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The Uni-Files - Grammar and vocabulary Archive

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

May 27, 2009

Two grammar puzzles; Plus- What’s so good about working at a university; Plus- the reason older Japanese professors (supposedly) teach teacher-centered lecture-based lessons revealed!

A. Grammar puzzles
Below are two structure questions/problems that came up in recent classes that I couldn’t explain succinctly to students. What would you say?

1. “I live in Saitama, which is next to Tokyo”.
Fine, right? OK- Here’s the student’s question- Why can’t you say, “I live in Saitama where is next to Tokyo?”. After all, we can use “where” in a similar structure: “I went back to Saitama where my parents live”- but not “which”. What are the underlying rules governing the relative cluses here and how would you give a quick outline to students who ask this?
(*note- I had originally written 'relative pronouns' above, which was clearly not an accurate description)

2. “I like action movies so I watch them as much as possible”.
This too is OK, right? But movies are countable, so why can’t we say “I like action movies so I watch them as many as possible”? And why is it that if we remove “them” from the sentence we can allow the countable “many”, as in: “I like action movies so I watch as many as possible”? What is the rule governing this and how would you explain it succinctly?

B. What’s so good about working at a university?
I’ve been very cynical in this blog recently and cynicism is just too easy, the official sport of people with an overwhelming sense of entitlement. So, in a positive vein, here are several things that make working full-time at a Japanese university (as an English professor) worthwhile.

1. You have your own office. What a blessing this is! You can hold private conversations. Take an inconspicuous break. Catch up on Stanley Cup playoff scores. Loosen your belt and let your stomach hang out. You can put on a Jaga Jazzist CD and nobody will be thinking that you must be screwing around (and I’m not- the music spurs me to do more). You can spread papers around wherever you please. After having my own office, I could never go back to a teacher’s common-area (the kind with partitions or cubicles) layout. I’d feel watched all day, under constant pressure, and probably achieve less in the process.

2. Nobody tells you what to do in your classes. It’s true that part-time university teachers often get told: ‘this is the system, we want you to use this textbook, teach according to this formula’ and the like. That’s understandable when Mr/Ms. Hijoukin is in and out of campus in half a day. But if you are a full-timer, the understanding is that you are almighty in your classroom decisions (including less and less pressure to pass very marginal students these days- often a problem at many universities in the past), that you were hired to make the educational and methodological decisions, and that it is really up to you to make something of your classes and not spend time trying to figure out what administrators want you to do. They have no idea what they want you to do because they are administrators, not teachers. It’s not their job. You make your job.

3. Many of the students are at an age where you can hold adult-level conversations with them. There is the somewhat justified image of the Japanese university student who is basically interested in some combination of drinking, sex, shopping, trying out new away-from-home hairdos, reading manga, and hanging out, but that is true of universities anywhere (except for you and I, dear reader, who were always impeccably studious of course). But many university students are curious, have developed sharp intellects that need stimulation, or crave in-depth discussion (we English teachers have a tendency to underrate student intelligence if their English skills are not consistent with their intellectual prowess). Many students offer interesting outside-the-box insights or ask probing questions, or simply know how to engage society in a refreshingly adult manner.

4. When you re-enter Japan and the ‘occupation’ section on your customs declaration card reads “University Professor” the customs guys become much more pleasant and malleable. “Did you bring any fruit or vegetables from abroad, sir? No? Then let me give you some! Bon appetit!”

5. At a lot of institutions the administrators-as-aristocracy, teachers-as-peasants meme is paramount. In fact, I worked in one place where it was so comically pronounced that it was almost a deliberate provocation. Not so at a university. Professors are, effectively, the management. Those who are in purely administrative roles tend to be far from imperious, almost obsequious. Now I don’t need anybody kowtowing to me but it feels good to have some status or at least respect for your position. Administrators administrate and professors proffer. They don’t give orders (they ask politely) or behave like they are holding my paypacket strings as a carrot. In return, I am polite and very hesitant before I question their office policies. It’s all about respecting territory.

C. The reason older Japanese professors (supposedly) teach teacher-centered lecture-type lessons finally revealed!

This notion of course tends to be a Western teacher’s self-serving conceit. I’m referring the stereotype that “they” Japanese teach teacher-fronted grammar-translation lessons to huge numbers of sleeping students, lecture-style while “we” non-Japanese teach highly interactive, dynamic, living English classes that our students love and adore us for. Actually, I don’t think I’ve met any Japanese teacher who admits to using the GT/TC method- every Japanese teacher I’ve met decries it as outdated. J students will often tell me that their J high school teachers taught GT but I think that this is something that needs to be researched a bit more. I’m a bit skeptical about accepting it at face-value. I suspect that even J students maintain the association of ‘Japanese teacher’ with ‘grammar-translation’ uncritically, just as many students will swear that my class was about ‘teaching technical terms’ when in fact only two such items came up tangentially in the lesson, a lesson that was actually about…oh… academic writing.

Regardless, I’m starting to understand the attraction of allegedly Neanderthal teaching methodologies as my age advances and my body starts creaking and groaning. Why? Keeping a class of 30 or so not-always-so-highly-motivated students is tiring! Keeping up the pace of work, making sure everyone is following along and doing the correct activities, checking, monitoring, handling the classroom equipment, summarizing, dealing with problems (both linguistic and behavioral) is tough! After 90 minutes of politically-correct methodology I am exhausted! It’s funny how learner-centered methodology can be so tiring to the teacher, whereas teacher-centeredness is much more relaxing.

So, I can see why a teacher might go into the main lecture hall with his power point slides (updated a bit every year), turn off the lights, face the screen and speak on his topic for 90 minutes. Maybe students are bored shiftless. Maybe half are asleep. Who cares? He’s teaching to whoever may be listening. Those who make the effort will learn something, he knows. If students don’t want to attend or listen he doesn’t care. It’s university after all. It’s their choice- he’s not a babysitter and he’s not there to entertain. nd at the end of the semester he gives the big lecture hall a class a single paper test and fails the ones who didn’t meet the standards. He knows his content well enough- he knows that it’s sound- and he’s passing it on to whoever may be interested, even if that's only a few souls (like this blog, perhaps!). At the end of the 90 minutes he’s not tired at all. He heads back to the lab where he can do his REAL work with the select graduate students who he’s entrusted with on a day-to-day basis, students who are really into the topic. Where he really feels like an EDUCATOR!

Luxury.

Yeah, yeah, I know that this violates the “Good English” teacher code and that I should hand in my teaching license to the relevant authorities for even thinking of this etc. etc. and, true, I wouldn’t allow myself to actually ever do it. But I CAN see the attraction. Just sayin’.

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June 15, 2009

The Daily Yomiuri column (and two more grammar puzzles)

1. Two more student-generated grammar puzzles

A few more classroom questions about English that have popped-up recently. (Note to readers- it’s not that I don’t have answers to these questions or am befuddled as to how to deal with them. The idea here is to throw out some oddities and ask how you would address or explain them):

A. I’m 18 years old.
vs. I’m an 18 year old boy.

The plural for years disappears in the 2nd case. Why? After all, the ‘18’ is still explicit.

B. I come from Oita. Oita is one of the prefectures in Kyushu
vs I come from Oita. Oita is a prefecture in Kyushu.

Why does the former seem awkward? (In Japan the former seems to be taught as a legitimate way of expressing the latter)

2. That Daily Yomiuri newspaper column I write

As some readers know, I write a monthly column in the Daily Yomiuri newspaper called ‘Indirectly Speaking’. The focus is on EFL learning and teaching in Japan. Since I get asked the same questions about that gig a lot I thought I’d answer some here in indulgent self-interview form.

Q- How did you get that gig with the Yomiuri?
A. Six years ago they were actively seeking articles on EFL/ESL for their Language Connection section. I wrote one about the importance of the awareness of pragmatic force in EFL classrooms. They seemed to like it and asked me if I wanted to continue to so on a monthly basis. They may still be looking for contributors- I haven’t checked recently.

Q- Why the title ‘Indirectly Speaking’?
A- Only because that first article was about pragmatic force and thereby, implicatures, which of course is an indirect way of communicating. I’ve wanted to change the title but the editor seems to like it as it is.

Q- Do you get a huge stack o’ money for these articles?
A- No. I get a very basic gratuity.

Q- So why do it? Do you get a publication credit?
A- It’s neither refereed nor academic so I don’t get a publication credit. It goes onto my resume and database as a kind of professional social service, flying the flag of the university I suppose. Basically, it’s a nice public format for self-expression.

Q- Do the editors impose a lot of rules and restrictions?
A- Not really. They want me to do op-ed/commentary articles so that’s what I do. As long as its connected to English teaching in Japan I have free reign. I’m pretty sure they don’t want the articles to be too vanilla so I try to say something a little offbeat each time but without being deliberately provocative or knee-jerk contrarian. I have to keep in mind that not all readers are teaching professionals and that over half are not English native speakers too. There is also a word limit of 1000-1200 words which is the hardest part for a bombastic, grandiloquent, blowhard like myself. The copy editors usually write the titles, although I might suggest something else if I’m not happy with what they’ve come up with.

Q- Do you get a lot of comments from readers about the articles? And what are these comments like?
A- I always get at least a few follow-up comments for the less controversial columns and quite a number for the more controversial items- about two-thirds of these are from native English speakers. If they write to my personal mail address (attached to the columns) they are usually positive. Japanese teachers are apt to ask more for clarification but can also be very critical. I give them credit for writing directly to me and questioning my positions though.

Online, if you do the right word searches you’ll find some unflattering comments about the columns. Some are just downright weird- people with bizarre chips on their shoulders, those with a knee-jerk reflex to ‘take my uni big shot punk ass downtown’. Others clearly haven’t understood the article (and have obviously not even made the effort to try) but that doesn’t stop them from spouting off all sorts of nonsense. A few offer thoughtful and constructive criticism but the typical internet forums are obviously not great founts of such insight (‘You are a looser and a moran’). This is the price you pay when you have even the slightest public profile so I shrug it off and have stopped looking. The only comments I find frustrating are those that engage in unfounded speculation about my work or background (‘I heard that Guest didn’t graduate from high school and actually works part-time at a Mr. Donut and got this column through his family’s LDP connections’ ). That type of thing. Go figure.

Q- Is it hard?
A. Coming up with topics and ideas is not. The biggest problem is the last-minute editing. If you write much you probably know the feeling when you’ve stared at something so long you no longer see it objectively- when your eyes pass over an obvious problem. Or, you make one small change that demands a restructuring or rephrasing elsewhere. Then you have to change something else to avoid repetition but that throws the main idea out of order. So you start tinkering with it too much and, like messing with the intestines of the computer, there’s a good chance you’ll actually be making the whole thing worse.

With a blog like this I can re-edit without any concern but with a newspaper column, once it’s published any blotches remain blots forever. When I read the article on the day of publication I occasionally notice some sloppy stylistic problem or an out-an-out error which is now staring at me boldly in the face. It can feel a bit like looking in the mirror after you’ve been chatting up an attractive lady and seeing a big green chunk of spinach jutting out from between your teeth.

Q- Has anything strange happened regarding these columns?
A. One got reprinted in the China Daily so it was all over English-speaking China. Wouldn’t you know it- that column was about the difficulties that Japanese have with acquiring English. I had no idea that the Yomiuri let the China Daily copy it (I certainly wasn’t informed).
The Star (a Malaysian newspaper) ran the same piece which lead to a Japanese person living in Malaysia to write a baffling response (I'll post the link to this when I find it) accusing me of linguistic imperialism and generally a being bigoted know-nothing.

Some universities have also used my columns as texts on their entrance exams but they don’t tell me until the exams have finished (due to exam security). They have a deal with the Yomiuri such that columns like mine can be used without explicit written consent.

Anything else you might want to know?





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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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November 06, 2009

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

1. The Popular Image of the MEXT Headquarters:

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

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

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

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

2. Getting Something Out of Conversation Tasks:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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November 26, 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

Any ideas out there?

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


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

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

Next to each category is blank space in red.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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December 10, 2009

Feedback on feedback

I've attended a few conference sessions on feedback (for EFL students' written assignments) recently and have found many comments, research and positions both interesting and useful.

In a nutshell, most EFL research seems to show that a lot of typical feedback given by teachers on student writing is ineffective and therefore largely a waste of the teacher's time (and if you have typically large HS or Uni. classes you know it takes a LOT of time).

Here's a summary of what I've come across recently, with some of my own observations included:

The type of feedback in which the teacher more or less corrects everything for the student doesn't work because the student hasn't engaged any challenging area of the language for themselves. Nothing much will be internalized. This type of correction should only be carried out when a pristine sample is needed soon for real-life purposes.

The type of feedback in which the teacher points out all grammar mistakes (even with the plan of having the students revise the draft, as in process writing) is ineffective. Not only can students feel overwhelmed, but internalizing a grammatical form is a delicate, lengthy, and often hierarchical, process. This is because learners absorb grammatical minutiae best when they are on the cusp of acquiring that form. It has to be reinforced around the time of internalization, often explicitly. In short, they'll learn it when they're ready to learn it, not when the teacher's red pen points it out. (This is why students can, and do, make the same mistakes over and over again, even within the same sentence).

If a student's essay is covered in grammatical correction notes they will unlikely to be able to focus on any one key form well enough to acquire or internalize it for future usage. In other words, any learning that occurs will be instrumental (meaning that fixing it will help them get through the present assignment) rather than instrinsic (meaning that it fits into their holistic understanding of English as a system). In short, correction categories should be limited and supported in the classroom outside of teacher notes on their papers.

Using a code to give corrections and feedback can run the same risk but at least forces the student to think about the type of mistake by themselves and thereby offers a slight improvement.

General 'suggestion-type' feedback, as opposed to discrete-point feedback, seems to be slightly more effective. Suggestions as to a preferred rhetorical approach, topic, organizational strategies, introductions/endings, and suitable content (relevance and even register) seem to have greater appeal to the student reviser.

Personally, I have always thought that holistic, organizational feedback should precede grammatical minutaie. Choices of content, style and purpose trump syntax. As many of you will know, you often can't really 'fix mistakes' until you've helped them organize a meaningful communicative goal or strategy. If the language and/or the communication point is convoluted and the communicative purpose unclear from the outset fixing syntactical details is not going to help. It may not even be possible to start. To me it's a bit like putting blemish ointment on someone suffering from 3rd degree burns.

Positive feedback seems to be more effective than a focus on the negatives (key point- one shouldn't identify feedback with 'correcting mistakes'). No surprise here. If you tell people what they are doing right the positive reinforcement creates a deeper memory synapse. When you tell small children that they are good boys/girls for getting the spoon into their mouths they are going to do it again willingly and thereby master it sooner.

Face to face feedback seems to be more effective than teacher notes (which students often can't read well anyway) precisely because it is more visceral and directly impacting. It also allows the student to respond in turn. Of course it is not always physically practical or possible.

Peer feedback seems to be more effective than teacher feedback. Further, providing models of successful peer work can be both motivating and allows students a clearer look at (high) standards. On the other hand, some peer feedback can be as goof as useless, being mere uncritical (and unhelpful) mutual congratulations. Peer feedback needs to be guided, monitored and formalized.

Asking students themselves what they feel they did well and what they think they could improve on before offering your ideas is more effective. Self-monitoring is a big part of developing learner autonomy so why not help get them on that road? Getting learners to reflect on their own work engages them more deeply and allows them to feel like they are in control of corrective changes- that they are not just crossing T's and dotting I's because of the pressure of an authority.

If you are looking for the research on this it's pretty easy to Google 'ELT feedback effective' or some such thing (there's too much stuff on the topic out there to post meaningful links here but I can point you to Ross, Robb, and Shortreed [1986] for starters) and you'll get dozens of interesting responses- many were in fact Japan-based studies. And it's very interesting how many deny or strongly question the efficacy of the more popular and common methods of writing feedback.

I'm interested in hearing your thoughts on all this in the comments section.

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April 27, 2010

A companion piece to "Face Value Not Enough for Choosing Vocabulary" -Daily Yomiuri article of May 03rd

Today's post marks a sharp departure from previous entriess.

It connects to my Daily Yomiuri article of May 03rd. The article I originally wrote was much too long and therefore I had to cut a series of reflective questions which had punctuated each section. So now, the original article is in italics below whereas the original commentary is bolded.

What I'd like to propose today are several scales that may help teachers decide which vocabulary items might be prioritized for teaching. I'm going to start with a sentence I came across in a medical drama as our model: "What's the matter? Look, if you want to get used to using the defibrillator, you've got to keep working at it or else." Now, which three items from this sample would you be most likely to focus on for teaching intermediate-level post-high school aged students?

I'm assuming that the answers will depend upon your perceived level, needs and experience of your students as well as, to some extent, your understanding of what intermediate level means. But I'd like you to justify your choices even further. What was the rationale behind them? Were they based upon a sound understanding of lexis or merely the fact that your students don't know that word yet? If you've employed some of the following scales in making your choices you have probably made wise decisions.


1. Teaching vs telling
I've often been confused as to what teachers mean when they say they "taught" a word. Was it just that they told learners what a word means? Or was some kind of deeper explanation and subsequent practice required to absorb it? It seems to me that "telling" refers to cases where you translated, used a picture or some visual prop, or otherwise provided a quick gloss of the word. "Teaching" would seem to imply a more indirect process, perhaps one where learners gradually notice how an item works within a text and have their consciousness raised about it.

Question- For which items and on which occasions might you choose ‘teaching
’ over ‘telling’? And when might ‘acquisition’ of an item be preferred
to ‘learning’? (keep in mind the old maxim that that which is taught is not
necessarily that which is learned)

Scale 2:Meaning vs function

Some words don't have meanings but rather, functions. Think of modals such as "would" or "may." They don't mean anything but they add mood. Think of grammar words like the perfect tense "have." Think of prepositions. Other words have very specific meanings, with clear real-world referents.

A large number of words run between these two categories, items that we might refer to as being semi-lexicalized. "Get" or "keep" are good examples. They may appear to have core meanings (corresponding to the notions of "receive" and "possess," respectively) but they also serve grammatical functions and notions, making them rather difficult to master. Both learners and teachers often mistakenly think these words have been learned or mastered when in fact they haven't.

Question- Which would you say is the more frequent usage of ‘get’- meaning
‘receive’ or ‘become’? How about ‘keep’, ‘possess’ or
‘continue/repeat’? Are your students aware of all these senses?

Scale 3: Frequency

It might seem obvious that we should "teach" the most frequent items first (based on a large and balanced corpus), but it's not quite as simple as that. Generally speaking, the most frequent items are function words that can be hard for beginners to grasp fully. They need constant scaffoldlike reinforcement. Such items tend to be the workhorses of the language and since many of them have both lexical and grammatical functions, it is the mastery of these items that leads to not only understanding of how English grammar works but also an awareness of how vocabulary can affect grammar and does not merely fill in lexical slots.

Question- Do you really think your students know, or have mastered, the most
frequent items? Or do they have an inordinate knowledge of infrequent items
that they can’t put together into cohesive English communication? If the
latter, it could be that there is not enough focus upon mastering frequent
items. The student knows a lot of words but they don’t know English.

Scale 4: Meaning range (low density vs high density; valency):

"Defibrillator" might look like a difficult word, but it really isn't. It has a specific, singular meaning making it very easy to translate across languages. The technology behind a defibrillator may be complex and it may be hard to spell, but the item the word represents is itself very precise. In other words, it is a high-density item and as such has a narrow meaning range. Lexically dense items tend to be less frequent, and are generally related to more specialist topics or subjects.

However, "get," being a low-density item, is hard to pin down. It can mean receive, become (get cold), arrive (when we get there), must (got to), begin (get going), movement (get in; get back), and appears in numerous phrasal verbs. It has what is known as wide valency, the ability to attach itself to many forms in many environments. Mastery of such items leads to mastery of a language as a whole.

Question- Do you focus as much upon low density items as you do upon high
density items in your classroom, as befits their frequency and utility? Yes,
new, unknown words will often be high density items but how often will these
consolidate overall second language acquisition (for non-specialists)?

Scale 5: Intrinsic vs instrumental purposes

We might want to ask ourselves why we are teaching certain words. Is it for the short term only, for recognition or immediate recall (instrumental)? Or as part of the learners' overall, holistic second language system development (intrinsic)? "Defibrillator" is almost certainly an instrumental item; it won't stay in the active lexicon of anyone who isn't involved in cardiology

Question- Do you change your teaching method according to whether an item is
considered intrinsic or instrumental? Connected to this is…

Scale 6: Decoding vs encoding

Are we noting an item only to help students get through a single text or a section where the item appears (decoding)? Or do we wish the item to become a part of the learners' intrinsic overall vocabulary--something that will be entrenched in long-term memory and be readily retrievable for production (encoding)?

Question- Are you actively aware of dealing with vocabulary for both
encoding and decoding purposes, and do you change your method accordingly?

Scale 7: Single words vs chunks (set phrases)

So far we have talked as if each word is a separate entity, that vocabulary teaching is a matter of mastering individual words. Not so. Single meanings or usages are often applied to groups of words. Idioms and proverbs are one type. Phrasal verbs are another. (think about how much you use phrases like ‘shikata ga nai’, ‘so desu ne’ or ‘ii ja
nai” in Japanese without noticing the individual ‘words’ involved).

Prefabricated set phrases (or "lexical chunks") are perhaps the most interesting for our discussion. Note items like, "what's the matter?" "work at it," "get used to," and "or else." We process these as singular units, as if they were one word run together. (Think how much you use phrases like "shikata ga nai" or "so desu ne" in Japanese without noticing the individual words involved.)

Question- There are thousands of phrasal verbs and idiomatic expressions in
English. How would you go about choosing which ones students to make the
effort to master?

Scale 8: Denotation vs connotation

Lexically dense items generally have clear real-world referents. Lexically lighter items often both denote and connote, in which case simply applying a headword from a dictionary does not make for a suitable translation. Understanding the connotations of an item, how it is actually used and understood in discourse, is just as important as knowing a "core" meaning. For example, "working at it" connotes a continuous application of diligence, and does not merely denote "doing a job." Some such items also have important signaling or rhetorical cohesion functions; "Look," for example, often connotes a follow-up explanation.

Question- When helping students to master new items do you help them to
become aware of connotation as well as denotation?

Now let’s put all this together. Can you see certain common denominators
running through these scales? Although it is not entirely uniform or
consistent I think we can patterns like these:
1. low frequency- high density- narrow meaning range- meaning based-
instrumental purpose- denotative- telling
2. high frequency- low density- wide meaning range- function based-
lexico grammatical- valent- intrinsic purpose- connotative- teaching
(consciousness-raising; noticing)- acquisition

Question- In which of these two groups have your emphases and priorities in
vocabulary teaching been?

And given our discussion above, would you change
any of the choices you originally made regarding our sample sentence?


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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 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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October 12, 2010

The eight hardest things about learning Japanese (part 2)

Continuing from the previous entry (scroll down for that).....

5. Formalized (must use) expressions-
So anyway, I arrive at work on a non-busy day at 8:40. I check emails, inkan a few papers that the secretary brings, put a few items away and then head to the toilet. On the way there, I pass by one of the Gakumuka office workers in the hall. I offer up 'Ohayo gozaimasu'. "O tsukare sama" ("Thank you for your hard work" or, literally, "You have worked hard and must be tired") they respond. It is 9:00.

This always throws me off. It seems odd to offer a post-work remark at such a time, in fact it can almost seem mocking somehow. I wonder if my saying 'Good morning' was then somehow inappropriate. Geez, why can't we just say what we comes into our head? English seems so free and easy in this regard. (I suppose that the riposte to that is that in the world of the Japanese workplace that IS what comes into their heads naturally).

It's the same with simple social graces. I'm out on the streets with my daughter and my neighbour and her daughter. We have to go in the for dinner. And I struggle for the right words. Now, I can say, "We have to go in for dinner" in a hundred variations in Japanese but it feels wrong because, again, a formulaic phrase seems required. So I eventually mutter, "Mou soro soro desu" (Well, it's about time).

There are certain social rules about opening and closing speech events in English too of course but not nearly as many, nor applied so religiously, as in Japanese.

6. Word meaning ranges (semantic cognates) vs. Latin/Greek-based languages-

Generally speaking, English native speakers can get the gist of a lot of written European languages because with Latin-Greek words, a lot of roots are shared. And not only are the words shared but the semantic range of the word will be close or even exact. It doesn't take a linguist to know that Pannenkoek Saus on a Dutch menu equals "stadium debris" (OK, pancake sauce).

But Japanese? No. Where is the demarkartion line between desk and table drawn in English? Not where it is in Japanese. What J word is first in your head when you think of the English word "serious"? Majime, right? Except if you want to say, "It is a serious injury" or "this is a serious political issue", in which case you would use two entirely different words. Japanese adjectives and adjectival nouns in particular cross English semantic borders.

Yes, this one is a two-way street. I'm sure Japanese learners of English find the fact we lexically distinguish between "lights" and "electricity" a bit jarring. And the fact that there are sometimes no single cognates for key emotional words in the 'other language' must make Japanese feel a bit "setsunai".

7. Local dialects-
Yeah, yeah. I know that in Britain I may "have to take a lift to get to the chemists'" (and that they will pronounce sentences like, "You'll need vitamins to deal with the privacy issue in the aluminum controversy" in a way that God never intended) but in Japanese it is not concrete nouns but verbal clauses that tend to carry the local brogue. So, the standard "have to do something" (nanika shinakereba ikemasen) becomes (the now famous) "Dou genka sento ikan" in Miyazaki. Or "...senbai ikan" in Northern Kyushu.Since the verbal clause carries the main thrust of the utterance it is easy to get lost in local Japanese. You may know that the speaker is saying, "solenoid" and "manifest destiny" but you are likely to miss the "not" or the "can't". Somehow, dealing with "Good on ya, mate" doesn't seem quite as far of a jump.

Recently we held a department meeting where the two dominating speakers spoke: 1) a chanko-nabe-level thick, almost exaggerated, Kansai dialect and 2) a Miyazaki countryside patois. I might as well have been in a meeting in Korea.

8. A lack of some basic stand alone terms-
Simple, common words change in Japanese depending upon what their combined forms are. A good example is trying to find a stand alone cognate for "academic". You might come up with "gaku" but this is almost never a term you use alone. It has to be "academic record" (gakureki) or academic skills (gakuryoku), or even "an academic" (gakusha). What's "number" in Japanese? Bangoh? But number four in a list is "yonban" not 'bangoh". And on a paper "4" is a "suji" until it is is configuring something. "Language" is "go" but that word never stands alone. "Eigo" , "gengo" etc. "Kotoba" (usually translated as 'word') can mean language (e.g., "The language he used was inappropriate"). So can "bunsho", usually translated as "sentence""paragraph" or "text". How about "temperature"? "Body temperature" is "taion" with "on" referring to the warmth. But "tai" means body so you can't ask the "taion" in reference to today's weather forecast ("kion" is correct here). Or you can just ask about temperature using the term, "do", BUT you can only use "do" with a number, much, like "degrees" in English.

Other examples that add to what I've been talking about will be appreciated. And even counter-examples, if you wish.

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November 28, 2010

Corpses of corpora

Collecting corpora. How do they do it?

I visited a hospital in Singapore recently in order to conduct some on-site research as to what nurses actually say and do on the job- or an analysis of specialist discourse (to make it sound more pretentious). This was my first attempt at doing anything even remotely related to corpus development or confirmation and I’m hoping a few things that I learned might ultimately be of benefit to ESPers, those who teach English to nurses or other health care workers, or anyone carrying out English corpus or specialist discourse research.

First things first- recording these types of language domains is pretty much impossible. Even if you could closely mic one nurse it would come out as either nonsense or as impenetrable jargon. The resulting script would look something like this:

Nurse A: No. That one. (Unintelligible). Can. You need it now? 36- Dialysis. Yes.
Nurse B: (unintelligible)

It's a mess. It looks like the aftermath of a language accident.

There are also huge privacy and liability issues- doubly so at a hospital- and administrators are understandably hesitant to allow this type of intrusion. Triply so when someone is trying to do an important (and busy) job. You can feel like a real prat following people around, holding up mics and jotting down notes, ear cocked into the conversation from behind like a cub reporter trying to get his precious scoop. But I had no choice, so me and my trusty notebook trekked around several wards, attached to ‘my’ nurse.

But interestingly even this incomplete record of the workplace reveals a lot. One can immediately see the truncated speech forms, how herky-jerkily dynamic the interactions are, how ellipsis becomes an integral feature of speech, how specialist jargon is regularly and widely used as stand alone transactional content (lists of data figure heavily in medical discourse), and even how local varieties (the stand alone ‘can’ being very Singaporean) enter the fray.

This is, as you might realize, quite different from the types of dialogues one tends to find in English textbooks. Although textbooks are certainly utilizing corpora based discourse more than they used to there still exists the overriding tendency to represent speech in full sentences, invariably complete, orderly and ‘correct’. While this may have pedagogical benefits for the learner, the question as to whether this is accurately descriptive or not is of course another matter:

Idealized version: “Good morning Mr. Chen. I’ve brought you your breakfast”
Actual version: “Breakfast!”

It is also very interesting to note discourse framing features such as: the percentage of the time nurses communicate with patients vs. other nurses vs. other health workers (two-cent answer: nurse-patient communication ranks well down the list percentage-wise). Why and when code-switching (both in terms of register and English variety) occurs also makes for interesting analysis. How are structured speech events, such as roll calls and handovers, organized to maximize communication? Catching all this takes some serious effort.

Another factor also comes into play- ‘incorrect’ English. One has to try and determine, was a language ‘violation’ a result of the vagaries of spoken vs. written English, with the two following different sets of governing rules? Or was it just heat-of-the-moment sloppiness? After all, we all speak non-prescriptively at times; we get tongue-tied, are less than eloquent, and change logical courses halfway through our speech. Or was it the local English variety? Or perhaps again the person was not really a native-speaker of English.

A Japanese colleague is visiting the U.S. to research for a similar purpose and I myself will be visiting some other locales to get a better sense of other varieties of nursing English. Ultimately, we hope to piece together a rounded and accurate picture of what should be prioritized, or even included at all, in ESP teaching materials such as Nursing. But, man, this is much harder than I thought.

Comments on any readers’ experiences of researching, developing or using corpora-based ESP materials are welcome.

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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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April 26, 2011

The F word on trial


Here's a news item that caught my attention
. It regards a British teacher in Australia who was fired for using the ‘f word’ as a topic during an ESL lesson but won the ensuing ‘unfair dismissal’ court case.

In my opinion, this teacher did everything right. Let me explain…

Students love slang

Most teachers know that students are unusually enthusiastic about learning ‘slang’, especially those words that carry weight that they’ve seen in movies. Some teachers have used this inordinate interest in the underbelly of the English language to bring the offending words into the classroom, giving a type of legitimacy to the normally uncouth. When done egregiously or gratuitously there is likely some juvenility in the teacher’s motive, that titillating pre-teen thrill of breaking socially-acceptable barriers. Webster, the teacher in this case, used it much more judiciously (although I thought that in Australia the word almost constituted a standard greeting!). To wit he:

- Used it only peripherally (20 minutes in a two-hour lesson), which is where slang, colloquialisms, and idioms belong
- Used it only upon request from his students
- Explained it only in his advanced class
- Offered some extended details about its actual social usage and function, including mis-use
- Wisely recognized that his students were overusing the term, quite possibly because they were copying what they had heard in movie scripts (where people resort to dramatic or shocking expressions far more than people in real life do)
-Told non-native speakers not to use it

Rough language- swinging and missing

The last point is crucial. Using rough or socially questionable language should be left to those with excellent control of the language. I don’t say this because I’m a prude (I’ve been in enough locker rooms and bars to inure myself to the force of the word) but because if you don’t use it perfectly, in the right time and place, with the right speed, intonation, and collocations you can put your foot in your mouth big time. It’s like, to draw an analogy with something I actually saw recently: taking a huge swing at a ball at a batting center, whiffing on the ball completely, and having your momentum be so strong that you actually fall down into the protective netting separating yourself from the ground. Which is longhand for saying you can look pretty stupid if you miss (I also recall a non-native English speaker vehemently telling a co-worker, “I do not receive that shit!” as another potent example).


Being out of your language league

Let me tie this in with something a little more extensive as far as English teaching goes. Verisimilitude. What I mean is this-
I’m sure you’ve had students who spent some time abroad, perhaps enough to tickle their Wernicke’s area but not enough to develop fluency. But… they still want to sound natural. Fair enough. So, they liberally pepper their speech with ubiquitous ‘gonnas’ and ‘wannas’ having learned that these reduced forms (suprasegmentals?) are commonplace (especially if you happen to be Bryan Adams). It stands out from the rest of their cautious, uncertain speech like a bongo player in a string quartet. As such, they come off sounding much more cavalier, even trashy, than they intend it to be. In other words, there is a time and a place for wannas and gonnas but it has to harmonize with their overall language skills in order to avoid them sounding like Forrest Gump addressing the graduating class of Cambridge University.

I’m willing to bet that many readers have had experiences in Japan where they used rough ‘n ready Japanese in a way that initially seemed appropriate (Hey, it even says ‘tomare!’ on the roads!) and yet were rewarded with looks of embarrassment (probably because you tried to sound like some Yakuza but you came off like a complete wuss- or English teacher- instead) or got the receiving end of that schoolmarmish ‘We do not use such language here!’ expression (where you’re not sure if the underlying violation was that foreigners are somehow supposed to sound extremely polite OR that you really went waaaay over the top) from your Japanese peers. The bottom line is when you’re not in complete control of the lingo you’re like a knife-thrower doing an exhibition after downing several pints with a bunch of Scottish football supporters.

Where do colloquialisms fit in?

Actually, I’m not a big fan of “teaching” colloquialisms at all (as I mentioned in my earlier reply to Kumiko Torikai). I don’t mind mentioning them or pointing them out when they appear in a wider context but, like Torikai, I see them as being too localized and narrow to be much more than filler in the Japanese education system.

Lest some readers take this as an endorsement of some formalized rigid version of English let me point out that I do support the pedagogical value of speech grammar- the non-canonical way in which all manner of native speakers arrange their spoken interactions, use ellipsis, employ pragmatics using environmental cues, engage in negotiation, backchanneling, repair and other dynamic strategies and other forms that distinguish the spoken from the written word. But novelty items, which I would classify colloquialisms as being, do not suit the agenda.

So there is a place for discussing the use of profanities in the classroom, if only to steer our students away from potentially putting their feet in their mouths or even getting a beatdown. This was Luke Webster was doing. As for Mercury College, who had employed Webster, well I'm sure he has a few choice words for them.

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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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September 01, 2011

Odds 'n sods; A potpourri of hodgepodged EFL mishmash

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Recommended.

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

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

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

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

Recommended.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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February 07, 2012

Cognitive overload: Is the 'myth of multitasking' itself a myth?

Every child knows that when The Cat in the Hat bounces up and down on a ball while balancing a cake on a cup on his arm, with a fish in a bowl on his head, all while fanning himself with his tail and he says, "But I can do more!" he is going to fail spectacularly. Yes, even very young children can sense that as we increase the complexity of a task the more likely we are to drop the ball.

You know, like those one-man-bands that scour city squares in Europe busking for change, playing five instruments at once. Sure, he might be able to manage musically banal tunes like "When The Saints Go Marching In". But we know he's not going to be up to the task of playing Zappa's 'Inca Roads', finessing his way through microtones in 7/4 time.

Or when my wife calls me at work while I'm analyzing some particularly dense bit of statistical research and wants to talk about details of re-financing the mortgage I'm going to have to put one of those topics aside (and rest assured my wife will not lose this contest).

So yes, we all know that multi-tasking can be limiting. There's nothing particularly surprising about this. In fact I would say that we all understand this instinctively.

"Multi-tasking degrades each task"

This topic arises as a result of my attending Dr. Jeremy Harmer's plenary speech, 'The Myth of Multi-tasking and the Force of Focus" at the Thai TESOL Conference in Bangkok at the end of January 2012. Dr. Harmer appears to endorse, or at least considers very worthy of the attention of EFL/ESL teachers, the notion put forth by author Sherry Turkle (see the video link on Dr. Harmer's website) that when we multi-task we 'degrade' (her word, not mine) each task.

Dr. Harmer (who, by the way, is the author of the highly recommendable Teacher Training textbook, "English Language Teaching") thinks that this notion may be applicable to ESL/EFL teaching as well. He argues that having students multi-task may reduce the quality of their work and that a more pronounced focus on discrete content or specific skill might be better.

I beg to differ for three reasons that will eventually become apparent.

When does task-shifting become multi-tasking?

Multi-tasking, it is argued, is distinct from 'task-shifting' in which we move laterally from task to task as opposed to layering them. I have a semantic problem with this distinction though. Think of the chef who is managing several pots, pans, plates, ingredients, and heating devices at the same time so that the individual parts of the meal will be ready at the same time, or if it is a several-course meal, appear at proper intervals and in the correct order.

Using standard nomenclature most would say that the chef is multi-tasking, because within a short time frame she has to manage several distinct tasks yet all are geared to one final goal or product. But whether we choose to categorize this action as multi-tasking or task-shifting does not negate the fact that any experienced cook can carry this complexity out as a matter of course, indeed it is a necessity on the job.

When we ride a bicycle we are pedaling, a motion distinct from steering which of course we do simultaneously, and yet we are also watching out for traffic and road conditions and adjusting our movements accordingly. Surely this is also multi-tasking yet something that almost anyone can do (and probably while listening to Zappa's Inca Roads on an iPod too). This too is intuitive and, in a sense, unremarkable.

Clearly, multi-tasking is not a can/can't proposition. We can on some occasions multi-task with no ill effect. So what is going on in such cases? Why can we multi-task some things and not others? Perhaps the question should not be whether we can or can't multi-task successfully but rather why in some cases multi-tasking reduces the effectiveness of each task while in other cases this is not an issue.

Developing 'muscle memory'

Obviously the development of 'muscle memory' through practicing a complex action has to be factored in. Riding a bike is a matter of developing muscle memory, as are in fact all motor skills of complexity. Mastering more complex multi-tasks demands practicing them. Richard Thompson is one of the most sublimely skilled guitarists on the planet and yet while he plays complex and dynamic cadences he sings with tremendous power and emotion. This is not only a result of world-class talent but also of having practiced and experienced multi-tasking to the point where it becomes second nature.

And thus comes my first objection-- separating form and meaning in the EFL classroom to lessen the chances of overload will hinder a learner's ability to develop this linguistic muscle memory. Any separation of skills unnaturally divorces discrete language skills from meaning-making. This is precisely why many of our students can do well on a (receptive) multiple-choice, discrete-item English test but can't actively communicate. By dividing up the skills no path for muscle memory to occur can emerge.

When multi-tasking actually enhances skills

In some cases multi-tasking can actually enhance performance. Let me give you an example. Hockey (you knew that was coming didn't you!). Hockey involves ice skating, while manipulating a puck, while also avoiding being plastered by burly toothless men (an out-of-date caricature but what the hell), while attempting to make a strategic play resulting in a goal. Surely this is multi-tasking. But did you know that the discrete skill of skating is actually enhanced when you have to control a puck and avoid being checked? It's true. When you are less conscious of your feet but are focusing on the bigger, wider goal (the competition) you start to perform skating subtleties precisely because you are not so conscious of it.

So, here's a hypothesis: We can't multi-task effectively when the tasks are not complementary and have differing goals or purposes (i.e., the 'interpreting linguistic research stats vs. discussing the re-financing the mortgage' scenario). But we can multi-task, with practice, when we know that each discrete task is part of a larger unit, that they are complementary. And these discrete skills can in fact be enhanced when they are working towards a common goal.

The purpose of communication governs our grammatical choices

Communicative language tasks are such. They demand a combination of discrete skills such as knowledge of grammar/syntax structure/form, semantics, pragmatics, social skills and the ability to cognitively grasp meaningful content. But because these skills are complementary and work towards a united purpose they should not be taught in an itemized way, practiced step by step, as discrete tasks.

In fact, many of these discrete features might be enhanced by focusing on communicative goals first (those of you who speak Japanese well will probably have noticed how the 'difficult' parts of that language- such as the subtle distinction between 'wa' and 'ga'- fit in more easily when the wider communicative purpose is clear). I have noted how my medical students seem to grasp the perfective 'have' better after they have actively engaged it within extended medical contexts. After all, it is the purpose/goal of communication that governs our grammatical and lexical choices.

I wouldn't want to dissuade teachers...

This is not, of course, to say that no explicit focus upon discrete items should occur in the classroom. There is always a place for highlighting, consciousness-raising, and 'noticing' of form within a lesson but until it is subsumed by meaning it will always fall under the category of 'itemized knowledge about a language' as opposed to 'communicating in' a language.

Nor does it imply that sudden, jarring shifts in classroom tasks or trying to combine multiple learning targets in one fell swoop, both of which are hallmarks of inexperienced teachers, does not bear forewarning and caution. But I wouldn't want to dissuade teachers from at least trying to develop cognitively demanding lessons that enhance dealing with language complexity.

'Analyzes paralyzes'

In fact, not being entirely conscious of a discrete skill can help you succeed in more complex endeavors. Look at a golf swing, often referred to as 'the most analyzed move in sports'. Even non-golfers are probably aware that the swing is full of arcane instructions of the "the fingernail on the left ring finger must be pointed down at a 45 degree angle on the follow through" sort. But undue focus on such points when trying to make actual ball contact is likely to result in you spraying the ball about 10 metres at near right angles to your body-- not because the instruction is flawed, but because of the truth of the old adage that "analyzes paralyzes".

And here's where we (in Japan in particular) can easily draw parallels with our students. Having had a lengthy focus upon discrete items and forms in their learning experiences thus far, our students often stumble when having to put form and meaning together into productive goal of communication. They over-analyze, too focused upon form over meaning.

Content-based learning: "What about cognitive overload?"

This also provides, a believe, a suitable response to a question put forward to me at a recent presentation I did in Yokohama in which I was advocating content-based learning. The question was "What about cognitive overload?". After all, the student has to focus upon content as well as form under such instruction. Well, my answer is the same-- that when the goal is meaningful communication, form and content can work in harmony, that they can, and do, complement one another. Learners absorb form by focusing upon interpreting and producing meaningful content precisely because the form can be 'located' in meaningful discourse.

"But learning English will interfere with the mother tongue!"

I certainly wouldn't want advocates of the old school interpreting Dr. Harmer's suggestion as meaning that we should be focusing upon one form at a time until each is mastered and not be concerned with the bigger picture of meaning until then (which will take a lifetime for most second-language learners). But I fear that it could easily be taken that way.

And what about those who argue (wrongly, according to just about every piece of research done on the topic) that if Japanese youngsters start to learn English it will affect their ability to master their mother tongue? That Japanese must be fully mastered first or else it will lead to linguistic confusion? Criticism of multi-tasking seems to (inadvertently) play into the hands of such people. But we can do many things at once without degrading each. It's just a matter of knowing which tasks are complementary and compatible, and which aren't.

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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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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