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Interview with Roger Barnard

roger_barnard.gifRoger Barnard is Professor in the Department of General Education at Tama Art University, Tokyo, where he teaches general English and content courses related to art and design. He is the author of "Good News, Bad News" and co-author of "Business Venture", both published by Oxford University Press, and co-author of "Fifty Fifty", published by Longman. Professor Barnard has taught in Japan for over twenty years, and is especially interested in content course design.

This is something of a "track from the vault" -- Roger originally spoke with then ELT News editor Michael Chan in April 2001 but the interview was never published. Until now!


ELT: When and how did you get involved in English language teaching? Why did you come to Japan?
RB: After graduating from art school in London in the 1960s, I taught art in secondary schools for a while, then tried (unsuccessfully) to survive as an full-time artist for a few years. A variety of jobs followed in order to pay the rent, and during this time I became interested in Japanese art, especially woodblock printing. After beginning Japanese language lessons, then meeting my future wife, Masako, I decided to see Japan for myself and possibly stay for about a year.

Like so many others before and since, I soon found out that virtually the only way I could survive in Japan was by teaching English, so I took a two-week course in the Direct Method in London, and was introduced to a language school in Tokyo where I began teaching in May, 1975.

What with an average of eleven forty-minute lessons a day, mostly based on the first page of the school textbook, and two-day weekends only every other week, I can't pretend I always enjoyed my first six months or so in Japan, but that first job has certainly helped me appreciate the jobs I have had since.
Any advice for prospective teachers thinking of teaching here?
Find out something about the culture and language before you arrive, and if you are new to EFL, find out about the basics of English and EFL teaching. And if you're going to be in Japan in the summer, stock up on deodorant.
How has the ELT scene changed since you started in the profession?
Students are choosier than they were. Most students are studying for a particular purpose these days, and they want to get results. It's not enough for a foreign teacher to be young, blonde and handsome / pretty any more (not that I ever was).

There are fewer jobs than there were twenty years ago, and there is a greater number of qualified teachers going after them.

The range of textbooks was very limited in the seventies. Kernel Lessons Intermediate was widely used, and just to illustrate the lack of English-language entertainment in those days (no bilingual TV, no satellite TV, no videos - in fact life itself was in black and white), teachers would memorize whole chunks of the book and entertain each other by reciting bits at parties.

Teachers used to have bushy sideburns and flared trousers, and that was just the females.
Do you remember the first class you taught?
I clearly remember one of the first. During my second week of teaching, I had to teach a private lesson to Ms. M., a new student who had undergone a 'level check' and was rated (like nearly everyone else who came to the school) as a beginner. Unfortunately, not only did she turn out to be at least a high-intermediate, but my lesson was to be monitored (all the rooms were bugged) by our trainer to see if I was following the rigorously designed method, which basically involved reading from the specially written course manual'. Ms. M. was totally bemused by my efforts to follow the mandatory question sequence of "Is this a pen?" "Is this a pencil?" - "Is this a pen or a pencil?" - "What is this?" for pen, pencil, eraser, textbook, etc., and we ended up talking about Japanese politics. I was severely reprimanded after the lesson for straying from the manual.
What's your favorite "breaking the ice" activity for a new class?
During the first class, I often have the students ask me about six questions from cues on the board, e.g. (Where/from) - "Where are you from?", (Where/live) - "Where do you live?", (Japan) - "When did you come to Japan?" or "What do you think of Japan" or "Do you like Japan?" I write the cues (old), (married), and (money) in a 'bomb' to show which questions are inappropriate on first meeting. The students can also ask their own appropriate questions, of course.

After answering the questions, and introducing the concept of follow-up questions, I dictate six similar questions for the students to ask each other. The questions can be adapted to suit the level of the class, for example, the first one would be "What's your name?" for elementary students, or "Could you tell me your name?" at a higher level. I read the questions at natural speed, using reduced forms; the students write the questions (not the answers), then check what they have written with a partner. I then elicit the questions from the class, write them on the board, and work on any errors.

Alternatively, you could ask selected students to write the full questions on the board themselves, but I feel this might be a little stressful for a first class. After demonstrating how to ask the questions and write the answers in note form instead of full sentences, I have the students move around the classroom and ask two or three classmates the questions and note down the answers. They then report to the class what they found out, e.g. "I spoke to Keiko Nakamura. She's from ...."

I find this activity always goes well; it has a clear purpose, i.e. to help the students to get to know their teacher and each other, it can be adapted to suit a wide range of levels, it uses a variety of skills and interaction configurations, and it's active.

On Japanese Students

It is generally acknowledged that the level of English proficiency among Japanese -- despite the amount of money spent on EFL in the country -- is below average compared to other countries. What are your views on this?
I think it's probably true that the average Japanese person does not excel in communicating effectively in English. I feel this is mainly due to the way the language is taught in secondary schools and colleges, for example emphasizing obscure points of grammar and pronunciation, learning words out of context, and a preference for clear-cut right/wrong answers that are test-friendly.

Cultural factors, such as the reluctance to stand out in a group, and the fear of being perceived as 'pushy' by expressing an individual opinion, also play a part. And the Japanese like to do things well; they often talk of 'mastering' rather than 'learning' English, and this desire for perfection breeds a fear of mistakes, which in turn produces hesitancy and avoidance of potentially problematic situations.

Having said all that, I have met many Japanese who are excellent communicators in English, and whose ability puts my limited Japanese ability to shame. I think it's also true that English education is changing, and although the average high school graduate may know less about the language than before, there appear to be more students who realize that English is a means of expression and communication and who actually enjoy using it.
What are some of the most common mistakes Japanese students make in your classes?
Stressing the final syllable in words like "organization". Using 'ever' in a positive statement such as "I have ever been to Europe." Using 'will' for any sentence about the future (instead of the present continuous or 'going to', for example). Calling me Mr. Roger. Forgetting the textbook. Not switching off their cellphones.

On Publications

How did you get into writing course textbooks?
I had always been interested in preparing my own class materials, and In the late eighties, Warren Wilson, who I'd taught with a few years previously, asked me to join him in writing a textbook specially designed for large classes. That became Fifty-Fifty, and if you're interested in why I never made it as an artist, check out my artwork for the first edition.
How is writing a business course different for a general course? Is one particularly more enjoyable or difficult than another?
I think the only major difference is the content. There is no approach, treatment or exercise style that is peculiar to business courses. Authentic materials and realistic invented materials are certainly extremely important in a business course, but these days they are just as important in a general text, too.

One of the most difficult things about writing Business Venture was the amount of time we had to spend searching the print and electronic media trying to find appropriate authentic materials. It was also difficult getting permission to use our selections, but luckily OUP took care of that.
What advice would you give to prospective textbook/material writers?
Follow a sequence that looks something like this:
  1. Carefully analyze the good and bad points of any published materials you use in class.
  2. Write your own alternative and / or supplementary materials, and try to get your colleagues to use them. Elicit feedback from teachers and students.
  3. Design a short course for your school or institution. Elicit feedback.
  4. Contact publishers and offer to pilot / review materials prior to publication.
  5. Offer to write teacher's books or workbooks.
  6. Submit your own proposal for a textbook. If you have an idea for a book, you will have to present a convincing argument for the publisher to go ahead with it. Apart from at least three sample units, you will need to prepare a rationale for your book or course, and compare it with titles in the same area.
    Sit back and wait for the invitation to write a blockbuster.

On Professionalism

What resources (e.g. books, web sites, teacher organizations) have been beneficial to your professional development as an educator? What resources would you strongly recommend to a teacher?
I found the RSA Diploma course tough but extremely valuable. Although the course includes a theoretical component, it places great emphasis on practical classroom management skills, and helps to heighten your awareness of what you and your students actually do in the classroom.

Organizations such as JALT, TESOL, and IBC (International Business Communicators) provide opportunities to meet other teachers outside your own workplace, and also to give presentations, an excellent way of organizing your thoughts about learning and teaching.

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