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November 2009 Archives

November 6, 2009

1. The image of MEXT and 2. Learning from open-ended conversation tasks

1. The Popular Image of the MEXT Headquarters:

On Tuesday Nov. 3rd The Daily Yomiuri newspaper printed my most recent article in which I outlined some positives (and negatives) found in Monkasho (MEXT) guidelines. One of my reasons for writing that article was to show that a lot of typical criticism directed at MEXT policy is unfounded- although there are clearly still aspects of policy very much open to criticism.

However, it seems that some people don't like any mitigation in the negativity expressed towards MEXT as I found out thereafter (looking at some responses). Hmmm. I get the impression that some people's image of the Ministry of Education's home base is something like this:

MEXT is made up of a pair of greasy bureaucrats in blue polyester suits, with bad combovers, chain smoking in a poorly-ventilated Nagatacho back office, plastic bags of dried squid covering their cluttered desks. One, Ukon, can be assumed to be a rabid nationalist, whose main aim is to keep the pernicious influence of foreign languages out of the grasp of the natives, while the other, Makoto, is an uptight nerd from Tokyo University whose hobby consists of compiling obscure English minutiae to be placed into the national curricula or entrance exams. Oh yeah- and they harass the poor OL's in the office.

In fact, many of those involved in educational decision making are well-established professors and other highly-regarded cosmopolitan professionals in the field (including, at certain levels, native English speakers). Policy and rationale behind guidelines are freely available online, and many have English translations.

2. Getting Something Out of Conversation Tasks:

I've written and stated elsewhere on several occasions that the idea of 'teaching conversation' seems daft to me. Conversation is a social skill- if you are a skilled interlocutor in your 1st language you can usually carry over those traits to the 2nd. It's not like you have to learn again to be good at conversation when take up a new language (although it's true that you will need to gain awareness of peragmatic norms, discourse markers and the like- but that's not what people normally mean when they talk about 'teaching conversation').

Teaching conversation spawns images of Cyrano De Bergerac coaching the inarticulate Christian in his attempts to seduce Roxanne. This is surely not what ELT educators have in mind.

The other aspect of 'teaching conversation' that comes to mind is that of inculcating formulas and mantras to be learned. Highly instrumental ready-made samples of how to order a hamburger or what to say at immigration. This is not language teaching. In such cases you might as well just use a Lonely Planet guide as a textbook.

Yet I do carry out conversational tasks or activities in my classes. Why, you might well ask? One reason is quite obvious. Students can feel constrained if too many activities are limited in scope and teacher or text controlled. They do not feel that the language being used belongs to them, they are not really actively producing communicative content, they are detached from the communicative process.

It's like being a sport coach. Yes, you have to work on muscle training and technique but sometimes you just have to let the athletes play too.

But the big question has always been: How can students learn from an open-ended conversation activity? Won't they just be using the same language forms that they already know, making the same mistakes and basically driving in the same linguistic ruts that they always do?

Maybe. But they can get better from conversation practice if you do the following (which obviously I try to):
After the open conversation section students should be aware of which words or ideas they could not express well in English, which grammatical or lexical patterns did not communicate well, where they got bogged down.

These must be fixed. Students should study precisely these areas after the activity (or ask a teacher). In other words, the goal is to learn from your weaknesses. Once you know your weak points you can focus on them and polish them for the next round. I tell my students to make notes on these points immediately after any and every open-ended conversation-based task.

Another thing students can do to learn from conversation tasks is to note vocabulary or structural patterns that were used well and succesfully by their partners. We've all felt the 'Yes! That's the phrase I often forget' moment of recognition and inspiration when talking to others in our L2. But if they are not explicitly noted these useful tidbits are likely to fade from memory quickly.

So, students can learn from conversation practice (which is, of course, very different from the notion of 'teaching conversation') but it must be done using explicit conscousness-raising and note taking in order to be effective.

November 12, 2009

Q. When is a Native Speaker not good enough to be a Native Speaker? A. On the TOEIC test

Have you ever wondered if you might fail an English test that your students take even though you are a native speaker of English? And if you did fail, what would that say about the test (Assuming that you were giving it your best shot)? It could happen. It has happened...

One of the more memorable ELT presentations I've attended recently was given by Terry Fellner, Associate Professor at Saga University. Terry is not only a native speaker of English (duh!), he's a particularly well-educated and articulate one. But earlier this year Terry, out of curiousity as well as a means of 'testing the test', decided to take on the new Speaking/Writing TOEIC test (also known as 'Walmart').

I won't keep you in suspense here regarding the results. You can probably guess what's coming:
Terry's score was not in the highest percentile but in the second rank, which meant that Terry was judged not to be a proficient speaker/writer of his native language. Among the weaknesses cited were:
- errors when using complex grammar
- imprecise use of vocabulary
- minor difficulties with pronunciation, intonation, or hesitancy
In none of these categories (or rubrics, if you will) did the highly articulate Terry Fellner deliberately or willfully fall short.

Hmmm.

Terry was also judged to have some problems regarding the relevancy of his responses (readers should note that the test was all done online in real-time but obviously in a depersonalized manner). And this is where it gets interesting.

Terry decided to test the pragmatic preconceptions of the test by giving slightly unexpected responses but responses that were nonetheless, given the questions and tasks, logical, orderly, comprehensive and, of course, expressed with fluency. Let's take a look at some of these...

1. Terry was asked to describe a photograph. What he chose to do though was not start with an explanation of the foreground image (apparently a cart and horse) but rather focused upon the surrounding qualities of the picture: the weather, the background scenery etc. In one sense his choice might seem to be facetious, deliberately obverting the evaluator's expectations, but why should examines be expected to conform to certain narrow Western notions of centrality or importance on what is purpotedly a test of INTERNATIONAL communication?

Not only is it considered to be a cultural trait by many to focus on background and surroundings before articulating the 'center' but some personalities may also have this attribution (a skirt-chasing friend long ago displayed an incredible to spot, focus upon, and remember any 'hot babe' at locales such as The Parthenonor Notre Dame cathedral while forgetting what city he was in). A better example may be to look at a classical Chinese landscape painting. While there may be a hermit/poet scrawled in a lower corner somewhere this is not what the painting is 'about'. More central is the background- the atmosphere of the mountains, the textures and shapes that surround the 'subject'. Notions of background and foreground are blurred, mixed.

This can happen with music too. In many non-Western music styles the 'melody' is not nthe foreground or center, but rather tonality, timbre, texture, polyrhythm etc. Fans of modern classical music and most modern jazz, which tend to incorporate non-Western tonalities, will also be familiar with this aesthetic.

In other words, the test assumed a Eurocentric model of both viewing and description- again for a test of INTERNATIONAL communication. But wait, there's more...

For one speaking task, which required Terry to propose a solution to the problem of high office expenses, he suggested the use of clay tablets to replace computers and paper. This he supported logically and consistently (in keeping with the demands of the task) arguing that it was 'proven technology', with cheap and easily accessible materials, that are environmentally friendly, and that clay tablets could also recoup costs by being resold as housing material.
Maybe not what the test evaluators were suggesting but still expresed with relevance, logical consistency, sufficient support, and of course, fluency.

Terry also assumed a very familiar stance with his superiors in the task, going as far as to apologize for his lateness as being the result of a hangover. Here he was testing the TOEIC's notion of appropriacy- what kind of appropriacy? Whose standard?

Similarly, in a writing task in which he was required to respond to an email from a real estate agent with two requests and a question, Terry complied by not only thanking her for the email but expressing surprise that she was now out of jail. He also requested a location that would be near, among other things, a nunnery and a German bakery. His request was to pass along a hefty 'gift' to a police sargent while asking how the buasiness license was coming.

Socially inappropriate? In some (but certainly not all) cases. Does his response display a lack of knowledge or understanding of English discourse? Not at all. Was it unconnected to the demands of the the task? No. Was it expressed in an intelligible manner? Certainly. So where did Terry go 'wrong' on the test? What was the scoring rubric? And was it geared towards certain localized 'norms' that do not reflect a flexible, or international, standard? Seems likely.

It goes on..

In an essay writing task in which he had to explain qualities that Customer Service Representatives need to be succesful he responded by expounding upon the ability to project false sincerity and the willingness to work for a low salary. Again, he met the demands of the question, and utilized his English skills but not exactly in a way that the evaluators would be looking for. Perhaps then the place that they are looking is too narrow. To pragmatically focused upon a North American model. Culturally loaded. Morally loaded too.

Apparently, a lage number of TOEIC test takers end up being placed in the same percentile where Terry was rated. So, if a native speaker ends up there, what does this say about the accuracy and relevance of the scoring? A huge variety of skill levels seem to converge onto this one evaluation slot. It becomes rather meaningless.

And what about the feedback he received? Doesn't it sound a little like an o-mikuji bought at your local shrine at New Year's, where one's allotment of good luck or bad luck is already printed on the paper, prefabricated 'fortunes' completely independent of the individual actually buying them?

Now this isn't meant to rag on the TOEIC people. I know how hard it is to make a comprehensive test that is completely valid (it tests what it claims to be testing) and reliable (the result will be unaffected by happenstance). In many ways the TOEIC is admirable and comprehensive, but it is very very far from being foolproof- especially on the new Speaking/Writing version. I'll go even further. It is still very far away from being an accurate measure of a students' ability to speak or write English for international communication.

Recently, many universities have been getting all hot 'n sweaty about the alleged 'objective' value of TOEIC scores, which is supposed to represent an evaluation that is better than that of a trained in-house English teacher. Terry Fellner has shown though that this is still an illusion. Universities who think that a TOEIC orientation should replace normal communicative English learning had better think twice.

November 26, 2009

Two mini entries: 1. Grammar, plurality, agreement and 2. Formalized brainstorming

Sorry the lack of an update recently- it's presentation season.

First today, some thoughts about grammar, plurality, and agreement:

OK. You'd say "The Beatles were great" right? After all, the word "Beatles" is explictly plural. Now what about King Crimson or Genesis? King Crimson were great or was great? (By the way, Fripp and co. are still active). Certainly both answers are possible and acceptable although I'd lean towards "was" myself. It seems that our ultimate choices will be informed by how we percieve a rock band in our minds- as a set of individual members or as a collectiive singular unit.

But let's take the same equation and apply it to sports teams. The Detroit Red Wings are really strong. OK- like The Beatles, there is an explicit plural so there's no controversy here. But how about the Tampa Bay Lightning or the Minnesota Wild? NO ONE would say "The Wild is struggling" or "The Lightning has improved this year". Now, like King Crimson, sports teams are collections of individuals and could thus be viewed collectively or as a plurality right? Yet there is little doubt that we would use plural verb agreement ("are" "were") for the sports teams.

So, what's the basis for the difference? It is true that grammatical norms are often determined by perception (i.e. when to deploy the perfect tense) but how/why are the rperceptions of rock groups functionally any different from those of the hockey teams?

Any ideas out there?

Second on today's menu- a beef. The hassles of classroom 'brainstorming'.


You know the scene. You want to start your class with a 10-minute warm up designed to get students focused, talking, on topic before launching into the main teaching task. You want it to be quick, sharp and clear. Except that your students make it laborious and time-consuming. Here's how- or at least here's how it happens in my case (using my most recent example):

I have pre-written on the board in black the following-
Today- first (10 minute opener):
my last visit to a doctor/hospital/clinic
when
department/specialty
reason
symptoms
duration and/or frequency
treatments and/or medications
examinations
results

Next to each category is blank space in red.

I tell the students they have six minutes to think of their own 'last visit' and to write down their answers in the blank spaces. "Write only your answers for each of these on a piece of paper" I say. "Fill in the red blanks according to your own case". I also add that if they don't know the word or phrase they want to write in English, they should look it up in a dictionary (although they are quite familiar with all the categories listed above).

The goal is to then have them tell partners the above information in full sentence form. While I presume they are writing their lists and/or looking up the any new words I write my own answers on the board in the red spaces. I then say them in full sentences as a model. My plan is for this to segue into a section in the textbook about giving data in medical referrals.

Then I check on their progress (the full six minutes have almost passed). About one quarter of the students have jotted down their words appropriately. A few more are looking up words to add to their lists. OK. More than half have spent the time copying down only the categories I have written on the board including "Today- first (10 minute opener)". Several have just finished writing their names and student numbers on the paper. A few are still getting a piece of paper out of the depths of their sports bags.

Damn! The students are all over the place! Now, this used to make me angry and I would let students know so but I have since come to see that what was making me angry was the fact that my tight 'n sweet lesson plan wasn't going to form, that the students were ruining my pretty picture. Figuring that my anger was self-indulgent I have since decided to focus my complaint elsewhere.

I focus it here: When I give the students their partners (3 per team) only one is ready to do it properly, one is half-ready and will therefore stumble and stick Japanese in, and one is still wholly unprepared and will be thumbing his/her dictionary while the other students tell their 'stories'. This is rude! Listen to what your partners are saying, I tell them. And you can help do this by BEING PREPARED!

But what I really want to get off my chest, but don't, is the following. I know that no students read or know of this blog so I'll just vent here...
STUDENTS! WHY CAN'T WE START A SIMPLE WARM-UP ACTIVITY WITHOUT A LABOURIOUS, FORMALIZED PREPARATION OF PAPER SHEETS, SHIFTING POStURES AND PENS, WRITING STUDENT NAMES AND NUMBERS, AND COPYING EXACTLY WHAT I WROTE ON THE BOARD (INCLUDING MY WORDS "10 MINUTE OPENER") WHEN I EXPLICITY TOLD YOU NOT TO (AND MODELLED IT TOO!).
AND DON'T KEEP WRITING THE DAMN THING WHEN WE ARE IN THE TELL-YOUR-PARTNERS STAGE. IT'S NOT A TEST PAPER OR A FORMAL ESSAY THAT YOU'RE HANDING IN, IT'S JUST A LITTLE HELPFUL PREP SO YOU CAN TALK TO YOUR PARTNER ON TODAY'S TOPIC!!!

Apologies to those students who got it and complied right away.

There, I said it. Take a deep breath and relax, Mike.

I wonder if readers have similar experiences and how you may handle it. And trust me when I say that I outline everything clearly and comprehensively in advance.


About November 2009

This page contains all entries posted to The Uni-Files in November 2009. They are listed from oldest to newest.

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