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The Uni-Files - Activities Archive

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

June 25, 2009

The 'Gaijin Party'- some classroom recipes

I think one expectation that the operators of this website had when asking me to blog here is that I might throw out the odd helpful classroom recipe for teachers looking for ideas. Actually, most of my lessons are very localized- rather idiosyncratic, eclectic, and geared specifically towards university-aged nursing or medical students (more on how I, a non-medic, do content-based lessons for such students will be dealt with here in the near future). But I do have a few lessons that are general, transferable, and always seem to come off well in the classroom (both in terms of student response and utility). I’ll write about those today.

A few of these (ahem) ‘greatest hits’ lesson recipes have appeared in the My Share column of The Language Teacher magazine over the years.
You can see an old one about using crosswords to teach explanation strategies here .

You can see another one about students making their own tests, here.

And a third, called Grammar Gambling, can be found here .

I’ll describe another successful lesson below. It’s called ‘Gaijin Party’. And here’s how it works:

1. You’ll have to make a bunch of cards that contain a foreigner’s name, job, and country. To indicate the truly international scope of English I tend to choose non or semi-native English speaking countries. It also legitimizes imperfect or broken English in the eyes of the students. Have enough female and male names to match the gender of your students.

2. Pre-activity. In groups have students brainstorm on questions they think would be good to ask foreigners who they’ve just met at some party in Japan. About 6-8 per group should be good. Collect the lists and make a grand list of the best, most appropriate, useful, conversation-engaging questions on the board. Some grammar/vocab/interaction/politeness/culture points may be dealt with here too (NB- forbid the dreaded nattou question)

3. Now, half of the students will become foreigners. This means you will give them one card (see step 1 above) each. These students are sent into the hall. They will be the foreigners listed on the cards and they will be attending an international party in the classroom. While they wait outside they have to think about their ‘story’ and character.

4. The half that stay inside the classroom are themselves, Japanese ‘hosts’ of the party. Briefly go over some ‘first meeting’ protocol such as greetings, offering a drink, seat etc. The hosts can practice this for a few minutes and also try to memorize those best questions that have been collected earlier by the teacher so that they don’t talk to the foreigner from a script.

5. While these hosts practice and prepare this, you can brief the ‘foreigners’ outside. Do they have any questions about their identities? (Some will not understand some jobs or countries, and maybe name pronunciation- the latter being less important because it’s not like the hosts will know any better). Explain that they will go to the party one by one (often through 2 doors simultaneously if you have a large classroom and number of students) by knocking and then waiting for a host to come to the door and greeting them. They must put their cards away before entry. Also, arrange an entry order, which you will moderate.

6. Check that the hosts are ready to meet, greet and talk with the foreigners. Arrange a greeting order for the hosts and prepare them to listen for knocks. Hosts should not follow the board list order of questions or read from a script (learning to negotiate meaning and using strategies for that purpose is a key skill in this activity).

7. Start the activity. Send in the foreigners one by one, making sure that a host is coming to greet each and every one.

8. Let them chat for quite awhile as you monitor the ‘party’ classroom. They WILL do it in English and they will have fun. Most will use the strategies and questions that have been deemed fertile.

9. After sufficient chat time do a round up as follows:
Point out that they could have a good conversation despite limited English. Point out that most English speakers in the world are not native speakers and in fact communicate in similar ways. Point out that using the guest’s names and asking about native countries and jobs in more detail can be engaging.

10. Reverse the guest/host roles, dish out new ‘Gaijin’ cards, and do it again.

11. If there is sufficient time at the end, you can teach and practice a 3-way introduction. “Taro, have you met ---? This is Ahmed from Iran. Ahmed, Taro a student here at ---".

I’ve been doing this lesson early on in the spring semester for several years now. It’s a motivator and it involves transferable language and interactive skills. It can also serve as a consciousness raiser.


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July 03, 2009

Lessons are not lectures!

Note to university personnel:
I wish you wouldn’t call my lessons ‘lectures’ in English. I know you are just trying to translate the Japanese but I find the word problematic. Sorry, but it's a personal thing. “Lectures” brings forth the image of a teacher expounding in front of the class for the whole 90 minute period, transmitting ‘information’ or, perhaps, spouting of personal opinion or research results. I don’t do that. And I don't want you to think that I do that.

OK, maybe that’s just semantics but the mentality behind the nomenclature seems to be pervasive、not to mention the effect it ultimately has an effect upon how students approach the classes. For example, note the requests that I put my ‘lecture notes’ online or have ‘lecture note’ provisions readily available for absent students. Although I sometimes have handouts outlining the tasks and procedures, and maybe a few examples of whatever language target I want the students to focus upon, but they are hardly lecture notes. My whiteboard will be full of scribbles by the end of the lesson, determined by the ebb and flow of the lesson, what needs to be clarified, highlighted, or reinforced depending on how the class is handling the task. That’s about as close to ‘lecture notes’ as I get. If students don’t come to class and try out the tasks and get on the spot guidance they will not learn- and no amount of ‘lecture notes’ will help.

Then there’s that place in the online syllabus where I’m supposed to write my week-by-week lesson plan. Trouble is it’s not as if I do one unit a week, something like “this week we’ll do the perfect tense, next week phrasal verbs”. Tasks and activities extend over a few classes, timing and positioning are flexible depending upon how I see the students’ progressing with a task. I might decide that an extra class or half is needed here or a review is needed there. The ‘one distinct unit per lesson’ approach tends to make students think that they can miss a class, get the ‘notes’, and then jump right back in without missing a beat, whereas in reality, with all the extended tasks and flexible time frames, they can easily become lost. I would hope that my overall classroom goals as stated elsewhere on the syllabus would suffice, rather than giving what would be a stifling and ultimately inaccurate week-by-week rundown.

And about that end of semester test season. The papers you send each semester ask me to fill in a date for my ‘test’. The implication here is that my class culminates in one final test that determines the students’ grades. And moreover, that this test is the final meeting with the students so that the students get no feedback on strengths, weaknesses- probably not even a score unless they are required to take a re-test. These forms further ask whether I will 1) do a test or 2) have the students write a report. Yet, in my online syllabus I have written that evaluation will be based upon a combination of in-class role-plays, in-class tests, other assignments, and effort/participation. Why this 'test OR report' binary straitjacketing?

Yes, this has an effect on students. They are fed this system so much that even though I outline the grading process in my first class, somehow in the back of their minds they are still convinced that the term-ending test determines everything and that if they miss a lot of classes or generally screw up, it will all be made better by writing a ‘report’ or just cramming up for the final. Go figure.

The ‘lecture’ mentality can even affect the actual classroom atmosphere. In purely lecture-styled classes students can come in late, surreptitiously slink into an empty chair at the back of the room and soon get up to speed on note-taking or whatever it is they do at lectures. But not in my English classroom. In the first few minutes I have usually introduced a focus or target for the lesson, maybe held some small interactions on this, have explained and handed out a print which outlines or guides the task, and have made partners or groups. Then Mr. or Ms. Sleepy wanders in late and I’m expected to go over it all again for their benefit so that they can participate. This is the legacy of thinking of every class as a lecture, something that you can just drop in or plug into or out of at any point.

Oh, and I don't really need that little lectern at the front of my classroom.

I simply wish that a questionable pedagogical approach (for EFL at least) would not be manifest in the university's official framework. Can we get past this?

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September 23, 2009

Drop the puck! It's ELT Conference Season!

For a university English teacher fall means conference season. If you’ve got a budget, this is where a good chunk of it will likely end up. If you are trying to get established in the biz, make connections, or building up your resume with presentations, conferences are pretty much essential. They are also a good place to have a few drinks (after the presentations, that is) with your peers and shoot the breeze. You can take in as much academic stimulation as you like or treat it like a bit of a holiday. Or both.

I recently presented at the national JACET (Japan Association of College English Teachers) Conference in Sapporo, and the MELTA Conference in Johor Bahru in Malaysia, in June (quick descriptions of each event later in this post). My remaining schedule for the next few months includes:

1. CUE National Conference- Tezukayama University, Nara. Oct. 16-18
CUE is a JALT SIG. OK- let’s explain the acronyms. JALT is the Japan Association of Language Teachers and a SIG is a special interest group, with CUE being to the college and university educators group. This conference weighs most heavily on my mind right now because I’ve been invited as one of the two plenary speakers (apparently they couldn’t get Noam Chomsky), which usually means that I will present in one of those intimidating, cavernous amphitheatres more suited to full symphony orchestras or religious revival meetings fronted by charismatic 'prophets’ than for humble EFL commentary.

OK- I haven’t actually seen the CUE conference facility yet (actually this will be my first CUE national conference) but the fact that a hefty number of my peers will be there to stroke their beards while judging my academic worthiness adds more than a bit of pressure.

Anyway, I’ll be speaking on “An Immodest Proposal; that all university English teaching be ESP/EAP”. I’m also part of a follow-up panel discussion on the topic (ESP- English for specific purposes; EAP- English for Academic Purposes). Heckle politely please, I’m sensitive.

2. JALT National Conference- Shizuoka, Nov. 19-23
Although the JALT conference (and JALT membership) is open to any language teacher it has become a de facto university teachers’ association headed and maintained largely by dead, white, university-teaching males like myself (note to women and non-Caucasian males- yes, I know that a lot of you are active contributing members to JALT but I’m talking about the outward image here. You know what I mean. I hope).
This is the place to spot Mr. James look-alikes. It’s also the place where you can check out name badges as surreptitiously as possible and note things like, ‘So that’s the guy who attacked my article in that online newsgroup!’ or “So that’s the brainy woman who writes all those clever articles in the TLT” (The Language Teacher- JALT’s monthly).

What ultimately makes this a de facto university teachers’ conference is the whopping 17,000 Yen fee for the conference (and that’s for basic pre-registration). If you’re not on a university budget, and when you add transport and hotels to the cost, it can burn a hole in your pocket. However, you DO get your money’s worth. This is (IMO) the best run conference in Asia- the organizers seem to have thought of everything. There’s a cheery air (not to mention a lot of old boy back patting) and better displays, food, and related events than you find at other conferences. And the variety of topics and presentations is so widespread and comprehensive that you can always find something stimulating and worthwhile.

Let me add here that JALT is a good place to earn a spot by presenting something that appears very up-to-date, radical/progressive, and statistic/research-based. “Does Twitter negatively gender balance in language education? An empirical analysis” is the type of title that gets the JALT steering committee all hot ‘n steamy.

I’ll be presenting “EFL Training Programs for International Exchange” at this year’s conference with my UOM colleague, Rick White.

3.ETJ Kyushu Expo
ETJ means English Teachers Japan and, in addition to the Kyushu Expo in Fukuoka on Dec. 06, there are several similar ETJ Expos being held all over the country. ETJ is affiliated with, but is not an official subsidiary of (I hope I’m getting the terminology correct) David English House Empire Incorporated (the multi-national cabal). OK- I’m joking here. The DEH tentacles are wide-reaching but benevolent.

The ETJ organization does place emphasis upon the teaching of children although not exclusively so. The audience/participants at the ETJ expos nonetheless tend to include a higher percentage of Japanese HS, JHS and elementary school/JET and AET/Conversation school teachers than the other conferences listed here. The upshot is that there are fewer pretensions at the ETJ Expos- it’s a simpler, more familiar feeling. And the entry fee is more than affordable: 500 yen for members, and ETJ membership is free..

The presentations here often lean towards the practical than the theoretical. Recipe-types seem to be very popular indeed. The conference is not supposed to be ‘academic’ although many presenters certainly display a strong academic foundation. I’ll be presenting “12 Goals for Culture Teaching to Young Japanese Students” at the Fukuoka Expo Dec. 06th.

The two I've already presented at this year are:

1. The JACET Conference (held Sept. 06-08 in Sapporo). JACET stands for Japan Association of College English Teachers. Unlike JALT, this organization really is only limited to college and university types. Most members (by far) are Japanese. The national conference always seems to me to be a very sober affair- much less festive than JALT and with a more pronounced ‘read your paper’ motif. Most presentations are thirty minutes- the standard Japanese twenty for the presentation and ten for Q and A division, although in fact the Q&A rarely lasts that long and the moderator feels forced to ask questions. Until recently the conference was (in)famous for older gentlemen in suits and ties sitting at the back with their hands poised over bells to announce the twenty minute time limit (and the now ubiquitous “five more minutes” cards). This always gave me a sense that simply getting through my presentation- carrying out the bureaucratic necessities- was more important than what we actually presented but that may be changing. JACET also brings out a lot of narrow-field specialists with presentations titled “The redaction criticism of aspect in post-De Sauserre genre informatics reevaluated”.

2. MELTA- This Malaysian conference is a relative newcomer to the field but like most South East Asian conference is very welcoming (there are a lot of associated parties and events). This year’s conference was held in Johor Bahru, just outside Singapore. Interestingly, even though it is relatively new and not well advertised there were still several Japan-based presenters (perhaps being held in the rather conference-barren month of June had something to do with it). Like most South East Asian conferences, it was held in a hotel which meant that several of the presentation rooms were designed for wedding receptions, not language seminars. It can feel a bit odd standing there talking about learner autonomy research in a setting that screams “And now a toast for the bride”.

I also had a presentation scheduled for the International Conference on Applied Linguistics in Iran for late this September but due to the political turmoil there it has been cancelled. This is all very unfortunate, but obviously more so for the Iranian people involved.

The biggies on a worldwide scale are of course the TESOL Conference and the IATEFL Conference although these tend to fall at bad times and in difficult locations for yours truly to attend. Comprehensive lists of language-teaching (and related specialty) conferences can be found online. Here is a good one.

On the ‘possible’ list over the next six months (depending upon money, classes, time, and the opportunity to present) are:
PAC 5 at PALT (The Philippines)
ETA-ROC (Taiwan)
Thai TESOL
TESOL Arabia
Asia TEFL Conference
KOTESOL Conference (Korea)
CamTESOL (Cambodia)

I’ll write more on these conferences (and the process of applying and presenting at conferences) in the next blog entry.

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October 13, 2009

(1) Japanese English teacher stereotypes and (2) boring academic journal writing

1. What REALLY goes on in Japanese English teachers' classrooms?

Someone should do some fact-checking on whether Japanese English teachers really do teach largely grammar-translation classes, as per the popular NJ stereotype.

I ask this because I'm not so sure that we should believe the worst without reason. I sense that NJ teachers often spout the 'J teacher's teach grammar-transalation' line uncritically to uphold the rather smug (and often unfounded) belief that "we NJs" (apologies to Japanese readers but I think you know what I mean here) are invariably progressive teachers who have exciting, meaningful, and dynamic classes. On the other hand, the J teachers supposedly read the textbook and translate the English texts into grammar, putting everyone to sleep, and actually hindering the students' English ability in the process.

The truth is that I have never actually met a Japanese teacher who admits to teaching with a GT methodology. The vast majority that I've met certainly seem up to date in educational theory and practice and use what I would say, as a veteran teacher, are productive, progressive methods in the classroom. Of course, I tend to meet such teachers at conferences and training centers, so it is quite possible that the teachers who make the effort to come to conferences or training centers might be precisely the kind who tend to carry out more productive teaching methodologies in the first place.

But I've also watched several JHS sankanbi lessons (parent visitation days) and am familiar with some JHS and HS textbooks, none of which seem to focus nearly as much on discrete items or grammar or translation as most think.

Interestingly though, many J teachers I've met claim that while they don't personally teach that kind of content or use that kind of methodology, they believe that most others do. But if everyone is believing that it is only true of "others"...
Hmmm.

Now, here's where it gets weird: If I ask my university students what kind of English they studied in high school with their J English teachers, almost all of them will say something along the lines of "discrete-item grammar translation". Fine. Except that many of them went to high schools where I know with certainty that old-fashioned methods are not used, and in some cases I even know the individual teachers involved- generally very progressive, inventive types.

So, I can't help but think that most students are not a reliable source on this. They BELIEVE their teachers taught them GT-styled 'preparation for uni entrance exams' English because they believe that's what is supposed to happen in a J English teacher's high school classroom. Pre-conceived notions are automatically fulfilled.

To wit- recently I asked several of my students what they were studying in my J colleagues' English classes. Now I happen to know that he is focusing upon discourse-based writing skills and developing their abilities in academic writing. Nevertheless, the students said that he taught them "grammar". There you go.

But of course the same type of uncritical prejudice may be applied to myself, as an NJ teacher. You see students are convinced, no matter what I actually do try to inculcate in my classes, that what I have REALLY taught them are "some new native-speaker words".
(I happen to know this because one program requires that students write up session reports after each class and I have to help fix them up, hence I see what they wrote regarding my own classes). So, even if I was actually teaching how to put medical data into a format in which doctors confirm or add data in collaboration with other doctors with a focus upon pathology, many students will remember primarily that I taught them: 1. "that the Japanese 'KY' can be expressed as 'X just doesn't get it' in English", because that item happened, by chance, to come up in that session, and 2) that I 'taught' them the words 'cirrhosis' and 'intubation'', although these were simply accidental items included among the data for carrying out the speaking task.

This reverse prejudice also seems to appear in many J teachers' and students' views of what NJ teachers are supposed to be doing in their high school classrooms. The stereotype here is that NJ teachers 'play games' and teach 'daily conversation'-. You know, Hello! How are you? English, regardless of what the NJs actually do (not that some don't just play games and teach 'Daily Conversation'). The unwarranted (and often self-serving) stereotypes cut both ways.

Anyway, it seems like refreshing, air clearing new research is in order to confirm or refute these stereotypes.

2. My problem with scholarly ELT Journals:

So, I've called for confirming research above but I do so with some trepidation.

I've written here and there on this topic before, but the reason why I feel uncomfortable with (many) academic ELT journals became clear to me while forcing myself through yet another such article (related to an upcoming presentation) the other day. Here's what I realized:

Articles in which there is too much quoting or too many references is BAD WRITING! It breaks the flow. It becomes, alternately, dense and jarring. It's thematically restrictive. It is rhetorical overkill. And most of all, it's boring. Having 80% of an article consisting of summarizing what previous researchers have said (and believe me they've said some quite contradictory things in our pseudo-scientific field) is simply a case of arguing that "somebody else said this so it must be true". Why write about what other people have said? It reeks of academic insecurity.

Yeah, yeah I know. It is expected that academics show that they have read the research, that they know the intellectual playing field, that they've done their homework. But why the apparent need to fill two-thirds of an article with this stuff?

Here's what I think. Many editors think they are dealing with papers from grad students- because that's what they actually do at their home universities. You know the situation- a thesis has to make clear what seminal works in the field the graduation candidate has read. So the candidate has to go out of his/her way to prove that they have read all the right stuff by dropping all the 'right' research names and dates all over the essay, like sparrow poop.

But we are not grad students anymore. Nor are the people who might read these journals reading them in order to grade or correct. So why demand (at least implicitly) that scholars write like grad students trying desperately to impress their thesis advisors? This has gotta change...

Editors work hard and perform a thankless service. But certain priorities and beliefs about academic and journal writing should be reconsidered.

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October 22, 2009

Universities as glorified high schools

University is when students should be expected to take charge of their own education, to become autonomous learners, to be weaned from the dependency and passivity of high school pedagogy. Why then do so many universities in Japan do everything they can to foster the image of a glorified high school?

Take the chimes, for example. Yes, in a university!!! Although I've become somewhat inured to them over the years, I was shocked whern I first heard that kin-kon-kan-kon echoing through the uni corridors. Having students depend upon an automated command to get them into their classrooms on time does not bode well for the development of self-reliance or independence.

Next- look at those timetables. Most students seem to have each koma filled with a scheduled class. Five days a week, 4 koma a day. Little or no time for reflection, absorption or, most importantly, extended reading and research. Universities should be allowing students time to integrate what they've been learning, allowing time for further independent exploration, but no. It's the familiar high school regimen of one lesson after another, encouraging a passivity to content, a tacit reaffirmation of the lecturer-recipient notion of education.

This is also reflected in much university classroom architecture. Sure, unis the world over have some amphitheatre-styled classrooms but, despite their popularity on TV dramas as being somehow representative of standardized university 'atmosphere', in reality one can usually find far more facilities suited for interactive seminars or tutorials. But while Japanese educators seem to be very aware of the utility of seminars and tutorials, the architecture in Japanese unis rarely reflects this. Rooms used for seminars in Japanese unis often not seem designed for such a purpose, in fact they are often makeshift storage-type rooms. Seminar-type classes are often scheduled in rooms with a fixed frontal lecturn and fixed seats, moulded to the floor like prison toilets. Trust me, this is not conducive to seminar or tutorial-style engagement. Once again, it's all so redolent of high school. (Of course, many universities were designed in the late 60's or early 70's when Japanese educational architecture was apparently going through its Stalinist-Brutalist phase).

After their classes, which also foster that junior high schoolish separation of males and females, (sidebar- what is it with this? When I was a uni student I made damned sure that I was always in close proximity to attractive females as a matter of course!), students are behoven to THE MOST IMPORTANT ASPECT OF THEIR UNIVERSITY EDUCATION- BUKATSU! (clubs). I don't blame them because the timetabling system pushes them into a recess-playtime mentality whenever free time, and the concomitant dangers of possible 'asobi' (shudder), raises its ugly head. But again, where is the disjunction from high school?

Another thing that is likely to make students reminisce about the warm, familiar bosom of high school ed is the odd habit seen in many uni faculties of having the exact same students going from class to class together as a single unit. So much for meeting a wide-variety of peers and exposure to different atmospheres. They can instead function as a unified troop, an alignment
that can be particularly hard on teachers, who might appear as unwelcome outsiders in such closed and secure personal settings.

Now it's not as if Japanese educators and/or administrators are unaware of the greater objectives of university education, the goals of developing the whole person. Many are explicitly opposed to a corporate training-ground mentality and decry the same dubious 'academic' meme that I've described above. So what gives?

One positive move that I have noted is the introduction of many EAP (English for Academic Purposes) type courses for first year students. Instead of a standard rules-based orientation, students are shown how to carry out research, take notes, deal with textbooks and homework assignments in a manner that befits a tertiary instution (or at least prepares them adequately for the rigors ahead).

This is a worthy first step away from the shackles of a high school mentality but there is still a long way to go.

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January 07, 2010

Monitoring the classroom- perceptions vs. reality

There are a few students who regularly visit my office for chatting. These students are usually either returnees or those with a bubbling motivation to improve their English. It is often I who end up asking them questions about student life or their English educational experiences and I've learned a lot about what goes on students' brians this way.

Take some recent impromptu student discussion about my classroom monitoring for example. And what I mean by monitoring here is my habit (principle?) of walking around the room and observing closely while students are carrying out tasks. While I think of it as normal, even indispensable, for my teaching the students apparently find it a bit unnerving- partially because only a small percentage of their teachers actually monitor in this way. Partially.

The issue in question was what I am doing when I'm wandering among the students. You see, my students were sure that my monitoring was purely disciplinary. That I was trying to catch anyone who was cheating, sleeping or doing something 'wrong'. In other words, my intentions were seen as mostly negative in nature, looking for someone to scold, like the Zen priest and his 'big stick of satori', waiting to whack any wayward miscreants over the shoulders.

Of course, my perusals through the aisles might end up have this effect on student discipline but it hardly my primary intention, as I explained to my students. In monitoring, my purposes are in fact as follows:

1. For timing. To see how quickly the average student is getting through a task so that I know when to call time and/or move on.

2. To make sure that students are carrying out the task correctly- that they are on the right page, understand the task or assignment correctly etc. If not, I can point them in the right direction before they waste time and effort.

3. To allow for questions. Most students will never ask a question while I'm standing at the front of the class but are more likely to make a question gesture if I am strolling nearby. Making myself available for a few 1-on-1 moments is essential.

4. To see which aspects of the task the students are understanding well and/or struggling with. If I see common mistakes being made I can make a board note for the whole class or address the problem area post-task. This, to me, is the primary purpose of any pedagogy- to guide. And if it is some vocabulary that is stumping them I might address the unknown lexical entity immediately.

(Sidebar- For this fourth reason I often like to glance at what students are checking in their dictionaries while I monitor- so that I might learn what terms might be confusing them or are unknown to them. This, of course, helps me with my future lesson planning and classroom management, particularly since I often teach the same lesson three times in a week to different classes. But when I try to glance, most students tend to shut it down immediately, as if I've caught them cheating somehow, and am about to scold them).

I'm curious as to whether readers have other reasons for monitoring their classes or monitor in other ways...

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February 03, 2010

A bunch of words about lyrics

I have a lot of problems doing English lessons or activities based on song lyrics. This is not to slam people who do manage to make a worthwhile lyric-focused English lesson. Paul Hullah (ex- Miyazaki U. colleague and currently teaching British Literature ad Culture at Meiji Gakuen) once gave a very good JALT presentation on using lyrics in the classroom, but this has never gelled for me personally. Even though I know that lyric lessons are, generally speaking, not considered to be hardcore English study and are thereby used largely as supplementary or novelty material, my own experiences using lyrics in the classroom have always left me cold and, yes, cynical.

Here's why:
Lyrics aren't discourse-based. That's just a fact. In teaching university students, my focus has always been upon helping learners understand how English is used as discourse and to start using it themselves in extended meaning-focused texts. These classes are usually content-based and very much purpose-oriented.

More to the point, people don't talk, write (except for ..... well.... songwriters), or use English in general, in the manner found in song lyrics! Choices of lyric are often made primarily to suit the beat or meter, for alliteration or rhyme, or even just because it rolls of the singer's tongue more easily. Many songwriters don't pretend to have their lyrics make complete sense or even make much sense at all. Many rock lyrics are built around initially improvised vocals in practice or jamsessions- it's not as if each phrase is chosen with a point to communicate.

As an example, two of my favourite lyricists are the early Brian Eno, and David Byrne (both with Talking Heads and post-TH as a solo artiste). But here's the catch- neither ever gave much credence to the 'message' of their lyrics but rather how the words sounded acoustically or rhythmically, as an enhancement to the music and not vice-versa- much like a modern painter might not paint an object but focus upon the textures and colours for their own sake. In this regard, Eno and Byrne are certainly amusing and clever lyricists but they don't have cohesive 'messages'. It's certainly not discourse in the normal sense. It may be artistic and amusing but as fodder for an EFL lesson??? No.

But even when lyricists are trying to make sense they often come up short- and the result is that much more bizarre. We are so inured to many such well-known lyrics that we overlook the absurdities they hold, oddities that would not bypass the filters of an EFL student. Try the middle section of The Eagles 'Take It Easy' on for size:
Well I'm standing on a corner in Winslow, Arizona (why Winslow, Arizona is central or in any way important or even meaningful here remains a mystery)
It's such a fine sight to see
There's a girl my lord
(My lord! An actual girl! Sounds like something the Comic Book Guy would say)
In a flatbed Ford slowing down to take a look at me (fair enough)
Come on baby. Don't say maybe. I've gotta know if your sweet love is gonna save me (So let me get this straight, a girl in a truck, whom he has presumably never seen before is giving him the eye and his response is that HE MUST KNOW IF HER SWEET LOVE WILL SAVE HIM. Hmmm- I'm not surprised that he's hanging out on corners because this seems to be pretty psychotic behavior).

Or how about Elton John's 'Your Song', often presented as the quintessential romantic from-the-heart love ballad? (Although given Elton's state at the time he was probably dedicating it to cocaine).Let's take a look at some of the lyrics as Elton describes the intimacies of songwriting process, trying to come up with descriptions worthy of his love object:
I sat on the roof and kicked off the moss
'Cause a few of the verses well they got me quite cross

(As we all know when we are a struggling with writer's block the natural thing is to do is to climb onto one's roof and kick some moss down, which is marginally better than standing on a corner in Winslow Arizona I suppose).
Then, Elton appears to be getting whimsical:
If I was sculptor (OK. With this set-up we now expect something along the lines of 'I still could not capture your essence'- or something like that. But instead we get--- wait for it)
But then again no.
(What the hell is this??? It's not coherent, it's not grammatical, and it sure doesn't take the sculptor motif anywhere: "You know, if I was a sculptor. But I'm not." That's sure is a romantic sentiment, Elton!) And he continues:
Or a man who makes potions in a travelling show,
I know it's not much but it's the best I can do
(Hmmm. I understand that the bottom line is his modest dismissal of his lyric (does it come as any surprise?) but what on earth does the carney reference have to do with anything before or after? No wonder he's already apologizing for his song before he's even finished the thing!)

Now one teaching point that some teachers claim to get out of such songs is finding some colloquialisms or cultural nuances and 'teaching' them, using the song as a contextual backdrop. Well, maybe, but by the same token I could do the same thing by showing my students an NHL hockey game and use that to point out a few announcer colloquialisms and justify the whole match as being emblematic of Canadian culture... but, hey come on, this is waaaay down the priority list in terms of holistic, academic, well-rounded, English education.

While I'm on a roll, let me bring up two very popular pop songs that act as virtual poster boys for EFL lyrics but have started to grate on me:
1. Imagine-John Lennon
OK- this songs hangs together well- it is coherent and cohesive, it makes sense lyrically. There is a lot to sink one's philosophical teeth into here- the guy is saying that if there was no private property and no religion, there would be no murder and people would live as one. OK- I don't buy the simple panacea John describes and I don't think "all the people living for today" will be helpful in bringing about the brotherhood of mankind but at least there's material here for debate where one can legitmately say, "I think Lennon is full of it. This is pie-in-the-sky idealized crap. Human emotions aren't that simple...".

But what bothers me is that many teachers don't really put Imagine's lyrics up for this type of debate. Rather, it is treated as a default 'good thing' because, hey, John is talking about love, peace, and brotherhood! In other words, teachers are ignoring the actual lyrical content and focusing instead on the 'correctness' of the sentiment, with all the edu-political baggage that entails.

2. Tom's Diner- Suzanne Vega-
This must be the all-time standard EFL classroom lyric, in no small part due to Vega's incredibly clear diction. But what irks me about this fleeting, stream of consciousness, slice of life lyric is that I regularly hear EFL teachers say they are using it to TEACH the present continuous (or present progressive, if you prefer) -"I am sitting in the morning... I am waiting at the counter...".
Well sorry sensei, but first if EFL students can actually hear and decode the lyrics THEY ALREADY KNOW THE PRESENT CONTINUOUS! Trust me on this. Kids absorb this pattern from as far back as Eigo De Asobo on TV or neighbourhood Eikaiwa introductory classes.

Secondly, this pattern is not actually used much in real speech or writing. Think about it. How often do you say, "I am ---ing"? Perhaps in response to the question, "What are you doing?", and, discursively speaking, that's about it! There's no productive, discourse-based, natural reason to use a string of "I am ---ing" patterns. Also, generally speaking, a narrative is in the past tense unless you are specially marking it for literary effect- as is Suzanne Vega.
(Sidenote- Luka is a far superior Suzanne Vega song for students).

On the other hand, one of the bigger benefits of lyrics in an EFL classroom is probably the internalization of stress and meter that students can attain if they become comfortable with a certain lyric. For example, although I'm sure we can all agree that the Spice Girls' 'Wannabe' is one of the two or three most execrable pop songs ever written, you cannot fit "So, tell me what you want, what you really really want" into the number of beats allowed if you are using katakana pronunciation. You just cannot. You'll go about 15 over the limit. It really forces you to acknowledge English sentence stress and de-stress patterns.

[Tangent 1- I don't think the above is the case with Japanese lyrics. Since Japanese- being mora-based- is already quite regularly timed in normal speech, sudden and unusual stresses tend to occur quite often in J songs if the note demands it. Note how often the usually de-stressed 'shi' in 'ashita' (or any similar mid-word 'shi') can be drawn out unnaturally. Same with the usually imperceptible (to many English-speaker ears at least) 'o-u' combinations. In fact it sounds similar to the way in which many Japanese-language beginners might (mis)pronounce the language at first (wakarima-soooo-ka?).
End tangent 1]

[Tangent 2- I realize that the negative pay off with students internalizing the stress patterns of many pop lyics is that they often start to use 'wanna' and 'gonna' in situations where it is better not to sound inelegant- and it often sounds forced and artificial as well, especially if the rest of their English phonetic system hasn't caught up with those popular contractions. End tangent 2]

Ok, a change of pace-
A good classroom lyric (obviously I think there are a some more worthy candidates if one is going to embark on a lyric lesson) is usually a narrative, one that is cohesive and well structured, as a narrative should be (meaning it NARRATES) and is not just laid out as a chant over top a beat. Two of the best artists in this mode are:

1. The Handsome Family-
No, not the brothers Hanson (don't even THINK about associating the two!) but the ultimate Americana Noir husband and wife duo. The lyrics are the focal point of the music and they are incredibly rich, bleak, distressing, and highly literate. They are also very very American. Brett Sparke's voice is sonorous and rich, and so is easy on learner ears. They also tend to focus upon narrative and character sketches, providing a framework that allows EFL students to grasp and appreciate what's going on in the songs.

2. Richard Thompson-
In many ways, Thompson can be thought of as a British equivalent to the Handsome Family. Highly literate, very English, also dark and brooding, his songs are full of richly drawn characters represented in captivating narrative, all expressed with a booming baritone.

All this translates well into the EFL classroom if one MUST do a lyric lesson.

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February 24, 2010

University English in Japan: What should we be doing? A delectable template of methodological morsels from MU

In my previous blog entry (just scroll down!) I talked about the education and training system for medical students in Japan. I deliberately held off talking about English education within the curriculum because I'm saving it for a special day. Like Wednesday.

Let me be presumptupous, self-indulgent, even conceited, pompous, puffed up and full of self-important hubris here (not to mention redundancy). I have very clear ideas about what should be done under the banner of English education in Japanese universities and, dammit, I think we're doing it well here in the medical faculty at Miyazaki U. So what I'm outlining today represents a template of what I think should be going on at most Japanese universities.

So, let's allow the voices in my head to start the Q&A to propel us forward (a tacky tactic to be sure, but easier to write and, hopefully, to read):

What formal English classes do your Medical students have to take, Mike?
All are required to take 1st year Medical English and 1st year Communication English (some with transfer credits or fat TOEIC scores are exempt from the latter- to my displeasure). In the 2nd year they are also required to take a Medical English class but can choose any one from among four being offered. There is also an elective course where most choices are English-based (a sociology course is also offered).

What about after rheir second years?
We have a specialized, intensive, practical program called EMP (English for Medical Purposes) that includes a foreign practicum component. 4th and 5th year Med students can choose this as an elective. ENP (for nurses of course) also exists. Students also tend to learn some medical English in their regular Japanese clinical classes because a lot of medical vocabulary comes directly from English. Some required clinical textbooks are in the language too. But these latter classes are not English courses per se.

Communication English. Hmmm. What's that all about?
OK, Here's where we get meaty. Let me explain by telling you what it is NOT. It's not Eikaiwa (do NOT conflate communication with conversation or we will have to step outside) and definitely not remedial English! Nor is it a continuation of high school English. And it's certainly not TOEIC-type test preparation. And although it is a required first year course with fairly large classes containing various levels of students, it is not a 'General' English course, one of those subjects that stretches it's pedagogical net so wide that everything falls through the mesh.

Rather, it is made up of:
1) Content-based learning:
The focus is on thinking. We excpect the students to be actively engaging the material, the concepts, and using the language towards that end. When language is used for meaningful and engaging purposes users become more conscious of form and tend to internalize it better. The other key point is that a university should be about cognitive engagement and not just 'language practice', particularly for those in medical school.

2) Task-based learning
We expect students to be able to carry out and complete tasks, again so that they are using language to communicate something, that there is some end purpose in mind. Communication English tasks here include getting personal information, taking a basic patient history, asking questions about symptoms/onset/medical history, connecting symptoms to systems, and being able to inform both patients and other medical professionals of one's findings (in writing and in speech). We also expect that students can fill in basic English medical charts professionally and accurately.

3) Discourse-based methodology
The textual focus is upon longer, extended texts such as doctor-patient consultations, information transfer, or referrals. The social and interpersonal manner in which the language is chosen and used carries as much weight as grammatical and lexical minutaie here.

4) Production-based focus
Not only are students expected to understand the content mentioned above (receptive), they are expected to be able to produce it accurately and appropriately (productive). The course evaluation system emphasizes this.

In short, the course is very much ESP (English for Specific Purposes) focused. But while the content focus is clearly medical, the same pedagogical principles can be applied to any academic discipline. To my way of thinking this is where the focus of all university English education in Japan should lie (this was the gist of the argument I put forth in the plenary session at the JALT CUE conference in Nara last October)..

So what's the difference between the Medical English courses and Communication English then? Do the Medical English courses emphasize terminology?

No. Students can get terminology from a dictionary (most specialized terms tend to have 1-to-1 J-E cognates and are often just katakana-ized versions of English anyway). They tend to learn terminology in their regular J clinical classes. Also, students have to learn to put terminology together within meaningful, purpose-oriented discourse (yeah, I'm repeating myself here, I know) and that's what these classes are for.

The different teachers have different skill and content focuses as well. One focuses upon writing and compositional skills. One deals with current medical affairs in the media. One focuses upon socio-political concerns regarding medicine and practice. Myself, I use these classes to teach counseling and interactive skills (bedside manner).

Don't you think it's too hard for a lot of students? I mean, most are just out of high school. How can we expect them to handle this type of content-based, cognition-engaging, higher-order specialized learning? Do they really have enough basic English skill to do this stuff?

Almost all of them can, and do, handle it. Yes. After all, they graduated from high school with six years of English under their belts. And if they can't, they'll have plenty of re-tests, extra work--- or they'll fail.

(condescendingly) Mike, most Japanese high school students have had those same six years of English study and can still barely put a sentence together. Don't you know anything? (smirks)

Well, if we keep doing remedial English, having them 'put sentences together' ,at the university level- going over what they've learned in junior high and high school- they never will be able to use the language. They'll just keep tripping up in the same places. If we do that, there's no reason to expect that they'll suddenly get it now at university. Unless, you assume that on some level, subliminal, subconscious, passive, hidden, whatever, they have an awareness of how the language is structured. What they need is somewhere to apply it, some type of stimulus to cognition to manifest that receptive understanding, to bring it into fruition. They need reasons for usage- tasks- and then guidance towards achieving those goals. That's precisely the function that content and tasks serve.

This, it seems to me, is what university education should be all about, to take that which is passively known from high school and to force it into meaningful expression where cognition is engaged- where language is mediated by thought. Most students at university are smart enough to do this and most have enough interest, if the tasks are meaningful and engaging, and if they are scaffolded, production-oriented and if students can gain a sense of both responsibility and achievement for their learning progress.

And then what goes on in those 'advanced' EMP classes you mentioned?

These are intensive all-English sessions for small, select groups who really want to become international medical professionals. We invite NJ medical professionals to speak on their research, case studies, or special field experiences in intractive tutorial sessions. English-speaking Japanese doctors also serve as teachers. The role of the NJ 'house' teachers in EMP are to have students complete the following guided tasks (year-by-year):

1. An ability to talk about each section of the hospital or clinic and to be able to answer questions (or ask them) about the Japanese medical system. Relevant vocabulary used accurately in context is the key here.
2. The ability to write, critique and summarize in speech an academic research paper.
3. To prepare and peform a Powerpoint presentation on a medical theme.
4. To conduct a full poster session using their medical research interests as a topic.

EMP students also participate in international exchanges and seminars that we host and do a medical practicum at a non-Japanese university. They also act as hosts to visiting medical students.

This is, to my mind, the fullest realization of an ESP program, and is the culmination of what we consider to be the main goal and purpose of university English education in Japan. Now stop me before I get bloated and dogmatic.

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March 03, 2010

Putting together a half-decent achievement test

If you work at a JHS, HS, college, senmon gakkko, or university in Japan you have probably just completed several year or semester end achievement tests. After all, you need grades for your students so some kind of evaluation is required. But this is an area in which a lot of mistakes are made, a lot of educational principles violated...

I'd like to think that testing is something I know a little about, an area that I've become at least a little sophisticated with. It was one of my specializations during my MA days as well as one of those areas in which I've kept up the research level, so I'm hoping that a few of the things I mention below might carry some weight above and beyond the 'some guy on the internet' level of credibility.

First point-
Achievement tests are not placement tests nor, usually, are they proficiency tests.
In an achievement test you are evaluating the students' course work. That means the focus of test content must be upon what students have, or were supposed to have, covered in the course. This means that any content that was not dealt with in the course should not be part of the test. It means that the skill emphasis should match the skills that you were trying to teach in your class. Test tasks should resemble those tasks which were practiced during the course. You are not gauging the students' overall English ability or general skill- which would be more representative of a placement or proficiency test- so don't try to. The test should measure a student's ability to meet the specific course goals as set out in the syllabus.

Second point-
If you are an educator the test should have an educational function.
It should have a pedagogical purpose as well as an evaluative function. Students should be learning from their tests. This means that students must know what they did right, what they did wrong and be given a chance to fix it. In other words a good achievement test has a diagnostic function. This has several administrative implications:
1. You must give the test back to the students. It belongs to them.
2. There must be some type of review or feedback for the students.
3. You shouldn't give the test in the final class or else you can't review it.
4. Students should be able to find out what the correct or model answers are.
5. Students who did poorly should be made to do a re-test, or two, until they show that they have learned the material (or skill).
6. Why not have students obtain good or correct answers on those sections where they did poorly by checking with peers? I do a 'test interview' where students ask one another those questions they didn't answer correctly and if the partner knows the proper answer, they can teach (not just 'tell') it to the other student.

Third point-
You can and should diagnose your own teaching effectiveness from the test results.
If students do poorly on the test, or on specific items on the test, it is very likely because either 1) the question, task, or entire test was invalid ( the test didn't actually test what is was supposed to) or unreliable (if a similar test was given to the similar students at a different time and place scores would be very different- meaning that happenstance affected the test results, usually as a result of poor test design).
2) you didn't teach whatever it is that you were testing well enough.
This should be telling you sometyhing. After all, tests test the teacher's effectiveness as well as the students'.

Fourth point-
You need to test more than just recognition (memory) and discrete-item knowledge.
Memory is a limited skill. Not only that but memory is not just recognition (the most passive, receptive aspect of memory) but also recall (contextual understanding), and reproduction (application). If you were teaching a class that was expected to focus on developing productive skills but give a test that measures only memory-recognition you have an invalid test.

Likewise, language is not just a collection of discrete-item knowledge. It is a dynamic system that involves numerous social and pragmatic considerations. So again, if your class was expected to develop student skills in using English within meaningful and/or practical contexts, if you focus mainly (or solely) on discrete-items you will have made an invalid test, since the skills you are supposedly trying to inculcate will have escaped the net of evaluation.

Fifth point-
The test can easily be used as a study and/or review experience
Open-book tests are great. Students can once again review material and find those things that the teacher wants them to understand. Open-book test success also relies more on a general comprehensive understanding of a subject as opposed to memorizing discrete items. Of course, given that the test is open-book we should also expect standards to be high. I have come to notice that students who are well-organized and think actively succeed at these tests while the laggards who weren't paying much attention or making much of an effort all year rarely rise above their 'stations'- at least on the first test. This doesn't always happen on discrete-point knowledge-based TOEIC-type tests.

Providing students with the test tasks or questions or old exams in advance (they'll usually get them from their seniors anyway) can help too. By letting students know what to study for, you focus their energies on those things you really want to inculcate and leave less to random chance, circumstance or wasted/misguided student effort.

Sixth point-
Ongoing evaluation, especially if you are using a variety of evaluative means and measures, is more effective than the traditional 'one final paper exam' format.
Language learning is a process and so the evaluation should be process-based and focus less on the one, final 'this-is-your-official-result' mode of testing. Using a variety of testing methods and means allows students who respond differently to different challenges to strut their stuff. Not all 'good' students are sharp at paper tests and may do much better on a role-play, report, or some type of visual/tactile task. Ideally, using all test types you can get a panoramic view of their all-round skills, and therefore a more accurate reading of their English abilities (assuming that you are trying to educate them in holistic way, that is).

Weighting tests is also important. Putting something like 80% on a final test might not be a good indicator of actual student ability over the entire course of the class. Breaking evaluation up into 20% increments allows for more types of evaluation and widens range of the criteria. It also tends to keep students alert and focused.

Seventh point-
Let students have some say in the test content
Productive, open-ended tasks are to be encouraged as these allow for some self-expression and variety, letting students use the language while actively thinking and engaging it. Most teachers will tell you that in terms of marking, these tasks and problems are easier to grade- and tend to provide a more comprehensive view of actual student abilities. Even better, allow students to make some tests themselves. This will allow for a good review of content and also show the teacher what students have learned (or not), or feel is important (or not). And what a teacher learns from this can be applied to next year's lesson plans.

I allow my students to appeal their test grades too- as long as they do so in English. If they feel that the grade on a 'subjective' test or item was unfair they have the opportunity to explain to me why their score should be higher, a process which demands that they consider both the test result and content but also how they will plead their cases in front of me.

Reader suggestions on testing are more than welcome in the comments section.

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April 30, 2010

Fixing poor student study habits: Notes to self

Note to self-

Do something about the following student habits. You see these year after year and at some point you are going to have to address them directly:

1. Those cases when you give the students a homework assignment that includes a few concepts or vocabulary items they are not familiar with. Then, most students come to the next class with it incomplete (or worse, not completed at all) because they 'didn't know' certain items.

Figure out why this is happening. Is it because they see homework not as a preperatory research or study but as some kind of achievement 'test' to be immediately handed in and graded and therefore if they don't know it- they don't know it?

Teach/tell them that it is common sense for a university student to research that which they don't know. Look it up in a dictionary (duh!). Scan the internet to understand that concept or designation which you find troubling. Or utilize that age-old J university standby- your senpai (senior student)! But do something! Do NOT come to class after a week with that assignment sheet and tell me you 'don't know'!

2. Deal with those situations where students have a guided speaking assignment in English but as soon as they face the slightest bit of communicative adversity in English they switch over to Japanese, negating the primary value of the whole task.

Figure out why it is happening- Is it because the students think the only thing that counts is completing the spoken task and getting the necessary information or whatever from their partners? They seem to be inordinately focused upon the product whereas in second language acquisition going through the process is equally, if not more, important.

Teach/tell them that fighting through areas of communicative adversity (by language negotiation, circumlocutions, alternate strategies or whatever) is an essential part of developing their language skills. After all, if they want to be good tennis players how can they progress if they avoid working on their backhands and instead try to run backwards on every return so that they can utilize the more familar and comfortable forehand shot? Sure, you might spray a few balls into the bottom of the net as you work on that backhand at first but you'll never be much of a tennis player if you don't confront that weak spot directly. And after awhile it should become muscle memory; you'll be on autopilot. So with English. Add that when they are dealing with NJs outside Japan they will not have the luxury of resorting to clarfications with their interlocutors in their mother tongue.

3. Address those tasks where you are prompting students to be productive and creative, allowing for dynamic expansion for the purpose of extended communication, and they come up with little but dull, jejeune content which seems to exist more for the purpose of completing the assignment than communicating any content of note (e.g. Getting-to-know-you self-generated questions such as: "Do you like music?" or "How old is your father?"), or imprecise and vague content that does not technically violate grammatical rules but lacks a clear criterion, scope, or category (e.g., from the same activity- "What country do you like?" or "What are you interested in?").

Figure out why it is happening- Are the students more concerned with forming a 'grammatically correct' sentence than those which are semantically sound, pragmatically normative, or communicatively compelling? This may be a by-product of high school methodology- the notion that grammatical correctness equals correctness in all respects. You're going to have to hammer away at this deeply entrenched falsehood.

Teach/tell them that grammatical correctness is often meaningless or, to be frank, a lack of concern for the content of discourse can be stifingly boring for all participants. Give them Japanese examples which show this. Strongly express that as university students, especially given your own classes' discourse-based focus, that you (and your grades) are much more concerned with students creating and producing meaningful content.

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May 13, 2010

Privacy, transparency and why you must know what I'm looking at on the web

Transparency is one of the most popular recent buzzwords in Japan- one of those imported motifs which is assumed to side with a progressive and enlightened society. After all, a society in which public officials can be held up to public scrutiny, where the taxpayers have the right to access public data, makes for accountable leadership. This is an increasingly common feature of Japanese universities as well , particularly those (like mine) in the public sector.

Unfortunately the notion of transparency can run counter to another concept cherished by stable, modern societies which is gaining increasing currency in Japanese public policy making- privacy. You see, although Joe Taxpayer is paying my salary, he (or his wife, Jane Taxpayer) may have the right to know how their hard-earned taxes (have you ever noticed how tax money is always 'hard-earned'? Isn't easily made money taxed?) are being used, but it doesn't follow that allowing access to all public records is in the best interest of that same public. The police are on the public payroll but that doesn't mean you can just saunter into the 5th Precinct and start rummaging through crime scene evidence.

I understand that there has to be a balance- after all there should be ways of checking and confirming that I am not using my kaken-hi (grant-in-aid) funds to purchase backrubs from nubile 19 year old aerobics instructors. But I don't like the sense of John Q. Public breathing down my neck or looking over my shoulder. I'm a little unnerved by having too much of my daily work visible for public consumption. Whatever grade I gave to Taro Yamada (or his wife, Jane Yamada) is between me, Taro, and relevant university officials. I think everyone would agree with this. Likewise, Hanako Watanabe's transcripts should be accessible only a limited number of officials and even fellow teachers should offer a legitimate reason to access the info. Again, I don't expect much argument here.

But what about my course syllabus? Or my class evaluation methods/system? Sure, students should be able to access these (although they in fact almost never do) but I fear revealing too much to John Q. (who, it must be said, is getting a little too big-headed about his being my 'boss' these days). The problem is that data can be abused, misused and misunderstood when available in the public forum. Data regarding the number of students who don't graduate in the standard 4 or 6 years might in fact be due to stricter criteria being used in some faculties (e.g. medicine) but it could (and often is) willfully (?) misinterpreted as representing poor teaching skills or unconcerned faculty in the media or, these days, in blogs.

And then there are all those miscreants, ne'er do wells, and just plain wingnuts with personal or institutional vendettas who scour this type of thing to launch 'claims' ("Hmmm. Guest is required to present a detailed 14 week syllabus but I see only thirteen general lesson plans listed. The university is being slipshod! Maybe I can pry some compensation from them for my emotional distress. And there's the old truck outside with the loudspeakers. I haven't fired up that baby in a while").

Although I understand that my educational history and research focus should be available to Victoria J. Anybody (or her wife, Jane) I do have worries about big brother scrutiny by self-appointed public watchdogs- interestingly, the very opposite mode of oppression that Orwell wrote about. "It seems that according to Guest's publicly accessible web log that he checked Yahoo's Stanley Cup playoff scores for 6 minutes. And on the public lam!", or "So, Guest stayed at the Hotel Puberty on his business trip to Singapore. Well I found a youth hostel on the net for a third of that price. And what about that Oatmeal Stout and India Pale Ale he drank? Were those included in his per diem?". Or the fact that I am writing this blog post while at work and using uncooth phrases such as 'nubile 19 year bold aerobics instructor' (Humorless self-appointed vigilante morality police readers might want to note that this blog is hosted by an educational organization so I can do this at my workplace without compunction- nyah nyah).

The most visceral problem though is that increased transparency increases the amount of work for everybody involved and thereby makes public service less efficient. To wit- the other day I sat through a two-hour rubber-stamp meeting to confirm the acceptance of all the university's transfer students (note- as a committee member I have access to that info but I do feel uncomfortable with it- as may the students). But this meeting, which gave me less time to prepare for the class in the next time slot, was held as a means of increasing transparency- so that accepting transfer students is now not just the province of a few isolated officials but is something that is widely committee-approved for the sake meeting publicly-acceptable protocol.

These days I receive an increasing number of internal email saying things like: All members of the Student Cafeteria Rewiring Committee are required to submit a scanned copy of all academic records for our public website, along with a hard copy of the official seal of the registrar(s) of those institutions. Deadline: tomorrow.Ok- I'm exaggerating, but it is true that I had to file a thorough and detailed kaken-hi budget plan before we even received the money for reasons of public disclosure. Research demands some flexibility but now we are beholden to, straitjacketed by, a budget that may not meet our actual plans and needs, which of course fluctuate. So, is this type of disclosure really serving the best interests of the public? And this is not to mention the office people who have to spend time creating and monitoring those sites. Accountability is increased- while time and energy is wasted.

And this is only one of many examples. I have spent an inordinate amount of time recently filling in various university-related databases because the public demands accountability. For example, if one happens to be on a national university entrance exam committee (and this is just - ahem- hypothetical because the actual names of committee members are not supposed to be made public) one is required to submit a fairly detailed amount of specialized data which will ultimately be made available to Joe and Jane Regularpeople. Doing it accurately and fitting it into the labyrinthine guidelines and categories (mistakes or inaccuracies could cause one to be held accountable to that same public) takes considerable time away from actual class prep, student composition checking, or actual research. Is this what the public actually wants or expects me to be doing with my time?

I can tell you that just down the hall (I work at an attached university hospital) doctors and nurses have the same complaints. The same tensions between patient privacy and transparency predominate. Doctors in particular know that someone somewhere will be scrutinizing every minor decision to look for possible breaches of conduct- parlayable into claims and inquiries- which makes them hesitant when making decisions. Handcuffed.

Doctors, in the name of being held accountable, now have to record every minute nugget of information into records that can often be made accessible to patients, officials and, in some cases, the general public. This means that they are even more overworked, carrying out a lot of what effectively amounts to clerical duties. Requirements to explain in more detail to patients and immediately carry out both paper and an electronic recording of changing an old man's diaper means that the public in the outpatient department will wait longer to see Doc and that there will be fewer Doctors in total seeing them. Is this really in the best interest of the public? Is this the ultimate goal of using taxpayer's money?

Or should tax money be handed over to specialists in the public domain who we trust to do as they see fit and get tagged only when there is some egregious breach? Yes, Virginia there are better checks and balances than John Q. Grudgeholder (and his wives, Jane and Victoria).

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May 20, 2010

Why I never teach grammar tenses

I've talked before about how I find it strange when teachers talk of 'teaching' a vocabulary item. The notion that naming a discrete item in English equals 'teaching' seems odd to me. 'Telling' is more like it. If I show young Japanese kids a picture of a dog and say 'dog', or even 'Inu ha Eigo de dog to iimasu', I'm not really 'teaching' anything. I'm simply telling them what the English label or cognate is. 'Teaching' it seems to me, means having the learners come to understand at a deeper semantic level (that is, identifying the meaning range- think of an item like "worth", which crosses several Japanese lexical cognate boundaries) and the ability to use it appropriately and flexibly within meaningful contexts (e.g., swell- "My ankle is swollen. My calf is swelling up too. If it swells any further we will have to operate").

In doing so, I may highlight the new word and try to get students to raise consciousness about it but I can't say that I teach it. I may consciously use it in various forms in the materials I produce so that students may absorb or inculcate that item but any such acquisition is a by-product of the task it appears in, and not of explicit item-teaching.

The same goes for grammar.

The idea that you can 'teach' a grammatical tense seems absurd for me and doubly absurd at the university level. Why? OK- let's start with that old standard, the past tense: One might try to 'teach' it as follows: "We use the past tense when something happened in the past". Oh really? So, how about, "Yesterday, I was standing in the shower when...". Or, "I have been to Kabul three times". In other words, the 'past' is not always represented by the past tense.

Now what about the past tense inflection? We could 'teach' learners that most verbs take -ed as an ending but also that there are many irregular past-tense verb endings that you'll have to learn too (and of course most of the irregular verbs are the most common items). Since there's no way of learning them systematically, students will just have to memorize a list. And that's not the same as teaching or learning a tense.

The problem is that the notion of 'past' causes semantic difficulties across languages. Knowing how to make the inflection and knowing when to make the inflection are two very different animals. Using only the former criterion, coming from Japanese, the following would be ok:
A: Put the books down over there.
B: I understood.

This is because Japanese renders the moment of understanding as having been already attained ("Wakatta") whereas English treats it as a current state ("I understand"). Likewise, "I knew that he was married" is fine in English but a direct translation from Japanese would produce: "I was knowing...". So, knowing how to make the inflection, the mechanical transformation of the verb, is easy but this hardly constitutes understanding the past tense.

Rather, knowing how and when the past is rendered in English (or any language) discourse, psychologically or semantically, is a delicate and complex matter that is best developed by exposure to a variety of meaningful contexts in which time relations are juxtaposed.

The same principle can be applied to the passive voice. We can say that "The pedestrian was scared by the foreigner" is the passive form of "The foreigner scared the pedestrian" but the ability to make the transformation is just a matter of mechanics. It doesn't tell us anything about WHEN we would choose to employ the passive voice or what semantic or psychological considerations and choices would make us choose it. The factors behind a choice of voice can be quite complicated if taught as a discrete item. And again, Japanese and English don't match up here (e.g. "I surprised").

Most grammatical 'rules' taught in junior and senior high schools in Japan have been absorbed at some level in Japan by students, even if latent, implicit, and subconscious. But productive mastery of these forms (as opposed to passive, multiple choice, recognition) eludes almost all. University is precisely the time and place in which this latent understanding can be made more fruitful- by exposure to the contextual aspects in which grammatical and lexical choices are made. Simply going over 'the rules' again is to reinvent the wheel, and a flat one at that. Students are not suddenly going to 'get it' in university if they are 'taught' grammar tenses and the like all over again. Instead, they have to be presented within academic contexts that are meaningful to learners, contexts which reveal norms, choices, relations and meaning/application ranges.

University is the perfect place to do this. At university, Japanese students are declaring majors and (should be) considering content in greater depth and with greater interest. If English is a medium used to explore these areas of interest and research, the structures which express the underlying relationships, states, and actions will be more fully absorbed, married as they are to students' cognitive engagement (of course, there is no accounting for the militarily bored and uncommitted). That understanding of structure which they have retained in some vague, ephemeral state from high school, will be made manifest. The 'rules' will become applicable to semantic content.

One visceral example of this occurs with my first year medical students. In learning to take a medical history students are forced to think of relevant opening questions for patients in order to gather sufficient information. A number of these take on the perfective aspect (I say that because it's not really a 'tense' per se). To wit:
How long have you had it?
Have you noticed anything else?
Have you taken any medicine?
Have you had anything similar in the past?

Contrast these (and I do highlight the contrasts) with:
When did you first notice it?
What did you do when you first noticed it?
How long do they last?
Is there anything that makes it feel better?

As students understand the semantic range of each form (because the questions are relevant to their own interests, carried out in etended tasks, and presented within a meaningful context) they can begin to 'feel' the range of stituations that demand the perfective, as opposed to the other forms and tenses. In other words, the semantic range is known to them and they now see that certain meaning ranges demand the perfective. To 'teach' the perfective first, as a rule-bound structural discrete item, would be ass-backwards, since there is no underlying semantic range in which students can place the form.

Teaching grammar and university EFL- like opera and peanut butter.

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July 30, 2010

A very brief blueprint for Japanese university English programs

In the comments section of the previous entry, reader Mark Howarth asked me to outline what I think an English program at a Japanese university should look like. I have covered a similar topic on this blog in the past which you can access here (scroll down to the second entry) but I thought it would also be worthwhile to restate, or elaborate on, a few points.

First, here's what I think a Japanese university English course shouldn't be modeled upon:
1. It is not eikaiwa. There are legitimate places to learn daily conversation. University is not one of them. A university should have a more rigorous academic focus for any subject- including English.

2. It is not a continuation of high school English. Most students learned English structure in the form of discrete items in high school (particularly in preparation for entrance exams). The students, at some level, know this stuff. True, very few can use it productively or even in a consolidated manner but at some level they 'know' it. The trick is getting it from the realm of the latent and passive and into more active contexts. Now is the time to put what was learned (at a certain level) in high school to use.

3. It is not a matter of just memorizing more specific terminology- which can be achieved using a good dictionary.

4. It should be more generalized in scope- as befits the concept of a university- than the narrower, very specialized focus of a senmon gakko. That is, it should balance intrinsic and instrumental purposes.

5. It shouldn't be reduced to a TOEIC-like course, a detached, discrete-point, impersonalized, externally-administered program. Such things are useful foor supplementary study but hardly as a curriculum framework.

On the positive side- a university program should...
1. cause students to engage cognitively

2. be academically viable

3. develop critical thinking skills and production of English within meaningful contexts (meaning within their major subjects)

ESP (English for Specific Purposes) and EAP (English for Academic Purposes) models therefore seem most appropriate.

Teaching methodology should not focus upon structure (which will just repeat the shortcomings of high school English) or terminology but upon the frames of discourse within a particular academic subject (i.e., agriculture majors should study and utilize English skills that reflect and enhance what people in the field of agriculture talk about, what they read, write, communicate.

Universities should be a place where students learn to communicate with peers worldwide in the field and gain the ability to write papers and give outlines/preparations in English on specific topics.

Discrete aspects of English (specialist vocab., structural elements) can be mastered through ongoing moderated evaluated tasks, process learning, (if and when such points are needed and can be grasped contextually for the sake of enhancing communication) rather than a focus upon numerically-based discrete item testing. In other words, vocabulary and grammar are mastered not before dealing with meaningful, academic content but through dealing with such content. The meanings and functions only have reality for students when they manifest themselves in meaningful expression, and is retained only when recycled through meaningful contexts which the student is creating or maintaining (not teacher or text fed).

The most common negative response I get in regard to these proposals is that many, if not most, university students don't have the English skills to embark upon such a program- that many can barely squeak out the most basic of utterances.

I would answer that it is precisely the focus upon non-cognitive mechanics that has brought about this disjunct (between the passive knowledge of English as gained in HS and actual, practical, meaningful usage) and therefore to continue pursuing it, arguing that students have not yet mastered it sufficiently, is flogging a dead horse.

Challenging, rather than cognitively coddling, students should inspire them. By relating it to their field of study/interest we provide a framework that has significance for them. Talking about shopping or movies in English does not. They might start of awkwardly upon this track but the rate of improvement and mastery of skill should excite both students and skeptical teachers. After all, it treats them as if they were adults and real students.

I should know because I've seen this happen with my medical students. And while medical students tend to be pretty sound academically, this does not always transfer into utility when they enter university. In fact what they generally do well at is test-taking. But after two years of a discourse-based ESP/EAP approach most have taken at least a few steps forward- steps that are more becoming of a university student.

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August 16, 2010

I never meta-cognitive skill I didn't like- and explaining Monkasho primary school policy: More reactions and responses from Hanoi

...or more specifically, the recent AsiaTEFL conference held in VietNam. Two more presentations from Japanese researchers caught my eye and caused the following synapses to occur in my brain-

First was a joint presentation in which the opening (and very nervous) presenter showed findings which indicate that students who focused upon using meta-cognitive strategies when dealing with EFL tasks performed better than those who leaned towards affective strategies.

OK, Lingo section: I do understand that 'meta-cognitive' is probably Exhibit A when it comes to pretentious, pseudo-intellectual nomenclature (the word 'nomenclature' being Exhibit B) but it seems apropos (Exhibit C) here. Meta-cognition basically means being conscious of thinking strategies, in this case how you plan to attack a communicative task in a reflective manner, 'thinking about how to think' in short.

"Affective strategies" are more emotional, usually determined by the speaker/writer's own belief, or lack thereof, in their ability to carry out the task. In many cases in Japan, affective behaviour revolves around the notion that student A doesn't expect to be able to do task X well with this becoming the defining factor in creating the (ultimately mediocre) product.

Therefore, the researcher argued, we should be focusing upon developing or supporting student meta-cognitive skills in EFL.

Now there is both a great strength and fault to this logic. I do believe that a transfer of cognitive strategies from L1 (Japanese) to L2 would benefit Japanese students, who in so many ways seem to abandon all cognition when dealing with English tasks and rely instead upon memorized L1-L2 cognates alone. Helping students to frame tasks, try to determine the best approaches, and understand what rhetorical forms might lead to the best communicative outcomes, is overlooked. In other words- big picture support and guidance will allow the smaller pictures to develop.

BUT, and this is a big trailer-park corn-chips munching but, isn't the research here ass-backwards? Wouldn't good performers use meta-cognitive strategies precisely because they are... wait for it... already good at English??? And the poor ones, knowing that they don't have the goods, will worry and struggle to get through (the affective approach)? In other words, meta-cognitive skills don't cause students to become better at English, but rather are just reflections of existing competency in the language. Students use meta-cognitive skills when, and because, they are already good at English- not in order to become good. Correlation and causation don't necessarily share the same front lawn, friends.

Nonetheless, the manner in which a teacher guides students towards using meta-cognition is still worthy of deeper EFL thought- in other words, we should be meta-cognitive about the role of meta-cognition.

Another 'featured' presentation I attended...

... was led by Kensaku Yoshida of Sophia (Jochi) University. Yoshida is probably the most internationally recognized Japanese scholar in the EFL/Applied Linguistics field and is a man with his fingers in many policy-making pies- including the establishment of Monkasho policy- and this is what he addressed in Hanoi.

More specifically, he outlined the rationale behind the new elementary school English requirement (to start in the next academic year). It goes something like this...

... a fairly comprehensive survey of junior high school students showed that their interest in English, and enjoyment of the subject, peaks at the beginning of JHS and drops like a rock soon steadily thereafter. No surprise here to anyone who has been in Japan for more than 20 minutes, but at least this very thorough and balanced survey substantiates the fact.

Most JHS students found English harder than expected and were soon disenchanted at not sensing any progress in their English skills. This is very much like that time you bought a guitar believing that you would soon learn what it takes to become a guitar god- but you gave it up in two weeks when you found out that musical skills actually require discipline and hard work, so now your guitar collects dust in that dark room under the stairs next to your table-hockey set.

Anyway, what Yoshida believes (and as is implemented in Monkasho policy) is that this drop occurs because JHSers are usually coming in with a background of pretty much nada in English and jumping immediately into the fire pits of vocabulary lists and abstract systems such as grammar. Yoshida likened it to a standing long jump- gravity pulls you back to earth more quickly than if you've built up some speed beforehand. The new elementary school requirement is supposed to turn that standing long jump into a more sustainable running long jump.

This means that before students deal with the more theoretical and abstract elements of English they should learn English from the perspective of the 'joy of communication' and feeling out the "differences between Japanese and other languages", simply getting a taste for other modes of communication, without much pressure. (Note that the new English course is a required class but will not be a fully graded/tested course). This means that the emphasis will be upon the spoken language with absolutely no writing/reading or even alphabet introduction until JHS.

*note: At the same conference, in a completely unrelated presentation, a Japanese teacher criticized the above rationale as being too vague- 'the joys of communication?' Huh? Another asked "Why treat it as 'other languages' when we all know that it means English?" Fair enough.

Here's my two cents:
Cent one: Why do so many teachers, including policy-influencing professionals, treat grammar as if it must be taught in a theoretical, rule-based, analytical manner? Grammar can (and should) be inculcated using less abstract and more meaning-based, content-focused methods and materials. In fact, generally speaking, much of grammar (especially the more intricate stuff) is something that it understood not prior to deployment but after a certain amount of communicative competency is established. In other words, we become conscious of the rule and its function only after we have used and seen it used. for meaningful purposes. Grammar thus describes structurally what has happened to make communication succeed. After that, as learners gradually acquire the 'rule', the prescriptive element comes into play - it can hererafter be consciously applied when faced with various grammatical choices.

In short, grammar need not be this detached, theoretical topic that must be taught explicitly as discrete rules prior to meaning making. In fact the two go hand-in-hand, often unconsciously on the part of the learner.

Cent two: Yoshida showed us an official written rationale (in English) for the new policy as one of his slides- about the 'joy of communication' and 'noting differences'. Two things struck me here (and I addressed these in the brief Q&A session that followed). One was that the word 'communication' was used frequently- that in foreign language classes students should learn communication skills, and focus upon communicating with others etc. But wait. This isn't an English skill- it's a human skill, and something that they should be doing in Japanese (kokugo) classes first. Why assume that communication is a skill derived from learning foreign languages? After all, if students master communication (written and spoken) skills in their native tongue then many of these communication skills will transfer more naturally from their first language to their second (and here we start to dovetail with meta-cognitive strategies above).

Yoshida said that yes, more should be done (and is being done now) with developing communication skills in L1.

I also noted out the numerous emphases upon learning the 'differences' between English and Japanese as a primary learning target. I found this 'divide and separate' policy disheartening. After all, if you start a child's English education by focusing upon how unlike Japanese it is, aren't you just increasing the psychological distance between the two languages, aren't you effectively placing the first barrier to acquisition? The subtext seems to be, "Kids, this English stuff is hard and really different from what you already know how to do". How is that supposed to inculcate the 'joys of communication'?

In response, Yoshida noted something vague (and a bit desperate IMO) about students needing to know their Japanese identity better because 'they don't know who they are'. Go figure.

Finally- I had a chance to talk at length with an ESL teacher from Toronto who plays host to ESL students from all over the world.

When I told her that I lived and worked in Japan she said (hesitantly) that in fact Japanese formed by the far the greatest number of problem students at her institution. How so? By not fitting in or getting along with others, affecting weird and inappropriate behaviour, and complaining about everything. She much preferred Koreans, who, in her words, were earnest, respectful, focused, more communicative, and seemed to fit in and get along.

Interesting. I can't help but wonder if many Japanese students who take a long time off from their normal J university studies are the type wh treat it more as a lark. An extended vacation and an increased chance for shopping. On the other hand, students from many other countries might be trying to enhance their English skills to get a certification or test score that will be instrumental in getting a good job or increased social standing back home, allow them to study as grad students abroad, or even eventually emigrate to English-speaking countries. Thus, it actually has more than hobby-level interest for them and really means something back home. Right now, many in J universities treat English study abroad as a type of playtime away from their real study at home and thus meaning little more than a delay in their graduation date. You know, the mark of shiftless workshy types.

But I'm only speculating. What do you think?

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September 29, 2010

What if university students don't appear to know even basic English?

Although this is the topic of a debate that I'm currently locked into at my own place of work, after a fair degree of peer hobnobbing I've come to realize that this is a pretty widespread concern.

Here's the deal. It is widely believed that academic performance standards in all subjects for 1st year Japanese university students are dropping, which should not be surprising given demographics in which, due to a low number of 18 year olds, competition for university entrance is decreasing. Therefore, universities have to accept students of lesser skill than before in order to fill their quotas.

The most often cited basis for these claims are the results of the English portion of the National Center Examination. Now, you should know that it's not that the Center Examination English scores have dropped on average but rather, since the total number of candidates has decreased, universities not ranked at the very top now have to accept students who have lower scores than they would have even ten years ago.

Of course, one may want to argue whether the Center Test should be the main barometer of English proficiency since, although the test is quite well made, given its function it cannot really address wide-ranging aspects of English proficiency. With more students exposed to foreign homestays, ALT, Super-English High Schools etc. in recent years, it is arguable that a certain sector of the youth population has actually increased in English proficiency

This is something I have noticed in my own classes in recent years. I certainly cannot say that the students of 12 years ago were any better than my current 1st year bunch. In fact, the newbies might even be better. But one reason for my intuitions may be the emphasis and weighting put on English on our Faculty of Medicine's Second Stage Entrance Exam, which naturally attracts students who are good at, or interested in, the subject.

However, many universities and especially individual faculties do not have English as a Second Stage Entrance Exam subject and thereby will attract students with only rudimentary English skills. This is the case with some faculties at my own university and, having taught in those faculties for several years in the past, I can vouch for the fact that many students are pretty much non-functional in English.

Two questions naturally follow. The first is, since the students have had six years of cumulative English study at the JHS and HS levels why can't they even master the very basics? After all, these discrete points of grammar and vocabulary would have appeared on tests in class, high school entrance exams, would have been a basic element of the more detailed HS curricula, and would have been a necessary element for any kind of success on the Center Examination.

The second is, given this state, how can university English teachers best address and correct it?

Let me answer the first question as a means of addressing the second.

Most of the 'academic' university-oriented JHS and HS classes focus upon English as a series of discrete points to be learned independently of each other, somewhat abstracted from larger contexts. The mode is almost always receptive, not productive. Student cognition is engaged only at the lowest levels.

The cognitive level is known as recognition. At this level, students know the item only in a passive, receptive way- for example, being able to identify it as the correct choice on a multiple choice question where text and potential answers are provided by the materials writer.

Higher levels of cognition, such as 'recall', 'retrieval' and especially, 'reproduction' are rarely engaged in JHS/HS. So, while the students 'know' the items in a certain sense, enough to complete receptive-focused tests, they don't know them in terms of any higher cognitive plane. This explains how they could make it through HS and all the entrance exams but still have only a tenuous, nearly unconscious grasp of all these discrete English items in vivo.

Let me give two examples here. If you have students of the caliber I'm referring to you probably often see student-generated texts such as, "University can join club" or "I borned in Fukuoka". (By the way, although Medical students are generally more proficient than others, a few come in to this faculty at that level too. And most of the Nursing students I teach- which has no English on the entrance exam- fall into this category)

Now, if you placed these two sentences on a multiple-choice type test, I believe 99% of these students would identify the forms written above as incorrect, and that most would choose the correct answers. To wit:
Q1. How should you express your birthplace in English?
A. I borned Fukuoka
B. I was born Fukuoka
C. I was born in Fukuoka.
D. I had born in Fukuoka.

The students thus, in some sense, know the best answer or at least, recognize some of the faulty ones. But they can't reproduce it in writing or speaking within meaningful contexts. Will having them do tests like this really help them to internalize the correct form? It's highly doubtful.

After all, they all know how to form a passive from an active sentence but are not cognizant of the fact that their own birth demands the passive. However, if you allow for meaningful and productive contexts in which they can see the correct form and be allowed to generate it themselves, with it recycled or revised in extended classroom tasks as necessary, they can- and do- get it. Higher cognition is engaged.

Let's look at...
Q2. How can you best express (Japanese phrase here) in English?
A. University is a join club
B. At university, we can join a club
C. University can join club
D. At university, can join club

Again, I'm confident that 99% of those who might write (C) above when trying to write a 'report' in English would NOT choose it as the answer in this question. So, again, in a sense, at some level they know it's wrong but only on a passive, recognition-based level. Therefore, 'teaching' how a prepositional phrase is needed since 'university' is not the direct subject of the verb, and that a personal pronoun is also subsequently needed to be the head of the clause, will not aid in them being able to reproduce the correct form but will simply reinforce a latent understanding at the level of recognition only.

Rather, to fix this, imagine nursing students generating lists of functions of different hospital departments and then, with revision, making posters to present them to other students. In it would be the formula:
"In the ___________ department, we ____________________".

Having used this repeatedly in a meaningful context that relates to their own interests and demands their own cognitive input and is largely self-generated, does anybody NOT think that they would internalize the form at a deeper cognitive level- and certainly one that is more in keeping with the notion of getting a university education?

So here our second question is being answered. Since we see that the cause of the problem is that their comprehension exists only at the lowest levels of cognition, a product of teaching English as an accumulation of discrete items through a receptive mode, the very LAST thing one should do at university would be to teach them this content again- as discrete items, in a receptive, de-contextualized mode.

After all, if the students didn't 'get' them in any holistic sense before this why expect that, using the same faulty methodology, that they will suddenly understand them now? Until higher levels of cognition are engaged, their knowledge of English will remain latent, fragmented and non-extendable beyond passive test-taking skills of the Center Examination variety.

It also means covering JHS content at a university, which simply obviates the whole point of being a university. Lowering the bar like this is unlikely to spur the students on to a deeper, more widely-focused grasp of English. For these reasons, remedial, review programs, especially those found in much E-learning, with it's generally de-contextualized, receptive, discrete point focus, will simply perpetuate the problem.

Instead, what is needed is the engagement of higher levels of cognition in students, such that latent knowledge becomes more conscious (and ultimately, productive) and fragmented understandings begin to take on a more holistic shape. We have to coax out that latent ability by giving it voice. This means allowing productive, meaning-based English learning to occur. And since students enter specific universities faculties from day one in Japan, contexts are ready-made. Not only that, but it more accurately meets the idea of what a university should be- a place of higher learning.

My expectation, in fact I should say my experience, is that by raising the bar, and in expecting that the students have the latent knowledge/ability/interest to engage the topic, they can and will do it. The passive turns to the active, the receptive to the productive, the discrete item finds a meaningful context for expression, content becomes more interesting, self-generated as it meets students interests, and cognition of the topic is increased.

Remedial approaches that try to 'fix' the problem simply by repeating the same faulty and limiting views of language, flawed methodologies, and thereby lower the bar with decidedly non-academic approaches are just shooting themselves in the foot.

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February 03, 2011

When is a stone not ... important? (On course reviews)

A stone is unit of weight- about 6.4 kgs and the term is used mostly in the U.K. Most non-Japanese readers probably already know this.

I have been aware of the term since I was small- perhaps because my parents were British (I was born there myself, although I immigrated to Canada at age 1) and also because I watched my fair share of British football matches as a child. I weigh 10.5 stone. The Rolling Stones collectively weigh 51.7 stone. That's trivia. Please don't dwell on this stuff.

I'm bringing this up because the term 'a stone' appears in a dialogue in the textbook I use for my 1st year medical students- which is written using U.K. English. In the middle of checking symptoms for a fever a doctor asks a patient:
Have you lost any weight?

To which the patient replies...
Yes, I have. About a stone.

Whenever this passage comes up in class, I explain briefly what a stone is to my students, who would otherwise assume it equals the Japanese 'ishi'. I also tell them it's nothing to dwell on- I just want them to understand that particular passage clearly (EFL-heads will recognize this as differentiating between items of instrumental and intrinsic pedagogical value).

I'll get back to this 'stone' business later.

Anyway...at the end of my courses I always have my students fill out a 'Top 15' list. This acts as a review of key items learned in the class. Students select 15 important or memorable words, phrases, grammar patterns, social features, cultural elements, stylistic points that they have learned in my class. On the left side of the paper they write the actual item. On the right side they have to explain why it's interesting/important to them.

They are encouraged to list a variety of item types and to vary the pattern of explanation too. Otherwise, most would list concrete single-word items followed by the explanation that 'I didn't know that'.

This is always a worthwhile assignment. Even if you have recycled items introduced in the course and have an interconnected curriculum which develops in increments, with each lesson being absorbed into the next (as you should if you are teaching a course- as opposed to 'a bunch of classes'), students have a great tendency to forget much beyond the last two lessons. So this 'top 15' serves as a refresher. They are given time to write it up and are encouraged to go over the year's notes, texts and prints thoroughly. Not only does it stimulate memory but it helps to consolidate things they learned in the course. It helps to prepare them for final tests.

It also serves a diagnostic function for me, the teacher. By seeing what students consider memorable, important or interesting language I can see what I need to emphasize more, focus on less, or what I might explain better (some out-and-out blatant misunderstandings appear on this list). And that's where 'a stone' comes in.

Even though, I gloss over this item in that one lesson and tell my students not to dwell on it about two-thirds of them still list it in their top 15's. And not just on the list but damn near at the top of it too. This speaks to me- students are memorizing, or internalizing, trivia. They are overvaluing discrete or concrete points that have clear definitions but little holistic value in terms of internalizing the language.

I think there is a very human element in this. We can all remember Sugar Crisp jingles from the 70's or which Dick played Darrin first on Bewitched (York, not Sargent. Duh!) but have trouble recalling the concept of biomass or why Kant is considered such a colossus in European philosophy.

But I think there are some systemic educational factors that cause students to think in these 'discrete/concrete' item terms. The first is that too many tests still focus upon these as if they were the bedrock of English acquisition (and because they are considered 'objective'- but then again so is the order of Bewitched Dicks- and no, that is not an offshoot of the Franciscans). Moreover, teachers often approach lessons as a matter of teaching 'words', a pile of discrete facts, as opposed to the more nebulous but effective process of developing language skills.

This review paper allows me to let students know what really was important (by checking and/or commenting positively on the truly valuable points) and what will simply take up valuable brain space (simply by writing 'this is not important for your English' next to it).

Some type of course review is deeply, highly, strongly encouraged by myself (just watch the notion rocket into EFL-world fashiondom now!). Why? Because it (and yes, I do note the wicked irony of reviewing an article about course reviews):
1. causes students to go over all their class notes/papers again
2. brings forgotten or near-forgotten items back to mind
3. helps to consolidate or connect concepts learned or practiced in class
4. helps the teacher to understand more clearly what the students are actually focusing upon and to address it if the student seems to have trouble grasping the essential from the trivial
5. can effect your future pedagogy by forcing you to respond to cases of the type found in point #4

So, now that you've read this far, what do you remember most from this article?
A. The various merits of having a review class and assignment
B. That a stone equals 6.4 kgs
C. Dick York was the first Darrin

Damn! And I told you not to dwell on that!

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March 30, 2011

Scoring burnout points in the 'off-season'

With all the events of the past few weeks, it seems almost trite to be talking about the state of English education in Japan. And when people have lost relatives, homes, and are huddling under blankets in underpowered evacuation centers, complaining about inequities in the education system seems like self-indulgent whining.

I suppose if there are two things which come to mind for me in light of the situation up north one would have to be the sense of impotency of being a mere English teacher, as opposed to being someone who could really help in a more visceral, constructive way (of course I encourage all of us not directly affected to give financial aid!). The other is how proud I am to be a resident of this country- where the people have responded to adversity with such resilience and dignity.

But university English education is what this blog is all about so let's talk about the 'off-season' (yeah, right!) and the 'B' word. Yes, I know that the off-season should be a time for battery recharging but for me this is the season not to be jolly. But first, a few disclaimers...

I like my job. I can think of few I'd rather do (or in fact be capable of). I cannot remember a single day in the past dozen years where I have dreaded coming in to work (OK, proctoring the Center Shiken comes close, but that doesn't really count). I have never yet felt the need to ignore the alarm clock beckoning me to toil for my daily bread.

I like teaching my classes and 95% of the students. I am inspired when I walk into the classroom. I get a buzz. The great majority of my students are appreciative and attentive. I can't recall ever feeling a sense of burden before a lesson.

I have my own office. This means I can check hockey scores at will. I can go in or out of my workplace as I see fit and nobody really cares why or when. It's nice.

But perhaps all this is why the 'off-season' (in reality, the 'meeting, entrance exam, research, scheduling/planning, and special courses season') actually causes me to feel ('B' word warning!) burned out- precisely because the dopamine effect of the classroom, the adrenalin rush of dynamic interaction, has been withdrawn. Now, I can't complain about having too much work per se- again, look at what people are either volunteering for or being forced to do right now in Sanriku up to 18 hours a day. And for me it's NOT the feeling (although this is not uncommon among teachers in Japan) that I am wasting my life performing songs and dances for students who would rather be tuned into their ipads. So, if it's not overwork or a sense of being disrespected or under-utilized, why the feeling of burnout?

I suppose age is a factor. I've turned fifty. At fourty, it seems you can still maintain a hopeful narrative that your job and research will bloom and prosper, that you can and will raise your station to become a player of international stature. You can even tell yourself that you might just still write that great 21st century novel, record that CD that's been playing in your head for years, score the cup winning goal in your national football league, and end up dating a Eurobabe supermodel who actually digs you. You can afford to look forward.

At fifty though, you stop. You're scrambling to hold on to what you've got, clawing at your remaining time like you're Bear Grylls hanging by his fingers on a crumbling cliff top. And, oddly enough, that's OK. But change is difficult. You start to become traumatized at the possibility that you might have to change brands of shaving cream. And everything hurts physically- sitting at your desk writing research papers, driving your car, reading self-indulgent whiny internet blogs, and especially knowing that you are now unlikely to change in any significant way except to get older. You now know that your research will not suddenly be recognized as seminal, epoch-making work by Henry Widdowson and Michael Halliday.You will not be asked to become Professor Emeritus at The Sorbonne. But that's all fine. You're happy to have a decent beer in the evening, a loving family (OK, not necessarily in that order), and take the occasional trip to Southeast Asia. It'a tradeoff, I suppose.

But factors other than age can and do lead to widespread teacher burnout- and yes, I am feeling this pinch as I write this. Here are four further causes that come to mind:

1. Bureaucracy leads to burnout.

When about, oh, 80% of your time and effort at work goes into filling mindless functions that basically exist to perpetuate the current system, to feed the machine as it were, you can be forgiven for feeling like the proverbial hamster on the treadmill. The fact that excessive bureaucracy can be a demotivating factor probably falls into the "No shit, Sherlock!" school of discourse, but the point is that the off-season is surely Carnival parade 'n party time for bureaucrats.

Now, as a teacher, I can and do feel inspired by educating and challenging both myself and my students. But, and call me a Philistine if you must, somehow I don't feel motivated and inspired when I'm filling in the university database's 300+ item/category 'achievement' file with a smack-in-your-face deadline. Now, I'm not gonna go all 70's-sci-fi-novel-cum-progrock-concept-LP on you and assume that this is a 'me vs. the system' scenario, the protagonist as an independently sensitive soul in an uncaring world, but hey, when work becomes a matter of little more carrying out duties simply because someone else has decided that some 'busy work' duty has to be carried out- well you are allowed at least 5 burnout points.

2. Not being absolutely fluent in reading Kanji leads to burnout.

No doubt you could contribute much more of significance to your workplace if you could digest those 20-page 'shiryo' the way natives (and those cursed Gaijin Kanji nerds) do. You could feel on top of things- more relevant and involved. But I'm not a good visual learner and I struggle with Kanji. This is not some type of xenophobic anti-Gaijin barrier erected by my superiors- it's my shortcoming (and maybe yours). Not feeling up to speed on issues that MAY matter and thereby not contributing what I could or should, not to mention that trying to read some obtuse shiryo will take me at least ten times longer than Dr. Sato next door, aids burn out- about 3 points' worth.

3. Feeling that your real work is not being recognized or appreciated leads to burnout.

This obviously connects to number 1 above.

Case In Point A- You sit on a committee which seems to exist solely for the purpose of producing a bi-annual report. A report that no one reads because it's about having meetings about producing a report. But, dammit, preparing and formatting that report is treated as serious, important stuff!

Point B- The entrance exam overlords keep banging into your head that you must avoid any 'misses' on your exam. They wouldn't know if the exam you made was in fact 100% structually invalid or that all the tasks and questions measurably unreliable, as long as you don't, for example, put the wrong, unofficial kind of bracket on the question sheet. But you do put in the wrong kind of bracket, and your 'miss' gets pointed out to you on exam day.

Point C- You care about your course content. Good. And it's not just you- many other teachers do too. So, you duly fill in your syllabus- but the online syllabus entry form carries 20 different category headings and all must be filled in according to a format explained in a, wait for it, 20-page shiryo. You want to explain your well-thought-out educational rationale here but you know that no one will ever read it anyway and that the guys in suits downstairs are more concerned that you have officially filled all six slots for 'available office hours' (using the obscure single font type that the system recognizes) for each of your twelve classes.

You could probably write in that Educational Goals section: "...to make myself more attractive to the ladies in the class" and no one would bat an eyelash. You wonder why you are writing down '...developing strategic competencies' instead. Score 6 burnout points here- two for each of these three cases mentioned above.

4. No one cares about your research focus except for...

... the editor of the journal you've submitted it to. Who cares a little TOO much. And you can add a burnout point or two if he/she is the type who is more concerned about the fact that you did not italicize the title of the chapter noted in the proceedings papers listed in your references- so you are therefore IN VIOLATION OF APA STANDARDS (this warrants CAPS because it is taken as seriously in the world of EFL publishing as, oh, arson is in the real world), and therefore you are clearly not a serious professional!

Then, the head of your department has no idea what you are researching but is happy when he/she looks at your database and notes that you have two items listed under 'research publications' for the year. It could be that you merely wrote a short review of a muffin shop to a suburban shopping bulletin board but hey, if you have that publication listed the department bigwig is happy because funding your research (which remember, he/she actually doesn't much care about because his/her role in the houjinka system is now primarily to secure funding) will be easier next year. But despite this realization, you try to be professional and still shoot for the lead article in TESOL Quarterly or Applied Linguistics. Score 5 burnout points here.

[I want to add here that people in the hard sciences have a huge and distinct advantage over soft, pseudo-sciences like Applied Linguistics when it comes to research papers. That is- it's tailor-made for publication, cookie-cutter prefabricated for the background-methods-results-discussion format. There is no vagueness or nebulous quality to it. Rigorously empirical, it is precisely this formulaic quality that makes it easy to slot into that great template of research paperdom, unlike opaque EFL/ESL topics such as, "Learner Perceptions of Secondary Intercultural Aspect in Cleft-structure Usage". And if you're a scientist- a real one- you can also put the names of all your lab mates under the paper title and they'll do the same for you. Presto- suddenly your the author of 11 hardcore published research papers within a year!]

So here then is the question to you, dear reader- where do you rank on the off-season burnout scale? Have I missed any major causes of off-season burnout? And what do you do you to avoid it? Me- I'm waiting for my classes to start again. I want to feel that energy flow. And in particular I want to see the faces of our students from Northern Japan...

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May 23, 2011

Putting conversation in its proper place- a few ideas and practices

Imagine paying good money to go to Tennis School and having the coach tell you, “Don’t worry about your technique or skills. Just go out there, hit some balls, and have fun”. Wouldn’t be much of a “school”, would it? Smacking a ball against a wall or just going down to the local courts with your buddies and whacking the ball around would be equally productive- not to mention a lot cheaper. Nor would it be apt to describe such a person as a “coach”, especially if this coach believed that just batting balls around would significantly improve the students’ tennis skills.

This scenario doesn’t seem to me to be too far removed from the teacher who simply uses the classroom as a chat session- as if holistic English skills will magically evolve out of holding a conversation.

On the other hand, having a coach demonstrate swinging technique over and over while the students imitate him/her isn’t of much use if this technique isn’t soon put to use in some type of game situation. The most technically beautiful tennis swing in the world won’t mean much if the player has no game skills, if he or she can’t adapt to the dynamics of the game, to think—and react—on their feet. Likewise with the English teacher who merely has student repeat sentences orally, read set scripts out loud, or has students do single-word information gap exercises and considers it to be ‘conversational practice’. Reading other peoples' dialogues is about as far from conversation as AKB48 is from Chopin.

There is a place for conversation in the classroom (and I'll give you some examples of what I do later) but we first have to divorce it from the notion of idle chat. Perhaps if we label it all as Oral Discourse we can start to get a better perspective. Why? It seems to me that the entire notion of education, of a classroom, should imply that learning is taking place, that skills are being developed. This further implies some type of direction or target is guiding the conversation-- that discourse, and not just sonic clutter, is taking place. What exactly does this mean? It means:

Is casual chat in the classroom really meaningful?

1. The conversation or rather discourse, must have a purpose that is meaningful to students- it should encompass something that they really need or want to convey. A lot of casual chat fails in this regard- good friends can riff with each other on nothing in particular over coffee but those dynamics don’t translate well to classroom settings with people who you wouldn’t normally be shooting the breeze with.

This is why students who seem to improve little in classes in Japan take a huge leap in competence after they go abroad for awhile. Abroad, simply having oral discourse helps them improve because they need it for everyday life, for survival, to make the event meaningful. These parameters don’t exist in the standard Japanese classroom and cannot be easily replicated. What to do then? Well, let’s look at point #2

Adding a diagnostic function

2. The ‘conversation’ should have some diagnostic function attached. If the speakers aren’t conscious of what is working and what’s not working and make no room to note, improve upon, or study those shortcomings then they’ll just repeat the same mistakes over and over and, more likely a) use Japanese or b) not say anything. Since the latter options are not legitimate choices while abroad, such a student has a higher degree of consciousness regarding what’s working (which leads to the reinforcement of successful ventures) and what needs to be fixed. This element needs to be added to the classroom situation.

To inculcate this is my own classroom I give students a few minutes post-conversation to make a note on anything that they couldn’t express well- vocabulary, grammar patterns, strategies, useful hints they picked up from their speaking partners, and tell students to check these as self-study. These are to be kept as a list and submitted later in the year and often form a discussion element in final oral interviews. One positive is that when students choose to make their own notes on their own items of significance they are ‘owning’ the language and thus taking responsibility for it. This is crucial as point #3 is…

Language ownership and subsequent responsibility

3. Giving students ownership over the language they use. I don't think I have to tell anyone reading this website that repeating written sentences out loud or even 'saying' the individual words that make up an information gap exercise constitutes anything that could remotely be considered conversation or oral discourse. When the student doesn't have to engage any cognitive skills to produce English we can't expect much to occur in terms of deep internalization. They also need an emotional or propositional investment in the language they are producing. Engaged cognition makes for deeper embedding. And cognition is enaged more when #4 occurs-- which is...

Choosing stimulating topics

4. Topics need to be stimulating and meaningful. I admit, this a pretty banal bit of advice, right? You don't need a PhD from the Sorbonne to come to this intellectual epiphany. Yet all too many conversation activities involve students asking questions or otherwise discussing something they really have no interest in.

This extends to those, "What kind of movies/music do you like?" motifs. Frankly speaking, very few people care what kind of movies/music others in their class like. Movies and music are fun. So is food. Shopping is for many. But talking about these things isn't necessarily so. The conversation here is artificial-- the topic is given not so that students will be emotionally or intellectually engaged but more to fulfill a 'talking quota' or perhaps to draw out (awkwardly, in most cases) some discrete teaching point. The only person I might normally ask these questions too would be someone I'm planning to go to the movies with, when setting the proper musical mood for a party or, hey, if prepping for a hot date. Without the environment that gives meaning to these topics they usually seem static and forced.

What I'm driving towards here is point #5 which deals with the question...

5. Which forms of oral discourse have the greatest value in most classrooms?
And the answer is: Guided and/or prepared discussions. Here's where it all comes together.

First of all, although anything prepared in advance cannot by definition be spontaneous, prepared discussion treats the classroom and its members as, well, as classrooms with students, and not as makeshift bars or coffeeshops. Allowing for preparation also lets students gather the vocabulary, strategic and grammatical items they need in order to participate. This raises consciousness of form and usually makes for a better product. When students know they have to produce purposeful language in advance they will aim for a prestige form- much in the same way that any sensible NJ would carefully compose an double check say, a wedding speech before stepping up to the podium at a Japanese wedding.

This doesn't mean that everything need be written down- scripted like a professional wrestling match. In fact, I would discourage this in favour of general notes. Max.

Students feel ownership and thus, responsibility for this language. Advance preparation allows (demands?) that content be researched, which should raise the interest/involvement level for all. Giving students guidelines (e.g., to provide background info, explain keywords, include three new or interesting comments of substance, prepare commentary or questions) means students will not be intimidiated as they are at free-for-all open-ended chinwags and yet not feel so dominated restricted by teacher-centered activities as to lead to the passivity endemic to most teacher-dominated assignments.

One of the most succesful examples I've used with my own students (university medical students, small groups) is this:
Explaining the Japanese Medical System

The steps (and how they reflect what I think is sound methodology):

- With a colleague, I collect and write down 36 questions that are typically asked about the Japanese medical system by NJs. Obviously, these should be motivating topics to medical students who may not only may know the answers themselves but shouldalso kindle interest given the fact that this discussion allows them to prepare explanations to non-Japanese.

- The questions are sent to the students in advance by email. They can choose which questions (generally, 4 each) they'd like to tackle, as long as they make sure there isn't any overlap. This element of choice heightens the sense of ownnership and thus, responsibility. Again, with the students having the questions in advance they can (must!) not only research the topic so as to say something interesting-- and with confidence-- about it but can prepare a prestige form of the language, raising consciousness about grammar, strategies/rhetotical forms, vocabulary. Consciousness is raised-- deeper learning occurs.

- At the actual sessions I ask students one-by-one to give the answers to the questions they chose (they can make general notes but must not be read from a set essay form). Having prepped, this usually goes smoothly with very little hemming and hawing. However, all other students must listen closely because with each answer I will choose one to student to subsequently summarize it and another to add a comment or further question. This keeps them all actively involved- not only with the topic but also maintaining an awareness of the language being used to express the topics. This answer-summary-comment/question pattern eventually revolves among all the students. Open commentary on any other student's answer is also encouraged.

I think you'd agree that this amounts more to guided discussion than what we normally consider to be 'conversation'. It works. But it might beg the following question:

"Mike, do you ever employ more standard, spontaneous conversation activities in your classes?"

I do-- but I'm very careful with how I structure those activities. I usually do it with the following parameters in mind:

- I use it as a starter to wake students up, to get them actively involved, act as an appetizer for the rest of the lesson.

- The topics are always connected to the theme of the lesson.

- I have the topic written on the board in advance. Some examples are: "Have you ever been injured/very sick/hospitalized? When? Why? What happened? Talk about it" (this precedes a lesson on taking a patient history) or, "Your body: strong points/weak points-- What are they?" (before an anatomy-centered lesson). These topics are usually of interest to medical students and help to generate language (and cognition) that will be useful in the lesson.

- I usually give my own story/response in advance- about 3 minutes long. I don't want to overload them with teacher talk but nonetheless want them to understand the topic clearly. This short teacher-story time also allows them to think about their own responses before they get a partner and start speaking themselves.

- I give them one minute to look up and vocabulary they might want to use in the upcoming conversation, since they've had time to think about the content.

- I have them partner with students they don't normally talk to. This helps them focus on the topic at hand and not the upcoming nomikai.

- I give them about 10 minutes to discuss and I monitor the pairs.

The diagnostic function in 'free conversation'

- *This is crucial. After closing down the free conversation but before segueing into the main lesson theme I tell the students that they must write down any of the following that occured during the conversation:

1. Any Japanese that they coudn't express well in English (words or patterns)

2. Any words or patterns their partner used which they thought skilled or possibly useful for the future. Here we see the diagnostic function of the free conversation at work.

In noting what they couldn't do well, and any resultant personal frustration, the students are challenged and motivated to study, or ask me, about these weak points themselves. A year-long list of these items is kept and is shown to me (for discussion) later in the year.

And you???

All of which makes me want to ask--
How do you manage conversations productively in your teaching situations? The floor is open...

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June 17, 2011

Unsolicited advice- a small group project that hits all the right buttons

As most of you know, I tend to use this blog as a vehicle for being an opinionated blowhard. This is, of course, a good thing if you are blogging. After all, reading a blog that contains little or no fist-waving or finger-wagging (e.g. “Last night I ate curry rice. It was delicious. Here’s a photo”) is rarely gripping. And there is no blogger on earth that does not suffer from a degree of blowhardism- Hey, it comes with the territory!
(*the astute reader will notice that this opening paragraph duly constitutes blowhardy opinion).

But today I’d like to take a short departure from the realm of rollicking rhetoric and go over something highly practical instead- Yes, an actual lesson/teaching project suggestion in the uni-files!

Poster sessions work!

Here it is in bold- having small groups of students prepare and conduct poster sessions in English is a good thing. A number of vital pedagogical points emerge naturally from holding poster sessions. The students are being productive and creative. They take responsibility for their work. It is both visual and verbal- various skills are thereby engaged. It involves both cognitive activity (such as background research of the topic) and a prestige form of language- which leads to awareness and reinforcement of good language form(s). It contains rehearsed and practiced as well as dynamic, spontaneous elements. Oh yeah, and it’s fun.


The framework- nuts 'n bolts

Here’s how I administer these sessions:
1) Students have 4 (possibly 5) weeks’ prep from the initial explanation of the sessions to the final ‘performance’. Give them anymore time than that and they’ll inevitably dawdle until the week before, resulting in a cut ‘n paste mad dash at the finish.

2) The first week involves topic choice (more on the impotrtance of this later). The next two weeks will involve peer and teacher checks, and peer and teacher suggestions (for both content and layout). Surface error checks and formatting suggestions will come into play here too.

3) The week before the actual poster session should include a practice session and physical preparation of the posters.

4) At the actual poster session students should be divided into 2 sets-- to act as audience for one session, and as poster hosters for the other (thus, anywhere from 6 to 14 students makes an ideal number). In a 90 minute class that means about 30-40 minutes of postering for each set. You could invite other teachers or students to view these sessions too.

5) The week after the session should involve follow-up, self-reflection, and feedback about poster session strengths and weaknesses. I do it one on one for 7-10 minutes with each student.

6) The actual poster paper should be that wall-sticky ready-made ‘writing sheet’ stuff. The actual slides which form the poster content are best made as oversized (1 slide per page) Powerpoint slides. Magic markers, scissors and scotch tape should make guest appearances too.

Warning! Do not attempt this unless...

Now, here are the ‘chui’ (be careful!) bits. And this is the part you should definitely read closely if you’re interested in doing a poster session:

A clear, narrow topic that you want to talk about

The whole purpose of doing a poster session should be because you really want to inform others on a certain topic and you really want them to be interested or stimulated by it. Without the feeling of personal interest, and a desire to communicate that interest, the session will fall short. This means that careful choice of topic is crucial. Students must choose a topic that is a) of interest to them and expect it to be to others b) narrow and focused enough to be covered in 6 to 12 poster ‘slides’. A poor choice of topic hinders the later development of a meanigful, informative poster.

A lot of students initially choose a topic that is much, much, much (and did I say 'much'?) too wide (e.g., ‘Canada’ 'The Human Body'). Helping students get a handle on exactly what the topic is will be the focus of your first class. Clear and narrow are the keywords here: “A Modern Gomorrah- The Sleaze Bars of Belleville, Ontario”, “An Analysis of the Appalling Performance of the Vancouver Canucks in Game Seven”, “How To Riot Like a British Columbian” are the type of things you want.

Topics that are too wide also tend to be shallow (duh!) and predictable. They tend to jump around a number of sub-topics in one ten-slide poster leaving the reader/viewer with no lasting impression.

Research is crucial- so is flow

Students should do at least some backround research and, in doing so, think carefully in advance about poster flow. Is the poster moving in any direction? This will affect the choice of what information to include- to determine relevance and order. The students should ask themselves-, what direction is it flowing towards? And how can I accentuate this flow to make it more gripping for the viewer? A lack of clarity regarding direction and flow leads to herky-jerky posters which tends to create bouts of ‘What’s-yer-point anyway?’ head-scratching on the part of viewers.

Too many students tend to think of research as simply listing a bunch of Wikipedia-type facts. (“Lady Gaga’s early life: Aug. 4th, 1984- Went bowling. Sept. 10th 1984- Borrowed a neighbour's hammer. Aug. 12th 1985- Wore fishnet tights---OK, I admit that last one could be interesting). Students must be encouraged to interpret and personalize the data so that it might become meaningful for the viewer. I do admit having to be harsh, but honest, with some students in this regard: “Ok, Keiko, that’s very nice but why would I be interested in knowing your cat's ten favourite toys?” (keep in mind that I teach university students).

If you too are teaching at a university you will probably want the students to focus upon a certain amount of academic and/or specialized material. For those students who plan to work in academic fields later the whole English poster session process is a very practical learning tool. But the teacher should make sure that such students avoid treating viewers as if they are either Oxford Professor Emeriti in the field or, conversely, as if the viewer is good old Cletus from the trailer park.

Students should also be clear about what they want to tell the viewer directly in the poster text versus that which they want to or have to explain- which will involve both content and English research. They should most certainly prepare the English for those parts they will have to expand on verbally- and yes, a lack of any prepared student distinction between the elements of poster text and verbal expression is a very common weak point.

Connecting with the viewer- the visuals

A poster is primarily a visual medium. Avoiding strict linearity and adding decoration that accentuates content, drawing the viewers’ eyes to all the ‘correct’ places, is essential. The slides don’t all have to be Powerpoint square in shape- students can cut and outline them to suit the theme and format they desire.

They should use a variety of fonts, including a number of different sizes and colours, and add graphics of some sort to most, if not all, slides. Magic markers can decorate the actual poster sheets to indicate direction or to draw attention to certain spots. Writing “Ask me why!” in a caption near a key point (redolent of the Krispy Kreme employees’ badges: “Ask me about our new Maple Frosties!”) is useful. Stark and bold splashes of: “Did you know this?” or “Unbelievable!” can accentuate a poster's key points (just like the subtitles on a Japanese TV game show).

(Cultural generalization warning) Frankly speaking, most Japanese students are excellent at the decorative aspect of posters- with a wonderful sense of balance and scale- but some care must be taken not to overdo these whistles and bells.

Making posters interactive

Good posters should be interactive. Not everything you want to express-- not even half-- should be written on the poster. The text on the poster should hint at the more expository, deeper points- which the poster host can explain in more detail to viewers at the poster session. Therefore, students have to maintain a delicate balance between being too text-heavy (too intricate, hard to read, often boring, making viewers passive) and too text-light (shallow, cosmetic).

To make posters interactive having some sort of Q&A element will involve viewers more fully. Hiding information behind attached cardboard doors for this purpose (the peek-a-boo effect) also works well here. Other tactile features (scratch ‘n sniff?) draw audiences in well too.

Finally, students should know that being a good poster hoster means engaging your viewers actively- using ones social skills. Looking down at your feet or shuffling to the side when visitors come is no more endearing than that customer service guy at Yamada Denki who always seems to find paper work to ‘look at’ when Mr. Gaijin customer looks like he wants some help.

While the students are doing their sessions, I observe and make notes on their hosting performances as well as the actual posters. I will also go up to each host and ask them questions or make the type of comments that a regular viewer would likely do. This all becomes part of the next class’ feedback session.

Trust me- properly handled, poster sessions really work.

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February 18, 2012

10 Dumb Things That English Teachers in Japan Do (Part 1)

Yes, I know the title isn't diplomatic but, hey, the bluntness is likely part of the reason why you're reading this-- there's no subtlety about the topic. Sure, it dwells on the negative side but that helps draw attention to the issues too. I also think English teachers may be a little too conciliatory when it comes to discussing dubious practices in public forums (especially in those where pseudonyms aren't used). Having done some of these when I was young, beautiful, innocent, and naive, I wish I'd had heard about them earlier.

Some well-known don'ts (i.e., "Too much teacher talk") are not listed here, having been well-drilled into most teachers' heads even before they get that certification paper. The items I've come up with have been less widely discussed. And I'm perfectly happy to hear why readers may think that any of the following points might not be particularly 'dumb'. Obviously this is a subjective list and I'm open to revision.. feel free to add your own ideas too.

1. Blame the University Entrance Exams for unproductive teaching methods:

You know what I mean. The old adage that high school teachers have to teach grammar explicitly by having students diagram and memorize sentence patterns at the expense of dealing with content and meaning-- the result being that students have only receptive, analytical skills and can't use English productively and meaningfully. And all because success on the entrance exams depends upon this (known as the washback effect)

Bullshift. The notion that university entrance exams reward this type of mechanical skill is well past its sell-by date. The Center Shiken has changed drastically over the years and demands a far more comprehensive skill set-- critical thinking, understanding rhetorical development and thematic cohesion, summarizing, predicting-- all big-picture skills.

Many second-stage (individual university) exams go even further. with most these days requiring productive writing, commentary, the ability to extrapolate meanings and themes, and manage wider semantic and pragmatic issues. Yes, there are a few throwback-to-the-Showa-era tests out there and many tests will have at least one discrete-point section, but if you're preparing your students only for these (increasingly rare) bits you are not really helping them achieve overall success on the entrance exams.

(And just as an aside-- more and more of my stronger students (in terms of entry scores) these days claim that they didn't really focus upon entrance exam prep in high school)

2. Teach basic English-- again-- to university students:

Yes, I know very well that some, even many, Japanese university students make pretty basic English mistakes ("I borned in Kagoshima. I have five families. I am influenza now") and can't expand or extend beyond the most basic English formulas. So, here's a question: Why, if they learned all this stuff in detail in junior high school, practiced them ad nauseum, met them again on the high school entrance exam, went over them again in high school, and yet once more at juku while preparing for the Center Shiken, do they still not get them?

University teachers often seem to think that since the student obviously hasn't mastered or internalized the item they should go over those items explicitly yet again (often with textbooks more suited in style and content to JHS students). But if the students didn't quite get it back then, why expect that they'll get it now?

The reality is that the students have absorbed the structures at some level (latently, passively, formally, semi-consciously) -- after all they can do endless formal diagrams and transformations-- but have trouble applying them productively or actively. What is needed to draw these latent skills into the productive realm is have them appear, and be used, in wider-ranging meaningful, content-based, productive tasks-- which is of course more in keeping with the notion of what a university is all about. Students need a wider frame in which to meaningfully manipulate (albeit with errors en route) these basic forms. Meaning and usage are a process of discovery.

What they don't need is another junior high school-type lesson introducing the 'rules in decontextualized, discrete sentences'. Nor do they now need 'eikaiwa'... which is another problematic animal altogether.

3. Teach Japanese students about Japan:

I heartily recommend doing this if you want to be thought of by your students as an arrogant twit (and obviously this doesn't just apply to cases in Japan). Personally, I have little patience for teachers who exude the missionary white man's burden, the need to 'inform' the students of the truths that "their media, government, and education system don't tell them".

Here's a helpful axiom-- the more you think that you, sensei, are privy to the real truths while your charges "are not taught critical thinking" or "are manipulated by media and authorities" the more likely you will be presumed to be a know-nothing pedant. Don't forget, Teach! You are the establishment, the authority, now! You are the one likely to be on the receiving end of an 'attempt to brainwash' charge.

The more esteemed NJ teacher learns something about Japan from the students-- although of course they need not believe everything they are told. They should be aware of Japan-related issues and conversant on matters pertaining this society (and I mean the real Japan now, not those popular and widespread Western caricatures that have been passed around since the end of WW2 or those scare-mongering, pseudo-sociology books that were de rigeur Japan-briefers in the 80's, when Japan was the U.S.'s trading enemy number one).

Preachiness will backfire. At least it does whenever someone from outside my own society tells me what beliefs I must have and what my values as a Westerner must be, me being nothing more than a mindless social product of some reductionist notion of 'The West', who needs correction from self-proclaimed know-it-alls.

Sure, challenging popular and uncritical beliefs can be attractive and useful to teachers, but in my 20 plus years of teaching in Japan one thing I've noticed is that many of the widespread NJ beliefs about what Japanese people supposedly believe is far too monolithic and outdated. I've actually found a fairly wide variety of views held by my students on any number of topics. And I shouldn't need to mention that taking the attitude that the locals will hold an "official media/gov't-influenced view" because they are "subservient to authority and unquestioning" drones, whereas Mr./Ms. NJ sensei is a free-thinking, independent, exponent of diverse and complex insights, just smells bad. And it will to your students.

4. Ask general questions in large classrooms:

Go ahead. Ask a class of 30 students, "Does everybody understand?" and revel in the resulting silence. Or at the beginning of the class ask, "Has everyone brought their book?". If these are merely rhetorical questions, I might forgive them. But if you actually expect, and wait for, an answer then I'm going to have to ask you to hand in your teaching credentials to the nearest authority.

There's a good reason you don't get any response. It's because no one knows the whole classes' answer, they can only answer these questions individually. And you didn't ask them that.

Unspecified questions to large classes also result in complete silence. For example: "Have you studied X before?". Just who is supposed to answer that question? Very occasionally, a brave soul will offer up a response but in Japan you can expect this about once every leap year.

Suggestion:
Ask the question more specifically: "Has anyone forgotten their paper? If so, raise your hand." Or ask specific students-- if you actually want a response. But keep in mind that private-ish in-classroom conversations of almost any length seem odd and out-of-place to Japanese students and others will often lose interest or stop paying attention out of... wait for it... politeness. Yes, they often feel uncomfortable when teacher is having what looks like a private conversation with Yusuke-kun in the classroom.

5. Give tests in the final class or the official testing period:

... which means that students will get no feedback on their performance, except a number or letter grade. They will have no idea of what they got right or wrong, no understanding of strengths or weaknesses. Such tests have no educational value, they serve only to fulfill the administrative requirement to produce a number for the students' records.They own you!

Suggestion:
Give the test in the penultimate class and use the final class to give back tests, go over common strengths and weaknesses, let students see each others' test content so they can see succesful responses, and allow the teacher to answer specific questions from individual students. And if your school has an official post-semester test period either a) opt-out if you can or b) use that as a follow-up feedback lesson (or even as a re-test session).

Part 2 to come soon...

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March 30, 2012

Weapons of Mass Instruction- Lessons learned from students and teachers Part 1

How did I get to be so highly esteemed as a teacher that I was granted my own eltnews.com blog spot and the unlimited admiration, gratitude, and neckrubs of my students, not to mention the coveted all-access pass to the secret teachers' jacuzzi here at UoM? Sure, wearing sunglasses in your profile pic helps, but kickass fashion accessories alone can't elevate most teachers to such lofty heights. The fact is that sometimes other teachers, teacher trainers, and students have helped me reached this level, one where I am routinely offered spongebaths by the entire steering committee of JALT just for putting in a conference proposal.

And although not all of the following points are pedagogically earth-shattering, I am most grateful to the following people and ideas. So, clutching my most highly-prized chalk, with tears brimming, I would like to thank...

Shizu from Shikoku: "Tell us about Kierkegaard"

What did Shizu do? In my second year of teaching in Japan, in Tokyo, she asked me a question. About Kierkegaard (this was just after a student had asked about my earlier major in philosophy). And I could see that she, and a significant portion of the class, were bracing themselves for an edifying answer. Until that moment, I had believed that Japanese students were more interested in expressing the fact that they went 'shopping for shoes in Shibuya' and not very interested in academic content. And my lessons tended to reflect this facile focus.

I was wrong. Although I didn't get into the intricacies of Kierkegaard's ethical dialectic vis-a-vis Hegel, I gave them a reasonable synopsis as a response and they seemed to genuinely appreciate this validation of their adulthood and cognitive abilities. I learned from Shizu's question that university-aged students generally don't want to talk about shopping in English, that they want stimulating content.

Ebi-chan in Tokyo: "Jama!"

"Jama" literally means "bother". Functionally it means, "You're in the way!" Ebi-chan, as this extroverted character was universally known, decided to hold back the tatemae and let me know with a certain amount of punch (panache?) that my classroom interference was not appreciated. And that was a good thing.

What had I been doing? Well, I have been always been a make-groups-and-monitor type of teacher. But I also had the habit of butting into the students' work, telling them what they might be saying wrong, offering suggestions, fixing the plane in flight. What Ebi-chan painted indelibly on my mind was a picture which said, "Let us, the students, carry out our tasks as best we can, even if we make mistakes. Stay out, teach, until we've at least given it a trial run!". From that time on I learned to shut up and let students sink or swim, injecting myself only if task-destroyingly egregious errors are being made. I can help fix and revise later. Student task time is for student exploration and experimentation. Anything else is "Jama!".

Writing feedback- focus only on one or two points (from Hugh N. and an unknown presenter at JALT 2006)

I don't remember her name or where she worked, but in her short presentation she made a convincing argument that generalized error correction on student writing was not productive feedback, that to be effective it had to be, at least, highly focused and localized. This was borne out not only by research on the topic but more importantly (for me) by my own classroom reality in which I noticed students making the same damn mistakes over and over again despite my 'helpful' feedback.

A little while later, longtime fellow Miyazaki-an teacher Hugh Nicoll responded to my complaint that I was spending a helluva lotta time correcting student compositions, by saying that he always focused upon just a few salient points as feedback-- that this aided student attention and focus, avoiding the demotivation associated with students seeing their work covered in more red slashes than a teenage splatter movie (ummm, the latter is my image, not Hugh's).

Full error correction, aiming at perfection, is fine when someone asks you to fix up their about-to-be-published paper or their Powerpoint presentation. As a classroom pedagogical tool though it falls short. Now, seeing how my current students respond positively when I limit my red flags to but a few, I know this.


Miss Azuma says, "They ALL ask me to help them"

Miss Azuma was fluent in English. After all, she had spent several years working for Japan's national police agency in the U.S. (and I just want to mention in public here what a fine agency it is too). One day, she asked me to help set up the video system after hours in a classroom. No, not for surveillance. Rather she wanted to go over a section of video (a medical vid) that I had assigned to the class (different parts for different groups) to do a sectional listening, commentary, and creative extension on. When I got to the classroom Miss Fujii, a standard everyday student, was also there, pen in hand, looking a bit sheepish.

"Does Fujii-san want to see the video too?", I asked Azuma. "Actually, I'm helping Miss Fujii to write down the speech from the video because she can't catch a lot of it," came Azuma's reply. "But, but, students are supposed to do this at home individually!" I argued (or 'I fought the law').

Azuma shot me a 'you poor naive man' look (they practice this at the NPA I assume). "It's a listening exercise and she can't catch it. If she gets the dialogue correct you'll give here more points, right? So that's why she's asking me to help". "But,...". I can't finish my sentence... visions of future harassment at kobans dancing in my head. "They, the other groups, have ALL asked me to help them," Azuma continues. And of course, she's really saying that she doesn't want to do the other students work for them but I've put her in a position where she has little choice but to comply when her classmates ask. And she's right.

So... I never organized a task like that again (police orders, so to speak). Points are now given mostly for real-time production, so that no proxy student can do the behind-the-scenes work. And if the assignment is take-home, I will invariably hold a follow up discussion with the authors/creators, to make sure that they are truly aware of what they have written and have not just handed the bulk of the work over to the poor, harried kikoku-shijo (returnee) and have merely jotted their own names on the final product. I also emphasize that informative and meaningful content weighs much more than formal accuracy on homework assignments. We'll deal with accuracy at other times.

Ronald Carter's I-I-I methodology

Many readers will know of Carter, and his academic doppleganger, Michael McCarthy, authors of numerous influential articles, course/workbooks, and academic texts about spoken grammar. Prior to hearing Carter speak at a conference in Seoul in the mid 90's, I had carried out the tired old P-P-P (presentation-practice-production) methodology assuming it to be the default, the only and obvious method of organizing a language lesson. It's like believing that beer has to be fizzy yellow carbonated factory lager.

I-I-I stands for Illustration-Interaction-Induction. If you want students to reflect upon language, to notice or raise consciousness about forms, if you want students to develop a degree of learner autonomy or carry out a trail-and-error approach in which language is used for meaningful communication. If you want it to be retained at a deeper level because students have actively engaged it-- this approach makes a lot of sense.

I-I-I is the methodological backbone of what I do. The P-P-P method is, for me, too mechanical, too teacher-centered, too manipulative of the learning process to have intrinsic value for most post-pubescent students. Does I-I-I sound enticing? Well, Google is just a click away...

5 more to come soon.


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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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May 15, 2012

Sh*t English Teachers Teach Students

The great importance of the button on the mountain. Go on. Say it.

Now say each word separately, as if you were teaching pronunciation to your students. I wonder if you changed your pronunciation of a lot of the words-- unconsciously. Many teachers do.

It's interesting how many teachers will pronounce a stand-alone 'the' as 'thee', a form typically used only before vowel-initial words, especially 'A' (as in, "The Americans lost to Canada in hockey and Japan in baseball"). And did you pronounce 'of' with a full 'o' sound? Because it in fact gets de-stressed in almost all sentences-- to a simple 'v' or a mere schewa. This is why our students usually fail to hear it-- they are expecting to hear that distinct 'o' sound.

And what about 'button,' 'importance', and 'mountain'? Did you turn the entire final syllable into a glottal stop (resulting in something like "nt") or did you (unnaturally) stick the vowel sound in there? Sure, it's not much of a problem if our students pronounce these words as if there is a real vowel sound in the last syllable (although if done so, 'button' generally comes out sounding like 'baton'). The problem is in listening, where an 'important' or 'mountain' might simply not be identifiable to students.

And should I mention how the 'tt' in 'button' suddenly gets enunciated as if the speaker is the Duchess of Basingstoke talking about table arrangements at the Vicar's Ball-- avoiding the d-like tap, unlike the manner in which sentient beings speak? Nah.

Like the culture of some unexplored planet...

We teach unnatural stuff in the classroom all the time. I know. I've been guilty of it too. I've railed in the past against teaching self-introductions, which seems to be trying to channel the culture of some unexplored planet where the people apparently feel the need to provide reams of data about themselves upon meeting others. And don't get me started on 'Hello' (which is not a default greeting but a hailing when we can't see the other or marks an exaggerated response after a long absence, like when Aunt Hilda greets little Cindy-Mae for the first time in a few years). See? I told you not to get me started on it!

In a recent Daily Yomiuri article, I questioned the teaching of 'can' for ability. Let me reiterate that one here:
"Can you speak Japanese?" is a perfectly normal question. So is, "Can you play a musical instrument?" After all, these are clearly identifiable skills. But just what does, "Can you play baseball?" mean? Playing baseball is not a separable skill, it's participatory. Pretty much every kid in Japan or North America has played baseball so, in effect, anyone can. And if we want to find out about exceptional baseball skills we would ask something like, "Are you good at baseball?"

Or take "Can you cook?". Pretty much everyone can cook to some degree-- like frying an egg or boiling a tin of soup. So "Can you cook?" is going to have the likely uptake (and here's where pragmatics enter the picture) of "Will/are you able to cook today?". "Are you good at cooking?" would be the skill identifier.

And then there's "Can you use a computer?" or its appearance in a declarative form like, "Ed can use a computer". This might make sense if Ed is under 6 years old (unlikely for someone named Ed) or over 60, or most suitably, if Ed is in some way disabled (or, perhaps, if Ed comes from some recently discovered tribe in the Pantanal). If used towards anyone else the uptake is marked as sarcasm-- something you might say as a bit of ribbing when someone struggles with a basic computer program or software. Of course, checking someone's knowledge of a new, complex program: "Can you use a (put your techknob word here) program?" warrants the 'Can' question.

Whaddya mean, 'What's my favourite song?'

So anyway, (now there's a segue!) I had this argument with a friend recently regarding the question, "What's your favourite song?" which my students had asked me (for the umpteenth time) in one of those 'get to know each other' opening lessons. The problem I have with "What's your favourite song?" is this:
I'm half a century old. I've listened to music fairly actively for about 35 plus years. With thousands of songs in my repertoire asking me my favourite song-- one all time, single, unchangeable chart-topper is a question I can't answer because I don't know what that answer is. If you added "recently" "this year" or "these days" to the question you've limited the scope and helped me define my choice and I can offer you a plausible response. Same if you limit the scope by adding "by the Beatles" "of the late 70's" "by a rap artist" or "on that album". A desert island list or approximate top ten would also be fine.

I believe most people's response to "What's your favourite song?" would be a request for clarification: "You mean now?"- because favourite songs (unlike favourite foods or sports) are by nature highly changeable. I might also say that the question bears the imprint of a music appreciation neophyte, the 16-year old whose musical repertoire consists of only a hundred or so radio-friendly tunes that 'everybody knows'.

Why are you laughing at my yellow patio furniture?

I have a similar response to questions about my favourite colour. I like contrasting tones as far as my own clothes go-- not a particular single colour-- but, hey, that's just me. On my wife I like yellow-- I would say that's an eye-catching colour on a lady for yours truly. But yellow for my car? Or my patio furniture? Surely you jest. Do people really have overall favourite colours? You see how complicated it all gets? I even had a momentary existential dilemma just writing out this stuff.

I also have issues with "What's your hobby?" It always strikes me as officious, as if everyone has a single, government-approved hobby in the same way one has only one fixed passport number, birthdate, or employer. I encourage my students (who tend to render questions from my hobbies/interests/activities/skills template as "What's your hobby? What's your interest? What's your skill?" respectively, without even thinking how odd these would sound in their mother tongue) to pursue more open-ended enquiries such as "What do you do in your free time?" "Do you have any interest in _____?" or " Are you at all interested in X/What kind of X are you interested in?". And I refuse to even discuss queries like, "Do you like music?" or "Do you like movies?" (I mean it's possible- I know someone who claims not to really like food much- but come on!)

'What do you think of... the universe?'

Another one that causes consternation and brow-furrowing is, "What do you think of Japan?" First, I hope the speaker is not fishing for compliments but it may well be presumed so, which means that most answers will be circumspect and insubstantial. But more importantly the topic is simply too wide. It's like asking "What do you think of science?" or "What do you think of peace?"- that awkwardly loaded autopilot Hiroshima school-trip question. And does the speaker want to deal with a possible "It sucks" response?

I tell my students that questions such as, "What do you think of Japanese fashion sense/public buildings/medical system?" are better since they are focused-- providing one is hoping for a substantial answer. And I tell them never, ever to ask the nattou question-- you know, the one that really means 'Just how Gaijin are you anyway?' and should disqualify the speaker from conversation with foreigners for life.

By the way, not only can I eat nattou, I rather like it. Eating it is my hobby. What do you think of my hobby? Hello!?


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