Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Why English Picture Books for Japanese Elementary School Students? - Reason 1

In Iwate most elementary school students have little experience studying English and their teachers are not highly proficient in the language either. Nevertheless, I can think of many reasons why English picture books should be used in elementary school English activities. Writing all the reasons would make for a very long blog post so I will start by writing one.

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

On January 26, 2008, I attended the 第4回全国小学校英語活動実践研究大会 (The 4th Annual All-Japan Conference on English Activities in Elementary School [Note: the translation is my own]) in the city of Omuta in Fukuoka Prefecture.

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.


First, almost all elementary schools in Japan are conducting English activities but because there is no standard English curriculum, there is a lot of variation in the quality and quantity of English activities conducted in primary schools throughout the country. In order to address this problem, it was proposed to make English activities in primary schools compulsory. Under this reform, English activities would be held once a week for fifth and sixth graders (35 hours a year). Monkasho (The Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology) has also produced a teacher's handbook called eigo no-to or English Note as well as a national curriculum. In the 2008-2009 academic years, pilot schools (拠点校) will begin using and testing the teaching materials and curriculum.

The Necessity of English Activities
Mr. Kan gave 3 reasons for this.
First, he said that English activities can take advantage of children's ability to adapt to different situations. I will add an example. One thing that has surprised me about the CCUP project is primary school children's willingness to listen to a story in English and use any means necessary such as the pictures and the expressions of the reader to work out the meaning. When older children are place in situations where they do not understand a lot of the language that is being spoken, they seem to be more likely to give up. In my experience, younger children appear more willing to make sense out of an ambiguous situation.
The second reason was to respond to globalization. Kan talked about other country's, such as Korea's, English education and also how children from other countries are more willing to communicate in English than Japanese.
The third reason was to ensure that all children have the same educational opportunities. As discussed in the introduction, some schools have much more comprehensive English curricula than others.
The Goals of English Activities
1. Improve children's' communicative competence.
In my opinion this goal is problematic in that most teacher's do not know what communicative competence is nor do they know how to evaluate it. Looking at the notes I took and searching through my recollections of the speech, I cannot remember Mr. Kan offering a layman's definition of communicative competence nor were there any examples given as to how one assesses whether or not children have developed "communicative competence." At the book exhibition, there were various communicative competence assessment instruments for sale but I was surprised that the policy makers or practitioner panelists did not discuss this issue so much. Maybe I slept through that part. Anyway, I think that teacher's need an easy definition of what communicative competence is (would Canale and Swain, 1980's theory be reasonable?) and simple ways to observe it or encourage it.
2. Increase children's understanding of language and culture
3. Become familiar with (nareshitashimu) English expressions and pronunciation.
Mr. Kan added that the goal of English activities is not for children to acquire skills in English but rather to raise their English ability in general and this also includes their ability in the first language. He also said that children would not receive any kind of numerical evaluation for English activities. He made a very interesting analogy, he said that listening and speaking English are like riding a bicycle, once you learn you never forget.
Jimbo's Analysis of the Goals
My analysis of the goals is that Monkasho wants to encourage children to become more active speakers and listeners. Mr. Kan talked about elementary school English as being a base from which jr. and sr. high school English will build off. Monkasho wants students who will work hard to make sense out of an ambiguous L2 situation rather than ask for a translation. They also want students who will not be shy to use the language. I think that any sane EFL teacher would want students like this. I think, though, that elementary school children are already endowed with the aforementioned traits. I believe that if one wants jr. and sr. high school students to be more active participants in class, then one has to change the nature of jr. and sr. high school English education (the reforms do make changes to middle and upper school English education). I am not opposed to English activities in elementary school but I am opposed to giving elementary school teachers, most of whom have no formal training in teaching English, the reponsibilty of reforming English education in Japan.

Training Teachers, Developing Teaching Materials
Mr. Kan emphasized that Japanese home room teachers would lead the English activities and receive assistance from ALTs, exchange students or local volunteers. He said for this to happen, it will be necessary to implement more professional development workshops for elementary school teachers. Here in Iwate, from this year we are expected to give more workshops to local elementary school teachers.
In terms of teaching materials, he discussed the English Note as well as more use of ICT (Information and Communication Technology).

My recent life and future directions in research

One of the reasons I neglected in writing in my blog almost entirely from October to March was that I had been involved in 2 big projects related to English activities in elementary schools. One project was a "Regional Elementary School English Activity" support project in which we collaborated with elementary schools to make an English textbook as well as an accompanying website. The other project was Cross Cultural Understanding Using Picture Books (CCUP). Both projects were very rewarding and I learned a great deal about elementary school English education, something I previously did not know much about. However, I got a little burnt out from the enormous amount of paper work and other administrative tasks that accompany being involved in large scale projects and for a while my brain became mush. For a month or so after the majority of my administrative work ended I went through the motions at work and lost most of my intellectual curiosity. I also started to reflect on what happiness is but kept most of my thoughts to myself and produced one measly post on the subject. Cleaning out my office and the approaching spring season, has seemed to energize me. I am reading more, exercising more, playing more and starting to become more productive at work. This year I will continue to research using English picture books in elementary schools. I have just finished the final edits on a paper for the JALT 2008 proceedings about selecting and using English picture books. This year my research will deal with the following:
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

This year the Ministry of Education, Sports, Culture and Science (Monbukagakusho) reported it plans to make English activities complusory in the 5th and 6th grade for all elementary schools in Japan beginning in 2011(?). Under this reform, English activities would be held once a week and they would focus only on speaking and listening. Although most elementary school teachers have little to no formal education on how to teach English and little command of the English language, they will be the ones in charge of leading these activities.

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.

Study 1

Butler, Y. G. (2004). What level of English proficiency do elementary school teachers need to attain in order to teach EFL? Case studies from Korea, Taiwan, and Japan. TESOL Quarterly, 38(2), 245-278.

Butler gave a survey to elementary school teachers during an English teaching workshop in Japan. Approximately 112 teachers returned the survey and 105 were analyzed for her study. The following are her research questions and their answers:

1) What do the teachers perceive the goals of English language education at the elementary school level?

Japanese teachers emphasized listening, learning various greetings, and cross-cultural understanding. They did not empahize learning the written language.

2) Does a gap exist between the perceived and desired (English) proficiency levels (of elementary school teachers)?

Yes. "Desired proficiency level" was described to the respondents as the minimum level necessary to teach English. 85% of Japanese teachers responded that their current proficiency level did not reach the minnimum (p.258).

3) What differences exist between the perceived current and desired proficiency levels in each of the four skill domains?

The survey asked the teachers to rate their English proficiency in the following areas: Oral fluency, oral vocabulary, pronunciation, oral grammar, reading, writing and listening. The Japanese teachers rated their proficiency in receptive skill domains (reading and listening) higher than their productive skill domains. Among their productive skills they rated their oral vocabulary as the lowest. In terms of their desired levels of proficiency, Japanese teachers tended to rate listening the highest and writing the lowest.

4) What differences exist in the size gaps of the domains?

The gaps were wide, the gaps between the productive areas were greater than the receptive areas.

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.

Study 2

Kelly, C., Ishitani, H. & Nakamura, H. (2003). Development and Evaluation of a Prototype E-Learning Site to Train Japanese Elementary School Teachers How to Teach English to Children.
Retrieved April 7, 2007 from <http://www.osaka-gu.ac.jp/php/kelly/papers/mext-report.pdf>

This is a report of a 2 year-long project funded by Monbukagakusho for desgining a TEFL e-learning website for elementary school teachers. I think that anyone who finds themselves having to assist in this kind of large-scale project should read this report as required reading. Kelly et. al's systematic and thorough approach to identifying teacher's needs and developing a website to address them is a good example on how to see a project through to beginning to end.
This report had a total of 7 research questions it attempted to answer but I will only focus on the first:
What are the educational needs, both perceived and predicted, of Japanese elementary school teachers preparing to teach English to children?
The researchers used three sources of information to answer the question:
1) Previous literature
2) Focus groups of elementary school teachers
3) Interviews with experts on teaching English to children
Some of the conclusons were
1) The teachers generally agreed that English classes are good for students (But even in a focus group, could teachers really say they thought the classes were bad. I think that it is difficult for teachers to answer truthfully to this question if their answer is negative
2) The teachers do not know what to do in their English classes
a) They did not understand the purpose of English activities
b) Teachers did not know what to teach
3) Teachers believe that their own ability in English was a key factor in teaching effective English lessons and many teachers lacked confidence in their ability to teach English. (In a pilot questionnaire conducted in Iwate, it was also found that a lot of teachers lacked confidence in their own English ability.)
4) Teachers are unfamiliar with teaching theories, methods and means of lesson planning and they are likely to use inappropriate methods like mechanical listen and repeat techniques.
5) Teachers are not being properly supported by training and do not have sufficient access to needed materials and curricula.
6) Teachers were unable to assess their own training needs.
What does this mean?
Monbukagakusho has worked hard to change education policy to incoporate English education into the curriculum but as Kelly et. al state, they have done very little to help the practitioners carry out the new currculum (The most recent reform,though, has provided an English curriculum for elementary school English teachers to follow). To be honest, most teachers are not highly proficient in English and never will be. Think about it, given that they are working full time, it is too much to ask of them to master a foreign language. Even after the new reforms, though, teachers will be teaching very basic English, English that they should know well after completing junior high school and high school English courses. Taking this into account, I think that TEFL teacher training workshops for elementary school teachers should focus of effective teaching methods and lesson plans rather than trying to raise teachers' proficiencies.

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:
  1. Why did you decide to learn Japanese? (or) Why did you decide to study abroad?
  2. For Americans, it is said that Japanese is harder to learn than other European foreign languages, do you agree or disagree?
  3. Discuss misunderstandings that are likely to occur between Japanese and Americans and give examples.
Watanabe found the following differences in the way both groups approached the discussion:

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.