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The Uni-Files

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

April 15, 2012

More Weapons of Mass Instruction (Part 2- #6 to 11)

Today, I offer six more lessons learned in my teaching experience that have enabled me to gain 24 hour immediate access to Monkasho (also known as "email"), a seven-figure salary (ummm, in yen), and a supermodel wife (Yeah. That's it. That's the ticket!).

1. Stephen Ryan: Even the lowest level students can carry out research in English

Stephen Ryan (President of, St. Thomas University in Hyogo Pref.) is one of the finest ELT presenters we have in Japan. He exudes knowledge, competence, and provides a sense of professional reassurance on any given topic (as seems to be the hallmark of educated Brits). His presentations are concise and practical, yet theoretically sound. One of his best involved him demonstrating how even with poorly motivated and low-skilled college students could get produce some cohesive classroom research in English.

This presentation outlined a very highly-detailed, common sense, step-by-step process in which students come to understand, then develop, a research question or topic, develop a hypothesis based on that research topic/question, test that hypothesis (such as using surveys, looking for existing data on the internet), interpret the results of the test, and report the results back to others in English.

Thus, students learn not only a little about the scientific method but also something more of the topic they wish to explore. They develop a sense of ownership over the research topic and thus concern for the proper language used to express it. I have long felt that students at the tertiary level need more cognitive challenges in order to expand their English comfort zone but had often heard opposition to the effect that "That may be OK for your students, but MY students aren't good enough to do that yet". As Stephen Ryan makes it clear, that's not true. Students can do this stuff... although he'd put it more eloquently than that.

2. Former colleague Rapti: Opening each class with free talk

Got a good lesson that requires a certain degree of quiet focus but you're worried about students losing energy or simply not getting stimulated? Many years back, when some of us drudge teachers were moping about students energy levels being dragged down by quiet-but-necessary lessons, one of my colleagues, Rapti, mentioned that at the start of such classes she always held some free conversation activity, partner-to-partner.

I've been doing that regularly ever since. Of course I provide topics, invariably connected to the lesson's focus (for example, before a lesson on taking a patient history the topic might be "A time I was very sick/ was injured". I might offer my own brief story on the topic first as a little bit of listening content and to establish the theme (students like to listen to teacher stories if they keep them brief and at a suitable language level). I also allow students to look up vocabulary they may need in advance (only for a minute though) and encourage students afterwards to look up or study those phrases or forms that gave them trouble during the conversation.

In this way, the conversation practice can have some lasting value. Oh, and I invariably provide students with partners who they rarely talk to otherwise-- that helps to keep the topic focused, and in English.

3. Merrill Swain: Languaging

A number of readers will know Merrill Swain (and if you are doing a Master's in the field of EFL you are almost required the Canale/Swain 1981 article, which is on a par with Sgt. Pepper in terms of being labeled seminal it seems). Dr. Swain gave a very fine plenary presentation at JALT in Shizuoka a few years back about the notion of 'languaging' (yes, the emphasis should be on the 'verbing' aspect of the word).

Without going into the Vygotskian background (but namedropping him anyway) and neuro-linguistic details, suffice to say that languaging refers to the process of clarifying thoughts or cognition as a result of using language. That is, language functions not only as a conveyor of thought but the very process of using language helps us to crystallize our thoughts. Using language aids thinking.

This gives intellectual credence to the view (which I widely endorse) that a focus upon language production and cognition is not just a result of language skill but further engages, and thus enables, those skills. But Merrill Swain, ironically by using language to express herself, crystallized this notion for me.

4. David Willis: Raising awareness in preparation for prestige forms

Many readers will also know of Willis (who, with his wife Jane, comprise the Sonny & Cher of Applied Linguistics). During one presentation, 'Sonny' Willis was demonstrating how he might inculcate the perfect tense 'have' using the lexical approach,

One of the points that really stood out to me in this demonstration was Willis' argument that when students are required to produce a 'prestige' form, that is, some production in front of the class, under pressure or producing a grade, the student needs time to 'notice' or have their consciousness raised regarding the language form needed to carry out the prestige form. Since they are going onstage so to speak, students will be much more conscious of language forms they need and thus much more likely to internalize them.

As a result of this, before I ask students to provide even basic task answers during a lesson I give them time to check answers with their peers, since answering aloud serves as a type of prestige form. I don't want to put them on the spot (which often leads to embarrassed silence and even resentment) but want them to collect what they need to provide an adequate answer or response. It's good for classroom atmosphere, confidence and motivation, and helps students focus on the forms we really want them to learn.

5. 5th Year Student Takei on Re-tests- "He just really wants us to understand"

Miss Takei was still hanging around campus in mid-February. "I have a re-re-re test in Microbiology. In fact, there are about 12 of us who'll be taking it," she answered when I enquired as to why she was still about. I wanted to show her some sympathy. "A 4th test! Geez, that must be annoying. You'd think the professor would just let it go. It's the off-season now". (I said this knowing that failing students is a legitimate option in med school). "It's good for us," came the reply. "He really wants us to learn the content, so it's fine with me".

Well, whodathunkit? A student actually saying that a re-test was good for her?! But when you think about it, it makes perfect sense. Too often we think of re-tests as punishment for a lack of focus or success in the course tests but really the goal should be educational. That is, if you think the content or skills you are teaching are meaningful, and you want some sense of quality control, then teaching it over and over until students get it is a sensible choice. Testing should have a pedagogical function, and so should re-testing. It isn't about making students jump through hoops it's about helping them master what they need to master.

6. Colin Granger: The classic opening lesson: 3 Lies

Colin Granger was (is?) one of those teachers/teacher educators who clearly had a background in stage acting-- a big, booming, sonorous West-End theater voice. He is also both a live wire and an energy magnet. But what I remember him best for was a presentation given when I was a neophyte teacher almost twenty years back. His sample 'opening lesson' has become my default first lesson ever since-- one that I have used successfully hundreds upon hundreds of times since.

It basically involves telling lies, and thus engages our most natural instincts :-). I tell students some data about myself and tell them that I will include three lies and they have to later guess what those three lies were. This gives the students reason to listen closely (I let them take notes) and reformulate the content later as a question (after letting them confer regarding what my lies were in groups).

It also sets the stage for student-to-student lie-telling introductions to follow, such that the new students can learn about each other too-- something all new students are eager to do.

And a plug for your EFL edification...

If you are looking for something intellectually stimulating that is also likely to have an impact upon your teaching, try to attend the FAB 3 Conference on the relationship between neuro-science and ELT . All the main figures involved (who look like re-formed fusion band from the late 70's in the publicity photo) are not only engaging and knowledgeable presenters but are also at the forefront of research in the area of ELT and, well, brains. Unfortunately, this conference conflicts with my personal schedule so I won't be able to attend-- but if you are looking for the kind of thing that might allow you to add a Weapon of Mass Instruction to your arsenal I urge you to give it a go.

(*Oh- and kudos to MH who gets an HM for the 'supermodel wife' and Pathological Liar references)

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