Sunday, November 18, 2012

Issues with textbooks and reading/writing assignments for pre-service teachers

I am in charge of a teaching methodology class for second year students university students. Most of them are English majors and about half of them aspire to be English teachers. This year I have 43 students in the class; this means giving them any kind of assignment also gives me a lot of work. Checking 40 + long writing assignments adequately can take over 7 hours easily, and really make it hard for me to prepare the week's lesson. Because the class is conducted mainly in English and the content, theories and practices in TESOL/TEFL, is new to students, it is essential that they read the textbook and do the writing assignments every week.

The textbook that we use is titled 英語科教育の基礎と実践 (An approximate translation is "Basic theory and practice of English Education"), the book is a good introduction to basic theories in TESOL/TEFL, teaching techniques, and teaching English in junior and senior high schools in Japan. Of course, the book cannot go into very much depth, but I think it points students into the right direction for learning more about their field.

Anyway, back to the reading and writing assignments. As you can tell, the book is written in Japanese, but I have the students answer questions about the reading in English.  I think that it is important for the students to be able to explain concepts about English education in English. I hope that they will be able to build off this experience to one day be able to explain their pedagogical choices to ALTs or be able to discuss English teaching with other educators throughout the world.

We have a class blog and students make their own blogs which link to the class blogs. Students put their assignments and reflections of their practice teaching on their personal blogs. These blogs are supposed to serve as portfolios of students' work. I am actually not sure if I have chosen the appropriate technological tool for students' portfolios, but that is a story for another post. Students evaluation is based on whether or not students can explain the concepts written in the textbook in English. I grade them by giving them one of the following marks:

✓- means that a student was not able to explain the concepts in English.
✓ means that students were mostly able to express the concepts but there were some mistakes which made the writing difficult to understand.
✓1/2 means that they were able to express the concepts well with perhaps a few minor areas where the meaning was not completely clear
 ✓+ means that they were able to express the concepts very well 

A couple of weeks ago, I encountered an unexpected problem with these writing assignments. In the first assignment there were many sloppy mistakes. Sloppy mistakes are spelling mistakes, mistakes in plural/singular, mistakes in with subject-verb agreement, etc. Basically, sloppy mistakes are mistakes that students should be able to catch by themselves. To my surprise, well over 50% of the assignments were littered with these sloppy mistakes. For example, some students spelled the word learn as "lean" throughout their whole assignment. This gave me a sense of deja vu as something similar happened to me last year in the same class. On top of that, many of the assignments were full of global errors or awkward English, I was not sure what the students were trying to say. Becoming an English teacher at a public school is very competitive and these days one needs strong English skills to pass the teacher's examination and interview test. For the sake of the students, I cannot accept mediocrity. They have to all work hard to improve their English if are serious about becoming English teachers.

I underlined all the mistakes they made (this took well over 10 hours), and told students that they had to fix their mistakes as an assignment. I also transformed myself to the stern Jimbo and told students that they made too many careless mistakes and this was intolerable (Of course making mistakes because you are experimenting with new and difficult language is a good thing. Also, I should not that I make spelling mistakes all the time and a few mistakes in an assignment will not bother me. In fact, for me to get mad at a few mistakes would be very hypocritical).

As I said before, in addition to the careless mistakes, there was a high amount of unintelligible prose written by the students. Therefore, after the stern Jimbo had said his peace, I decided to give the students about 40 minutes to start the next assignment in pairs and I walked around to observe how there were doing the assignment. One of the most typical strategies was this: they would find the answer to the question of the textbook in Japanese and try to understand it. After grasping the meaning, they would write the answer in Japanese. Lastly, they would translate the answer into English. I realized that the textbook in Japanese was not necessarily clear-cut for them. When I read and summarize parts of the textbook, I understand the concepts already and can use my background knowledge when the language of the book is unambiguous or clear to me. The students, however, do not have the background knowledge that I have. It seems like that when students are unsure what the Japanese is actually saying, they tend to just directly translate it into English. The result of their effort is unintelligible English.

On this day, we ended up working on writing the answers into English the whole time and after the class had ended, I felt that I had just conducted my first grammar-translation class ever. I would not call it a waste of time, students worked very hard and I think they understood better what I expected from them and I understood better the demands that the assignments placed on them. Nevertheless, I did not think this was an ideal way for us to spend the precious little time we have to learn the basics of English teaching. I am now starting to question whether these kinds of assignments are appropriate (Reading in Japanese and answering questions in English). There are textbooks written in fairly simple English such as the TKT Course Module 1,2,3 which I think does a good job of explaining all the basics about English language teaching and learning that teachers need to know. The TKT is a teaching knowledge test for teachers of adult learners made by Cambridge University Press. I would prefer to use a book that also specifically discusses teaching at schools in Japan. In other words, I want a book that will contextualize the knowledge better.

I will say that most of the students in the class are working hard. I hope that this experience will push the students to become better self-monitors of their writing and also help them realize how hard they have to work to improve their English. I hope that I can choose the right kind of textbook and the right way of using the textbook that will help the students learn the basics of English teaching and improve their teaching. I really want to help them realize their dreams. For the next few weeks, we will be preparing for a teaching practice at a local elementary school. Hopefully during this time, I will be able to think of a better way of using the current textbook.

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