – Blog’s 7th Birthday!

Naomi’s Photos

Funny how things work. My blog was “sniffed at” and  then mentioned on a list of recommended blogs in the same week! A week which just happened to lead up to this blog’s SEVENTH BIRTHDAY!

The other day I met a teacher who said he has a blog. A blog about a very specific topic, totally not EFL or language related. When I said I also had a blog, he wanted to know what it was about.

And I hesitated.

What is the blog about?

It’s not only about teaching English to Deaf and hard of hearing students.

It’s not only about teaching English.

Sometimes it’s just about being a teacher.

Or even about being a book-lover.

So I hesitated.

Then I replied “It’s about education”.

He looked at me as if he were holding back the words “yeah, right”, sniffed in disdain and walked away.

I can see it from his point of view. How worthwhile could the blog be if the blogger has trouble answering the simple question “what is your blog about”?  “Education” is an extremely broad topic…

Define “bright”…
Naomi’s Photos

“Ha!” I thought to myself and smiled. Time works in my favor here, because I happen to know that not knowing what the blog is about works. Seven years have gone by and writing on the blog still helps me put my thoughts in order and reflect.  685 posts have been posted and read by people, even though 98% of my readers do not  teach English to Deaf and hard of hearing students. I’ve even passed the 2, 030 mark in Twitter followers…

Then, this!

On the English Teaching professional website, Chia Suan Chong posted an article called “ELT Blogs to follow in 2018” and included “Visualising Ideas“!

I feel honored to be mentioned among such fascinating bloggers and I truly recommend checking out their blogs!

I would just like to say thank you to all the readers of this blog!

Seven years have gone by but I’m not going anywhere.

I intend to stick around.

A Learning Curve – Using “Tricider” in Class

Looking Stuck       Naomi’s Photos


So truly simple – what could go wrong?

It seems everything is possible – I wonder if such a talent as mine would enable me to qualify for “America’s Got Talent”?!

Part of the task for the great digital in-service training course I am taking was to use “Tricider” with my students.

Tricider is a digital tool that lets you brainstorm, collect ideas and opinions really easily.

It has several appealing features:

  • Very intuitive interface – really friendly.  Register for free and off you go!
  • The students do not have to register in order to participate. Nor do they have to install or download anything. That is a really important point with my students.
  • Tricider allows the user to vote and express his/her opinion in a very simple, clear way. There is no need for lengthy explanations from a teacher before use.  Actually, hardly any explanations at all.


The learning curve…
Naomi’s Photos

This year we are in the process of setting up a work station in our learning center about Deaf people who did /do interesting things. In addition, the work-station is also supposed to include a vocabulary section dealing with words and phrases a person with a hearing loss should know when he /she is travelling abroad in an English-speaking country.  The station is intended to be used by all of my Deaf and Hard of Hearing High-School students, at all levels.

I created the following Tricider page with suggestions I had for useful phrases and vocabulary a person with a hearing loss traveling abroad (in an English-speaking country) would possibly find useful. I hoped using the Tricider would serve as a “teaser” – to spark interest in the new work station. In addition, I wanted to tailor the vocabulary taught to the students’ interests and thoughts – in other words, to collect information from them regarding which phrases and words would be useful for them. Finally, I was hoping to gauge the students’ current familiarity with the target vocabulary. Click on the title below to see the Tricider page that I created.

Which words / phrases related to deafness are useful when traveling abroad?

First of all, anyone entering the link given above can see which suggestions were mine, which were suggested by students and how they voted. Those who did so were interested, engaged and glad to have their opinion heard. Students (and people in general)  like to be asked for their opinion! Their additions are interesting.

Unfortunately, things are not working out as planned. At the moment, only a small number of students have responded.

Warning! Progress may be slow…
Naomi’s Photos

For one thing, for some reason the site lists this Tricider as one I’m a participant in and not one I created (though it leaves me with no clue as to who they think did create it!).  It is annoying because it makes it harder to find when I log into the site and I wonder if it has anything to do with the more significant problem that I’m having.

I sent the students a link to the Tricider page via WhatsApp. However, since a fair number of my students do not study outside of class, on their own, at home (especially for something that isn’t mandatory and is not graded), I did what I often do – have the online activity open on the classroom computer and send students individually or in pairs to do it. Since the classroom is set up in the format of a learning center, it is quite convenient to do so.


When I opened the link using the share link supplied by the site, only the first student who sat down at the computer could respond. When the next students tried to respond there was a notification that answers have been recorded and no further ones can be added. Only the few students who went into the link by using WhatsApp web were able to respond. The only other option was rebooting the computer and bringing up the shared link again. That was far too time consuming and cumbersome, requiring too much of my involvement. I want the students to be independent.

Not giving up, but this is where I’m stuck at the moment.


One more thing!

I guess I couldn’t qualify for America’s Got Talent in any case, since I don’t actually live in the United States…


Lost in a Book: “The Color of Water” by James McBride

I was totally mesmerised by this book. TOTALLY.

And that’s putting it mildly.

Yes, you may wonder where I’ve been. The book was published in 1995. I don’t how I missed it.  I must have heard of the book often enough for the title to trigger a reaction when I spotted it, because I reached for the book immediately without being able to recall what it was about. It was waiting for me on the “Book-sharing”  bookcase our school principal kindly set up outside his office.

I found every aspect of the book fascinating. What an amazingly clever way McBride used to tell both his mother’s life story (which he did not know for a great many years) and to tell his own, and to connect them in such a seamless manner.

And what a story it is.

But here’s the thing.  This book isn’t just about a child of Ultra Orthodox immigrant Jewish parents from a totally dysfunctional family who winds up having 12 African-American children in New York. Despite grappling with poverty and  a host of problems, every single one of these children graduated from college and went on to have successful careers.

***Note – that wasn’t a spoiler. You can learn that much from the first page and back cover. Believe me, there’s more to read.

This book is also about people’s need to know where they come from and to figure out their own place in the world.

I feel that it is also about not letting the circumstances you were born in define your destiny.  There are real people out there who “reinvent” themselves.

As someone who is passionately interested in education, I was particularly interested in the details related to that subject – one which was incredibly important to the author’s mother (more so than actual food…).

I’ve donated books to the principal’s special bookcase and will do so in the future. I’m not bringing this book back, though!


Isolating Rote Memorization of Vocabulary – An Informal Classsroom “Research”

Reflecting on comparing and contrasting…
Naomi’s Photos

The decision to frame my long-term classroom observations in the format of an extremely informal “research” was inspired by a post by Leo Selivan on ELT Research Bites – a collaborative initiative to bridge the gap between researchers and practitioners.

Research Questions

a – How far can a student advance in terms of reading comprehension exam levels in EFL,  based solely on rote memorization of vocabulary, with little to no comprehension at all of the texts?

b – Do students who memorize discreet vocabulary items very well, but have little or no comprehension of the texts,  perform better on exams than students with poor retention of vocabulary but with better  comprehension of texts?

Terminology used

Rote memorization – Students who spend time successfully memorizing lists of isolated vocabulary items along with their meaning in L1.  Memory measured by number of correct translations of aforementioned word lists and the frequency in which the student turns to the dictionary during an exam.

Degree of comprehension of texts

Students degree of comprehension of the texts on the reading comprehension sections of matriculation exams is assessed in two ways:

a – The number of correctly answered reading comprehension questions that require use of a higher order thinking skill in order to answer them.  Particularly the skills of “cause and effect”, “comparing and contrasting” and “identifying different perspectives”.

b – Conversations in mother tongue with the student about the text after the exam. Such conversations are intended to help the student understand the errors made.

Reflecting on reflections…
Naomi’s Photos

Six high-school students, divided into two groups. All students were born with a moderate to severe hearing loss but  either cochlear implants or hearing aids help them significantly. They all speak clearly and can communicate (at least one-on-one) using residual hearing and lip-reading. Only one of the six does not know sign language at all. All students have been my students for two to four years. Both groups are current students who are also similar to many generations of students I have taught over the last 30 years.

Group one – Three students who have strong vocabulary retention skills. They are hard workers and they can memorize a word list for an exam perfectly.  All three have very poor language skills in the language of instruction at school (a combination of Hebrew and sign language when needed) which is not their L1.  They all come from families who speak other languages, two of which are immigrant families. Two of them come from families with limited education and all three were not exposed to direct language enrichment at home (which is recommended when raising a child with a hearing loss). Their writing in Hebrew is poor with many errors. They can write, in high school, sentences such as this  “See accident in ambulance man hospital ”  in Hebrew. Their general knowledge is dismal, extremely limited.

Group two –  Three students who have significant difficulties in remembering the words provided for exams. While their language skills in L1 are also in need of improvement, they are far better than those of the first group. Their vocabulary in Hebrew is richer, their writing is better and their general knowledge is significantly wider. Two of the students come from educated families.

Through the looking glass…
Naomi’s Photos

The performance of both groups were compared on  three of the four levels of external matriculation exams given in Israel – Modules A, C and E. The grades were compared and conversations about the texts held in Hebrew and sign langauge.

  1. On the lowest level, Module A, (roughly the equivalent of an A2 level on the CEFR scale ) the students from the rote-memorization group had  errors in questions that required any sort of comparison, inference or understanding a different point of view. They also had significant difficulties in understanding why their answer was wrong. Here’s an example

The text in the reading passage stated that Max was on a ship carrying gold. Pirates came to the ship and Max was afraid. He then jumped overboard. The question asked about the reason why the pirates came to the ship. These students replied that Max was afraid of the pirates or that he jumped overboard. They believed they were correct because they could point to that in the text.

However, there are not many questions that require higher order thinking skills in Module A . The students in the rote memory group preformed as well as or better than the students in the other group because they were able to translate the text with less effort.

2. On the next level, Module C, (more or less similar to the level B1 on the CEFR scale) there are  more questions that require higher order thinking skills. However, the texts are much longer. The students with poor vocabulary retention skills had to use the electronic dictionary much more frequently and had more trouble finishing the exam on time. Some of them felt tired and got discouraged fairly quickly.  In the beginning both groups scored badly but group b understood the cause of their errors better.  With time both groups improved their grades with group A (rote-memory) lagging at least 10 points behind, but certainly passing the exam with grades of approximately 70 (55 is considered a passing grade).

3. On the third level, Module E,  (more or less level B2 on the CEFR scale) most questions require quite an in-depth understanding of the text.  Higher order thinking skills are needed in order to answer many questions. Both groups fail the exams at this level at first but the rote-memory group do not improve in any significant way.  The other group finds the exam very difficult but the grades improve steadily during the school year. They do not achieve more than average grades, however.

Who’s there?
Naomi’s Photos

My very informal classroom “research” indicates that the ability to memorize well large  numbers of discrete vocabulary items can enable a struggling student to achieve moderate success on Modules A and C, despite extremely poor language skills and severely limited general knowledge  This does not hold true for Module E. However, since a student can fail module E and still be eligible for a full matriculation certificate, this is very significant.

In addition, at the initial stages of the year, the skill of memorizing vocabulary  enables the students in group A to do at least as well if not better than their peers in group B. It also gives them a sense of pride and achievement. However, those in group A are not usually able to hold their lead.

I believe that rote memorization has a significant place when working with students struggling with very poor language skills despite it’s known drawbacks and limitations.

Lost in a Book: “A Good American” by Alex George

A question of perspective
Naomi’s Photos

The book was surprisingly good!

I say “surprisingly” because I was very suspicious. The title hints at slogans, platitudes, stereotypes or just plain “shmaltz”. It’s a library book (as opposed to one you spend money on) so I took it out despite my reservations.

So glad I did.

The multi-generational tale of the Meisenheimer family who immigrated from Hanover, Germany to a tiny town in Missouri in the late 19th century is actually everything the blurb promises it would be. It gets even better as the book progresses. The book is an easy, flowing read with a story that is both touching and amusing.

Best of all, I really couldn’t predict a thing! The ups and downs of this family, generation after generation,  did not follow the script I imagined after reading / watching other multigenerational tales.

What a pleasure!


Team Work, Book Clubs & a Podcast – A Comment

Aren’t ideas always depicted as lights that are turned on?
Naomi’s Photos

While the title of Tyson Seburn’s fascinating post is “Serial Podcast for Extensive Reading”, I was only able to focus on the novel idea of using transcripts of an incredibly popular podcast tale for a book club when I read the post the second time.

The first time I read the post I was totally floored by the team work of Tyson’s staff and how a team can promote an instructional goal. Working with the constraints of time and not overburdening the staff, they set up a virtual book club program to promote extensive reading across the board, including all students and teachers. It is more than just a division of labor.

The pigeons’ staff room?
Naomi’s Photos

If you think the expression “floored” is a bit dramatic, consider the following. I’m currently working my way through a book called “The Power of Teacher Teams” by Troen & Boles. It talks about how truly good teacher teams not only help lessen the load of the individual teacher but actually improve students’ academic achievements. Sounds wonderful, right? Reading Tyson Seburn’s post had me fantasizing there for a short while that our multi disciplined staff of special education teachers could promote extensive reading in the students’ mother tongue in such a manner. An art teacher, math teacher, history and civics teacher should also be able to promote reading, right? Many Deaf and hard of hearing students do not like to read. Reading improves academic achievement across the board, so every teacher should be on board with this goal. At least in theory…

Unfortunately, the book scares me completely. While writtten in a very readable manner, it makes it clear that it is REALLY hard to get a staff of wonderful teachers to work efficiently together to achieve goals across the board like that. It involves organized sessions devoted to working on team-work skills, preferably having an outside instructor to get everyone to see that it actually matters and could be done.

Naomi’s Photos

One of the nice things about people who write blog posts is that they are perfectly happy to answer questions and one can simply write to them. Tyson Seburn confirmed that his staff had also had specific team training sessions.


Anyway, to get back to the question related to using transcripts of a podcast for a book club – I’m all for it. A podcast such as Serial offers a compelling narrative and rich language , with the added bonus of general knowledge.

Personally, I stopped listening to Serial very quickly. I do not like the true crime genre and do not watch such TV shows either. But that’s just me. So let me run the Douglas Adams  group in the book club ….

Lost in a Book: “The Handmaid’s Tale” by Margaret Atwood

Who is behind the woman?
Naomi’s Photos

The book deserves all the accolades you’ve heard.

The book.

I didn’t watch the TV series and I don’t intend to. The book left a powerful enough imprint on my brain as it is. I don’t need it spelled out any clearer and I don’t need the graphics of the violent parts.

Margaret Atwood is a master of the “how”, not only the “what”.  The story progresses, is full of drama and tension in the here and now. Throughout it all,  information relating to the past, to explaining how one earth did all of this come to pass, drips in, appears through the lonely single window of Offred’s room, slips through the closet and pops up all over her grocery shopping expeditions.  From remarks on the lack of plastic bags, for example, the reader suddenly realizes that Offred (who once had another name, one which we do not know) had  a daughter. The background and the backdrop literally grow in front of your eyes in a very subtle way.

And yes, it is scary. I read an edition with an interesting forward by the author. As she said, most of the events in the book have actually happened somewhere already. All the events are plausible and possible.

I’m glad they made a TV series out of it, even if I won’t watch it. More people will be exposed to this powerful tale. which is a good thing. All I can do is hope it will make people think.