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This article has been written by Jane Wolff on behalf of Sopris Learning who develop learning resources for children & schools. They offer many tools & resources including an algebra assessment & a literacy curriculum.

June 05, 2012

“Excitement” keeps the students hooked

Teaching English in Japanese culture centres can oft be a thankless task. As one of my experienced teacher friends once put it: “The old ladies are there to spend time with each other. You’re just the entertainment in the background.” The analysis usually holds true, with students demonstrating precious little loyalty, regularly disappearing from the register without explanation, or suddenly declaring at the end of a class: “This is my last lesson. Goodbye.” At least I can use such quotes in a future lesson on “conversation killers.”

True, the culture centre textbooks provide scant motivation to continue studying, a frequent headache for my company managers who simply don’t have anybody on hand to design independent materials. Culture centre students have been absolutely conditioned, since poring through the laborious grammar books in junior high school, that speaking English must involve holding a textbook firmly between your quivering fingers. With some classes I have been able to break this mould; with others I am fighting a battle with the hopeless optimism of Satsuma rebels.

Not by coincidence did I seek to liven up this week’s lessons by focusing on the word “excite,” rather than use the textbook. I was of course trying to insure against future leaving announcements or silent departures of class members by attempting to discover what actually excites them. And the beauty of teaching eikaiwa is that one simple idea can actually transform into a completely different lesson which develops a whole range of useful skills.

When asking the question: “What do you find exciting?” it suddenly occurred to me that the present continuous was the only form of “excite” that the students recognized. They knew neither that a verb existed, nor of the noun “excitement.” As for the adverb “excitable,” I might as well have been speaking Swahili. A quick scan of the several thousand lesson memories in my brain recalled that no text had even bothered to venture outside of teaching “excited” and “exciting.” Worst of all, most students were even confusing these two.

So after ironing out the “person is excited, situation is exciting” point, we moved – as I so often do – to link the key words with relevant situations in the students’ lives. The average age is over 60, so many of them have recently been introduced to “excitable grandchildren” – the example of my friend’s baby excitedly throwing his birthday cake off the table always elicits raucous laughter.

The Olympics is being ferociously covered by the Japanese media every day now, so we also talked about which athletes “excite” the students, and why. (It’s never a proper lesson without expanding opinions, of course!) The prospect of a Japanese sumo wrestler winning the championship for the first time in six years was a cause for “much excitement,” while high-school English lessons contained “no excitement” whatsoever.

Thankfully, by exploring the possibilities of “excite,” the students began to excite themselves a little more. Let’s hope the excitement continues as they chatter away over post-lesson coffee.

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This article was originally printed in Extensive Reading in Japan volume 3.3. Extensive Reading in Japan is the journal of the JALT ER SIG and is known as ERJ. Past issues of ERJ can be downloaded for free six months after the paper issue is released. They are available at the JALT ER SIG website.

Biography
Daniel Stewart is Head Foreign Teacher at Kaisei Academy in Tokyo. He started the Extensive Reading special interest group at JALT and helped build it into one of the strongest groups within JALT. He is currently editor of the Extensive Reading in Japan journal and is a member of the board of directors of the international Extensive Reading Foundation.

He is a coauthor of a new book published by Oxford University Press called Bringing Extensive Reading into the Classroom.

September 14, 2011

Graded Readers on the iPad

The Way it Has Been
Extensive Reading does not require graded readers. It is possible to do it with any comprehensible texts. So some teachers have their students read books written for native English speaking children and some teachers with higher level students even have their students do ER with newspapers. Still for the majority of us, we use graded readers to do ER. For years the technology has been available to enhance the graded reader experience, but it was never fully realized. For example, a few years ago Richmond Readers released some of their readers as PDF files. While this was a good opportunity for teachers to print out and get to know this great series, there was no other advantage to having an electronic version. Other publishers have released CD-ROMs with their graded readers. For example, Penguin Active Readers and Cambridge Discovery Readers both come with CD-ROMs. These CD-ROMs give the students the opportunity to work with the material in the graded readers using games, puzzles and tests. This extra content tied to the graded readers is certainly beneficial to the students, but the CD-ROMs do not include the actual text. Students still read the stories in the books.


What's new?
Apple's introduction of the iPad opened up the possibility of having interactive graded readers. eigoTown.com and Oxford University Press (OUP) got together to release some of OUP's Bookworms graded readers on the iPad. By utilizing the advantages of the iPad, these two companies have been able to produce an effective way for students to interact with graded readers. The iPad versions can be downloaded from the Apple App Store.


Picture 1 from Sherlock Holmes and the Sport of Kings

What is good about it?
The iPad version takes what were already good books and makes them better by making use of the iPad hardware. To begin with, the pictures are now in colour. It is surprising how much more attractive a book can be with the addition of colour. Second, each page has a small speaker on it. By pressing that button, the reader can hear the audio recording for that page. That is an improvement over the traditional book with audio CD graded reader as it is very easy for the student to read a page and then listen to the same page or vice-versa. Doing that with a CD on a page by page basis takes a fair amount of juggling. Listening to one page several times on a CD requires rewinding to just the right spot. With the iPad version the student can easily listen to the same page several times and then move on when they are ready.

Third, and most importantly, some words are highlighted on each page. For example, in Picture 1 from Sherlock Holmes and the Sport of Kings, the term 'ten-pound' is highlighted. When they press on the highlighted word, the reader immediately sees a Japanese translation of that word in that context. It is important to note that when a word has several different meanings, only the current meaning is displayed. This allows the reader to return to the story very quickly.

Finally there is a quiz section where students can test themselves on some of the new vocabulary introduced in the book.


Potential Weaknesses
The iPad versions of the Bookworms are quite well done, but there still is room for improvement. First of all there are no Starter level iPad readers. Hopefully this will be rectified in the future. According to eigoTown.com, they plan to add Starters as soon as possible. It might require the creation of audio files. The OUP website only shows CD available for two Starter level readers. I have seen cassette tapes of other Starters, but they are no longer for sale. As long as recordings exist it should be simple enough to add iPad versions of other Starter level books. Some of the OUP Starters such as The White Stones are known as 'interactive' readers, where the reader skips among the pages depending on how they answer questions. This type of book would make good use of the abilities of the iPad, but unfortunately it is unlikely a recording has ever been made due to the non-linear path of the books. It would be great to see iPad versions of ‘interactive’ starters.

As for the audio playback, the sound is excellent, but the controls are very basic. You can only start or stop the recording. Having the ability to fast forward or rewind would be a nice addition. Another issue is the speed of the recordings. The playback is only at one speed. For many students it will be the ideal speed, but for some the playback will be too slow or too fast. The current speed is certainly good enough, but I think there is a missed opportunity here. Software could adjust the speed slightly depending on the preference of the listener. The danger is that the recording will sound tinny if it is adjusted too much. Ten percent or even 20 percent faster or slower does not change the quality of the recording much, yet it would make make a big difference in listenability. For an idea of what is possible, check out audio software such as Amazing Slow Downer by RoniMusic.

Finally the testing section only involves vocabulary. Many teachers tell their ER students to focus on understanding the story rather than worrying about the vocabulary so I would really like to see simple comprehension questions added such as those in Paul Goldberg's Xreading (ERJ 3.1) or my Booktests (ERJ 1.2).


Student Reaction
The students I showed this to preferred the iPad version to the paperback equivalent. Positive comments included the pictures are more beautiful, it is really quick to look up words and it is more fun. The only negative comment was that one of the words a student did not know was not highlighted. It might be a good idea to slightly increase the number of words that are highlighted. Picture 2 shows how translations of highlighted words are displayed.

Picture 2 A Japanese translation


Conclusion
I was really hesitant to mention any weaknesses in this article. The iPad versions are excellent. The weaknesses I have mentioned should really be seen as suggestions on how to improve the system if they create a new version. Hopefully readers of this article who have iPads will try buying one book as well and make their own suggestions to the creators on how to make better iPad readers.


All Bookworms apps are available here.


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