I am involved in English Teacher Education in Japan. I started this blog in 2005 and abandoned and returned to it a couple of times. Here, I write about things I have tried in class, my experience in teacher education in Japan and other places, and deep thoughts about the origin of the universe. This blog used to be anonymous but no longer. I try not to write anything that will get me fired.
Friday, May 02, 2008
The MMCE Blog
One of the weaknesses of MMCE in previous years has been that most of the knowledge that we have accumulated has been superficial or trivial information about countries. Rarely did we focus on serious issues we and other countries face and how we can perhaps cooperate to solve these issues. Thus, this year I have added a "global issues" element to MMCE where each CLG focuses more on studying a global issue than a country. Tim Grose's Global Issues in English textbook has served as an invaluable reference for how I can encourage MMCE members to teach each other about their global issue of expertise in English. MMCE has a blog where I write the minutes of each meeting as well as post materials and video of the meeting. MMCE members write comments on what they learned/experienced. If you are interested in the blog, please have a look here.
Challenges in Using English Picture Books for Japanese Primary School Teachers
lessons the Japanese translation of the book was read. After the pilot lessons teachers completed a questionnaire. In one of the items, they wrote about the obstacles they faced in trying to use the picture books in class. In this post, I will write about the obstacles that teachers who read the book in English faced. I am interested in adapting the CCUP materials to use to teach English in elementary schools so I will consider the implications that the teachers' responses have on using picture books for English activities in Japanese primary schools.
Below is the question to which the teachers responded. The numbers in parentheses next to a selection indicates the number of teachers who chose it. I have also translated and included teachers' write-in answers to "other". Altogether there were 15 teachers who responded.
What are some challenges that you faced or will face in implementing lessons like these ?
a. lack of time (11)
b. limited ALT availability (6)
c. English (7)
d. lack of interest from the students (1)
e. administrative problems (having more than 1 teacher hold a class and coming to an agreement) (1)
f. Other ______________ (8) (Below are translations of the answers teachers wrote in)
- "The amount of work a practitioner must do in order to determine how to use the book is substantial. Also, sometimes it is hard to know whether the events a book discusses are true. Perhaps it would be best to use the books with a whole class." <<Jimbo's note: This teacher used a book called "Parade Day" which presented a parade for each month. Some of the parades, presented though, were not real parades. Also, when the teacher says it would be best to use books with a whole class I think that she means it would be best to use the books with several homerooms at once so the homeroom teachers can cooperate and share the work.>>
- "It helped to have a Japanese translation" <<Jimbo's note: I don't think this is a problem.>>
- "The book was small [and it made it difficult to use]. Also, there is not an ALT [Foreign Assistant Language Teacher] at my school so it is hard for students to see the necessity of studying about different cultures. [When I did this class] it was not necessarily easy to invite the ALT here, negotiate with him and arrange multiple meetings. The children's interest was very high so I definitely would like try this [again] but unfortunately the picture books do not fit in well with the school curriculum because international understanding is not in the fourth year curriculum."
- <<Jimbo's note: This was written by a junior high school teacher who tried one of the picture books>> "First, JHS English instructor's energy is taken by student guidance, clubs and homeroom management. It is hard to make a picture book project manageable [for the typical teacher]. I wish the universities could help... Second, [our ALT played a primary role in helping to plan the picture book lesson], I think that we need [support] to use the picture book even if there is no ALT. At many schools this is expected."
- <<Jimbo's note: This is not necessarily a problem.>> "If we have a sample class and [lesson plan] we can continue to build on it and use it to exchange ideas [with other teachers(?) or schools()] Thank you for the precious materials."
- "We have to study very hard about the country [which the book is discussing]."
- "If there are not more opportunities for seminars teachers will [not feel confident in reading the book in English] and [CCUP] will not spread."
- "At the elementary school level, I am not sure how accurate I should pronounce the words [to the children] or how much English activities I should include."
Let me start with the good. Of 15 teachers, only 1 said that children's interest in the book was a challenge. Also as substantiated in comment 3 of "other", even when the book was read in English, most children in CCUP were interested in the story and lesson. Thus, student interest does not appear to be an issue when using English picture books. Also, only 1 of 15 teachers wrote that it was difficult to plan and conduct a lesson using an English picture book with another teacher (Of the 15 English lessons, 7 were taught by more than one teacher). Thus, teaching with a colleague did not appear to be an issue and as mentioned in comment 1, team teaching a lesson can reduce the amount of work required to plan for the lesson.
A lot of the obstacles teachers answered (limited English proficiency, lack of ALT availability) are to be expected. Teachers' responses show that the biggest obstacle was lack of time.
In CCUP we tried to lessen the burden of the teacher by supplying useful background information and teaching materials in addition to the teaching guides for each book. The teaching guides gave teachers a series of activities they could use for a lesson and expected teachers to choose the ones they felt most appropriate. In the lessons I viewed, I personally saw teachers use many activities that were in the guides and I thought that we had given the teachers sufficient support.
At the ending of the project, however, we had a meeting with many of the teachers who had conducted pilot lessons. Similar to what was said in comments 3, a few teachers said that they needed more concrete lesson plans. In other words, it was my impression that teachers wanted a step-by-step guide as to how to conduct a lesson using a picture book. To be honest, my first reaction was dismay that the teachers would want to be told exactly what to do. After thinking about this for a couple of days, though, my opinion of this began to evolve. I put myself in the shoes of a typical Japanese Primary School teacher. If they are to conduct an English activity using a CCUP picture book they must
1) learn background information about the culture and country which the picture book is showing
2) practice reading the book in English or learn necessary English
3) plan a novel lesson and make necessary teaching materials
4) (optional) meet with an ALT and negotiate/confirm roles
As comment 4 indicates, teaching classes are just a part of teachers' job. They simply do not have a lot of time to plan for classes. Also, many Primary School teachers do no have any formal education in teaching English nor practical experience. Thus, to use an English picture book they must plan a new unit of study and also teach a subject they are not familiar with, English. I understand why teachers would want a detailed lesson plan which tells them exactly what to do step by step. A detailed lesson plan can help them get started and as they become accustomed to using picture books for English activities they can start making more original lesson. Perusing through Primary School English activity guides published by Japanese publishers, the lesson plans are very detailed. In conclusion, I think that if we are to make CCUP books and guides more user friendly for English activities we will have to present teachers with a detailed, demonstration lesson plan that they can model when planning their own lesson. This detailed lesson plan will have to be based on the lessons we have observed or have ourselves done.
Tuesday, April 22, 2008
Why English Picture Books for Japanese Elementary School Students? - Reason 1
Recently I have been reading Sandra McKay's Assessing Young Language Learners (2006)which gives an excellent background on the characteristics of young learners, relevant second language acquisition theory for teaching young learners, and an overview of Bachman and Palmer's theory of communicative competence (I have not gotten to the part about assessment yet).
First, Mckay discusses Skehan's (1998) cognitive theory for SLA. Skehan hypothesizes that learners first primarily rely on chunks or formulaes to communicate in the language. Examples of a chunk would be "What's that?", "How are you", "Can I have a ~?". Rule-based learning follows formulaic learning in that learners learn the rules that govern the chunks. For example, "May" can replace "can" in "Can I have a~" or that "Can I have a ~ " is formed by adding the auxiliary "can" to the verb "have" and then inverting it with the "I" (Wow, sounds really difficult, doesn't it?).
On a personal note, when I first came to Japan I spoke no Japanese and to survive in the country I learned essential formulaic phrases such as "Toire ha doko desu ka" (Where is the bathroom?), "Dozo yoroshiku onegaishimasu" ("Please be nice to me" - something that is said all the time here after you meet somebody). About 12 months after I learned "Dozo yoroshiku onegaisimasu" did I realize that "yoroshiku" was an adverb form for the adjective "yoroshi" (fine, nice, good) and that "onegai shimasu" was a honorific form of the very "negau" (wish) and started to use these two words in various contexts.
What I am trying to say is that perhaps the role of grammar is to help us manage, manipulate and make sense of the language we already know rather than to manage and manipulate language that we do now know.
It is my opinion that English picture books supply children with a wonderful opportunity to learn formulaic phrases. Many picture books tend to repeat the same phrases, for example, the "very hungry catepillar". It has been recommended that when reading a picture book with repretitive phrases, that the teacher have the children say the phrase when is appears in the book.
One thing to keep in mind, though, is that Monbukagakusho is proposing to introduce English activities for the 5th and 6th grades. I think that a book such as the "Very Hungry Catepillar" would be too childish for fifth and sixth graders.
McKay (2006, p.37) writes that "Foreign and second language learners who have had little opportunity to draw on formulaic systems developed through language use opportunities quickly become tongue tied and anxious as they try to construct a sentence based on the rules that they learned." In other words, if we have to apply rules every time we use a language the mental burded is so great that we will struggle to say much of anything.
Monkasho has said that it wants Elementary school English activities to serve as a "base" for junior high school and senior high school English. The Japanese junior high school English syllabus seems to be centered around learning grammatical rules. Using picture books, children can learn formulaic phrases which might eventually enter their lexicon. Perhaps, then, primary school English can serve as a base by helping children to learn some formulaic expressions so that when they enter junior high school the grammarical rules they learn can be used as tools to help them manipulate and make sense of the language that they already know.
Perhaps, when we emphasize grammar students get the mistaken impression that speaking a foreign language constitutes applying grammatical rules to every phrase that they utter. Using English picture books might help give children a different view of language.
Monday, April 07, 2008
Recent Reforms on English Activities in Japanese Elementary Schools
The first day consisted of demonstration classes at Omuta shi ritsu Meiji Shougakkou and the second day was an all day conference which consisted of speeches and panel discussions from 9:50 - 16:30. It was a little ironic that a conference that advocated learner-centered English activities would keep the participants in their seats listening the whole second day. Nevertheless, I got a lot of good information about the future of English activities in Japanese elementary school (when I managed to stay awake) and I would like to share some of that information in this post.
In the morning Masataka Kan who is one of the key planners of the current English education reforms which will take place in 2011 gave a speech outlining the plan for compulsory English activities in elementary schools and discussing its rationale. Here is what he said.
My recent life and future directions in research
1) The challenges teachers face in using English picture books and how teachers address these challenges
2) The potential for using English picture books as a means of training elementary school teachers on English teaching methodologies
3) The potential for using English picture books to meet the learning goals of the new Monkasho English education reforms
Actually, there is so much I want to learn and so much I want to do. I would like to learn more about the programming language C#2005, I want to dive into calculus as I shied away from it in high school and college, I want to learn more about factor analysis, I want to learn more about assessing young learners, I want to research more on task based language learning, I want to improve on my serve in tennis, I want to bicycle to Hokkaido again or around shikoku, I want to redesign the curriculum for all my classes, I want to spend more time in coffee shops reading, I want to learn to cook something other than pasta, I want to move some place warm, etc..... According to Jim Fannin in S.C.O.R.E for Life, "champions" accomplish one goal at a time. Like a lion seeking its prey, they focus on that one objective until they are chomping the life out of it. Hmm... Focus, Jimbo, focus.
Friday, April 04, 2008
Japanese Elementary Teacher TEFL Training Needs
As a result of this reform, university teachers will be asked to give more English teaching workshops for elementary school teachers. So I thought I would use this post to consider what skills/ knowledge elementary school teachers need to be able to faciliate English activities that encourage language learning. I will review two articles I have read. One is a mammoth report by Curtis Kelly on the training needs of Japanese elementary school teachers and the development of an on-line training website to address these needs and the other is a 2004 article in TESOL Quarterly by Dr. Yoko Goto Butler about the level of English proficiency that teachers in elementary schools in Japan, S. Korea and Taiwan need to attain to teach EFL. I will only introduce the points in the articles that are relevant to identifying the TEFL learning needs of Japanese elementary school teachers and not summarize all the findings.
A word of warning, I am writing this after a big dinner and a couple of glasses of wine and there will most likely be some inaccuracies below.
What does this mean?
These results are not very surprising. First, the goals of English education perceived by the teachers mirror the goals of English activities established by Monbukagasho during that period. Second, the teacher's low assessment of their own English ability probably reflects the fact that when they got their education degree, English education was not a requirement and thus they had little experience studying TEFL or using the English language. Third, the English skill areas where teachers most desire to master seemed to mirror the goals of English actitivies at the time of Butler's study; these goals emphasized the spoken language over the written language. Thus, it seems that the objectives of the national English curriculum will have a substantial impact on the areas of English that teachers want to improve in.
Retrieved April 7, 2007 from <http://www.osaka-gu.ac.jp/php/kelly/papers/mext-report.pdf>
Tuesday, April 01, 2008
Conversational Framing and Discussions in Japan
I have just read a chapter in Framing in Discourse edited by Deborah Tannen. The Chapter is called "Cultural Differences in Framing" and the author is Suwako Watanabe.
Watanabe compared the behavior in a group discussion of a group of Japanese students studying in the USA to that of a group of US university students. I thought that the results of her study have implications for holding discussions in the Japanese EFL classroom so I have decided to write about Watanabe's study.
First, let me explain to you what a frame is. Well, before I tell you what a frame is, let me warn you that there does not seem to be a simple one sentence definition. Both Watanabe and Tannen devote a couple of pages to reviewing related psychological and linguistic theories before defining what a frame is. Skipping all the theoretical background, I frame is defined as "sets of expectations about people, objects, settings and ways to interact." In other words are past experiences in interacting with people will have a significant impact on how we approach a communicative situation. For example, Tannen (1993) conducted a study where she had Greek EFL students and US university students watch and then describe a 6 minute silent movie. The US students interpreted this as being some kind of test and tried very hard to summarize everything that had occurred in the movie. The Greek students, on the other hand, focused more on relaying the message of the movie by trying to interpret the feelings of the characters and the reasons for their actions. Thus, it appears that both groups approached the same communicative situation in different ways.
In Watanabe's study, 4 groups of 4 US students each and 3 groups of 4 Japanese students each were given 20 (or 30?) minutes to discuss the following questions:
- Why did you decide to learn Japanese? (or) Why did you decide to study abroad?
- For Americans, it is said that Japanese is harder to learn than other European foreign languages, do you agree or disagree?
- Discuss misunderstandings that are likely to occur between Japanese and Americans and give examples.
Beginning the Discussion: The Japanese groups spent time at the beginning deciding who would speak first, second, third etc. and the procedures of the discussion. In one group, the order of the discussion was decided by age with the oldest person speaking last. Watanabe writes that members of a Japanese group are conscious of the hierarchy of the members and this hierarchical order governs the behavior of its members.
In the US group, on the other hand, once the researcher, Watanabe, left the room they immediately began the discussion by saying "OK" and talking. There was absolutely no discussion on the order of which people would speak.
Ending the Discussion: In the Japanese groups there was a consensus that the discussion should be ended. In one group, the oldest member was the one who closed the discussion. In the US group, the discussion ended when the participants ran out of things to say.
Giving Reasons for Question 1: Members of the Japanese groups tended to give detailed, chronological stories on why they decided to study abroad. Members if the US groups tended to give brief reasons about what they decided to study abroad.
Argumentative Strategies for Question 2: Members of the Japanese groups spoke once each about their opinion on question 2. Their opinions tended to be long and cover multiple perspectives: discussing the easy and difficult points of learning Japanese. There was no disagreeing among the participants. Members of the US group tended to either be on one side (Japanese is easy) or the other (Japanese is difficult). Usually, they would give a single reason and then add another later on. Thus, participants spoke multiple times, in addition there were many disagreements.
Watanabe concludes that while the Japanese participants in this study were very conscience of establishing the hierarchy of the group members and maintaining group harmony the US participants tended to see themselves as 4 individuals gathered only for the purpose of the discussion.
My experience as an American is that when I participate in discussions with people I do not know well, I do not worry so much about the other participants. Rather, I say what I want to and then listen to what other people have to say sometimes agreeing or disagreeing. In the classroom or workshops I have conducted, however, students/participants tend to exhibit behavior closer to the Japanese participants of Watanabe's study. I think that there is a danger of US teachers in Japan misinterpreting their students' hesitancy during a discussion. For example, they might believe that their students are too shy to hold a discussion or that Japanese students just don't like to talk. I think for group discussion to work in a US-teacher fronted classroom, it is important for the teacher to understand that the participant's expectations as to how a discussion should be held might differ from their own.
Let me give an example, last month at my university we held a public debate. There were about 40 people who attended, all of whom were local elementary, junior and senior high school teachers. The topic of the debate was
"English should be taught to all elementary school teachers"
One group of 5 brave students from the English department argued for and another even braver group of 5 students argued against the above statement. The audience were divided into groups before the debate began. After the "for" and "against" team made their opening statements I asked each group to take 10 minutes and prepare questions to ask the "for" and "against" team (During this time the "for" and "against" team prepared to cross-examine each other. Most groups were not able to think of questions as a group or discuss the opening statements. Beforehand, I had assumed that when I would ask the groups to think of questions to ask the debating teams that they would dive into the task as they were all teachers. However, this was probably my cultural bias. In my own experience when participating in group discussions I focus more on the task than the other group members. However, in the Japanese context, knowing the other group members and one's place within the group seems to be important. Thus, next time I coordinate a similar event, I will 1) provide time for self-introductions, 2) make sure that each group has a moderator (one of the people helping me to coordinate the event) who will be able to help the group break the ice and determine who speaks in what order etc.
Above is a picture of the debate teams and their proud advisers.
Friday, March 28, 2008
The Power of Being Organized
Thursday, February 28, 2008
Three Most Important Things in Life
What are the three most important things in life?
Of course having a stable job is important, but if we are missing any of the above three can we say that we are really happy?
Update: (March 5)
Since I wrote this post a couple of weeks ago I have actually received some comments saying to be happy you need to
1) Have a job that you enjoy
2) have money
I agree with these people. Without a steady income supporting 2 and doing 3 is impossible. Depending on the health system of your country, getting medical treatment without a penny to your name would also be difficult. But, why do we work? Do we work because we want to devote our lives to our job? I hope not. I would hope that we work so that we can have a good health plan, pay for our family to live comfortably and support our hobbies. In other words, I would hope that we work to make sure that we have our 3 most important things in life.
Thank you for the comments