Finally deciding to join the EFL conversation from 2006 was a daunting task. It took 15 years to muster up enough courage to share my opinions on teaching and learning. These fears were among the garden-variety, “I wasn’t a trained teacher, so I must not have anything useful to say” Sounds pretty silly now, but I wonder who else feels this way? In this first editorial, I will introduce a bit of my history, expose my initial fears and confess my hopes regarding this new venture within ELT News.
Memories: circa 1989
Back in 1989, teaching my small classes or private lessons was less about actually teaching and more about simply giving students some real practice time using English. I began teaching solo at a private junior & senior high school (JSHS) in 1992. The principal told me that a good teacher was strict, but kind. Within days, I realized that in any given class, about 20% of students hated English and they could really cause problems. Therefore, motivating students, learning classroom management and developing my own teaching technique were vitally important. I shudder to think back to some of the meaningless hoops that I forced students to jump through while I was learning to be a teacher.
I also remember being told that as I became a better teacher, my students would naturally learn more. All that focus on me actually allowed everyone (including me) to ignore whether any actual learning was taking place in my classroom. My MA TEFL studies led me into a total paradigm shift. The focus is no longer on my teaching, but now entirely on their learning. I spend most of my energy observing classroom interaction (T-S, and S-S), getting them started on something and trying to stay out of the way as much as possible.
For many of us, teaching means a never-ending commitment to learning.
If you think that you want to get more out of teaching, then simply get more involved and go deeper. You’ll not only grow as a teacher but you’ll get more friends, more confidence and many more happy days at work. I’ve gotten more in the past 3 years through my involvement with the MA TEFL program at the University of Birmingham, ELT News, JALT and MASH Collaboration than I ever could have imagined.
That’s why I’ve decided to get more involved here in ELT News. I’m hoping that I can make a bunch of new friends and colleagues in 2010. There are a number of ways to get involved with us: from simply reading around the website and sending in comments to starting your own new column.
Make this your decade… Go deeper.
Become a regular reader – new editorials every weekend
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According to the Collins English online dictionary, fluency is defined as:
1. able to speak or write with ease,
2. spoken or written with ease,
In all my online searches, fluency always turns up in relation to speaking or writing output, never as listening or reading input. However, here in Japan, it is widely agreed that the flourishing extensive reading boom is a great source of reading fluency practice, while EFL professionals such as Rob Waring are promoting extensive listening, and I have written my MA TEFL dissertation and presented on extensive writing for many of the same reasons.
This topic is on my mind constantly these days. Not only because my colleagues and I have a call for submissions for a new book, Fluency in EFL, open until May 31st, but recently, I see all four skills coming together and benefitting from a fluency-based approach. Nation wrote a piece, Fluency and Learning, 20 years ago and I wonder why it hasn’t taken off or synthesized for more of my EFL colleagues?
One major problem is trying to define fluency. No one seems to agree and it simply never ends (see 91 entries on Scott Thornbury’s blog). Linguists are lost on how to test for fluency and often get caught up in trying to measure pauses, hesitations and the like.
Fluency also doesn’t get thought about very much in either the EFL or ESL worlds for very practical reasons: in EFL contexts, creating genuine situations for fluency practice to be real and meaningful is rather tricky, if not impossible; in the ESL world, students can get fluency practice opportunities 24/7 and so schools don’t even need to think about it.
Undaunted, since April 2010, I’m now experimenting with a fluency-based approach within a TOEFL iBT preparation course at Doshisha Women’s College of Liberal Arts in the International Studies department. I am absolutely amazed at both my focus and the singular focus of the students within our curriculum. My fluency message, in contrast to the previous six years of accuracy focus, resonates strongly with my highly motivated and highly challenged students. In addition to a fluency approach towards reading, writing, listening and speaking, there is also a palpable understanding that other fluency-related skills are very important: so far speed-reading, touch-typing, efficient note-taking and timed exercises are all on my students’ radar.
On Sunday, May 23rd, I’ll be presenting on Fluency in EFL at the JALT Pan-SIG 2010 conference. It promises to be provocative at the very least: I’ll share what I’ve been learning about fluency and even attempt my own definition of fluency for each of the four skills. I’ll also make a pitch for a strong fluency-based approach within a TOEFL iBT preparation course. Finally, I will invite my audience to thicken my skin a little with any opposing perspectives. Yikes…
Come join me for a little professional development through collaboration.
Check in every weekend here for new thoughts by three of my innovative colleagues and me.
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I hope some of you will join this collaborative editorial. A new teacher/researcher friend recently sent me the following request:
“I am collecting impressions and anecdotes on the challenges faced by teachers in the 21st Century around the globe. I was wondering if you could provide me with 2-3 points on the most pressing issues for language teachers in Japan now.”
She’ll be presenting these ideas at a conference this summer. I was very pleased to be asked my opinion, and I’m hoping that you--our readers--will also share your thoughts. OK, here’s my list:
1. EFL is not ESL
There seems to be a growing awareness that ESL experts who have been flown in to conferences and training seminars over the past number of years have been toting a message that never quite fit with our context. There was always a sense of taking their advice and trying to fit a round peg into a square hole. As EFL Japan matures as its own distinct context, we are searching for more meaningful approaches in the classroom. The growth of Extensive Reading and various other fluency-related approaches are a positive step in that direction.
2. Balancing accuracy and fluency
We often blame the university entrance testing system and its washback effect for the challenges in teaching English in Japan. However, rather than sighing shikataganai (it can’t be helped), it may be an innovative approach to look at promoting a better balance between accuracy and fluency. The six years at JSHS almost entirely focus on accuracy through a grammar-translation and intensive reading method. By comparison, challenging students to work on their fluency may be a timely and easy argument. That has been my experience with high school students as well as first year university students. There are always a lot of heads nodding whenever I ask, “Is your reading too slow?” or “Is it difficult to think and speak at the same time?”
I’ve recently measured two areas of their fluency: speaking (words per minute) and reading (words per minute). Their speaking fluency ranged from 36 wpm–100 wpm, and that information gave them two valuable messages: 1) they realized where they were in relation to their classmates, and 2) they could easily set new goals for improvement.
3. Textbooks vs your own materials
I’ve had this battle before, and yet, I’m having it again. Once you know the goals of a course, and familiarize yourself with what’s available in published textbooks, is the only justification for continuing to use textbooks the fact that they save prep time? If you invest time to prepare your own materials, does that emotional commitment mean that textbooks don’t stand a chance by comparison? My students are pretty sophisticated, veteran students. Last week, they encouraged me to teach them things that I valued in life, not the academic essays on pruning, irrigation and geothermal energy that we’ve encountered in textbooks this year.
What do you think are some pressing issues for language teachers in Japan?
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When thinking about whom we might like to write a book together with, I was amazed at all the cool people working in our unique EFL context. Here are over 100 people I like to read or hear opinions from:
Thanks especially to JALT, but also to ETJ, MASH Collaboration, Nakasendo, JACET and others for offering a forum for dedicated professional educators to show their stuff.
I haven’t met all of these people, but those who haven’t impressed me in person, have certainly shone in their writing in journals or on blogs, facebook or twitter. It only takes a moment to recognize good people.
If your name is not on the list, I apologize. I did the list off the top of my head - just thinking back to all the events I've attended and the things I've read since deciding to jump into the EFL conversation seriously back in 2006. I'll post the next 100 people sometime next year.
So, whose thoughts and ideas would you like to read? This list could be based on their experience teaching EFL, their writing ability, their innovations, their presentations, or any number of factors.
Check in every week for new thoughts from Theron, Barbara, David or myself – we really love to hear from you.
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As we gear up for the main season of conferences here in Japan, I decided to have a think about what I’d ideally like to get from the conference fairy:
New collaborators – I’ve been looking for and continue to look for other teacher/researchers who share a passion for exchanging ideas, working together on classroom research projects, stretching themselves in new directions and building long-term friendships. Specifically, I’m interested in the following areas:
• Fluency in EFL
• TOEFL iBT
• Classroom research
• Learner Autonomy
• Teaching Unplugged
Time to talk – It seems that most of the shop talk takes place after hours, with a beer in one hand, and music filling the room and my brain. I would like more time in sessions to brainstorm and share ideas. Assuming that colleagues at the same presentation share the same interest in that topic, it would be wonderful to have more discussion type sessions, perhaps facilitated by the main presenter.
Opportunities to bond – Months after a conference, I rarely look back at a particular session that I went to, and I almost never have reason to talk about them. However, I often reminisce about things I did with others: dinners, karaoke, sports activities, or collaborations in studying, writing or planning events. These are where the memories remain alive.
Inspiration – Thinking back over the past 4 or 5 years, only two or three presentations or workshops have really inspired me to take action in any significant way: to change something or introduce something new into my teaching. Of course, I make changes every year, but most of those changes come from reading or collaborating online. It would be nice to meet some more inspirational speakers at language teaching conferences.
New types of events – Two close friends went to a recent conference in the States. Neither of them new that the other one was there, but they both contacted me from the conference, telling me that they were overwhelmed (happily) with meeting people who wanted to connect with others. They both said they had never felt this at any conference to that point. Sounds great to me! And it made me wonder if we could have a Collaborators Corner or a Connect over Coffee section set up explicitly for those who want to find like-minded souls.
As I keep learning over and over again, there are different strokes for different folks, so I wonder what you’d like to get from upcoming conferences this season?
Here’s what’s on MY radar (sorry to others):
Sept 17-20 MASH JALT Equinox 2010 in Tokyo (Thornbury/Nation/Helgesen et al)
Sept 23 ETJ-JALT Equinox 2010 in Kita-Kyushu (Thornbury)
Sept 25 MASH JALT Equinox 2010 in Osaka (Thornbury/Nation et al)
Sept 26 27th Annual Hokkaido Conference (Thornbury)
Oct 16-17 The 2010 PAC-KOTESOL International Conference
Oct 31 The 5th JALT Joint Tokyo Conference 2010
Nov 6-7 The 31st Tokyo English Language (TEL) Book Fair and ELT EXPO
Nov 19-22 JALT 2010: 36th Annual International Conference
Nov 28 ETJ Kansai Expo
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“OK I'm off. 10 days in Japan: 9 talks, 2 'conversations', 1 Pecha Kucha and a Zen temple or two. Wish me luck! #MASHeq” (@thornburyscott on Twitter)
As luck would have it
We’re pretty lucky here in Japan that we live in an exotic “destination” that academics, business people and relatives love to visit. It may be a little difficult for some unconnected travelers to negotiate the land of the rising sun, but for those coming to a conference, Japan is always a fascinating venue. Based on all the good sushi, good conversations and good people that attended JALT 2009 in Shizuoka last year, Scott Thornbury was wide open to the opportunity to visit us again for Equinox 2010 in Tokyo, with visits to Kitakyushu, Osaka and Hokkaido as well.
We have since realized that we were incredibly lucky to have approached Scott Thornbury because he has already proven that he has all the right stuff: internationally acclaimed author, totally engaging speaker, thought-provoking blogger, and one of the first people you’d like to have a beer and chat with before, during or after a conference. Beyond all of those stellar credentials, he has the qualities that any conference organizer values most; he is fun to deal with, totally organized and professional, and entirely low maintenance.
Over the past 6 months, I have had the pleasure of Skyping with him once or twice a month, and exchanging dozens and dozens of Email. He has taken a keen interest in the organization of Equinox 2010, asked for our input on his presentations, and given advice on our programming ideas at each step of planning our conference. While I was huddled in front of my computer at 9 or 10 pm in Japan, he was always as sunny as the Spanish weather streaming into the office at his home in Barcelona. Having the chance to ask questions about linguistics, share ideas about teaching and laugh together was something I hadn’t expected.
In fact, during my MA TEFL studies, I read his How to Teach Grammar and I very clearly remember saying out loud to myself upon finishing, “OK, I’m sold. I wish I could meet this guy someday and take a grammar course from him”. I’m pretty sure my MASH collaborators might even remember that conversation because even three years ago, we began riffing, “Wouldn’t it be cool to contact him and do an online course with him?”
So now, some very lucky people are also going to have the same opportunities that I had. Rather than flying in, speaking and then leaving right away, Scott will have an extended conversation with attendees at Equinox 2010 in Tokyo from September 17-20. We have built in plenty of discussion time with the unofficial theme of “Celebrating Collaboration”.
The chance to hang out with Scott has attracted some of the keenest, most active, hard-working teacher/researchers from around Japan. We have space for more at Toyo Gakuen University (Hongo Campus), so whether it’s for 1 day or the whole 4-day conference, we invite you to join us for a guaranteed fun and meaningful experience.
Check in each week for new editorials by David Paul, Theron Muller, Barbara Sakamoto and myself. We love hearing from you.
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So, here's something on my mind of late...
I often go to meetings and conferences with a predetermined plan of which sessions I'd like to attend or which presenters I'd like to listen to. However, when I eventually get to the conference, I usually do my darnedest to get into meaningful conversations with people in the lobby, near the coffee machine, or even outside in the smoker's section (whatever you think about smoking, smokers have always been some of the best conversationalists that I've met). If I'm lucky enough to get into a juicy conversation, I often ditch the plan to see the presentation that I had planned to see. Now aside from all of the issues concerning my laziness, immaturity, unprofessionalism, etc, I really wonder why I veer so consistently towards conversation with colleagues over presentations by colleagues?
There are a couple of ideas that come to mind right away: 1) I'm usually disappointed with the presentations that I've attended in the past, 2) I'm a talker and so I like talking more than listening, or 3) Conversations offer more of a risk/reward opportunity than going to presentations. Let's take a peek inside of these ideas.
1. Am I usually disappointed with the presentations that I've attended in the past? Not really. However, I'd say that after a number of years watching presentations in Japan, I now have a fairly good sense of who presents well, who has new ideas, and what to avoid. Probably, most of the lousier presentations that I have sat through (some friends don't hesitate to walk out of a mediocre talk, but I'm not that gutsy yet) were back when I first started participating in my own professional development.
2. Does my tendency to want to talk lead me to informal chats over formal presentations? I'm sure it does. For me, it is often very difficult for me to connect with a speaker who doesn't seem to be talking to me. I know that being engaged in conversation helps me to learn a lot more.
3. Is the risk/reward factor of spontaneity more appealing than going to presentations? Partly, but it's a two-sided coin. Some of my best conference experiences (read meaningful epiphanies & connections) have taken place outside of the classroom or auditorium. On the other hand, I've missed a few great talks that I may never have the chance to witness.
For me, the uptake of this little reflection is that my own presenting style is currently morphing away from being a standard slide show and talk. I'm experimenting with a new, more interactive approach. I'm trying to encourage audiences to interrupt me, ask for clarification, more details, alternative examples, etc. I like to say that I'm prepared to do 25 slides and speak for 45 minutes if nothing else happens, but I'd be equally happy to have such an interesting exchange of ideas that time runs before getting anywhere near slide #25.
What do you think?
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JALT 2010 was a blast according to just about everyone. Hats off to the conference team for pulling off another great event. And that’s the feeling that everyone I know left the conference with. So for those of you who didn’t attend, what is there to be taken away from such an event? Well, teaching tips, new friendships and a little thing called networking are but a few of what I left with.
This year’s three plenary speakers were both theoretical and practical. Nicky Hockly’s approach to technology in the classroom was both fun and meaningful. She passed out a list of very useful websites that can be exploited in many pedagogical ways. Tim Murphey embedded both a phrase and a melody in everyone’s head, “Collaboratively Energizing my Imagination” (to the tune of supercalifragolisticexpialidoshish – don’t even say it once or it’ll be there forever) while offering by demonstration, a wonderful approach to working with students to learn a language. I missed Alan Maley's but have read and respected his work for years now.
Three cheers for the coffee stand in the entrance. I hung out there, convalesced there and held a number of planned and serendipitous meetings there. One was a new business opportunity, another was sharing ideas for using 10 minutes of music to warm-up an adult TOEIC class, and another was with a guy I met in the elevator who has created a great note-taking system (and notebook) for university students.
The other great place to meet people was at the free breakfast in my cheap hotel. I met two interesting teachers who I had a lot in common with. It was as simple as noticing that we were both looking at our conference schedules for the day, and then offering up the initial, “any definite plans to see something today?” and we were off…
The opening OUP reception was a beehive (a hot one!) of activity, full of joy and anticipation for the weekend. People were smiling and laughing, catching up and meeting new colleagues. There was even an informal “Tweet Up” organized by JALT friends on Twitter. That event certainly got everyone off on the right foot.
For me, the other big two networking events were the Cengage sponsored, “Be the Change” fundraiser at Shooters bar (the place where I left my voice AND forgot my pencil case – of all things!) and the MASH-CUE party at Tiger Café on Sunday night. These two events were shockingly successful, mostly because the people who attended were all there for the same reason – to meet people, to share ideas, and to collaboratively energize each other’s imagination. Geez, it’s gonna play over and over in my head all day now…
If any of this sounds like you want some, come check out the 2010 Kansai ETJ Expo this Sunday at Seifu High School in Osaka. If you want to experience a similar buzz among teachers and other professionals in education, this is the time and place to start.
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