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.