Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Adapting a Task to a Junior High School (An Update)

In a previous post, I wrote about the how my graduate students and I were struggling to adapt a task to use at a junior high school. After a lot of negotiation, we were able to agree on a framework for conducting the task. The framework was based on the one in Jane Willis's A Framework for Task Based Learning . The task type was a Jumble. In a jumble, students have to arrange strips of text into its correct order. For the jumble, we used the story "Sylvester and the Magic Pebble" by William Steig. We made cards of the story (see below). Each card had a picture from the story and we rewrote the text using mainly words that the junior high school students had studied up to that point.

The graduate students taught a total of 4 second grade classes at the JHS, each class had close to 40 students. There were three graduate students and each class was taught by 2 graduate students; one would be the main teacher and the other would serve as the assistant teacher. The goals of the lesson were the following:

  1. JHS students see the words that they have studied in a different context from the textbook and reinforce their understanding of these words.
  2. JHS students use the language that they know to organize the cards with their partners. This will give them practice in using communicative strategies and it is hoped that this activity will make it easier for students to use English with each other the next time they do a similar activity.
  3. Organizing the cards helps students understand how pieces of text fits together to make a whole.

Perhaps the main goal of the class was number 2. Although the JHS students had many opportunities to write English, read English, and use English in speeches, they had little experience using English in free, spontaneous speech.

Below is how the class was organized.

Pre Task

1. The teachers introduce the topic:
Teachers, "Today we are going to read a story about a donkey named Taro. Taro likes stones. In the story, Taro finds a magic stone but something terrible happens to him. What happens?

2. Teachers tell students the goal.
The teachers wrote the goal of the class was "To put the story together in English". This goal was a little difficult for the students to understand.

3. Teachers teach new words.
The teachers taught students new words that appeared in the story.

4. Teachers demonstrate how to do the jumble
The teachers demonstrates to students how to do the jumble and pasted phrases they thought would be useful for students to learn on the blackboard (See the picture below).
The teachers explained that there were two rules for jumble: 1) The students should read and understand the text first. 2) The students should use only English and they can use the phrases on the board.

5. The teachers confirm that learners understand the instructions
Actually, the teachers only did this in one of four classes. This class was the most successful class.

During the pre task stage, the learners were supposed to listen for useful expressions to use for the task. Learners were not given any time to plan for the task.

Task Cycle
1. Students do the tasks in pairs
2. The teachers let the students do the task but offer support to those who need it. They also encourage pairs to use English.
3. At the ending of the task the teachers show students the order of the story.

1. Students write a transcript of the dialogue they had in the task.
The point of this is for students to be able to analyze the English that they used in the task.

2. The pairs make groups of 4 and each pair reenacts their dialogue. The pair that is listening is supposed to write down useful words and phrases.
The point of this was for students to hear the phrases their classmates had used for the task and learn about the variety of language that could be used.

1. The teachers call on various students to perform their dialogue in front of the class.

Post Task (Language Focus)
1. The teachers give students metalinguistic feedback on the reports.
2. Students write a self evaluation

Positive and Negative Aspects of the Classes
I will start with the positives:

JHS students made a strong effort to use English.
One JHS student wrote the following:(Jimbo translation)
"I was able to confirm the meaning in English with my partner when I did not understand something. It was really difficult to use only English but I was surprised that I could do so by using such simple phrases as 'Yes' and 'This is'."

JHS students realized the importance of using English.
One JHS student wrote:
"Up until now I could not really use the English that I had studied, I was not so skilled at English. From now on I was to study 'English that I can use". (Jimbo translation)

The JHS students were able to learn from friends.
"Listening to other people's conversations, I learned a lot of new expressions and could use them. I want to use these expressions in the next class." (Jimbo translation)

The JHS teacher reported that students’ comments made her realize that her students wanted to try speaking more.

Here are the negative aspects:
After each class, students were asked to comment on how much English they used in the jumble. Here are the results:

How much English did you use during the jumble?

Class C

Class D

Class A

Class B


Almost all English






Half English and half Japanese






Almost all Japanese






Class D was the only class where the teachers confirmed that students understood the demonstration of the jumble task. The students said no and the teachers gave a quick explanation in Japanese. The students then said "Oh, I see" and most succeeded in doing the task mainly in English. In the other classes the students were not sure what they had to do for the jumble task and struggled to use English. Through this experience, we learned the importance of introducing the task well in the pre-task phase. One of my students wrote:

"Even if you have a good task, it will not work unless the teachers present it well.

In all the classes the students struggled with the "planning" stage of the task cycle. The reason for this was that the teachers told them to write down their conversation but did not say why they should do so. So, the students did not know that they were supposed to transcribe their conversation so that they could present it to their classmates and, so, in turn, their classmates could learn new words and phrases by listening to their presentation.

Students thought that they could only use the expression on the blackboard for the jumble when there were other expressions that they wanted to use.

There was not sufficient time to go through the task cycle and the class was rushed.

The teachers had a difficult time giving the students spontaneous feedback in the post task (language focus) phase. For example, the teachers heard the students say the expression "How about you" in the following way in the report stage:
Student: "This card is here, how about you?"
The teachers said this was a good expression to use for the jumble when in fact the usage of this expression was incorrect.

The teachers did not discuss how the sentences fit together after the task.

Implication for Using Tasks in Teacher Education

The teacher-educator should consider making the lesson plan:

I had the student-teachers make the lesson plan and they must have given me 5 or 6 versions before it had my final approval. I think that making the lesson plan was a good experience for the student-teachers but they spent so much time working on the lesson plan that they did not have much time to practice presenting the task, explaining the planning stage etc. In the future, I will consider making the lesson plan myself so that the student-teachers have more time to practice doing the lesson. If we do a similar practice a second time, the students can design the lesson as they will have a better idea what doing a task in a JHS entails.

If the JHS students and the teacher educators are doing a task for the first time consider an alternative framework to Willis's task cycle

Personally, the cycle has worked for me well. However, if teachers and students are doing the task for the first time it will take them longer to complete the task. Fifty minutes if probable too short. Thus, we should consider thess options:
  1. They do the jumble task, reflect on it, and then move onto another activity. There is no planning or reporting.
  2. Students do the jumble task, relfect on it and get feedback from the teacher, do a different jumble task, and see if their performance was any better.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

What do kids get out of listening to English picture books? An update

A few months ago I wrote a post about up and coming pilot lessons using picture books that would be conducted at a local elementary school. The project which is overseeing this endeavor is called the Working with Picture Books Project.

In late June, teachers at the elementary school conducted 12 classes using picture books. Classes were conducted for 1st through 6th grades and a total of 4 English picture books were used.

Here is a list of the Picture Books we used for each class.

Grades 1 & 2: Suddenly by McNaughton, C: 165 words
Grades 3 & 4: Tulip Sees America by Rylant, C. and Desimini: 362 words
Grade 5: Nana Upstairs & Nana Downstairs by Tomie dePaola: 403 words
Grade 6: Yoko by Rosemary Wells: 508 words

I rewrote the text for all the picture books expect for Suddenly. I also scanned the books into my computer and gave the teachers a laminated A3 sized copy of each page. Lastly, I gave the teachers a CD of me reading the books so they would have a model (albeit not a very good one!)

Most of the picture books were read in less than 10 minutes. The teachers who read Nana Upstairs & Nana Downstairs and Yoko read about two third of their respective books and continued the stories for the next lesson.

Below are the results of the questionnaire given to the children. Under the question, I have written the result and what I found out.

1) Did you understand the story?
(Students write a circle next to the answer they agree with)

Results: (N=251)
a. I understood it well (115 )

b. I understood it a little (97)
c. I did not understand it well (33)
d. I did not understand it at all (6)

What I found out: The majority of children felt that they understood the story. This is notable because question 3 will reveal that teachers used means other than translation to help children understand the meaning of the text.

2)Did you try hard to understand the story?
a. I tried very hard      (140 )
b. I tried a little        (97)
c. I did not try so hard    (10)
d. I did not try at all    ( 3 )

What I found out: After observing the classes, it seemed that most children listened to the story attentively and made great efforts to understand it. The above responses seem to substantiate this.

3)How were you able to understand the story? Please write circle next to what was useful
a. The teacher’s facial expression when he/she was reading (109)
b. The teacher’s voice would change from loud to soft (83)
c. I heard words that I recognized       (112)
d. I would think about what would happen next while I was listening to the story(79)
e. The picture                       (141)
f. Asking the teachers questions              (22)
g. The teacher using Japanese               (76)
h. I did not understand the English but I could follow the story  (89)
i. The teacher’s talk before reading the book       (35)
j. Other: __________ (a few)                  

What I Found Out: I was pleased to learn that children used a variety of means to understand the book in addition to the teacher using Japanese. What was surprising is that more the books' pictures, hearing words they recognized, and the teachers' facial expressions helped more children understand the story than the teacher using Japanese.

4) Was the story interesting?
a. It was very interesting     (145)
b. It was a little interesting    (68)
c. It was not very interesting    (33)
d. It was not interesting at all   (5)

What I found out: Most of the responses about the book not being interesting came from the sixth grade. Many students felt that the book was too childish or did not like the fact that the main character, a Japanese cat, was teased for eating sushi by her animal classmates.

5)What was the most interesting part of the story? Please write it below.

What I found out: Most classes only did questions 1 - 4. Also, since each book is different it is hard for me to generalize the results for all the classes.

6)What did you enjoy most about today’s lesson?

What I found out:
Many students did not write the storytelling part of the lesson but rather "the interview game" they played before or after the story or the song they sang for warm-up. In the "interview game" students have predetermined questions they must ask each other and then they must write down their classmates' responses. In some of the "interview games" I saw, the children spoke in Japanese and copied each other's worksheets. They seemed to be having a good time socializing.

7)Did you learn any new English words today? If you did, please them below. You can use katakana to write the words. Do not worry about writing the words correctly.

What I found out: Interesting results. In the 1st grade class students wrote many of the words the teachers wanted them to learn from the book. In the sixth grade class, students tended to write words they had learned from the Assistant Language Teacher's talk about people extracting maple syrup from trees in Canada rather than words they were exposed to in the book.

8)Today, if you learned anything about the USA, please write it below.

What I found out: Not really conclusive. Although in the sixth grade class students wrote things like "Americans don't like sushi" or "Japanese are made fun of about their food." Hmm...

9)Today, did you learn anything about Japan? If so, please write it below.
What I found out: Very few children wrote a response to this question. The teachers tended to address the culture portrayed in the book but did not compare it to their own culture. Part of learning about different cultures is getting to understand your own culture better. This is something we should probably address in future lessons.

Overall: The majority of the children enjoyed the experience of using storybooks in their English activities. It is my belief that if children associate the pleasant experience of enjoying the story with the new linguistic or cultural knowledge that they learned, then this content is more likely to remain in their long-term memories. I think the results of these pilot lessons show that if teachers conduct the proper pre-storytelling activities and practice the storytelling beforehand, then they can read English storybooks to children without relying on Japanese. Children, in turn, our likely to enjoy the experience and maybe even learn something from it.

Monday, June 22, 2009

The difficulty of adapting tasks to Japanese Jr. High Schools without destroying them

I teach a graduate school seminar on Task Based Language Learning. For the seminar we have read the Willis book, a Framework for Task Based Learning, and a chapter from the new Paul Nation book, Teaching ESL/EFL Listening and Speaking which gives a lot of good ideas for tasks. The class consists of 3 Japanese graduate students and a researcher from Pakistan. Next week, they will go to a junior high school (JHS) and teach a lesson that is supposed to feature a language learning task. Our goal (or at least the goal that I imposed) is the following:

"Design a task supported lesson that will encourage communication and interaction among junior high school students to reinforce their understanding of how to use the language they have studied up to that point."

Last week the student-teachers designed a lesson plan which consisted of a jumbling task, where the JHS kids would have to order a story, and then a writing task where the JHS kids would have to write the ending of the story. The problem was that the story was too complex for the JHS kids and the writing task was too long. We went to the JHS last Thursday to present the plan to the teacher and she rightly pointed out that it would take about 3 classes to do such a task. On the way back to the university from the JHS I reiterated to the student-teachers that they needed to drastically reduce the content.

Tonight I got the new lesson plan from the student-teachers and I was shocked. The lesson is only task by name. It changed to a typical JHS lesson. To make a long story short, they plan to read half a story to the JHS kids in English, have them write the ending of the story in Japanese, and then change the story to English. Last the kids will read their English story to each other. What is worse is that the JHS where they will teach did a similar lesson which the student-teachers observed. The lesson was actually pretty good. What bothers me is that the graduate students' lesson is like a bad imitation. If they are going to fail, I want them to at least fail trying something original.

After they made their first lesson I encouraged the student-teachers to "adapt" tasks to the JHS. By "adapt" I meant reduce the content and think about how they could change the task to encourage the JHS students' language use. For some reason, they seemed to perceive my "adapt" to be completely destroy. We have one week until the lesson and I will meet with the graduate students tomorrow. Let's see what happens.

Monday, June 15, 2009

What do kids get out of listening to an English picture book? Developing a questionnaire

At last, tomorrow the picture book pilot lessons will begin. Altogether we have conducted 2 workshops and held 2 separate meetings with teachers. I have also received some phone calls and e-mails from teachers asking for help with finding teaching materials or advice on their lesson plans. I am not sure how the lessons will go, but I can say that I have enjoyed very much working with the teachers. I think that English picture books are a great means to help children learn about language and culture but I now have a full appreciation of the time and effort necessary to make the use of English picture books possible at Japanese primary schools.

Over the past couple of years we have conducted numerous pilot lessons using picture books but this is the first time where we will be giving a questionnaire to the children. We are giving the questionnaire to find out the following:
  1. How many children were able to understand the story?
  2. How were the children able to understand the story?
  3. What did the children enjoy about the story?
  4. What kind of activities during the lesson did the children enjoy?
  5. What English words did the children feel they were able to learn?
  6. Did they learn anything new about the USA or Japan from listening to the story?
The questionnaire was written in Japanese by me. I then asked the elementary school teachers for their feedback. They gave me advice on how to reword the items so that the children could understand and recommended a could of additional items. After that a colleague of mine at the university rewrote the questionnaire. I showed it one more time to the teachers and they gave me their approval. This questionnaire will be given to children in grades 1 - 6 after their picture book lesson. I have just translated the questions to English for this blog but the questions do not seem to be as clear in English. Here are the questions and what I hope to find from each question:

1) Did you understand the story? (Students write a circle next to the answer they agree with)
a. I understood it well ( )
b. I understood it a little ( )
c. I did not understand it well ( )
d. I did not understand it at all ( )
  • What I want to find out: This is pretty straight forward, I want to find out how many children understood the story (or at least thought they understood it)
2)Did you try hard to understand the story?
a. I tried very hard      (  )
b. I tried a little        (  )
c. I did not try so hard    (  )
d. I did not try at all    (  )
  • What I want to find out: If children did not understand the story, I want to know if they made the effort to understand or if they just decided not to pay attention
3)How were you able to understand the story? Please write circle next to what was useful
a. The teacher’s facial expression when he/she was reading (  )
b. The teacher’s voice would change from loud to soft (  )
c. I heard words that I recognized       (  )
d. I would think about what would happen next while I was listening to the story(  )
e. The picture                       (  )
f. Asking the teachers questions              (  )
g. The teacher using Japanese               (  )
h. I did not understand the English but I could follow the story     (  )
i. The teacher’s talk before reading the book       (  )
j. Other: __________                   
  • What I want to find out: I want to know HOW the students were able to understand the story (What listening strategies they used).
4) Was the story interesting?
a. It was very interesting     (  )
b. It was a little interesting    (  )
c. It was not very interesting    (  )
d. It was not interesting at all   (  )

Why do you think so? Please write a reason below.
  • What I want to find out: This is pretty self-explanatory too. I want to know if the children found the story interesting. Four different types of books will be read and it will be interesting to find out which type of book captured the students' interest.
5)What was the most interesting part of the story? Please write it below.
  • What I want to find out:The particular part of the story that the children liked.
6)What did you enjoy most about today’s lesson?
  • What I want to find out: Did children like the pre or post-storytelling activities more than listening to the story or was it vice versa?
7)Did you learn any new English words today? If you did, please them below. You can use katakana to write the words. Do not worry about writing the words correctly.
  • What I want to find out: Were there any particular words that stuck in the children's heads?
8)Today, if you learned anything about the USA, please write it below.
  • What I want to find out: Three of the four books are from a previous project, Cross-cultural Understanding Using Picture Books. In this project the English picture books were used to teach about aspects of the US culture, so I am interested in knowing if children thought they were able to learn anything about the USA.
9)Today, did you learn anything about Japan? If so, please write it below.
  • What I want to find out: Part of cross-cultural learning is making discoveries about your own culture. People say that it is impossible to understand other cultures without understanding your own. So, I want to know if children were realized anything new about their own culture in this lesson.

Thursday, June 04, 2009

A speaking task where students did not interact and an interesting discussion with my students

This is a follow-up to my previous post about a speaking task I did in a university freshman English class. In the previous class the students exchanged profiles. As a follow-up, in the next lesson we did if the "World were 100 people" activity (I admit that I am using task and activity interchangeably here) which I had used various times in other classes. In this activity, students filled out a worksheet (html version - some mistakes) (pdf version-some mistakes) citing statistics about the world if it were a village of 100 people.

The worksheet looked something like this:

If the world were 100 people
there would be ____________ Asians
there would be ____________ Europeans
there would be ____________ Africans
there would be ____________ from North America
there would be ____________ from South America and the Caribbean

___________ people would have no clean, safe, water to drink
___________ own 59% of the entire wealth of the community.
___________ would be undernourished
___________ would be unable to read
____________ would be educated at a secondary level
etc... There are a lot of items.

After going over some difficult words/phrases with the students, I asked them to work in pairs and guess how many people for each item. First, students worked individually and filled in the blanks, then they compared answers. When their answers were different, I asked them to explain to each other why they gave that particular answer. For example, if one student thought that 10 people would be unable to read and her partner thought that 40 people would be unable to read, both students would try to justify their answers to each other. In this class, there seemed to be very little interaction among the students. After the class I asked students whether or not they agreed with the statement that

"I was able to use a lot of English when comparing answers with my partner for if the world were 1o0 people activity"

Of 20 students, 10 agreed and 10 disagreed. Their primary reasons for saying that they could not use English was that 1) the worksheet contained too many unknown words, 2) they did not have the vocabulary to explain their answers, 3) they answered based on intuition (which I encouraged them to do) and could not give a reason for their answers. Those who wrote that they agreed with the above statement did so because they were 1) trying to make me feel happy, 2) enjoyed explaining their thinking to their partners, or 3) enjoyed learning and using new words.

After students had compared answers, they watched a movie called Miniature Earth which presents the "If the World were 100 People" data. Students then write the correct answers and I asked them how accurate they were.

Lastly, we had an interesting discussion - in Japanese. As a surprising amount of people in the world live without poverty, clean water, etc. I expected that a group of Japanese university students would feel pretty fortunate about what they have (a roof over their head, an education, the financial flexibility to pursue their dreams, etc.). I asked them if they felt fortunate after watching this video. One student started speaking in Japanese and said that compared to other people in the world she is fortunate but inside Japan she is not fortunate so she does not consider herself to be so. I asked her why and she said because she cannot do what she wants. I asked her what she wants and she said that she wanted to buy a lot of things that she could not. She knew a lot of rich kids who got whatever they wanted. The bell rang and I felt guilty about having this discussion in Japanese. Before students left I told them that I wanted to have a discussion at the beginning of the next class. I told them to think of an answer to the following question and we would talk about it in English.

Are you currently satisfied with your life? Why or why not?

The next class we went outside to have the discussion. We made 2 circles, an outer circle of 10 students and an inner circle of 9 students and 1 teacher (one student was absent). At first, I told students to only speak in English and gave them some communication strategies (How do you say ~ in English etc.). One student in the inner circle talked to another in the outer circle. First, they had some light exchanges (Hey, how are you? How was your weekend? etc.) After the pleasantries, the content became deep: "Are you currently satisfied with your life? Why or why not?". At first, students had 3 minutes to talk with each other. After three minutes, the inner circle rotated and each student had a new partner. Then the inner circle and outer circle students talked again.

For pair work to be effective, I read that students need to push themselves to produce language that is a little beyond their level or their partners level. If the partner does not understand she should ask for a clarification. When an interlocutor (speaker) reformulates his utterance he can either correct a misunderstanding he has about a particular grammatical item or lexical phrase or the listener can learn a new piece of language (if the interlocutor said something that was correct and the listener just did not understand).
I have no idea what the quality of the students' interactions was because I had to be involved in the activity myself and could not monitor the conversation. I can say, though, that I heard A LOT of noise and I am sure that we annoyed the other classes who left their windows open. Hearing a lot of noise in an English speaking activity is usually a beautiful thing.

At the ending of the activity, I asked some students what their partners had said. Then, I told the whole class that I learned that many of us have problems. However, our problems such as a long commute to school, not being able to buy what we want are much smaller than what many people in this world face; living on one or two dollars a day, etc. Maybe I should have encouraged students to come up with their own conclusions or at least asked them what their conclusions were. I didn't.

At the ending of class I asked students whether or not they agreed with the following question and why:

"I was able to use a lot of English when discussing whether or not I was satisfied with my life"

18 of 19 students agreed with this statement. They wrote that they were able to express their ideas in English.

So, why did the first speaking activity not work so well and the second activity work well? I have learned that these students like to talk about themselves and their own lives. It is a way that they can get to know their classmates and maybe even make some friends. It is also something that they can talk about with very little preparation because (as they should) they know a lot about themselves. As college freshmen, though, they are not so knowledgeable of global issues. Therefore, some students struggled to give a reason for their estimates in "If the World were 100 People activity." Thus, next time we have a discussion about global issues I need to make sure that students have enough knowledge of the content beforehand.

Friday, May 29, 2009

A Simple Speaking Task where students actually interacted!

The other day I did a simple speaking task that worked very well with college freshmen who are novice English speakers. There are 20 students in this class and they are a little reserved but very considerate and copperative young men and women.

We are using the textbook Global Issues by Tim Grose. The text book has a profile of a boy living in India talking about his family, school and future dreams. This boy has to drop out of school to support his family.

Class 1: I asked the students to write their own profile in the 3rd person. I asked them to talk about their family, their school history and their future dreams. I asked them to use the profile in the textbook for ideas on how they can write their profile.

Class 2: Students handed in their profiles. Some tried hard and others simply wrote 8 - 10 sentences with no real coherence. I took their papers home and underlined mistakes or parts that I could not understand. I also wrote comments such as "connect your sentences" or requests for students to add more content.

Class 3: First, I put students in pairs. I handed back the papers to the students and asked them to revise their papers. I told them to consult with their partner or me if they were not sure how to revise their papers. I realize that this was not real pair work, but I have found that it is best to make peer feedback optional among students if they still do not know each other well. It took them about 20 minutes. I walked around the class and ended up helping each student individually.
When they were finished revising, I told students to read their paper to their partner (without showing the paper!). The partner would write key words. After each student read their profile, pairs joined to make groups of 4. Students would then use their notes to tell their new group members their partners' profiles. I made this activity "English only" and encouraged students to ask each other about words that they understood. I was surprised about the amount of English use and interaction in this activity because usually these students were very hesitant to interact with each other in English.
When the groups of 4 were finished, I asked various groups interesting things they heard about their classmates.
At the ending of the class I asked students to answer the following questions on their response cards
1) What did you learn today?
2) Do you think that this activity is useful? Why or why not?
3) I could introduce my partner to other people.
a) strongly agree b) agree c) disagree d) strongly disagree
4) I could understand other people's profiles.
a) strongly agree b) agree c) disagree d) strongly disagree
5) I asked questions when I could not understand.
a) strongly agree b) agree c) disagree d) strongly disagree
Many of the students wrote various phrases or vocabulary they had learned after writing their profiles and getting feedback. Other students wrote vocabulary they had learned from listening to other people's profiles. Two students wrote that they learned about how to connect sentences. Four students wrote that they learned nothing but that they thought the activity was useful! (In hindsight, question 2 was not a good question.)

Class 4: I found that the previous week's task gave us a good reason to study conjunctions and I gave students a conjunction worksheet to complete for the next week. We did a follow up task where we did the if the World were 100 Peopleactivity. There was much less interaction among the students during this activity. In my next post, I would like to talk about why this was so.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Why Tasks are not incorporated into many Japanese secondary school English classrooms (Part 2)

This is a continuation fo my last post. Today, I read a great article that attempts to explain problems that teachers have with adopting communicative language teaching (CLT) and task-based language teaching (TBLT) into East Asian classrooms. The article is Communicative and task-based language teaching in East Asian classrooms by William Littlewood and appeared in Language Teaching (2007), 40: 243-249.

Littlewood gives 5 concerns that teachers have with CLT and TBLT
1) Classroom management: Students misbehave or slack off
2) Avoidance of English: Students and teachers do not use English during the task
3) Minimal demands of language Competence: Students use minimal language or non-verbal communication to complete a task; they do not challenge themselves to experiment with new or complex language.
4) Incompatibility with public assessment: Task objectives are inconsistent with standardized tests or university entrance examinations
5) Tasks conflict with educational values and traditions: TBLT and CLT are based on western conceptions of learning that might differ from that of countries in East Asia.

Littlewood argues that a solution for these problems is for teachers to "adapt" rather than "adopt". He argues that no single set of methods will fit all teachers in all contexts. Thus a teacher should probably attempt to adapt the strengths of multiple methods to their respective contexts to maximize their students' learning potential.

Littlewood's last argument is that many teachers have misconceptions about TBLT and CLT. For example, many teachers believe that in CLT students only speak and do not study grammar. Regarding TBLT, there are various definitions for "task" in the literature and many educators have different ideas of what a task is. He argues that if teachers have a better understanding of CLT and TBLT it will help them adopt these approaches into their teaching.

This year, I hope to offer some solutions for the issues raised in my first and second post through working with secondary school English teachers in my community. Hopefully, I will have some solutions posted in a couple of months.

Why Tasks are not incorporated into many Japanese secondary school English classrooms

I just read an interesting chapter and article about problems that teachers encounter with Task Based Language Teaching (TBLT). In this post I will talk about the chapter. The chapter, "Pedagogic Perspectives on Second Language Tasks" is from Tasks in Language Learning by Virginia Samuda and Martic Bygate (2005, Palgrave Macmillan) and it attempts to explain why TBLT is not adopted in many educational contexts.

First, Samuda and Bygate argue that the three primary reasons that teachers do not use TBLT is the following 1) The decision to use tasks is a top-down decision made by people sitting in high places who are far removed from the teachers' daily grind. 2) Teachers are pessimistic about the potential pedagogic value of tasks. 3) Unrealistic demands are placed on teachers to dramatically change their way of teaching instantaneously. I think that these reasons show that change in education must also be a bottom-up process. Just telling teachers what they should do will not convince them to adapt new teaching methodologies into their classrooms.

Samuda and Bygate also list the following logistical issues that teachers have with tasks:
  • Using tasks in monolingual classes
  • Matching tasks with skill levels
  • Integrating tasks with a prescribed syllabus
  • Viability of tasks with beginning students
  • Using tasks in mixed ability classes
  • Using tasks to introduce new language
  • Giving feedback on task performance: how and when
  • Fitting tasks with other kinds of activities
  • Tasks and grammar learning
  • Motivating students to engage in tasks
The issues that are in red I think need to be discussed with Japanese secondary school teachers if they are to incorporate tasks into their classrooms. Hints in how to resolve these issues will give them a foundation necessary to start experimenting with tasks.

I do not think "using tasks to introduce new language" is a relevant issue. Samuda and Bygate make a distinction between Task Based Language Teaching (TBLT) and Task Supported Language teaching(TSLT). In TBLT, the task is the central component of the syllabus while in TSLT tasks are used with a pedagogic purpose to help accomplish some of the goals of the syllabus. Tasks themselves in TBLT or TSLT are not different, but the ways in which tasks are used is different (Being the central part of the curriculum vs. helping to realize the learning goals of the curriculum). In the Japanese public secondary school which is based on a nationally approved structural syllabus and students have limited time to study English, I do not think that TBLT is viable. Thus, I do not think that the issue of using tasks to introduce new language is relevant.

Samuda and Bygate argue that tasks can serve a variety of purposes (provide students with an opportunity to use language that they have studied, give them an opportunity to experience real-world language use for a situation they might find themselve them in, learn communication strategies, enhance students' motivation - these examples are mine) and that teachers should not equate tasks with TBLT. I agree that teachers should adapt tasks into their current teaching (TSLT) rather and that expecting teachers do adopt a whole new teaching methodology (TBLT) is not feasible. The next article I will write about, addresses this issue.

Friday, May 08, 2009

Conducting a Workshop on Using English Picture Books: Part 2 - How to read an English picture book

This workshop was held on April 23 and was the second and last workshop for School A teachers on how to use English picture books. In the first workshop, I gave the teachers a very robust handout on the structure of a lesson using English picture books as well as a list of possible activities (see the previous post) . During the last workshop, I realized that I had talked too much and this time I decided to talk as little as possible and let the participants do 90 percent of the work.

Details of the Second Workshop
In the workshop we did the following:
1. My colleague and I told teachers 4 key points to reading picture books. (10 minutes)
2. We did pronunciation practice for warm up (5 minutes)
3. Practice reading the books in groups. (40 minutes)
4. Each group read its story to everyone else. (25 minutes)
5. Final words

The 研究就任 (lead researchers) of School A facilitated the workshop by introducing and ending each activity as well as giving the teachers instructions. This was immensely helpful. Also, the lead researchers and I planned the workshop together. I will now briefly write what we did for each stage.

1) Four Key Points for Reading English Picture Books

There are of course many more than four key points but I wanted my talk to be as brief but also meaningful as possible so I tried to condense a lot of information into 4 key points. I talked about two key points and my colleague spoke about another two key points. The four key points we discussed are below.

1) You can do it! (If you practice)
2) Plan ahead what kind of questions you will ask and when
3) Abbreviate parts of the story if necessary
4) There are ways to help the children understand other than translation. Pre-storytelling activities, questioning techniques, the book’s pictures, the reader’s expression, intonation, and variation in rhythm will help children understand the story.

The points were elaborated upon and you can see the details in the handout I gave the teachers (in Japanese).

2. Pronunciation practice

My colleague prepared a print which featured sets of minimal pairs which were typically difficult for Japanese speakers to pronounce. I led the practice and I was surprised at how enthusiastically the teachers participated.

3) Practice reading the books in groups

The teachers were divided into four groups, each group had a different picture book:
Sixth Grade teachers (Yoko, for a description see CCUP)
Fifth Grade teachers (Nana Upstairs, Nana Downstairs, for a description see CCUP)
3rd and 4th Grade Teachers (Tulip Sees America, for a description see CCUP)
1st and 2nd Grade Teachers (Suddenly)

The text for Yoko, Nana, and Tulip had been rewritten and simplified by me. Also the book's pages had been scanned and then printed onto A3 sized paper to make them easier to see. I also laminated these pages so they could be preserved. The simplified text was pasted onto the back of each page. Lastly, each group had a recording of me reading their book.

Again, each group was very enthusiastic about practicing. First, they listened to the CD. Many of them highlighted words which were emphasized or wrote accent marks over the parts of words that were stressed.

After listening the teachers practiced reading paying particular attention to how to pronounce the words as well as the proper intonation. During this time, my colleague, the lead researchers and I walked around and provided assistance when needed. I spent a lot of time with the group reading Nana because it was the most difficult book to read.

I would like to note that the teachers did not think of questions to get children involved in the storytelling because it was beyond the scope of the workshop.

4) Storytelling
In this stage each group read its book to the rest of the teachers. After each group read their book, the other teachers wrote them a feedback sheet on their reading. This sheet can be seen in the handout. The feedback sheet consisted of the following questions:
1) Did you understand the content of the story?
2) Which parts of the story were difficult to understand?
3) Did the way in which the story read make you want to listen more and make you anticipate how the story would develop? If so, which part was particularly effective in catching your interest?
4) Any other feedback?

At the ending of the workshop each group received its feedback sheets.

Some teachers read the story very well while others were a little difficult to understand. To my surprise, Nana was read particularly well. Tulip was the most difficult to understand. The reason for this was that to understand this book pre-storytelling activities are important but we did not do any pre-storytelling activities. The teachers were very enthusiastic about reading the books in front of their peers. It will be interesting to see how the books are received by the students. Lessons will begin in June.

5) Final Words
My colleague and I gave our final thoughts. I decided to use English this time because the teachers had been working so hard to speak English and the atmosphere had changed from a formal training session to a real English education workshop. I told the teachers that reading the book was just part of the storytelling lesson and that pre-storytelling activities, post-storytelling activities, and conceiving of ways to get children to participate were essential to conducting a successful lesson. I then pointed out some words that each group had difficulty pronouncing. Lastly, I congratulated the teachers on their effort and encouraged them to keep on practicing. At the ending of the workshop, the teachers also wrote a workshop evaluation sheet that is also on the handout. The questions the teachers answered were:
1) What did you learn in the workshop?
2) What content would you like to learn more about next time?
We have yet to analyze the teachers' responses.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Conducting a Workshop on Using English Picture Books: Teaching the structure of a picture book lesson


Last Thursday, as part of the Working with Picture Books Project, I went to the primary school affiliated with my university (hereafter, School A) to give a workshop about using English picture books. A Japanese colleague in my department accompanied me. The 研究主任 (lead researcher) of School A also helped me facilitate the workshop.

We have planned to give two workshops of an hour and a half to the School a teachers about using English picture books. The first workshop, which has already been completed, was supposed to help teachers learn about the structure of a lesson using an English picture book and the second workshop is designed to give teachers confidence in reading English picture books. Starting in June, teachers will start conducting lessons using English picture books which will have been conceived in these workshops.

In this post, I will summarize the first workshop. As a facilitator I would give myself a grade of a C -, and I am being generous. I hope that this post might give readers ideas of some "dos" and "don'ts" when conducting workshops.

Workshop 1: Planning and Conducting Lessons Using English Picture Books
The aim of this workshop was to give teachers as many practical ideas as possible for using English picture books and help them understand the structure these kinds of lessons. The outline of the workshop was below, it was supposed to last 90 minutes.

1) Introduction (Lead Researcher) 5 min
2) Advice for using English picture books (me and my colleague) 20 min
3) School A Teachers design a rough lesson plan using a picture book (divided into 4 groups) (35 minutes)
4) Each group presents their lessons (20 minutes)
5) Comments about the lessons (my colleague and me) (5 minutes)

I prepared a 7-paged print in Japanese which discussed
1) The reasons for using English picture books as well as three primary uses of English picture books (teach about language, culture, or just to enjoy the story)
2) Secrets for giving a successful lesson
3) How to prepare for a lesson using English picture books
4) The structure of a lessons
Stage 1: Pre-storytelling (The goal of this stage and various activities)
Stage 2: Storytelling (The objective of this stage and various techniques for reading)
Stage 3: Post-Storytelling (The goal of this stage and activities for language study, activities that involve reading the book again, activities that involve discussion, activities that involve cultural learning)

I am putting the file of this handout on-line. The print does not have a reference list so I will describe which sources I referenced for each section and include a bibliography at the bottom of this post. For 1) my reference was the Japanese translation of Brewster & Ellis (2008, in Japanese) and my own research (Hall, 2008). The secrets for giving a successful lesson came from my own observations and opinions of the lead researcher for School A. References for 3) came from my own observations, Ellis & Brewster (1991), and Wright (1995). Ideas for 4) came from myself(ホール, in press), Wright (1996) , Ellis & Brewster (2008), and Ur & Wright (1992).

First, it was my turn to speak. I told the School A teachers that I was so happy to be able to collaborate with them and that I was going to summarize what I had learned about using English picture books over the past year. I also told them that I was looking forward to expand the content of the handout by working together with them. There was a lot of information on the print and I told them that I would only highlight the important parts. I had also prepared a DVD to show them scenes of teachers conducting pre-storytelling and post-storytelling activities.

I HAD planned to tell them that I hoped that they would use the handout as a reference when making their lesson plans but I forgot! I was a little nervous. I was dressed in a suit, something I am not accustomed to, and the participants were dressed in much nicer attire. While I was talking, the lead researcher was kind enough to write notes in his computer about what I said. His notes appeared on the screen behind me as I spoke. His notes have been a valuable way for me to know what I actually said. His notes were much more eloquent than what came out of my mouth. My Japanese is not bad, but my wife tells me that when I speak publicly, I speak with a stronger foreign accent and make more grammatical mistakes than I usually do. I was feeling a little self conscious about my Japanese. I always enjoy the opportunity to give workshops in Japanese because it enables me to understand how my students feel when I put them on the spot and also improves my foreign language skills. However, my inability to relax probably made my presentation a little difficult to understand for the listeners.

I finished my presentation in 25 minutes. Given the amount of material I had, going 5 minutes over time was not bad. However, I now realize that I gave them too much information and this might have prevented the teachers from understanding my main message: "English picture books are a wonderful way for children to make discoveries about the world around them as well as the English language and I want to give you tips for conducting classes that children can understand and enjoy". If I could do the presentation again, I would know what information to include and what to not include. Unfortunately, the only way for me to learn this was to appear on stage and give a mediocre performance.

After my presentation, the teachers were divided into groups. We asked teachers to give a proposal for a lesson using an English picture book and then present their ideas. The teachers were asked to discuss the following in their presentation:
1) The focus of their lesson: language, culture, or the story
2) The number of periods they would need to conduct their lesson
3) Possible pre-storytelling, storytelling techniques, and post-storytelling activities.

The teachers were divided into four groups, each group with a different picture book:
Sixth Grade teachers (Yoko, for a description see CCUP)
Fifth Grade teachers (Nana Upstairs, Nana Downstairs, for a description see CCUP)
3rd and 4th Grade Teachers (Tulip Sees America, for a description see CCUP)
1st and 2nd Grade Teachers (Suddenly)

I rewrote the text for Yoko, Nana and Tulip to make the stories shorter. According to Wright (1995), stories should not last over 10 minutes because children's concentration will not last longer than that. Each group devoted a fair amount of time to reading the story and trying to understand it. I sat with the group who was preparing a lesson plan for Yoko. I tried not to interfere and only spoke when they asked me something. When they were preparing their presentation, they did not discuss any of the points they were asked to nor did they use the print I had made to help them think of activities. These teachers were veterans who had their own ideas about how they could use the book. I was not offended that they did not use any of my ideas because when I am a participant of a workshop doing a group task, I also tend to produce something different from what the facilitator plans. I guess that is what makes us educators human: We are all unique and we each have different ideas for handling the same material.

After about 45 minutes, each group gave a presentation. I was in deep thought during the group presentations. I realized that one problem with this workshop was that we had chosen the books for each group. I think that for an English picture book lesson to work the teacher herself must be interested in the book. If the teacher believes that the book contains a message that children will find appealing than she will work very hard to use the book in such a way that children understand the appeal of the story. It felt like one of the groups did not see how their story would appeal to the children. If this is indeed true, I would have no problem with them choosing another book.

After the presentations, my colleague and I were supposed to give the presenters advice. My colleague gave the presenters good advice about the importance of linking the story with children's own experiences and the importance of determining what skill in children you want to build through English activities (imagination, listening strategies, etc.)

I, on the other hand, was surprised about how the ideas of each group were different from each other and from mine. I basically felt that I had no advice to give, I was just interested in knowing how the lessons would turn out and seeing what kind of discoveries about using English picture books these lessons might lead to. Speaking in Japanese, I said that I realized how many different ways there are to use English picture books. I should have shut up after that but then I actually tried to give some advice when I should have just said what I really felt (I was interested in seeing how the lessons turned out).

What did I learn from this experience? First, of course, it would have been better to have more time and it would have been better to ask the groups to read the books before the workshop. However, Japanese elementary school teachers are very busy and I think workshops should be as minimally demanding of their time as possible. Therefore, workshops need to be short and to the point. For this workshop, I prepared a handout that I could have used for an entire 90 minute lecture. If I could have done this workshop all over again, I would have given them a much more condensed version of the handout.

I also learned the importance of being yourself when speaking publicly and not giving advice for the sake of giving advice. I am looking forward to the next workshop with the teachers where we will practice reading the books.

  1. G.エリス & J.ブルースター (松岡洋子訳) 2008.『先生、英語のお話を聞かせて』 玉川大学出版部.
  2. Wright, A. (1995). Storytelling with Children. OUP.
  3. Ur, P. & Wright, A. Five Minute Activities. CUP.
  4. Ellis, G. & Brewster, J. (1991). The Storybook Handbook.
  5. J. ホール (2009). 小学生の理解と興味を高める英語絵本の効果的な読み聞かせ方. 『教材学研究』 第20巻
  6. Hall, J. M. (2008). Selecting and using English picture books in Japanese elementary schools. In K. Bradford Watts, T. Muller, & M. Swanson (Eds.), JALT2007 Conference Proceedings. Tokyo: JALT.

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

The Working with Picture Books Pilot Project:The 3 Keys to Using Picture Books Successfully

I am back to blogging (maybe).

Last August I started a pilot project called Working with Picture Books. In this project we used picture books from CCUP in elementary schools to teach about the English language and culture. Three teachers from two primary schools in my prefecture were kind enough to participate. The challenges that using English picture books impose on teachers is a little more formidable than I thought it would be. Not only must teachers must try new teaching materials and activities that they have never done before, but they must also read the book in English. Before the project began, we discussed with the teachers about the structure of English activities using picture books: pre-storytelling, storytelling and post storytelling. We gave the teachers 15 picture books as well as guides for using the picture books to teach about culture. The teachers were able to use the picture books to teach about culture but, perhaps, struggled to use the picture books to teach about English. The primary reason for this was that I did not give them as much support as I should have.

As teachers and university staff are busy, we only met once for an hour and a half before the project began. I explained to the teachers the structure of English activities using storybooks: They have a pre-storytelling phase, a storytelling phase and a post storytelling phase. I then demonstrated how a typical lesson might look like using the book Too Many Tamales(or see CCUP ). After that the teachers were on their own. In retrospect, If I had given the teachers a list of potential pre-storytelling activities, post storytelling activities as well as a taxonomy of techniques that they can use for storytelling it would have made it much easier for them to do the pilot lessons. Nevertheless, we have learned a lot from the teacher's pilot lessons and these pilot lessons have contributed to the New Working with Picture Books Project which has just started.

From these pilot lessons and my discussions with the teachers, I think that there are 3 keys to using English picture books successfully.

First, the teacher should conceive of pre-storytelling activities and storytelling techniques that will spark children's interest in listening to the story.

Second, the teacher should conceive of pre-storytelling activities and reading techniques (using pictures, the mother tongue, facial expressions, changing intonation, asking questions etc.) that will make the story understandable for the children. In many cases the teacher will have to simplify or abbreviate the story because more than 10 minutes of reading (in most cases) seems to be too long for primary school children.

Third, the teacher should conceive of activities that will get children actively involved in the class.

Thanks to this Pilot Project I am now ready for the new project where we will be working with the Primary School that is affiliated with my university to introduce English Picture books into their English Activity curriculum. I will write about this new project in my next post.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Bangkok Poverty

I was visiting schools in Thailand for 6 days last week and for 5 of those 6 days stayed in Bangkok. One night I was talking to a teacher-friend of mine (who is Thai) and she asked me what were some things I did not like about Thailand. First, I told her what I did like: the Thai smile, people's hospitality and friendliness, fresh fruit year-round, Buddhism, reading about Thai history, etc. I then told her what I did not like: corruption, poverty, etc. But when I said poverty she stopped me and said poverty was not necessarily a bad thing. I agreed with her. However, I explained to her that what I meant by poverty was seeing homeless children on the street in Bangkok or a mother sitting on a sidewalk breast feeding her child at 11 at night. Seeing these sights was absolutely heartbreaking for me. It was not like I had not seen stuff like this before but now that I have a child, seeing someone about the same age or a little older than my son sleeping on a sidewalk overcomes me with a profound sadness. Believe it or not, I did not give these kids or young mothers money. I wanted to help them, but in the end, I thought that giving a larger sum of money to an organization for getting kids/mothers off the street would be best.

I wanted to learn more about how the disadvantaged in Bangkok live so I bought two books at Asia books, one book was called Bangkok Boy by Chai Pinit and the second was Welcome to the Bangkok Slaughter House by Father Maier. The first book was the autobiography of a male prostitute from rural Thailand who moved to Pataya and then Bangkok. Below the title on the cover of the book is written "The Story of a Stolen Childhood" and you expect that this will be the autobiography of how this poor fellow was victimized. In the beginning of the book, though, Chai (It seems that just about everyone in Thailand uses their first name) writes that the reader should not feel sorry for him and he was writing this story to come to grips with his past. After reading the book, I felt less sorry for the author and more sorry for the people he victimized. I thought that this book shed some light on why some people choose to enter the sex industry, but will not tell you much about how people are forced into it.

The second book I read is about Father Maier's work in a Bangkok slum. Father Maier togther with Sister Maria Chantavarodom runs an organization called the Mercy Centre which runs a orphanage for children who are HIV Positive and also creates schools in the slums. The book consists of the stories of the children in the orphanage or who live in the slum. All the stories are sad but also instilled some hope in me. The reason why is because no matter how dire the situation the children found themselves in, most of them did not give up in their pursuit of happiness and neither has Father Maier. After reading the book I decided to give a small donation to the Centre.