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The Uni-Files

A candid look at EFL life and lessons from a university teacher's perspective.

September 01, 2011

Odds 'n sods; A potpourri of hodgepodged EFL mishmash

I often come up with EFL related items that I want to address in this blog but for many feel that just a few sentences might express all that I want to say. Trying to extract a full article from these snippets would be like drawing blood from a scone. So, in soundbite style, here are ten near-random EFL thoughts that have been camping out in my head recently...

1. Could GPAs motivate?
In most Japanese universities GPAs are a non-factor. As long as you graduate from the program with the university's name on your diploma nobody seems to care too much what your grades were. This seems to be only a minor factor in determining entry for graduate school too.

I teach medical students. Of course, since there is a doctor shortage students can find employment pretty much anywhere (yes, the ones who attend run-of-the-mill med schools can-- and do-- often end up working at the most prestigious university-affiliated hospitals). This means that a GPA has little influence-- it's just picking up the class credit that matters.

But what if the more prestigious companies, employers, and positions in general were reserved for those with the highest GPAs? What if a GPA became the key factor for graduate study? This might well increase the motivation in undergraduate courses. Rather than aiming at the low-bar 60%, more students will aim for the highest scores possible.

Perhaps raising the profile and value of GPAs should be a Monkasho concern. Thoughts?

2. Student writing and the (expletive) enter key
Where in the secondary educational system do students 'learn' that after typing an English sentence that the correct thing to do is to hit the enter key? The result is that the attempted paragraph reads more like a poem. What is the source of this behaviour?

A colleague has done some research on the experience of Japanese university students writing extended English using English writing software. Most have never used it and have little underatanding of formatting for any English script. They tend to stick with Japanese formats and software or (shudder) even try and compose from cell phones.

Addressing the issue of how to write in English on a computer should be a standard part of orientation, at least in an English department.

3. Sentences, letters, and names- student bafflers
"What's your first name?" "Watanabe" "No, your FIRST name!". Confused looks. What do you mean?

Many students still have trouble with the notion of what a first name is. After all the one said first in Japanese will be the family name (Watanabe in this case), so it's understandable they think of that name as being first. But even if they change their name order for English they often think of "first name" as meaning "primary name" which for them will still be the surname.

Similarly overlooked are the murky translations of the English words "word" "letter" and "sentence". With Kanji a "word" generally equals a "letter" so the two are often indistinct in student minds. Therefore, if you ask students, "What's the fifth word/letter in this word/sentence?" they'll often give you the wrong answer. The Japanese items/concepts "ji" "go" and "kotoba" also fail to match the concept of word or letter precisely, exacerbating confusion.

Japanese tends to use an all-purpose term, "bunsho" (or some variation of "bun"), to talk about just about any written text. It gets translated as "sentence" in many dictionaries but could just as easily be rendered as "text", "paragraph", "chunk" "essay" in many cases. The concepts are hard to pin down across languages.

This is another area that could be touched upon in English orientation classes. After all, before they start practicing the mechanics of English sentences and paragraphs students should have a clear mental representation as to what these actually mean.

4. Underrated in EFL teaching (1)- Strategic competence
We've probably all noticed how some students seem to be better English communicators than others despite doing less well on paper (or formal examinations) than their peers. There are some who are simply able to communicate well despite a paucity of grammatical skill or lexical knowledge. They make do with what they have.

These students tend to have good social skills and part of having good social skills is the ability to read the 'other', to negotiate and moderate where necessary. To pitch your communication in any way that allows your point to be made. The ones who do this better in Japanese tend to do it better in English too.

A big chunk of this is what we call strategic competence-- the ability to manage discourse when you are not in full control. This means the ability to manage breakdowns and repair, to ask for clarity or confirmation, to use circumlocutions or general words, gestures or facial expressions, and so on. We all have students who have a wide range of knowledge about English but little or no skills in the way of strategy. Noting how they manage discourse in their first language, let alone in English, might help them climb a few more rungs on the English competency ladder.

This is something that should probably be addressed more in EFL materials and curriculum development.

5. Underrated in EFL teaching (2)- Form vs. forms
This important distinction came to the forefront of the ELT world about twenty years ago and has been a key dichotomy since. Form-- the overall flow and pattern of a language or a text, is distinguished from forms--the individual elements that make up the structure of a language or text. Many teachers, especially those new to the field, tend to conflate the two, assuming that form is nothing but a cumulative set of forms. Therefore, the pedagogy usually goes, if you teach all these specific forms, such as the rules that govern grammar and lists of vocabulary, learners will naturally develop mastery over language form in general.

Except they don't. Those high school textbooks with 6000 sentences displaying endless samples of forms (next- 20 decontextualized, non-extended sentences employing the causative passive) are like a big language net, from which form falls through the mesh. Focusing only on forms is like trying to get children to understand a geopolitical map of the world starting with a street map of Tokyo. The bigger picture that a focus on form creates determines the individual forms that need to be employed. Focusing only upon forms alone is like teaching only the notes for playing a music composition and ignoring the timbre, texture, dynamics, and phrasing- things that make a piece actually worth listening to.

This should be popping up more in teacher training it seems to me.

6. Underrated in EFL teaching (3)- Presence
I like dogs. So I enjoy watching Cesar Millan, who you may know as National Geographic's 'Dog Whisperer'. The man's ability to calm and gain the respect of even the most aggressive dogs is stupendous. Obviously, I don't have the space to discuss his many techniques here but it is undeniable that when near dogs the man has presence.

Dogs read humans very closely. Friend or foe? Trustworthy or dangerous? Every nuance of human posture is calculated. Is this human in control or is he or she intimated by me? Every telltale facial tic is processed by the dog. What is the intention of this human? Do I resist, fight, or play along?

Now I don't want readers complaining to me that my students are not dogs, that I shouldn't compare the two, and that our goal as educators is not to tame or control the students. You know that. I know that. But there is nonetheless something similar to be said for a teacher's classroom presence and how much respect they gain from students based upon this presence. The postures, the facial expressions, the choice and delivery of language, the sense of purpose in managing a class-- all are aspects of overall presence. Students will start from a position of trust with a teacher who has it. A position of trust creates receptability for learning. The student will be open to where the teacher is guiding them. But teachers whose presence seems uncertain, betrayed by movements and measures that indicate that they are not in control of themselves, can lose students

Keep in mind that by presence, I definitely don't mean displaying aggression, using intimidation tactics, or being overly authoritative, flamboyant, or arrogant. Dogs can distinguish aggression from control, bluster from purpose. If dogs can do it, so can students. Overly aggressive teachers can appear to be covering up a weakness- their presence is threatening, not reassuring. Trust is not forthcoming.

Perhaps this is something that warrants more attention in teacher training.

7. A re-test formula that delivered the goods
A re-test for me is never a punishment but rather an opportunity for fixing and revising so that the desired skills or knowledge are finally attained.

But instead of having those students do the same, or a similar, test again (after giving general feedback on common weak points, model answers etc.) as a group I decided this year to have the students who hadn't performed to my satisfaction come to my office individually for 30 minutes to one hour each during the off-season.

They were told to bring along all their semester tests and assignments. Before the meeting they were told to fix, be ready to explain, and most importantly, understand the parts that they had done poorly on. Not only did this allow students to focus upon brushing up the areas they hadn't done well in (which again, is the whole point of education) but in dealing with them one-on-one I could go over in some detail the parts that they found confusing or troubling. They reacted very positively to this personal touch. It allowed me to underscore why certain learning points and skills were valuable for them and also provided me with a clear look as to what students found difficult-- and why.


8. A test idea that delivered the goods
I'm always thinking of ways to make my tests meaningful and pedagogically viable. How can I make a test that both serves as a valid indicator of student performance and helps the students master the content or skills aimed at in the course? This one worked well...

I defined eight skills/learning areas from the class that we had practiced in some detail-- areas of practice and study that contained a holistic emphasis but included new lexis, structure, content, social skills, rhetorical development, critical and creative thinking... the whole shebang. I asked students to create extended examples of each of these.

I gave them the test paper in advance with the eight tasks (I can't really call them questions) written on them. I told them that they would have to do only four of the tasks but that they wouldn't know exactly which four until test day. This meant that they had to prepare studying for all eight-- which forced them to carry out a thorough, fulfilling review of everything we had covered so far. That, of course, was the goal.

For test day, I made all sorts of random combinations of the four assignments (#3,5,6 and 8 for one student, #1,2,4, and 7 for another and so on) such that few students had exactly the same set. The only consideration was to make sure that each task was of the same difficulty so that some students wouldn't have an easier time of it than others. This meant that everything of value in the class had been covered in test prep but the test itself was not quite as heavy-- and easier to mark.


9. Has corpus-based research jumped the shark?
It seems like every EFL researcher and his/her dog is carrying out corpus-based research these days. The majority of presentations I've seen at ELT conferences recently, particularly by Japanese EFL practitioners, are focused upon corpus gathering or interpretation. Yes, I'm guilty-I've done it too.

I can understand the appeal-- especially to Japanese researchers whose intuitions about normative English might be flawed (not that NSs are flawless of course). Corpus study can be comfort food giving them a clearer idea as to what forms are normative. And it meets EFL academia's self-imposed research fetish for allegedly objective, empirical evidence (i.e. reducible to charts or numbers). Concordance as Bible.

But I worry that by focusing so much on the micro-forms (individual tokens or types) the larger question as to macro-form (the defining shape of the communicative event- who is participating, how does the exchanges begin and end, what the communicative goals are, how social signals and illocutions are being employed to serve the communicative goal etc.) is being ignored.

Henry Widdowson famously critiqued the hubris regarding the application of corpus research to pedagogy and materials development largely along these same lines. It's true that many current corpus-based studies are well-defined ("We examined the frequency and type of performative verbs used in air controller dialogues...") but I do worry that this is leading to a bottom-up, the-detail-explains-the-bigger-picture approach that might not be the best way of understanding how people construct communication.

10. Handwriting and scoring
OK. I admit it. The quality of student handwriting can influence how I score a paper. Even when the scoring criteria is content and/or form I have noticed that easy-to-look-at or even elegant penmanship positively influences me more than the scrawls and scribbles reminiscent of an eight-year old that a few students always display. It's understandable, but if penmanship is not the criterion it shouldn't affect the score at all. Have you noticed the same thing?

Of course, now that I am conscious of it I can deal with it but I have to resist the lure...

Comments are welcome but please remember that these thoughts are outtakes and impressions- not finished philosophical products.

« Students you never forget- In memory of Moe | Main | It's self-improvement time (with unexpected input from Malcolm Gladwell) »


Can I say that this post with its ten topics was, ergo, 10 times as stimulating as a regular post? (Yes, you can. -Ed.) Just like your regular posts, I found almost all the topics well worth reading about and, just like regular posts, two, maybe three out of ten really personally hit home. (That would be 2, 3 and 6 for me this time.) So this post, with enough topics to normally take up 3 months of posts, is like Christmas! Of course keep turning in the usual, more fully developed single topics, but know that this format has a special and amazing value too.

I agree with Julian's comment about this style of writing. I think I like the short bursts of wisdom more than the longer (perhaps my attention span aint what it used to be). But keep em both coming.

A quick comment on point 2 (the enter key issue). I taught at a small, private eikaiwa a few years ago. In one of my "advanced" classes I gave the students (3 housewives who were quite motivated to learn English) a writing assignment once a month. I gave them a topic and asked them to write an essay on it, and then provided feedback. I remember the first few assignments having huge formatting problems (in addition to plenty of grammar, spelling, and cohesion issues). I decided to focus just on the formatting problems to start because I thought these would be the easiest to fix. I explained that paragraphs need to have more than one sentence (preferably at least 3 or 4), the first sentence in each paragraph should be indented about 5 spaces, one paragraph should deal with one idea, etc.

Well, I was baffled that after 3 or 4 assignments students were still making the same formatting mistakes. I couldn't understand why they weren't correcting these seemingly simple mistakes. Maybe they didn't think it was that important on how the essay looked, perhaps they thought the content was more important? I doubted this, given the importance that Japanese people put on presenting things. To this day I still can't figure out why this is such a difficult habit to break. I made some progress by telling the students I wouldn't even read their essay unless it looked right. This seemed to work, the formatting issues started to disappear. It just baffled me as to why it took so long and so much instruction to fix a seemingly simple problem.

Hi Mark and Julian.

Thanks for the comments. The enter key thing is a real mystery to me. I used to think that it was due to the fact students had an abnormal amount of exposure to those "6000 English sentences" types of books, where each sentence is stand alone. But it's not like their other HS English textbooks lacked short paragraphs, dialogues with several sentences combined etc.

Re: The Enter Key:
I was recently corrected by a colleague while writing a business email response in Japanese for putting more than one sentence on a line. I was told clearly that Japanese people write text messages one line at a time for ease of understanding and that is the way I should do my email correspondence.

Re: Good paragraph writing style:
If you teach it, they will learn. Although students at the high school level are supposedly taught writing, I have yet to see much evidence of it. If I give the students a good framework for paragraph writing, they will use it -- although some will take longer to get the idea that this is an all-the-time kind of thing and not just a one-off for the current writing assignment.

Many students also come woefully ignorant of basic word-processing skills and etiquette. With ubiquitous texting, everyone can do data entry but, again, if one provides a format to improve word processing skills, they will develop better writing.

Re: business email format in Japanese.

Mike H raises an interesting point. I went back into my archive of in-school email to see for myself and it sure seems like pressing enter after each sentence is quite a common format. Of course in such emails some things should be on one line, like event info in the form of
But a lot of supposedly cohesive text appears to be spread across several lines of uneven length. It's not something I've ever consciously picked up on.

Nevertheless, other genres of text in Japanese, like online news (thankfully) don't follow that same format. So it's not like sentence = line break is standard practice.

Something quite interesting to compare are Japanese and English reviews on Amazon, for something that people write long reviews about - like a camera. Lots of single sentence line breaks in Japanese. This topic is a PhD in the making...

Anyways, sorry I can't help you with the question of where it comes from.


An interesting and thought-provoking read as usual.

Re: Enter key:

Yes! This drives me crazy! I too have tried to figure out where this comes from, and have marveled at how difficult it seems to be for some to break this bad habit. This point regularly gets chalkboard time, but I always have the feeling that the ones doing it are not listening...

re: first names:

Why use "first" name at all? It *is* confusing given the customs. I make a point to call it "given" name. Or, following the Japanese "mioji" and "namae," say "family name" and "name". After all, a Japanese person's first name is their family name, no?

Also, I think the habit of writing names ALL CAPS is worthy of mention. That's another student writing habit I try to break.

re: classroom presence:

I completely agree about this. I think the trick would be defining it more concretely and figuring out how to cultivate it. It seems to lead to character development. I mean, you can't separate who you are from the your class presence. That's why--and go ahead and clobber me for this--I include a ten day Vipassana retreat on my CV. Yes, I consider it professional development!

Thanks again for your thoughtful, entertaining article!

John Spiri

Hi Mike,

"Now I don't want readers complaining to me that my students are not dogs, that I shouldn't compare the two, and that our goal as educators is not to tame or control the students. You know that. I know that."

Come on go for it and really rattle our cages! We are dog whisperers and our students are dogs!

Just think! This could be a whole NEW EFL methodology. Instead of a CD rom in the back of the textbook there would be pages with treats -- imagine an like an Advent Calendar.

The writing format issue is huge and you and your commentators make some good points.

Thank you!

Hi Mike H., Brendan, John and Chris.

Thanks for your comments. I've been away on self-imposed exile for a week so I was not in a good position to respond.

The enter key thing seems to have struck a note. The emails I get in Japanese are usually NOT written in this form, although the more formal the message-- the more the likelihood of regular paragraph form, seems to be the rule. Some Japanese people have told me that in Japanese the enter key habit gives off the impression of being young, casual, and is related to cellphone texting protocol. Hmmm.

As for dog training, I regularly come across material about the teaching/training of everything and anything-- from criminality to falconing-- that can be connected meaningfully to English teaching. More on this in the near future.

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