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The Uni-Files - methodology Archive

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

December 30, 2008

Can university teachers teach kids (and vice-versa)?

A lot of people seem to think you have to be smarter, more qualified, or have more savvy as a teacher to teach in universities than you do for teaching children. And while it’s true that university positions will invariably require more academic qualifications I certainly don’t see why there is an association between the age or level of the students you are teaching and the qualifications or experience you are expected to have. In fact, given the influence that teachers might have on kids in the early stages of their L2 acquisition, it is arguable that the better teachers should be teaching children, not 18-22 year olds. “Oh, you don’t have experience or qualifications, so you’d better teach beginners, children would be best for you!”. Bizarre. Do we treat pediatricians as if they need fewer qualifications or re less competent than other doctors?

Although I did teach children for a short time several years ago, I would have to admit that after almost 18 years of teaching almost exclusively young adults I might be out of place at first if I suddenly returned to a classroom full of kids. I’d probably find it pretty exhausting and my instincts about what activities are likely to work and how they will go over with the kids would be noticeably rusty at the start. In fact, watching a skilful teacher of children doing his or her thing can impress me in ways that I no longer feel when hearing about new methods or approaches or materials for university-aged learners. And I can imagine that someone going in the other direction, from children to university students, might have trouble at first adjusting to the mood, the ebb and flow, of the uni classroom.

But let’s not take this ‘out of one’s element’ motif too far. Back in the 50’s and 60’s it used to be considered funny to watch Lucy on TV trying to do something that was supposedly for men with the comedy centered around watching her make a complete hash of it. The tables turned in the 70’s and 80’s with movies like Mr. Mom and Three Men and A Baby, where the men were (at first) completely clueless when it came to doing the most rudimentary of ‘women’s’ work. Likewise, there are some in the EFL business who would like to believe that someone who specializes in children’s education would be completely out of their element in a uni class, while someone like myself would be too much of an egg-headed boob to connect with young uns. Like I’d be presented with a group of pre-schoolers and try to explain the subjunctive mood to them or argue that “have” is a matter of aspect rather than tense (as if that sort of stuff would/should even take place at a university EFL class!).

Nah- any teacher worth his or her salt (meaning someone who is already competent as an EFL teacher at any level) could make the shift after a small adjustment period. All you need are the 5 following basic EFL teacher skills:
1. The ability to read the level and responses of the learners quickly and make necessary adjustments (often on the spot)
2. The ability to use the appropriate level of teacher talk and style of interaction with the learners.
3. The ability to devise suitable materials and tasks and have reasonable expectations about the learners’ ability to complete them.
4. A reasonable knowledge as to how people acquire a second language.
5. A real knowledge of the language you’re teaching, knowing how it is organized, how it works as discourse, how it might appear from ‘outside’, a detached understanding. It doesn’t mean you mean have to be a grammar boffin or a linguistics major to succeed, in fact you don’t have to be an academic at all, but you MUST have an awareness of how the language works that goes beyond mere native speaker ‘instinct’.

True, there are university teachers who have academic qualifications but who may still lack some of the skills mentioned above. And there are teachers at other levels who assume that merely being a native speaker will make them a competent teacher. Both sides are fooling themselves. Could anyone who teaches English at a university succeed in teaching children? No. Could anyone who teaches kids function at a university? No. Not “anyone”. But anyone who is a real EFL TEACHER, and when I say that I mean that they have the five skills above, sure, give them a few days in the ‘room, and- yeah- they could make the jump.

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March 06, 2009

The On-Campus Language Center ‘Solution’ (Or What Is University English Teaching Really About Anyway?)

In the last 15 or so years a number of universities have responded to MEXT-initiated reforms by moving their English education departments into separate on-campus language training centers (thankfully this has not happened here at the UOM although it has been suggested- and duly shot down- in the past). The logic behind the move works something like this: English-language training is considered not to be an academic course but a kind of preparatory, and peripheral, skill training. Therefore, in these language centers students will upgrade their general English skills before embarking upon more serious or in-depth research in their university departments, the latter which will be overseen by content, not language-education, specialists. (Of course, there are variations on this theme from university to university).

In practice, what this has also meant is a move towards hiring more part-time (hijoukin) English teachers with some of the old full-time guard now marginalized or having had their roles (and sometimes salaries) reduced. So yes, cost-cutting is also a factor in making these decisions since the ‘incorporization’ of public universities over past decade or so.

One large question underpins discussion of this shift to on-campus language centers. Is it pedagogically sound to segregate English education from the wider academic life of the university? On one hand it seems that language center proponents might have an argument. That is, if one thinks of university English as merely being an extension of, or companion to, Eikaiwa, a consolidation of high school English, or something akin to an Eigo Senmon Gakko (English vocational school), there may be some justification for this educational apartheid. And unfortunately, some teachers inadvertently buy into this educational philosophy as an acceptable model for universities.

Yes, a few administrators and fellow profs at my own university hold the belief (slowly melting away as we stake our pedagogical ground) that the general English courses are taught by largely academically unqualified native speakers who are doing ‘communicative’ lessons which are thereby believed to be little more than on-campus ‘How are you?’ sessions. So, if and when teachers actually teach like that in a university setting they are throwing gasoline on this fire of marginalization.

This approach seems to me to be based upon confusion about the function of a university and, in many cases, leads to a dumbing down of standards. Students will inevitably rise or sink to the level of the challenges we set before them. Universities should not be glorified Eikaiwa schools or high school review classes (and yes I know of university teachers going over the same things my 13 year old son is currently learning in the first year of junior high). And although Eikaiwa schools have a useful function in society it is clearly not the same as a university’s. A university is supposed to involve cognitive engagement with content, stimulating thought, furthering understanding of some chosen academic subject. At this level then, English should not be an end in itself but a means to an end.

Let me give you an example. I teach medical students. They are, not surprisingly, interested in medicine first and foremost. Therefore, my English classes focus entirely on medical content. In the first two years this involves them learning how to taking medical histories in English, completing medical charts in English, doctor to doctor (or nurse) correspondence regarding case studies, all in English. The content is engaging for them and they are forced to think about medicine (cause-effect, bedside manner, rhetorical organization). And, as they carry out these tasks, they are indirectly absorbing sound English forms and vocabulary in that (medical) context. Communicative need not imply ‘conversation’. Communicative teaching can also imply academic accountability.

In other words, their English study is tied directly to the fundamental mission of the medical faculty and thereby to their overall academic studies. It is an integral part of their MEDICAL education. And here’s the rub: It is NOT too hard for them (and yes, the bulk of the students are standard Japanese HS graduates, albeit generally from ‘good’ schools). True, they may make basic mistakes in English, but they also have a 6 year English foundation on which they can, and should, now build. By using this approach, their latent understanding of English is stimulated and challenged through cognitive engagement with academic, forward-thinking content. If they have the cognitive ability to engage the content they can, and in fact do, upgrade their English ability to deal with that content.

If we treat university Eigo as an extension of HS or Eikaiwa we can go on forever with their mistakes in using basic general English structures and their seeming inability to master certain simple functions. But you know what? At my uni we regularly host visiting doctors and grad students from other non-English based countries and they make general English mistakes just as basic as many Japanese HS grads and yet are able to function academically in English (presentations, lead lectures, academic correspondence etc). If our students are not challenged by deeper content most of them will be stuck on the Eikaiwa merry-go-round and (repeat) this is not the function of a university, although yes, it does serve as a good justification for an on-campus language center.

OK. Here’s another reason why separate language centers don’t work well. Hijoukin teachers aren’t really committed to ‘the program’. I don’t mean that they don’t care as teachers, that they are being derelict in their duties, or somehow otherwise lacking a moral compass. What I mean is that if you are coming in from outside for two only classes a week (as I do at a nearby university) there is no way you can have the same overview and sense of connection to the program and get involved in its planning and maintenance the same way as full-timers can. Part time teachers can’t be on planning committees, they can’t have special classes for remedial work or orientation, they don’t have open offices to discuss student progress and problems, and can’t get involved with extracurricular functions, even with the best will in the world. Neither can they easily bridge their English classes with other disciplines at the university.

So, yes, a separate language center staffed by part-time teachers might appear to save money and serve a specific function. But is this bang for the university student’s or the taxpayers’ bucks? Obviously, I don’t think so. Is it pedagogically and academically sound? Keeping English in the mainstream of campus academic life will make sense only if university English courses and programs are both viewed and carried out as academically challenging and content-engaging courses, by administrators and especially teachers, and not treated as lightweight conversation lessons with foreigners divorced from their REAL university classes..

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May 07, 2009

Two rants for the price of reading one blog entry: Global Warming overkill, and positive learning ideas for new university students


My proposed penalties for bringing lessons about “Global Warming” into the EFL classroom

1. For teachers who base an English lesson on Global Warning:
Punishment- Automatic loss of teaching license and other academic credentials

2. For any EFL teacher who claims that, “Japanese students don’t learn about things like global warming in their other classes so we need to tell them about it”:
Punishment- Deportation; with no possibility of re-entry to the country

Why you ask? Is there any topic that has been so done to death as this hackneyed old standard? I mean there are comic book characters now fight global warming! There are daily messages, guidelines, and notices given to the public through every arm of the media on the effects of global warming and steps to take for reducing it. Every second product on TV shills their product's environmental virtues. It seems like half the extracurricular classes at elementary schools focus on the problem of global warming and what we can do about it. Textbooks used in elementary schools have sections on global warming (conclusion- it is bad and we should do what we can to reduce it). The issue is even addressed on Japanese cereal boxes, the ultimate arbiter of how cheesy a social issue has become. The global warming problem has become fully ‘establishment’, something passed down from authorities to which young people naturally start to develop a (healthy, in many cases) skepticism towards. My 13 year old son lampoons the whole business with a made-up character called ‘Eco-Santa’. Entrance exam designers at universities have long abandoned the ‘environment’ article as a standard exam text. It became too predictable and is now a boring cliché.
(Those who are not well acquainted with the Japanese language and/or wider Japanese society will often remain cocooned inside stereotypes which maintain that only progressive people, such as enlightened Westerners like themselves, are aware of and concerned about these ‘big issues’ and that Japanese media/society shield Japanese from awareness of these important issues. Uh, yeah- and they all wear topknots too).

So, when Mr. Brown, the teacher from Canada, comes into English class with his lesson on Global Warming to ‘inform’ his Japanese junior high schoolers of this important issue (conclusion- it is bad and we should do what we can to reduce it)- it’s time to unleash the EFL police on ‘Mr. Brown from Canada’ and carry out the punishments proposed above.

[An aside- I once used an article in an EFL class which criticized some of the standard proposals on how to reduce our environmental footprint concluding that many of the standard proposed solutions often in fact led to greater energy consumption or other non eco-friendly results. In the workshee that I made to accompany this article I asked students to, among other things, 1) summarize the article in a sentence or two and 2) think of a suitable title. Although none of the environmental topics in the article addressed global warming, and although the tone of the whole piece was a questioning of popular environmental solutions, a large number of students 1) concluded that the article was about (wait for it)... “Global Warming” and 2) in summary, it was telling us that “we should do X to save the planet” (even where the article had explicitly criticized doing X).
Thank you very much for your contributions to mindnumbing social issues “discussion”, Mr. Brown from Canada].

Final note- global warming is a reality, a serious issue and is a multi-faceted, complex problem. But thanks to educational overkill, cloying oversimplification, and a resultant reduction to the lowest common denominator of ‘discussion’ it now has as much social impact as talking about Tsuyoshi Kusanagi’s nekkidness.

Some positive encouragement for students:

In my earlier blog post about the new academic year I listed a number of frustrating classroom habits that I hoped to divest students of as soon as they entered university. Since this focused almost entirely on negative behavior I thought it would be a little more life-affirming if I also listed some positive classroom attitudes and practices that I try to inculcate early on. These include:

1. Making the most of a limited vocabulary and grammatical flexibility. That through negotiation, questioning and rephrasing you can communicate a lot using very little.

(Sidebar 1- Students are hobbled by the expectation or belief that unless they produce perfect English that they simply cannot express themselves and what they’ve tried to express is a completely uncommunicative mess. In fact, that is rarely the case as there are more non-native than native English speakers in the world and these people consistently engage in this type of imperfect language negotiation. And people who argue that specific ways of thinking are indelibly and irrevocably tied to specific languages (they are not! It’s the 21st century folks!) contribute to this sense of impossibility, of exaggerated distance)

2. That you can learn from your partner in any communicative activity. Don’t always depend on the teacher to learn! When your partner uses the ‘perfect’ English word, phrase, response pattern or grammatical form that you would probably not have been able to produce yourself- MAKE A NOTE OF IT SOMEWHERE, SOMEHOW for future reference.

(Sidebar 2- many students assume that education is an amalgam of discrete items transmitted from teacher to student. It is disheartening when, after a lesson in which I’ve had students interact on a certain medical issue that involved active thinking and cognitive engagement, helped them to use certain rhetorical patterns to express this content, and helped them arrange all this in an acceptable written format- all in English, that what they remember I ‘taught’ from the lesson was one or two peripheral words that came up in the lesson, almost as an afterthought)

3. Learn from yourself. When you are trying to complete an in-class task or express yourself in English in any circumstance there will probably be times that you can’t recall or reproduce the word, phrase or best means of expressing whatever it is that you want to express. If so, keep your weakness in mind and STUDY OR CHECK IT LATER so that you don’t scrounge for the right expression the next time you need this item. Check the dictionary or a grammar reference. Or ask me, the teacher. Or ask another student.

(Sidebar 3- Students are often passive about their own shortcomings. They’ve made a mistake but tend to think ‘that’s it. It’s over. I can’t correct it now’ as if this communication is a one-time test that has been handed in and will be duly graded and there is nothing they can do about it now. Only the sharper ones realize that these tasks provide practice platforms for skill development and future language usage).


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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!


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 25, 2009

The 'Gaijin Party'- some classroom recipes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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July 03, 2009

Lessons are not lectures!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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August 07, 2009

So, why teach English to medical students?

Yes, I know that most readers here do not teach English to medical students but I’m willing to bet that many readers teach some type of ESP, EAP, or teach to specific faculties so you can apply this to your own teaching circumstances. And while the titular question may seem obvious upon first glance I think it deserves a little deeper consideration.

I’ve listed responses in the order that most people (laymen?) assume to be accurate although it will soon become clear that I have different priorities.

1. If medical students have a non-Japanese speaking patient they will be more able to communicate with them- possibly even using the language to save a life

In my view, this is not a priority- in fact it is quite far down my list. Certainly students who plan to practice in St. Luke’s, Okinawa Naval, or other hospitals that have a high number of non-Japanese speaking patients can legitimately use this as a reason study English, but not most of mine. Most non-Japanese patients in Miyazaki hospitals (and in most of Japan outside Kansai and Kanto) will have some skill in Japanese, and in fact the majority of non-Japanese are likely to be Chinese or Korean anyway. But, more to the point, expecting students to put in a large amount of study on the one-off chance that 6 years later they may have an outpatient or two who can’t speak Japanese but understand English- an encounter that may last all of 5 minutes- is not sufficient motivation or purpose to study several English courses and credits at the university level.

This type of justification reminds of teaching English courses so that students can ‘enjoy’ a one week trip to Thailand or so that they may help a stray foreigner on the streets of Tokyo, cases in which the rather pithy and nebulous ends do not justify the means, especially so when one considers that the pedagogical forum is university education. Not only that, but the notion that a doctor will reach into his or her English lexical pocket 8 years after my class and remember the exact item or phrase BECAUSE THEY LEARNED IT IN MY CLASS is not going to occur enough to make it a primary motivation for teaching or learning the language.

2. To teach them medical terminology

Not at all. Why would I teach them medical terminology? They have dictionaries, don’t they? They can look terminology up when needed and, if it relates to their specific field of interest, they will be able to encode it without my explanation. Furthermore, there is a lot of medical terminology that I don’t know myself and, since I’m not a medical student or practitioner, I don’t have a particular interest in knowing.

Terminology in every field tends to be very narrow in terms of meaning range so such items are usually concrete and have strict 1-to-1 cognates between English and Japanese (in fact the Japanese is often just a katakana-ized version of the English). Although it is widely believed that such words are ‘difficult’ in fact they are generally very easy, in that definitions are precise and visceral.

3. Because medical professionals will have to read medical information in English, attend international conferences and possibly give presentations, write and read research papers in English, and engage with other professionals in the field

Now this is more like it. It is hard for a doctor to avoid all of the above. The chances of him/her doing some or most of the above regularly and consistently is far, far higher and of more lasting value (due to the focus upon skills over specific language items) that the belief that they will use English primarily to treat NJ patients or to learn terminology.

4. To provide a basis for those who really want to get more involved in the international medical arena, to offer them a taste and develop enthusiasm for the subject.

Although this may apply to only 10% of my students, the justification that my classes can provide a platform and serve as a stimulus to take the next step is a legitimate one. In fact, at my university we provide an advanced and intensive series of seminar and international exchange courses precisely to those who wish to answer that call, with my general courses serving as a foundation for those who want to take the deeper plunge.

5. Because having some awareness of English at the tertiary level should be a basic function of higher education.

I like this reason too. I often tell my students that when they become doctors many in society will think of them as elite, and as allegedly educated elites, it is expected that they will have some facility with English (and/or another language). This may not mean conversational skills, and it does not necessarily mean extensive grammar/vocabulary proficiency, but it does mean a greater sense and awareness of the forms of medical discourse, an overriding familiarity with the topic in English. (I plan to go into more detail on this in my next Yomiuri article later this month).

6. Because focusing upon content in another language is healthy for a learner’s cognitive development in general (especially at the tertiary level)

This is probably the best response, IMO- but the one least cited. When students are engaging meaningful content in a second language it helps them to more clearly organize the patterns of thought extant in their mother tongues. Also, when they are focusing upon meaningful content and tasks they are absorbing the forms of a second language naturally and often unconsciously, but are forced to think clearly and categorically in order to complete tasks. In short, it is good brain food and a hallmark of what university education should be all about..

I wonder if I have forgotten any valid justifications? And I wonder if readers find that the same is true in their own ESP, EAP, or other focused English teaching scenarios?

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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"...

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

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

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

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

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

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

2. My problem with scholarly ELT Journals:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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October 28, 2009

Needs analysis nonsense

Say your kitchen sink isn't functioning well. Water's not going down and the smell is starting to infest the whole kitchen despite your best efforts with the plunger. Call a plumber, right? So, he arrives, takes a perfunctory glance at the reeking drain and says, "I need to perform a needs analysis". Then he leaves. And he researches the causes of sink stoppage- what the symptoms may tell us as to best course of plumbing action. Two months of research later he returns and announces that research shows that "a coagulating agent may be blocking the drain".
Really now! And you know what else, balls are used in soccer!

Doesn't sound like much of a plumber, right? After all, a trained and licensed plumber should be able to make a quick diagnosis, based on his training and experience, and then immediately start getting inside the damned pipes and unclog them. And, if in that process something unexpected pops up, such as a family of decomposing badgers, we expect that he'll be able to adjust accordingly and improvise a solution. That's the idea of professionalism, n'est ce pas?

Right- except apparently for English teachers who seem to think that professionalism requires them to carry out a 'needs analysis' regarding their students. (I'll take a stab at the answer here- they need, um, English, right?).

I've expressed my criticism of 'needs analyses' as being uneccesarily obtuse and eggheaded elsewhere and I stand by it. So, do I think about my students' needs? Yeah. When I started working at a medical school I thought about it for, oh, five minutes or so. Here's what I came up with (and they still hold true 13 years later):
1. Medical students need to know medical discourse.
2. They will probably have to perform or attend English presentations at some point in their careers.
3. They will have to do academic reading, and likely writing, in English.
4. They will probably have to be able to communicate with non-Japanese fellow professionals at some point.
5. Some will never use much English again.
6. Some will work abroad in English intensive situations for long, sustained periods of time.
7. These students are generally right out of high school or yobiko and therefore will have a standard HS english education up to this point.
8. Some students will have been exposed to English abroad- perhaps extensively.

End of needs analysis. With this 5 minutes' worth of thinking in mind I started designing my courses. It hasn't failed me yet. Exactly which aspects of medical discourse they will be weak in and those which may be a priority is something I have gradually learned over teaching my classes, a constant refining to be sure. But I presume that every teacher learns about 'needs' this way and not by some detached in-advance 'study', as if the 'needs' are somehow out there just waiting to be discovered by a research project, like genomes in a petri dish (or wherever one finds genomes these days). Any teacher with the slighterst amount of classroom sense should also be able to make any adjustments based on perceptions after a few classes, and incorporate those insights into the program design for next year.

Very occasionally I have made use of corpus data but my educated-teacher common sense usually takes priority. Awareness of, but not blind dependence upon, copus data can be useful in designing lessons but a general awareness of authenticity is hardly the same as a 'needs analysis'.

Of course, the one thing you want to avoid with anyone under 23 years of age in a school or university is asking the students themselves what they want. You'll get the expected rigamarole of "to make friends", "for travel", "to learn about the world",, and in the case of medical students "to learn medical terminology". The bmost appropriate paraphrasing of the first three listed above might be "Whatever. I dunno", and as for learning terminology, well they don't always know what's good for them do they? That's why they're the students and we are the teachers.

And it seems to me that any teacher with training and qualifications should, by virtue of those credentials, have an almost immediate understanding of student needs. And if it's not clear then, take two more minutes to ask an administrator where most grads end up doing what and go from there. It's not that hard.

Now imagine that you do ask an administrator at your school where your students will likely take their English educations and he/she replies, "Well most of our males end up in construction crews and the majority of the girls gravitate towards the 'entrtainment' industry". What will you do then? Teach the females 'mizu shobai' lingo on the one-off that someday a client might be a non-Japanese speaker sampling the bright lights? Teach the guys some 'work talk' on the small chance that they will work with someone from a developing country (who will certainly be looking for the chance to brush up on their Japanese anyway)?

This exposes a problem with needs analyses- it treats language as largely instrumental. In a case like the above (admittedly extreme, but in order to make a point) sometimes the purpose of English might be instrinsic, mere exposure to the language in order to gain an appreciation of something that might be mind-expanding and could be applied at some later point if any individual chooses to do so. That doesn't come out on a needs analysis.

And it's fine when you have very narrow, specific goals that apply to ALL students, such as 15 grad students ALL needing to get a TOEIC certification and then going to research nuclear physics in the UK. But more often than not the expressed 'needs' will be both general and varied. And the inevitable conclusion that 'there are many needs' is not some kind of revealed truth that is hovering out there waiting to be discovered by 'analysis', it's something you should be able to gather from minimal exposure to any teaching situation.

Imagine what our students and colleagues must think when the allegedly trained professional shows up at his/her workplace without any apparent innate sense of what his charges 'need'. What impression will be created when he or she has to do a survey, a statistical compilation, and collate all the data before offering a sense of what might be best for their students?

It doesn't sound like professionalism to me.

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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
duration and/or frequency
treatments and/or medications

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...

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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December 17, 2009

Failing- and failing to fail

One of the more persistent and widespread beliefs about Japanese universities is that all students pass their classes as a matter of course. Students who sleep or don't hand in any work are still given the green light to pass through the system. Apparently, administrative pressure and/or teacher apathy are the root causes. Hmmm.

I say this with some hesitancy because I haven't meant any teachers who actually admit to being in this situation so, while I'm certainly not saying that it doesn't happen, the extent of the behavior might well be overstated- something of an educational urban legend. In this way, it's similar to the widespread NJ notion that Japanese English teachers primarily teach grammar-translation lessons (which I've blogged about previously and with the same caveat that I've not actually met any Japanese teachers who admit to doing so). In short, it seems to be only second-hand 'common knowledge'. Most university teachers I've met have shown an almost defiant willingness to fail the laggards.

Now please realize I'm not talking about high schools here. I have heard regularly from very trustworthy sources that auto-passing is indeed a common practice in high schools. To some extent, this is understandable. If high schools fail students it looks as if they have failed to motivate or educate them properly (putting emphasis here on the phrase 'looks as if'). After all, student stewardship is a big part of a high-school teacher's role. This will therefore look bad on their records and any stats or data used to woo the public for recruiting purposes- which is, of course, a special concern for private high schools in particular. So, in order not to give off the appearance of creating 'failures' high school grades or standards might well be gerrymandered.

But universities? First, universities have almost nothing to gain from automatically passing students. After all, public perceptions of quality is based primarily upon entry standards. The fact that a student may take six years to do four years' work is unlikely to enter any meaningful record that would influence public perception of the institution (and it might even enhance the university's reputation for being tough).

Not only that, but by having students do an extra year or two means more revenue- not a small concern these days. And then there are the professors themselves- they will not in any way cause damage to their standing or reputations by failing students. There is also no 'teacher's room' or all-uni meetings where pressure to pass students (for what purpose I do not know) would be applied. And office administrators do not and cannot lord it over professors on such matters.

Most university professors I've met in Japan (both J and NJ) are in fact quite at home with the idea of failing students who do not meet expectations. It's no skin off their noses (although the big disadvantage may be that the laggards might be back in your class next year). At the university level, it is understood that professors are no longer responsible for motivating these young adults (it's university after all) and therefore generally do not feel that they have been derelict in their duties should a student get a failing grade.

Personally, I have never felt any pressure whatsoever here at Miyazaki University to automatically pass students. In fact, when some dicey pass/fail situations have come into play in the past administrators have been more than supportive of the failing option. I teach part-time at a nearby liberal arts university as well and they too have a similar policy (with the exception of soon-to-graduate students who have already secured jobs).

In the MU faculty of medicine (my home base) we have a year-fail ratio of about 15-20%. By 'year-fail' I mean that students fail three courses within a certain year and thereby have to repeat that year (although they will be obliged only to take the classes they fail and electives). Moreover, in their first two years, if a students fails ANY required course (and Communication English is numbered among these) they will be duly dropped a year (this can be traumatic for many students as they tend to build quite strong bonds with year-mates). Over six years in this medical school about 90% of students will fail some individual class at some time. I fail a few each year myself. I allow that this should be the norm when you are educating future doctors. medicine, of all faculties, should not be a walk-through.

So how do students fail? Well, attendance policies for one thing. More than three non-medical absences means an automatic zero. A total score of under 60% is the other criterion. No one in the administration will question how or why a student got under 60% (the professor's word is all that matters- it is unthinkable that any administrators, aside from the head professor's committee- the Kyouju kai, would interfere in this process).

There is a small catch though- and a good one I think. When preliminary grades are entered into the system, those with a grade of 30-59% must be offered a chance at some type of re-test (in the case of incorrigibly bad students a 29% score will conveniently offer no further re-testing opportunities). On the whole though, re-tests are a good thing. After all, the idea of education is to help the student learn the skill, complete the tasks, master the knowledge and if that means they get their asses in gear a little late- well, at least they will have fulfilled the basic requirements. (Of course if the re-test consists of little more than the pithy 'writing a report' the re-testing system is meanngless)

And here's where testing, content, and methodology come into play. If a student sleeps through all the classes, contributes nothing, and studies nothing, there should be no way that they can achieve the necessary 60%, even with a re-test. This is not so much a moral policy as a logical one. What I mean is that the course should NOT measured only by a singular final test based on discrete knowledge (akin to, in many ways, some entrance exams). Since education (especially that at the tertiary level) should be a process- a process that involves carrying out tasks and the development of specialized skills, students should be graded on the completion of these tasks and skill areas; things that are learned and practiced only in that class and cannot possibly be attained by a last-minute cramming of the textbook.

In other words, a returnee student who does nothing but easily fill in a discrete point English test form at the end of the semtster would end up get a passing 60% for doing nothing. This would indicate that there is something wrong with the class content, methodology and grading policy (pretty much the three strikes as to what constitutes a good class). In my 1st year English Communication classes I can categorically state that it would be impossible for such a student to get 60% because the medical discourse and related skills I teach- and they subsequently practice in process-based tasks- are NOT something they will have encountered in high school or by living/studying abroad.

As for sleeping students, that is a matter of the individual professor's responsibility and/or policy. I keep mine awake because the classes are task-based, not receptive 'lectures'. Pair and groupwork forces them into action. If they did sleep for any length of time, they simply would not know what to do and this would lead to- at the very least- two or three nasty re-tests. The students learn this very quickly (sometimes the hard way) and therefore avoid both lazy absences and sleeping.

Teachers who measure the course with a single year (or semester) ending test will likely not have this luxury. Students will know (from their seniors) that all they have to do is get the basic attendance, study the textbook just before the big exam, and focus on a few points that will be tested (all university students can get hold of old exams). Basically this serves a recipe not only for sloppy students attitudes but is pretty much a blueprint for meaningless education. If teachers prepare tests/grades this way they are basically shooting themselves in the foot. (Again, I don't know of anyone who actually admits to doing this)

But, if passing is incumbent upon actively participating in class-related tasks, learning something new and unique to the particular class, or manifesting a new skill (or best, all three of the above) then students will involve themselves accordingly. Not only that, but professors will feel that this makes their classes meaningful, that they are involved in the process of education, and not merely 'completing a course'.

In which case passing actually means something; and failing is a real option.

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January 07, 2010

Monitoring the classroom- perceptions vs. reality

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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January 21, 2010

'Misses' and 'objectivity'

The Center Shiken (National University Entrance Exam) took place a week back and I'm sure many readers were involved at some level, most likely by proctoring. And if you were proctoring, (even if you were a back-up proctor, yes, there are benchwarmers in Japan's Center Shiken proctoring world) you will know the intricate protocols, steps, conditions, and general hoop jumping that is involved in what many might mistakenly think of as an easy process.

The key notion is of course that the Center Shiken must be fair and fully objective. That's why it is held nationwide with the same subjects being tested at the same time in over a thousand locales Japan-wide with over 500,000 students taking part. In order to maintain this integrity the surrounding system has to be airtight. Details are meticulous and must be adhered to under threat of your photo appearing in newspapers regarding a breach of Center Shiken protocol. No compromises. Nothing slipshod is allowed.

Lengthy protocol explanation sessions, complete with instructional CD ROMS, are prepared for proctors. The instruction booklet is the size of a small telephone book and, as far as I can read, contains provisions regarding appropriate actions to take if an examinee freaks out, becomes physically ill, if an alien lands in the testing room, and if an examinee suddenly morphs into The Dave Clark Five.

You know, the Japanese are generally very good with this type of thing. One old school generalization about Japan that I hold on to is the fact that the couuntry is pretty risk adverse and great lengths will be taken to ensure that there are no 'misses' ('miss' being the standard abbreviation for 'mistake', and it is the default term used in Japanese). If you've ever been involved, or merely watched, a kindergarten or elementary school undo-kai (sports day) you can see the meticulous, orderly planning manifested in a seamless- but somewhat tense and regimented- performance. (Whether people actually ENJOY it is another matter).

The thing is though, the more you try to avoid 'misses' by fine-tuning, tightening the screws, or devising manuals that try to cover every contingency, the tighter the system the more likely that a 'miss' is likely to occur- precisely because you've created a huge checklist of protocols that now could go wrong. As analogies, think of pure-bred dogs and how finnicky they are. Think of the guy (it's almost always a guy) who tweaks his computer to a T but it's always malfunctioning when any new software is introduced. Think of body builders where each muscle teeters on the brink of both 'perfection' and complete physical breakdown. The fact is, the tighter you build the foundation, and the more pieces that you use, the greater the likelihood that one piece will falter and lead the whole thing to collapse.

Hence, the near fetishistic emphasis upon 'miss' avoidance can actually induce scenarios where more misses are likely to occur. At the Center Shiken we proctors were quite tense, with almost every second accounted for and formally backed up in some way, making sure that the myriad steps were taken in precise order, with military obedince to the manual. This meant that we had to act with speed and efficiency but also meant that any screw ups would lead delays or claims from examinees of some breach of norm. And the more nervous, cluttered, and time constrained you are, the more likely that a 'miss' will occur. (There was also a ubiquitous stretcher placed outside the examination area, as if to underscore the severity of it all).

Now, here's the twist.
A miss in the test administering protocol is considerede a huge black mark. Therefore, about 95% of the pre-test information sessions and meetings focus upon the avoidance of a 'miss'. But, as an English teacher, I am more concerned about 'misses' at the larger level. Let me explain.

At the orientation sessions for teachers making the second-stage university entrance exams (NOT the Center Shiken orientation sessions) the overwhelming emphasis is also placed upon not having any 'misses' in the test. There is, in my opinion, too little emphasis placed upon producing a test that is valid and reliable. In other words, the overriding rubric is negative: "Don't have any mistakes on the test. That's all we ask". The endless fix-up and follow-up sessions are designed to make sure that no misses get through.

A big, get-called-before-a-committee mistake would be something like the following:
Match the four paraphrased sentences below with the undelined sentences (1,2,3,4) in the passage.

Although the lack of a 'c' answer should not really confuse students or cause them to answer incorrectly, this would be a huge black mark for the test makers.

Anyway, administrators usually want 'objective' style tests because objectivity, it is believed, reduces the likelihood of mistakes. So, in order to meet the heavy 'no-miss' criterion you could make discrete English language test questions like the following:
1. The Montreal Canadiens last won the Stanley Cup in [ ].
a. 1998
b. 1984
c. 1993
d. 2004

2. Hitler's [ ] regime lead to the restructuring of Europe's political boundaries
a. nebulous
b. soporific
c. pernicious
d. sendentious

As you will see, there are officially NO misses in the above questions. But they are clearly absolutely crap questions for an English test. (I've exaggerated the samples- I can't imagine any exam actually making such questions although they did come close in the not-too-distant past- to make a point).

The first question does not measure English skill in any way but rather teasts localized knowledge which happens to be presented in English. And even if this was accompanied by a passage containing the answer (c) it still would not be indicative of English skill, especially in terms of measuring suitability for university entrance. Also, if the answer was contained in the passage 99.9% of the examinees would get it correct which renders the stratifying force of the question meaningless. So, while there are technically no 'misses' in the question it is nonetheless both invalid (it doesn't measure what an English entrance exam is supposed to be measuring) and unreliable (it's either too hard, based on chance specialist knowledge, or -if the answer is in the passage- it is too easy) and thus cannot have any stratifying function for placing examinees.

But it IS 'objective'. It contains no 'misses'. Also, the answers can be immediately measured numerically: 2 out of 2. Administrators love this type of thing and consider it somehow more 'objective' because the results can easily be rendered as numbers- even though these numbers basically indicate NOTHING about actual English ability. "Hey, if it's mathematical it must be objective!"

In the second example, the vocabulary choices are obviously way over the students' heads which means that if the correct answer is chosen it will almost certainly be chosen randomly (and of course a trained chimpanzee has a 25% chance of getting the correct answer on a 4-item multiple choice question).

Hey, but it is still 'objective' and contains no 'misses'--- despite the fact that it is thoroughly invalid and unreliable.

OK- I can't imagine any university entrance exam test maker making such egregious errors (in fact, in my research I have found that many second stage entrance exams and recent Center Shiken are quite valid and reliable). But the point is that an inordinate focus upon avoiding misses and maintaining this surface, shallow notion of objectivity can obscure the bigger picture- that of makng valid and reliable tests that acuurately or reasonably measure a wide range of student English skills.

Questions that demand deep thinking or skills such as making inferences, reading between the lines, predicting, summarizing and so on tend to be both more complex and nebulous than simple kigou (so-called because they can be answered by a letter mark- a,, b, c, d) questions. This complexity or lack of clarity can often led to what overseeing commitees think of as 'misses'. Overseeing commitees don't like the alleged 'subjectivity' or interpretive element that such questions demand. Hence the safety factor in making more discrete TOEIC-type questions

I find this fear of alleged subjectivity odd. After all, as trained professionals it is precisely we who should be expected to be able discern which students display the greatest ability in a subjective or essay-type question. By taking away the subjective evaluation element from a trained, experienced pro (who is supposed to be an expert in the field- that's why you've hired them to teach at a university) you've basically narrowed the scope of the test. You're no longer measuring extensive English skills but discrete item knowledge. You're no longer testing English ability but knowledge about English.

Your emphasis on 'no misses' at the expense of greater test validity and an artificial sense of objectivity that in fact often reduces test reliability means that you've messed up the bigger picture of measuring holistic student English ability.

And that's the biggest 'miss' of all.

A QUICK FUNNY- My all-time greatest classroom mistake

A long time back, when I was new to Japan, I had a small class in which I asked the students to tell me about the Japanese person who they admired most. One of the students answered 'I admire Chiyonofuji'. At that time I had no idea who Chiyonofuji was, so I asked. "He is a small restaurant," came the reply. "Non, no," I responded. "He OWNS a small restaurant or he runs a small restaurant. Not 'He IS a small restaurant'". The student looked both frustrated and amused. "But he IS a small restaurant" he insisted. A few seconds later another student spoke up. "Chiyonofuji is a sumo wrestler," he explained.

Oh (blush).
But come to think of it, some sumo wrestlers are actually like small restaurants.

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February 03, 2010

A bunch of words about lyrics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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February 24, 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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March 03, 2010

Putting together a half-decent achievement test

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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April 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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June 04, 2010

Japanese universities slip in Asia rankings- a few comments

Some readers may have noticed this headline and short article appearing recently on the eltnews website.

The rankings are based upon several criteria, including: academic peer review (40%), employer review (10%), faculty/student ratio (20%), citations per faculty (20%), proportion of international faculty (5%), proportion of international students (5%). (*The actual website includes more criteria so I'm not sure where ELTnews got the percentage breakdowns from).You can see both world and Asia rankings (plus the breakdown of each listed university via the links) here.

So are we to take it that Japanese university educational standards and performance are heading downward? In short, no. So, why did the Japanese universities slip and what are their relative strengths and weaknesses vis-a-vis these rankings? Apparently, Tokyo U. would have been Asia's numero uno had only academic factors been cited, so the slip cannot be said to come from a decline in academic achievement. The drop then seems to be based upon the two 'international' categories and 'student exchange' criteria.

Japanese universities have always tended to keep fewer non-citizens on faculty compared to other developed countries. No surprise here. As the vast majority of classes, administration and research will be carried out in Japanese, opportunities for those who don't speak the language are extremely limited, especially when compared to the Hong Kong and Singaporean universities. But this still doesn't explain the slip. Perhaps then economics come into play. The appreciation of the yen and hard times in general means that fewer foreign students and possibly, researchers (even though the Japanese hosts foot a large number of those bills) can afford to visit or stay.

On the other hand some J university rankings actually rose, not the least of which was my own humble place of employment, the University of Miyazaki, which made a significant jump- from 201st to 131st (although this would still be the 7th division if this were British football or the J9 league domestically). In our case, this is due to the fact that the number of international exchanges and cooperative ventures at all (student, faculty and research) levels have exploded recently as has- and this is important- the way in which we are now carefully compiling and providing this information to the public- which influences sites like the one linked above. (I don't imagine that our huge leap forward is founded solely upon the enormous amount of international respect this blog garners).

But while the language factor will always cause Japanese universities to lag somewhat in such rankings there is still no excuse for avoiding the development of international relations, of actively cultivating exchange. Our international profile expansion was founded largely upon GP (good practice) grants and has now become an established, permanent (?) part of the university program. And the English section plays, as you can imagine, a big role in both establishing and maintaining this. So the bleak economic situation need not adversely affect every aspect of international exchange- after all the YEN is still strong and the internet continues as a means for international exchange.

Since the J universities ranked highly in terms of research and academic citations, we can't say that academic level is a weakness. but there is a dimension in which I feel that Japanese universities might actually be lacking: Teaching skills. Education.

You see, most universities in Japan heavily favour hiring personnel with strong research backgrounds. People with a lot of papers, people with established names in the research field. And that's fine. Having students (usually grad students) apprentice under the mentorship of a world-class researcher can hardly be anything but beneficial. But most of these people also have to TEACH!

And they are often- ahem- not too great at 'teacher-y' things such as class management, communicating to large groups, creating tasks, the very items that undergraduates deal with almost exclusively. They usually don't have backgrounds in curriculum development and syllabus structuring. They are far from up-to-date on assessment and evaluation.

So here's the point- to improve Japanese universities on a more visceral level (I make it a habit to use the term 'visceral' at least once each blog entry) more attention needs to be paid to hiring people with these types of backgrounds to fill TEACHING roles.

The University of Miyazaki's Faculty of Medicine's international academic status seems to be built on the back of its world-class ranking in peptide research (note, that's peptide, not Pepchew) but unless the people involved in this highly-rated program also hire people who can teach and inspire the undergraduates, who may someday evolve into peptide researchers themselves, we will lose our ranking and, more importantly (viscerally?), advances in medical research may also come to an end.

Added editorial note- Apologies for initial typos in many blog posts. We are asked to compose on the blog page (and not just copy from Word), which when done with an IE browser, produces no spellcheck (Firefox though, does). On top of that, I tend to be oblivious to some of my own typos even upon proofreading. I know how ironic this appears when talking of university education and academia...

Will strive to take more care in this department instead of rushing to get the blog online.

I've also heard that my entries come off without paragraph breaks in some blogreaders. Suffice to say that my paragraph delineation seems perfect upon composing here and when it appears in the actual blog but I will take advice on how to fix this so that it doesn't happen on some blogreaders.


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June 25, 2010

Blowing your top and hitting the ceiling- some thoughts on classroom anger management

Every teacher I've ever met can recount tales of student malevolence, ignorance or just plain bang-your-head-on-the-desk classroom numbskullery but hey teach, there's no need to get angry!

I'm speaking of course as a university teacher. Now, I won't pretend that our students have exactly the same social or emotional issues that afflict JHS or HS classrooms, and neither are we expected to be social or emotional mentors or guardians in the same way that teachers at those level are, and classroom displays of anger just don't cut it. At this level students are responsible for their own choices and if they choose to mess up royally, then by all means... hey, it's your life.

I used to get worked up, feel the steam rising in my ears, and give the students a dressing down worthy of a Bobby Knight (or Nicholas Anelka?) on occasion but either I'm maturing and am able to control my classes better or I've become more apathetic over the years. Probably a combination of the two.

Anyway, here's why explosions of classroom anger don't work:

1. The Crying Wolf effect- Blow up enough and people just assume it's your personality at work. They'll think you're a volcano and that sometimes you're the type who's gotta let off steam. Ho-hum. Hey, that's your problem buddy, not mine.

2. In response to your gnashing of teeth, students may just try to placate you as opposed to absorb whatever it is they are supposed to be gleaning from sensei's rant.

3. Most people do not respond positively, either in terms of motivation or performance, to outbursts of anger. My wife may direct the occasional tirade my way over my supposed lack of common sense regarding housework (such as not slicing carrots into the 'proper' shape) but this certainly doesn't make me want to just get up and do an extra toilet cleaning for my own edification. (Note- She doesn't read this blog. I don't think. Do you, honey?)

4. The legacy of angrily targeting an individual or group can affect classroom dynamics for a year (or longer). Your anger may be gone by the next day but your tirade will be remembered long thereafter- and not likely for its pedagogical value.

5. Positive reinforcement almost always creates better study habits than negative reinforcement.

6. If someone is actually trying to get to you and you respond with anger, they've got you. They've won. Throwing a great purple hairy (now how's that for a throwback term?) over it simply shows them your weakness.

7. So your lesson isn't going as well as planned because some students are being thick-headed. Really, so what? If that type of event is so horrific and earth-shattering as to induce an angry outburst your life must be pretty stress-free in other areas.

8. Most of the students in fact aren't doing the malevolent, ignorant or stupid thing. It is always a tiny minority who constitute the bizarre or of the mind-bogglingly 'don't get it' variety. We shouldn't identify this tiny bunch with 'our students' as a whole, although we tend to.

9. It would be unacceptable for students to explode in a similar manner so, as a role model...... Do I really need to finish this sentence?

10. Lessons aren't your 'show' when you're 'onstage' so don't treat it as if someone's trying to upstage you or steal your teacher's thunder. Treating such behaviour as a personal 'dis' indicates that pride may be a little too much of a factor in your teacher's repertoire. Most public displays of anger are just self-indulgence anyway.

But, some might argue, there are reasons to justify classroom anger. Ok. Let's think of some possibilities:

"The bad student's disruption ruins it for the good students"- This is more likely to be a factor in HS or JHS where bullying and/or intimidation will play more of an immediate role. Now, if it is at the level of actual 'gakkyu houkai' (classroom breakdown) the issue runs deeper than any shouting or waving of arms is going to fix. At this point it's too late for a teacher hissy fit. As for the university level, it's rarely long before the other students deal with the doofus in their own way- the troublemaker's social standing is not likely to remain high for long.

"Students produce when they've been told off. A little fear of the teacher can be a good thing"- At certain ages yes, but for young adults? Is this a legitimate learning dynamic at the university level? Instilling an atmosphere of fear might yield some short-term results but its long-term effect is not usually going to be conducive to developing better academic skills.

"Students will take advantage of you if you don't put your foot down. And they'll respect you more too when you do it"- Being firm, exuding strength and flipping your lid are very different things. In the first case you indicate that you are in control, but in the latter you indicate that you've lost control. Which are students more likely to respect?

Finally some common sense advice-
Dole out cautions and criticisms with regard for the students' personalities. That's right- don't treat them all the same. Some students can take a lighthearted chiding from sensei as a matter of course, and many do in fact respond well to directness and firmness, but for some- well they might just crawl into a shell and hate you and English forever and drag their friends into it (potentially sexist comment warning: this happens much more with female students it seems). And you don't need the hassle, right?

Laughing it off (while adding your caution or criticism) in classroom at the time is very effective and good for your heart and arteries too.

Calmly and carefully starting all over on a section that the students have made a hash of is more effective than wasting time hurling invective over their incompliance.

Warn sleeping, late, or inattentive students rather than get visibly angry at them. Strongly but firmly. After all, if they choose to zone out it's no skin off your nose. You always retain the power to give re-tests or to fail them.

If you reach a situation where no one seems to be listening to you, you certainly will get their attention with a tantrum but it's not the kind of attention you really want. Allowing for a little chaos at times can be liberating. Classrooms that teeter on the brink can be fun and still pedagogically viable. Teacher-mandated absolute control doesn't ensure that students are actually learning. Waiting aside for the chaotic moment to reach attrition and subside is also more effective than venting your spleen and tearing your sackcloths into ashes.

Never, ever, ever indicate that a student is, or has said something, stupid. While this might seem like the most common of common sense, many teachers make those "What-the-?", 'Duh!" "Are you nuts?" faces, or derisive snickers, without their realizing it. Watch out for those cases when, although you'd never say "Are you an idiot!?", your facial expression is betraying your thoughts.

Finally, although I hate to play the overused 'cultural differences' card, there is a very good chance that blowing your stack will be seen by students more as a Gaijin-esque cultural quirk rather than a means of enforcing whatever point you were trying to convey.

Chill. (Man, it's hard to say that at my age)

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July 07, 2010

Riffing on 1) Extreme J student nerves 2) So-called "thinking outside the box", and 3) Self-introductions- Bah!

Three mini topics today...

1. Extreme J student nervousness

Today I held some role-play tests for my 1st year general English class (medical) students. These involve 2 students acting as doctors, taking a basic medical history, and putting the information on a chart while I act as the patient. Yes, it is a demanding test as it measures not only lexical and grammatical competence but also: topical knowledge, the ability to think on your feet and improvise, to predict and summarize. It also demands social and interactive skills and organizational skills for completing the medical chart.

I never expect perfection and that's what makes this test a learning experience. Tests should hold pedagogical value, value which is realized through having students face new challenges.

I naturally expect that students will be a bit nervous because this test does place them on-the-spot and, after all, a test is a test is a test. But I am often surprised at just how mindlessly nervous some students can become under pressure- which is not what you want to see in medical students.

Expanding a bit now, I suppose if I were to choose one widespread characteristic of Japan that I find negative it is this overbearing sense of nervousness. I'm sure you know what I mean. That scurrying and near-hyperventilation that accompanies most services and almost any sudden interaction between insiders and outsiders (not just Gaijin but anyone who might be considered non-household or friend). It seems that even the most innocuous situations, such as two housewives with kids at the same day care center meeting suddenly, are punctuated by this display of stress and tension.

Now, I understand that there is a 'cultural' factor involved to some extent here.This formalistic ritual expresses concern in Japan, that one is being attentive and actively involved in the other's sphere. Obsequiousness (is that even a word?) is a type of positive politeness, and a cool, relaxed exterior may be interpreted as a lack of concern for the other, that one is being lackadaisical or slovenly in one's relations. And as a cultural trait that's fine. Service is generally excellent in Japan, albeit over-laboured, and I have rarely met an arrogant or standoffish Japanese person in the service industry as a result.

But when students are taking a test they are not thinking about politeness or carrying out a social ritual. They are not partaking in the rites of 'Japanese culture'. They are all a-flutter merely because they are having a test. As a result one sees:
- students who almost completely lose their voice, on the verge of choking
- students who make a hash of the most basic patterns, the ones they've been absorbing for years
- students constantly breaking the lead on their 'shar-pens' due to excessive nervous force
- students becoming confused to the point of panic when hearing instructions such as, "Write your name on the top line of the chart"
- students writing the first stroke of an alphabet letter four times and erasing it each time for no apparent reason
- students dropping their bags and other goods off the desk after hurriedly placing them half on, half off
- students actively mopping their brows- the only times I ever see them sweating profusely

...this sort of thing. It's just too much. I mean, a certain amount of nervousness can spur one to a better result in many endeavours but too many students I've met here have it to the point of complete debilitation. In fact, you think that many would be so used to facing big exams that mine would be a yawner.

Anyway, this has negative applications outside the English classroom. Excessive J nerves when dealing with NJs can be annoying and sour relations. Communication becomes belaboured, artificial and awkward. The upshot of this is that many would rather duck away from an NJ rather than even risk the possibility of interaction (like the person who won't sit next to an NJ on the train out of fear that the NJ might possibly ask them a question in English).

It can come across as standoffish, self-absorbed, and exclusive when there is no such intention. For example, if you look at those (very, very rare) cases in which J business establishments have erected exclusionary signs the explanation/justification is almost always not that the person responsible had a pathological hatred of Gaijin, but rather 'couldn't speak English' or didn't know how to 'deal with foreigners' (Note- I'm not saying that these are legitimate excuses, but they are real). NJs make them nervous---- but as a result of trying to save face they end up coming across to the wider world even worse.

I've also noticed that Japanese people who make a lot of NJ friends tend to be those who are calm, cool, collected, and radiate what I might call that 'surfer bravura'. I find students who are not so tightly wound and wired to be much more pleasant to deal with. And the students who take my role play tests and try to engage me, the patient, with natural warmth and carry out normal interactive skills inevitably end up with higher grades for the test- not directly as a reward for having a desirable personality trait but because such students are more able to think on their feet, to adjust to the flow of the role-play content, and to find a way to circumnavigate tricky grammatical or lexical items.

But the question for you- dear readers- is... how can we reduce this high-tension sweat fest without removing any sense of challenge and authenticity (read: open-ended dynamic language use) from the classroom?

2) Creativity- Thinking inside the box

The theme for this year's national JALT Conference is, "Creativity- Think Outside the Box".
Hmmm. This bothers me for a number of reasons:

1. The term "thinking outside the box" is an old, drab, hackneyed cliche. Surely, if one wishes to address the issue of creativity one could conjure up a more original description?

2. People who like to use the phrase "think outside the box" generally attribute this skill to themselves and deny it to 'society', 'people' and anyone with any power or authority. And personally I've found that the self-platitude is inevitably a mismatch. In short, every mother's son believes that they "think outside the box".

3. This phrase reflects the dubious notion that creativity is indelibly tied with non-conformity or separation from confines, as if only outsider status confers the gift of creativity. To be frank here I find that a rather sophomoric, even naive, understanding of how a creative mind works.

4. People tend to make this claim about their ideological opponents- no matter what the ideology.

5. Real creativity, it seems to me, involves thinking from inside the box. We all live or have to work within box-like confines in one way or another and an undue emphasis on doing something 'different' is not always the most beneficial solution to a problem or the most endearing artistic expression of our lot. Creativity can easily be manifested by dealing with questions such as, "How can I re-arrange the contents of this box in a manner that most benefits myself and the others?" or "What contents of this box have the inherent ability to be manipulated into various shapes and relations- and which combinations of that will best allow problems to be resolved or truths to be expressed"?.

A great deal of twentieth-century art of all types has benefited from looking at the standard box, the detritus of normal life, and finding inspiration in the re-arrangement of the mundane, giving it voice through the commonplace, and ultimately finding creative expression in its repackaging of the banal. Show me that Brillo box again, Andy. I think I see something in it.

Kind of like this mini-treatise on creativity, if you will (wink wink).

3) Self-introductions- Bah!

Why on earth do English teachers in Japan pound the students with practice in giving self-introductions? Useless and boring? Indeed! Let me count the ways...

1. It is not a part of any naturally-occuring discourse. I have never in my life as a genuine, red-blooded native speaker of English given a self-introduction. The only time people carry this farce out is in EFL classes.

2. Self-introductions are inevitably boring because no one cares about the details and/or will not be able to remember 90% of what was said two minutes later anyway.

3. They take way too much time and, as such, are just a self-indulgent conceit. I've seen numerous 'International Symposiums' or round circles of some sort held in Japan where you have 15 people performing this pitiful soliloquy for several minutes each before you get to the actual topic of discussion, which by now has been now drained of any vitality.

4. Most people say the same thing or the bleeding obvious. For example, a foreign professor is meeting 4th year students at X university and each student duly says: "I am a 4th year student at X university". You don't say now!

5. I know that self-introductions may allow students to learn and practice basic identity statements. But if we want them to do so let's at least place them in the most appropriate discourse package. That is this: people reveal relevant self-information when they are asked for it or when the time seems right between interlocutors.

So, if I meet Dr. Y at a post-presentation wine & cheese doodad and start chatting, we may talk about any topic at hand. And at some point I may extend myself by saying, "By the way, I'm Mike". Now if Dr. Y wants to know where I come from, what I do for a living, or what my favourite type of Weisse beer is (Weihenstephan), I will wait until he asks, or there is sufficient reason to mention this. Otherwise I'm just a walking textbook pretending to engage in 'internationalization' by telling others data about myself.

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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 06, 2010

A gap in the university curriculum that you, O gaikokujin teacher, could fill

About 10 years ago the Faculty of Medicine here at the UoM hired a philosophy professor to fill a perceived gap in the General Education curriculum. The new course was to focus upon medical ethics and, since this hiring, this class has become a standard part of the medical students' training. But this professor noticed another, more fundamental, gap in the system and moved quickly to fill it.

This gap was teaching academic skills to 1st year university students. Yes, before this professor's arrival, the students here received no special training in skills such as carrying out research, writing a research paper, organizing case studies, debating, note taking, classroom conduct, critical thinking and the like. The course he established was originally called 'Japanese Communication' (some wisely asked why it should be called 'Japanese' since it was obvious that this was the lingua franca of the classroom for all students and teachers in the course- save yours truly- so it was recently changed to 'Freshman Seminar'). The focus in this course was/is upon how to operate and communicate appropriately within an academic milieu.

It seems to me that such courses should be obvious, mandatory, slam dunks. Now, please understand that this is not a Japan vs. everywhere else dilemma. I understand that some universities in Japan have treated this as standard fare for a long time, recognizing that high schools would not be focusing upon these skills. And in fact, in my own university days in Canada, I did not receive explicit instruction in such things, and had to live by trial and error. Looking back, I certainly would have appreciated- and most definitely needed- such a course.

These thoughts are inspired by comments based on my last blog entry, comments from Steve M. and Mark H. about the importance, roles, and functions of meta-cognitive skills and their development. Consciously learning how to learn, if you will. Certainly if students do not learn these skills even in their mother tongue, we can hardly expect them to do so in English without explicit teaching and practice.

The fact is, that if this Philosophy professor hadn't introduced this preparatory course we might still be floundering. Too often 'orientation' consists merely of data transfer: learning schedules, contacts and positions, calendar information, facilities, and, most importantly it seems, knowing where you CANNOT park your car. Learning how to function like a real university student somehow got lost in the song and dance.

So, I would modestly propose that EVERY university make the following learning areas mandatory for incoming students:
- How to carry out research
- How to write a research paper
- How to take notes
- How to carry out collaborative projects
- How to use several key computer programs effectively (MS word, Internet searches, Power point, Excel)

In short, how to start taking the reins of your education- to get out of permanent high school mode and become a real university student.

And this is where English teachers can contribute- by applying these skills in English classes. Offering a course in Academic Skills in English to, say, 2nd year students, as a required course would probably be attractive to the powers-that-be. These skills might include:

- How to write a research paper in English (formatting, organization of content)
- Basic rules of structuring written English (e.g., CAPS, using parentheses, spacing, commas and periods)
- How to use a dictionary PROPERLY
- How to make the best use of existing English resources and/or technologies
- International correspondence (Set/formal modes such as application forms, and/or informal modes such as email norms and netiquette).

My colleague (a fellow Canadian) and I have been chipping away at this in our regular English courses over the past few years, after previously having received all manner of reports, essays, and email that corresponded to no known norms of standard English (grammar and vocabulary skills aside).

You may be familiar with how they are typically written.
Each sentence is written on a new line.
It looks like a tanka.
There are no indentations
But suddenly one line might be pushed back for some unknown reason.
Punctuation is random.
so are capitals
It reminds me of the way non-Japanese use Japanese prepositions.
A shot-in-the-dark, hit or miss approach.

Random spaces occasionally appear too.
This may be because they tend to use Japanese fonts.
So the flow is choppy as well as visually unappealing.
This happens no matter what, the genre or register may be.
because there is little crossover concept of what sentences and paragraphs are
Between Japanese and English,
Unlike other European lan-

One result of which there can be no doubt is that the students are much happier to learn some rules and adopt some recommendations which allow their work, at least visually, to meet English norms. Among them is a palpable sense of having achieved something. After all, it should come as no surprise that Japanese students understand that there are places where propriety and correct form are to be observed and therefore absorb these guidelines pretty quickly. Almost immediately, those half-baked 'research essays', previously written in the last fifteen minutes before the deadline, in three different fonts plus a few unreadable scratches in pencil, with headings and paragraphs more or less randomly generated by the disorganization fairy- the type of submissions that will usually haunt you during the time you spend alone in your office- magically disappear.

For that reason alone, it is something that NJ university teachers should be looking into.

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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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November 16, 2010

5 Reasons to take English off the Center Shiken

Let's get right into it.

I think that it would be better for English education in this country if it were not included as a core subject on the Center Shiken (hereafter 'CS'). I could possibly accept it being an elective Center Shiken subject. And I have no qualms with certain universities making it a core subject on their individual second-stage entrance exams- but it's not suited to the CS.


1. It perverts any holistic understanding, acquisition and appreciation of English, and possibly foreign languages as a whole. How?

The Center Shiken is administered to a huge number of students nationwide and demands strict standards for fairness and objectivity as well as allowing for the rapid machine calculation of results. It has to be measurable as a number, with no room for subjective or interpretive judgments. This means that the tasks and questions on the CS will ultimately be multiple choice items. This necessitates a reduction in task/question type and range, meaning that the focus will always be reduced to discrete points. The result is the atomization of the language, in which languages are treated basically as cumulative collections of discrete item knowledge. The backwash on high school pedagogy, although often overstated, is palpable (though I would say that the popular notion that this forces HS teachers to 'teach grammar' is false).

The CS has evolved over the yers to try and minimize the former narrow, discrete-point focus but it can never entirely eradicate that focus without compromising the necessary objectivity and calculation speed. This is not a criticism of the CS English makers- who do quite well within the restraints to capture a more wide-ranging number of skills and abilities- but the nature of the beast ensures that it will always fall short.

2. It is unfair, especially when it carries so much weight.

English could be considered primarily an academic subject, which then demands a calculated academic approach, but I think most would say that English is more fundmentally a skill, and a practical skill at that.

The CS shouldn't be testing skill subjects like this- even if they don't end up testing English 'skills' per se- especially those subjects which are largely non-academic (think of music as an example). Some examinees will, by sole virtue of having lived abroad, be quite competent in English but perhaps not academically suited to university. The current situation favours these students over someone who has simply had fewer social opportunities to engage the language. The student who grew up in L.A. might be less academically skilled than the student who grew up in Tottori. but the Angelino will almost certainly score higher on the CS. Although we can imagine all subjects containing some built in advantage for some students (we expect a student whose parents are biology researchers to do better on the science exam) none are determined by experiential happenstance to the degree that English is.

3. By having English employed more as a second-stage (individual university) exam subject will allow for more balanced teaching/learning and skill development.

The number of candidates at the second stage exams is fewer and more manageable from a grading/marking viewpoint. This affects test design and content. Attention can be paid to details of individual examinees by actual humans, humans who are hopefully certified and trained in the subject (absolute objectivity is less rigorously applied at this level, but a wider range of skills can be addressed, making it perhaps a more accurate measure of student English ability, 'objectively' speaking).

This approach, in turn, allows for more tasks that call for insight, analysis, use of cognition- the ability to discuss and elaborate upon content in English- a more holistic approach than multiple-choice or discrete-item approaches could ever allow for. It means that expression in writing, the ability to think in English become apparent, allowing the examiner to get a better read not only upon the student's English skills, but wider academic viability. Even spoken English interviews could be incorporated into the scheme.

I would expect the backwash to infiltrate throughout the education system to be duly positive. This would also have the effect of killing two birds with one stone- meeting the MoE's extant call for an increase in communicative skills while also addressing the need for HS students to prepare for university entrance exams.

4. It makes English more of an optional subject at the JHS/HS, allowing those who don't feel that it would benefit them (some kids who will take over Dad's farm in Iwate) much to put their emphasis elsewhere but allow those who are interested in the subject to develop more holistic, practical, and analytical skills. In short, preparing professionals who can actually use the language in discourse as opposed to the perpetual uniform national "false beginnerhood".

This would further rid the negative atmosphere associated with many English classes (by both teachers and students alike), emptying classes of students who see no value or have no interest in learning English, especially in the atomistic, mechanical way currently employed in many (most?) settings.

5. In education, streamlining is the catalyst for efficiency and higher-quality production. Freed from the drudgery and mundane, both teachers and students could focus upon more personal and/or extended\extensive avenues of English acquisition, with a focus on the productive as opposed to just the receptive, and upon the cognitive skill of reproduction rather than the lowest cognitive denominator of recognition. Local initiative would increase while the central bureaucracy's role would diminish.

Possible objections-:

1. The status of English in the Japanese education system would diminish.

That is, if status implies only core inclusion on the Center Shiken. It is problematic that many people view only the subjects that form the CS core to be academically legitimiate. In terms of what most people recognize as real academia, the ability to apply abstract knowledge into research or advanced self-expression or international communication would actually be bolstered.

2. The English study industry would suffer.

Probably. Billions of yen are made assuming to help students prepare for the CS. Obviously, guides and training materials would be helpful for English's inclusion on other exams but they would suffer. Even as I write this, some burly men in sunglasses and suits from "Eigo Corp" have entered my room brandishing very heavy dictionaries.

The CS is also a money maker for the MoE and some host institutions but, hey, are we arguing for educational or financial benefits?

3. The number of high school English teachers would decrease. People would lose jobs- including (possibly) some NJ.

The weaker end of the HS English teaching world might suffer- but is it not alreay argued that too many English teachers are ineffectual anyway? I also understand that NJs are often shunted out of the CS prep process anyway so...

Regardless, this more streamlined approach could even allow for more production-based, learning-centered classes due to decreased student numbers while retaining the same teachers.

What do you think?

*Apologies for typos in the original version- thanks to an impending migraine with zigzagging vision

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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. 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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May 23, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

Is casual chat in the classroom really meaningful?

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

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

Adding a diagnostic function

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

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

Language ownership and subsequent responsibility

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

Choosing stimulating topics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The diagnostic function in 'free conversation'

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

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

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

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

And you???

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

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June 17, 2011

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

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

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

Poster sessions work!

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

The framework- nuts 'n bolts

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

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

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

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

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

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

Warning! Do not attempt this unless...

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

A clear, narrow topic that you want to talk about

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

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

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

Research is crucial- so is flow

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

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

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

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

Connecting with the viewer- the visuals

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

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

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

Making posters interactive

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

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

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

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

Trust me- properly handled, poster sessions really work.

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September 01, 2011

Odds 'n sods; A potpourri of hodgepodged EFL mishmash

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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.

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!

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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February 23, 2012

10 Dumb Things That English Teachers Do in Japan (part 2)

A continuation of the previous #1-5 dumb things...

6. Teach culture as a series of discrete-point contrasts (othering):

The belief that Japanese ways and habits are quite distinct from those of 'foreigners' is quite widespread in Japan. It often creates psychological barriers for communication, not to mention intercultural paralysis, and often results in awkward stiltedness or standoffishness in J-NJ relations.

In extreme cases, it can adversely affect interactions. Spurious claims to the effect that "Foreigners won't like futon", or "They won't understand how to use an onsen" because customs elsewhere "are different" can be interpreted as exclusionary and easily end up drawing (often fatuous) claims of racism. The vast majority of such instances are not malevolent-- they are attempts at 'taisaku', taking preventative measures to avoid causing offense or problems-- but often, paradoxically, lead to more of the same.

I've had highly positioned people assume that foreigners can't understand the concepts of goodwill and modesty or don't value their families because, for example, "care for the family is a Japanese value"... and foreign cultures are different (I'm not claiming that such bold instances are normative but they are nonetheless an outgrowth of the general 'foreigners are different' perception).

In the overwhelming number of such cases the problem is not so much a Japanese belief in superiority over, or fear/hatred of, foreigners but an unwarranted hypersensitivity to potential differences, an over-stimulated "we are not you" syndrome, founded upon a heightened 'different cultures' motif.

So why feed into this? Why teach culture primarily as a series of discrete points highlighting differences, as though this is the fundamental definition of culture? I'm shocked by how many so-called Culture courses are prefixed with "taisho" (contrastive) or "hikaku" (comparative), and are marked by a series of how 'we are not you' samples. This leads to essentialism, the belief that everything a person of culture X does is indelibly marked by that culture, which becomes the interpretative mechanism for all that person's actions and beliefs. It also leads to 'othering', the distancing of outsiders by exoticizing, or at least exaggerating, the differences.

How many times have I heard Japanese students say they are interested in other cultures because they want to learn "the differences". It is true that one way of defining something is by outlining its distinctive features in comparison to similar items. Beer is not wine. A table is not a desk. But this divisive approach is hardly the only, or even primary, way of defining or understanding an item (or a culture) or isolating its essence.

Endeavors and common values that we share as humans which come under the rubric of culture can be outlined and discussed without drawing a big red circle around the differences. Distinguishing the personal from the social is another valid analytical tool that helps avoid culturizing.

Buying into this "culture = differences, so let's confirm how I'm not like you" mentality is to perpetuate a sense of distance between Japanese and non-Japanese. If there's one thing I want to leave behind for my students it's a sense that our instincts and feelings as humans are largely the same, and when they differ, (national/racial) 'culture' may well not be the decisive factor.

7. Constantly reformulate classroom instructions and questions:

The quality of teacher talk is probably more important than the amount of teacher talk. One class energy-sapping habit I've noticed among novice English teachers and visiting lecturers (who are invariably content specialists, not English educators) is a tendency to obscure questions and tasks by over-talking. You often hear something like this:

"So, I want to ask you... Is there any way we can diagnose this patient with certainty. Can we be sure of our conclusion?" (The students are with the teacher at this point but the teacher doesn't hesitate long enough and...) What I'm trying to say is perhaps we haven't gathered enough information. I'm just putting this possibility on the table. So let's just explore this possibility. (Now the students are getting lost-- which becomes apparent to the teacher). So, do you understand me? Our diagnoses are not always foolproof. (Silence and staring at the floor, awkward twiddling with pencils) . Do you understand what I mean by foolproof? (More silence) Do you understand diagnosis? (A few very, very hesitant, slightly embarrassed, cautious nods) I see. (Aside to me): They don't even understand what a diagnosis is! And they don't seem to be aware of the fact that their conclusions might be wrong!"

Suggestion- Make all task assignments extraordinarily clear and succinct. Use numerical stages of instruction and write them on the board if they are at all complex. Practice the wording before the class. Focus all questions clearly, to specific students, and ask once. Allow time to gauge visual responses and to allow the student some 'prestige form creation time'. Don't elaborate unless students ask you too. Repetition, if necessary, is better than circumlocutions.

8. Assume English for specific purposes (ESP) is mostly a matter of teaching terminology:

I have a particular bug in my asphalt about this one. Teaching medical students, I am all too aware of everyone and his cardiologist assuming that medical English equals general English + terminology. It doesn't. Specialized English domains have standardized and institutionalized norms of discourse which includes everything from ways of processing information to the intricacies of social relations. Knowledge of numerous disease and treatment jargon will hardly ensure that a doctor can take a decent patient history.

And no, terminology is not 'hard'. Many people assume so because the terms are rare and localized, have a narrow meaning range, are often hard to spell or pronounce, or are lengthy. But terminology, having a very narrow meaning range, usually have very clear one-to-one cognates in other languages. If you know the item in L1 it is very easy to find the dictionary equivalent (which is why they don't usually need to be explicitly 'taught') in L2. Try doing that with any language's equivalent of the 'be' verb. Now that's hard!

9. Confuse denotation and connotation:

Not long ago, an English professor I know balked at the use of the word "tribalism" in a jointly-made text. He argued that the notion of "tribes" was an oppressive category employed by whites to demean African ethnicities. I argued that the term "tribalism" simply described a way of thinking, a type of local identity that was exclusionary, and thus suited our descriptive purpose in the test. He responded that since tribalism was negative we shouldn't use the word (of course the word 'murder' is negative too I argued but that shouldn't stop us from using it as a descriptive term). He was confusing the connotation of the word with its denotation. Sure, Referring to Africans or North American Indians by 'tribe' may be dicey by connotation-- redolent of a colonialist mentality-- but merely mentioning the concept of tribalism (denotation) is hardly so.

It's the same problem (just reversed) when someone argues that "Japs" is just short for 'Japanese' (denotative). It's not. It's full of all sorts of derogatory connotations-- you can almost feel the spittle flying out from the mouth of the redneck hurling the epithet. You'd have to be particularly out of touch to be unaware of such connotations-- yes, even the most outback-ish of Aussie farmers will be aware that Australian TV announcers do not refer to Japanese athletes, for example, as "The Japs". Connotations.

In a less politically charged vein-- teachers often mess the two up in the language teaching classroom when students ask about word or phrase meanings. What, for example, does 'sit through X' mean? Giving a mere denotative response (i.e., "attend") doesn't do it justice. The term, like many, is marked wholly by its negative connotations (e.g., "I had to sit through Mike's entire lecture just to hear his predictable rant!"). Imagine saying, "I sat through my sister's wedding on Saturday".

So is 'set in'. Fog and darkness 'set in'. The sun doesn't. Depression sets in. Happiness doesn't. If a teacher offers up 'changed to' or 'became' as an equivalent they are missing the connotative essence of the word.

Or how about explaining the word “dining” as eating? “I dined on a bowl of Cap’n Crunch this morning!” . Somehow, the connotation of the word has eluded the speaker—which is the source of a lot of comedy.. (Of course, being middle-aged I don’t actually eat Cap’n Crunch anymore- I prefer Froot Loops).

Many teachers have a fetish for the purely semantic explanation but language doesn't work only on the semantic level. Prosody, the attitude or stance that a term implies, is often of primary importance when explaining items to students. Connotation is all about prosody.

Although this distinction might look rather academic it is actually very practical and common-sense. And just as a caution, please note that this is all very different from 'evaluative vs. descriptive' language scenarios.

10a. Support the idea of autonomous university 'language centers':

Wonderful! That is, if you think the language teachers and teaching should be seen and treated as an adjunct to the 'real' university-- divorced from the academic core, serving as a de facto on-campus Eikaiwa or TOEIC training center. Expect more part-time, in-and-out-the-door, teaching contracts and few chances at promotion or taking on important pan-university roles under this system.

10b. (tie) Assume that a bunch of lessons equal a course

A course has goals, some sense of direction, movement, some connected purpose. Fifteen disparate, disconnected lessons does not equal a course. Without a sense of flow and direction, less is retained by students and the language practiced is more likely to be processed as ‘a bunch of stuff’ as opposed to skill development or internalization of content or form. Lessons in a course should be interconnected and gradated, recycling and incorporating previously learned skills and content. The discrete lesson approach reflects more of a ‘if you throw enough mud at the wall some of it will stick” mentality. Avoid!

Is there anything that you'd like to add to this list?

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March 30, 2012

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

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

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

Shizu from Shikoku: "Tell us about Kierkegaard"

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

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

Ebi-chan in Tokyo: "Jama!"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ronald Carter's I-I-I methodology

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

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

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

5 more to come soon.

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April 15, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3. Merrill Swain: Languaging

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And a plug for your EFL edification...

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

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

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December 27, 2012

A buncha fat, greasy, English edu-political opinions

Here are some 'unpopular' opinions that have been tugging at my ticker after reading several articles and websites about English education in Japan. I don't expect that these are going to go down well with everyone but, hey, that's why you're reading this piece, right?

So, let's get right into it.

1. It's not the government's fault

Sure, sometimes governments enact policies that backfire, marginalize half the populace, or were never meant to benefit the citizenry in the first place. But let's face it, blaming the government is often a default, knee-jerk reaction, an unexamined, uncritical, stock response to any perceived shortcoming in society. Which is fine for chinwagging over brews at your local nomiya but is hardly a substantial riposte when actively dealing with the issues- issues like the alleged poor English competency of EFL learners in Japan.

Blaming the government is like blaming 'society' for some wacko's gun rampage-- ultimately you are effectively holding no one responsible and thus cannot expect positive change to be enacted. It's the political equivalent of blowing a dandelion fluff into the breeze and praying that somehow everything will turn out fine. You are crafting responsibility into thin air.

MEXT- 'The scent of whale meat?'

So let's apply this to English education policy in Japan. I know the popular image of MEXT policy makers is that they are a bunch of blue-suited, middle-aged men with bad comb-overs and the faint scent of whale meat on their breath. But unfortunately, the caricature does not match the reality.

Have you ever met a MEXT English education policy maker, or heard one speak? I have on numerous occasions. They have always been, in my opinion, experienced, fairly cosmopolitan, bilinguals with a sound knowledge of language acquisition theory and pedagogy. In fact, many have been drafted or borrowed from the ranks of academia, such as Kensaku Yoshida of Sophia U. or Osamu Kageura (go ahead look 'em up). These people know their stuff, and, no, they don't need comb-overs.

Critics should also take a gander at the MEXT English education policy website . There is an English version. There is no endorsement of grammar-translation or audio-lingual methods or the expectation that English = diagramming sentences. Over the past two decades there has been an explicit policy move to foster Japanese who have practical competency in English as well as fostering a sense of English for enjoyment and communication. The rationale statements say all the 'right' things.

One popular, widespread belief is that MEXT determines classroom policy in detail-- syllabi and curricula are defined by bureaucrats to a T and teachers are duly bound to follow suit. Nonsense. MEXT guidelines are just that, guidelines. The textbooks, methodologies, and materials used to expedite MEXT's policy goals are almost completely left up to the local education board, individual school, or teacher. No, every English classroom in Japan is not doing the same government-mandated lesson at the same time, not even close.

So, the bottom line is that if there is a methodological or materials problem it ain't the government that foisted it upon you. (Aside- the prejudice that national governments decide everything in Asian societies is a monolith and an outdated stereotype, and in many cases is based upon 'othering' ignorance. Let's get past it).

2. The university entrance exams are not to blame

Another auto-pilot whipping boy, where critics assume that equally antiquated university bureaucrats make the exams and fill them with obscure, arcane, grammar-translation questions that washback into the public school system, 'forcing' antiquated methods upon teachers.

The truth is easily discovered. You can peruse the Center Shiken or any university English entrance exam at your local bookstore quite easily. I've investigated these tests quite thoroughly in published research and, repeating what I've stated on numerous occasions, most second-stage entrance exams focus mainly upon cognitively challenging tasks, or at least demand competencies beyond mere ei-wa sentence manipulations. The vast majority of tasks address and measure a variety of skills (although, obviously, interactive, dynamic speaking skills can't really be carried out in these tests).

'Most NJ university teachers sit on these committees'

And you know who makes these tests? Probably a huge number of readers of this blog-- most NJ university teachers I've met in Japan sit on, and often take prominent roles in, these committees. So, if you want to point the finger at the university entrance exams you'll be pointing the finger at a number of well-educated, progressive, knowledgeable foreign teachers, not to mention that many of the Japanese teachers on these committees are well-versed in testing, pedagogies, SLA, and teaching methodologies too.

Ditto for the Center Shiken. Due to its nation-wide status, it has to be designed to be quickly calculable, machine-read, and as objective as possible-- but it takes only a quick scan to see that a variety of skills are being addressed and that a student coming from a grammar-translation based methodology will not be rewarded. I can also tell you that the Center Shiken committee is made up of prominent university professors (I know of a handful) who know the issues, know the field-- both in classroom practices and in theory, and would come across to any reader of this blog as being well-informed. And, yes, they include several gaijin too.

3. So is grammar-translation to blame?

Not really. Grammar-translation, as Paul Nation has stated, has a role to play. There is a place for it in our classroom, as long as it is balanced and supplemented by other supportive methods. It's not a 'bad' methodology per se, it's just limited and should not be the automatic choice or a methodological priority.

And while I'm at it, can we please toss out the tired, old dichotomy that assumes that Japanese teachers do GT while NJ teachers do the 'communicative' stuff that students really love, the stuff that helps them? It's getting old and does not correspond to much of what I've seen and/or heard from both camps (based on friends, colleagues, meeting academics, reading research and policy by both NJ and Js on the topic, not to mention having a 16-year old son in the system). It's a huge oversimplification, which often allows NJ teachers to be unduly smug and self-righteous. Equally odious is the reciprocal binary equation-- that J teachers do all the serious teaching, while the foreigners merely play games or teach 'How do you do?'.

4. So the problem is that English taught in public schools is not really practical?

I don't really buy this-- for several reasons. Public school education should not be oriented towards instrumental goals like helping students to order hamburgers abroad, chat with foreign guests, or help lost Gaijin on the streets of Kyoto. Public school education should be about setting foundations (which is why grammar-translation, drills etc. have a place) that can be later adapted to practice. There must be a formative, academic rationale behind public school education. It's not a place to practice chatting. It's not Eikaiwa land.

Now, here's the kick. The teacher who can set these foundation in such a way that they can easily be transferred into extended and meaningful forms of communication, and the teachers who can enable that transfer from the passive to the productive, are the ones who are likely to get positive results. More on this in a moment. But first we must ask ourselves...

5. Is there really a problem?

All along, we have been assuming that Japanese non-proficiency in English is a problem, that someone has to be 'blamed' for. But is this really a fair depiction?

Sometimes I can't help but think that many J English education critics have not travelled widely-- or at least in their travels have been limited to speaking with people in the tourist or related industries, and thus have a skewered notion as to the relative English proficiency of countries X and Y vis-a-vis Japan. In Japan instead, they would have been subjected to a wider range of interlocutors, many unwilling, most by force of public school education, mostly geographically removed from Shibuya Center Gai and the like. So, naturally Farmer Hayashi's kid in Oita Prefecture is not going to sound as adept as the receptionist at the Oriental Hotel in Bangkok.

And, to be honest, when I do the 'tourist/visitor' thing in Japan (stay at Tokyo hotels, go to restaurants/bars in such an area, attend conferences, go anywhere in Ropponngi/Hiroo- God forbid) I see little difference in comparison to Japan's neighbours.

The international test results canard

Of course, someone probably feels duty-bound now to bring up Japan's low-ranking composite scores on international proficiency tests, where they tend to edge out, oh, Bhutan and Montenegro by maybe a few decimal points. First, there are many, many 'hobby' test-takers in Japan, not to mention people ill-prepared but who are encouraged by English teachers or institutions to do so a bit too early. But my main problem with introducing the test score canard is that many of the same people who raise this objection are also people who would argue that discrete-point proficiency test scores are not an adequate measure or actual language ability. Somehow, this paradox seems to be lost on them.

And it should not be lost on those Canadians like myself who studied French, a national language, for five years and can't communicate in it as well as our average Japanese can in English. Think about it.

'Japan needs English for... whatever'

Finally, I must mention the ubiquitous but dubious 'need for English' criterion. Slogans like 'Japan needs English for...' sound sensible at a glance. But although young Ayaka from rural Wakayama might intuitively grasp that some Japanese need to be able speak English to sell Toyotas to Americans, that has little impact upon Ayaka, who plans to work at a nursery in her town of 50,000 people. Last time I looked, nurseries weren't peddling Priuses to the great American public. Grand policy statements using the monolithic 'Japan' rarely apply to 'every last Japanese person'.

6. So just who is responsible?

If you think your students are not where they should be in terms of English skills- you are! And when I say 'you' I do mean 'me' as well. Giving up by passing the buck onto 'the system' or 'the man' is a cop-out. We are instantly absolving ourselves of responsibility. You see a weakness? It is your responsibility to try and fix it.

Lookit. There have been NJs teaching wide and far in Japan for three decades. The ALT/JET system has been around since the bubble period. Eikaiwa schools are on every block, staffed mostly by NJs. More and more universities have NJ professors in long-term, policy-influencing roles. If the English proficiency situation hasn't improved then we have to start looking at ourselves. We are culpable here. We have to stop assuming that we, and our methods, are the solution but the 'man' keeps us down.

Stop blaming...

Do you want to see improvement? First, ask yourself- is it really necessary for my students to become proficient at English? (MEXT thinks so). And then ask yourself, are my students really so bad? And if the answer you give yourself is 'yes' then please do the following:
1. Don't blame MEXT. Or at least get informed as to what MEXT is actually saying or doing.
2. Don't blame university entrance exams.
3. Don't blame the 'other teachers' (usually meaning the old, racially-charged, NJ-J dichotomy)
4. Don't throw out the grammar-translation/drill baby with the methodological bathwater.
5. Don't assume that public schools are institutions where students should be learning immediately practical 'street' skills in any subject.

And, more positively, think of what you can do as a teacher to enable students to transfer their latent, foundational English skills into more cognitively-engaging, meaningful production. It's all about helping our students' skills develop-- the basis of what it means to be a proficient teacher.

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January 28, 2013

What the fashionable English teacher is doing this year: The 2013 ELT collection

I managed to attend and present at a number of English teaching conferences in the past six months, allowing me to feel like I'm not so isolated from the real world, despite living down in savage Miyazaki.

Trendspotter that I am, I couldn't help but notice how many of the 'cool ELT kids' have moved in new directions over the past few moons. So, if you don't want to commit some horrible faux pas at your next ELT-related ball or state dinner, some inexcusable gaffe that will reveal your total lack of Eikaiwa-world sophistication, the pedagogical equivalent of wearing a leisure suit to your kid's high school graduation ceremony, you'd better read on.

1. Beyond the post-method era

Sorry, but if you think that saying you are post-method in your teaching style marks you as contemporary you are also likely to think that 'cho-beri-ba' is current hip J-street slang and that the 'Boku ikemen!' guy is all the rage on the Talento circuit now. It seems that we have now gone one step beyond post-method. Just ask Scott Thornbury.

In a plenary speech late last year in Seoul, Thornbury elucidated upon something that I had been slowly growing aware of-- namely that previously derided and denigrated methods like audio-lingual, grammar-translation, and their offshoots, are finding a place again modern, progressive methodologies (for the record, Paul Nation has said something very similar). Of course, these are just considered parts of the new eclecticism, the notion that these much-maligned methods do have a role and a function that can be used to produce something of use or value in the language classroom. But they are, in a limited sense, back.

So you can no longer snicker condescendingly when fellow teacher X walks by with their 1950's methodology showing. It's retro-hip, it's back-to-three-chords and a breath of fresh air, it's the-past-is-the-future.

2. Plain presentations; Whistles and bells are just so... 2008!

You know how the more prestigious the academic institution is in Japan, the more rundown its premises are? (Many of highly-ranked Kyushu University's facilities look like abandoned onsen town ruins). So it seems to be these days with academic presentations. With a few rare exceptions, the more prominent and qualified the speaker, the more their presentations are just plain, stark text.

Perhaps the subtext is, 'This content is so powerful and intellectually rewarding that I need no cosmetics to enhance it'. Unfortunately, I am one of those people who still uses 1990's style clip art in my presentations although, in my defense, I never ever used twirling and flashing animations to liven up slides saying, 'Introduction and Outline!'. Nonetheless, the current meme seems to be that flashy presentations, style over substance, are for salesmen, not serious academics.

3. Low-tech classrooms- Sensei, what's that big white board for?

There's money in edu-tech and private institutions in particular like to display their super hi-tech state-of-the-art language labs as a selling point to prospective students. There used to be a lot of presentation and seminars with titles like, "Using iPad Retina Mozilla as an E-Preposition Correction Tool" complete with a demonstration as to how this gadget could not fail but increase your students' TOEIC test scores by at least twenty percent (it's always about raising TOEIC scores somehow). But I've been told by more than a few conference planners and organizers that the number of attendees for such presentations is dwindling significantly.

So, as Che sang in Evita, "That's all gone now." I get a very palpable sense that teachers are suffering from gadget fatigue that the tipping point of electronic teaching aids has been reached and breached. I've talked to some teachers who feel alienated from their students by the intervening technology, becoming the pedagogical equivalent of sound engineers-- as opposed to musicians-- in a recording studio.

4. Beat-you-over-the-head, thick-as-natto-on-mochi, referencing (Sayonara, 2013)

I was taking a gander at The Lancet recently and noted how, for such a reputable journal, how thoroughly readable it is. It's not hard to grasp why. To put it bluntly, The Lancet, and an increasing number of academic journals, are not citation sluts.

You know what I mean, those journals that seem to think the more references you provide, the more 'well-grounded' or 'objective' the article is. Which leads to 'easy' citations, where the author has clearly trawled the Net looking for someone, anyone, to backup their claim that, "English is an important means of communication".

Not only that, but the citation method is moving to the so-called Vancouver-style (superscript in the text, simple reference at the end of the paper), as opposed to the clunky, bureaucratic, brain-numbing APA dinosaur. I'd like to think that as a native son of Vancouver that I have had some positive influence on this advance although it's more likely that editors have simply realized that by using the newer style people might actually want to read the journals!

5. Young guns and their hot, stiletto stats vs. dowdy teachers in sensible statistical shoes

When I was doing my Applied Linguistics MA, statistics was not a required part of the program. Consequently, while I'm good with mental arithmetic and can still probably give you the goal-scoring stats of every player in the 1974 NHL regular season, I'm at a bit of a loss when it comes to statistical analysis in ELT research. And I know I'm not the only one.

Perhaps I'm envious of youth. Some of these younger teachers are impressively well-versed in statistical nuance. It sure looks scientific anyway; all the variables have been quantified and all conclusions 'measurably objective'. But something leaves me cold with this approach, and, after speaking recently with some journal editors on the matter (three to be exact, with a standard deviation of 0.5), I realize I'm far from being alone on this.

The problem is when these young bucks display their research results in a presentation the slide often looks like it could have a screen shot of today's Stock Market Report from The Times, for all I can absorb in the ten seconds that I'm looking at it. You see, I'll believe them just as much, if not more so, if they tell me, for example, that, "Student breakdancing in English skills improved 5.9% when using the 'Timberlake Remix' as a soundtrack", if they show me a giant-sized '5.9%' on a slide, as opposed to what may be, for all I know, the Higgs-boson equation.

And the journal editors I talked to feel the same way, stating that they are exhausted (and sometimes bored) by bulky appendices of raw data gracing their journal's pages. So, perhaps this statistical minutiae has reached attrition, or has even jumped the shark-- although I bet that a few maniacs are even now trying to establish whether what I say here can be validated statistically.

6. I'll show you my culture if you show me yours!

Do oldtimers remember when textbooks, presentations, and articles about "Cultural differences" (Contrastive Analysis) and their apparent impact upon language learning and teaching were all the rage; when they were about as sexy as Kumi Koda? Now it seems they're as dated too.

I'd like to think that some of the things I've said and written on this topic (in short, that it fosters othering, increases a needles psychological gap between L1 and L2, and endorses monolithic stereotypes-- and that's without even mentioning that most fans unwittingly invoked the execrable hard version of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis) have rendered this once-fashionable corner of ELT into semi-consciousness.

The fact is that I see fewer and fewer academic journal articles these days extolling the dubious virtues of, for example, Hofstede's cultural categories (Hofstede is, for my money, the Emerson, Lake and Palmer of cultural theorists), and a quick perusal of six recent conference guidebooks revealed only two presentations of this type (I would have put that number at about twenty a decade ago). This, I say, is a good thing. Not only was most of this horrible social science but was also actively feeding students an already exaggerated diet of us vs. themness.

7. Are activist teaching SIGs slinking offstage left?

Is it just me, or has anyone else noticed that the fortunes of Critical Pedagogy-types ("The language classroom should be used as a place to subvert the system!") and Special Interest Groups that are basically activist communities are on the wane?

There's a lot to discuss regarding such interest groups but I'll leave that up to a (near) future post.

Any other ELT fashionistas out there keeping up on what the well-versed ELT teacher is saying or doing this year?

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