Friday, August 02, 2013

Researching what constitutes real and meaningful learning in the Japanese EFL Classroom

 Recently, I watched an online lecture by Rod Ellis titled "Micro-evaluation of Tasks," basically he was teaching methods that teachers can use to see whether or not their tasks actually work. You might have noticed that the title of this post does not have the work task in it. My understanding of Communicative Language Teaching or CLT and Task-Based Language Teaching (TBLT) has changed this past year. CLT is a range of principles about language learning and tasks are a way in which teachers can try enact these principles (Kumaravadivelu, 2009).  Therefore, I am applying Ellis's principles for evaluating tasks to a "communicative lesson." In the lecture, he discussed three perspectives from which a task can be evaluated:
  1. whether students enjoyed doing the task and found it useful
  2. the extent to which the task results in the type of learner behavior that the teacher had in mind when selecting or designing the task
  3. whether the task contributes to the students' acquisition of the L2
For me, number two seems to be the most worthy to investigate. Why? Well,  of course three is what everyone wants to know. Did my lesson facilitate the acquisition of a certain type of knowledge or skill? In my opinion this is difficult to prove because learners show improvement in the pre and post tasks themselves rather than the actual skill being mentioned. Furthermore, by focusing exclusively on techniques that foster the learning of a specific skill or language item, we are missing the big picture. What is the big picture? I think number 2 is.

Dick Allwright's (2003) theory of exploratory practice is very close to what has been in my mind but up to now I have been unable to articulate. Allwright says that rather than instructional efficiency, we should be concerned with the quality of life in the classroom which I interpret to mean that teachers and learners find classroom practices rewarding and meaningful. Therefore, instead of doing research which tries to develop improved teaching techniques, we need to develop our understanding of the quality of classroom life. There is no cause and effect relationship between quality of classroom life and teaching technique, but teachers and learners understanding what quality of classroom life is will benefit them.

This is kind of deep stuff! The past four months, I have recorded 5 classes at the junior high school affiliated with my university. Four of the classes were taught by my students and one by the head English teacher. I used three video cameras in each class. One camera was focused on the teacher and two were focused on a learner each. The learners wore wireless microphones so we could hear their interaction. The point of doing this was basically to investigate "2" or learners' behavior during the communicative activities. The fundamental principle of CLT is that classroom practice be real and meaningful to the learners (Hiep, 2007). Therefore, I wanted to analyze learner interaction to determine the extent to which the communication was real and meaningful to them. This involves transcribing their interaction which is a lengthy process I am still involved in. I also looked at the nature of the activities the students were engaged in using principles from Csikszentmihalyi's (1994) flow psychology. Flow psychology is the study of the mentality of people when they completely devote themselves to a particular activity and even lose track of time. This state of mind is called "flow." I first learned about it in van Lier (1996) and read more about it in Csikszentmihalyi (1994), which, by the way, is a good read. Basically people are most likely to experience flow when the activity in which they are engaged has
  clarity: concrete goals and manageable rules
  flexibility:  it is possible to adjust opportunities for action to our capacities or abilities
  feedback: we know how we are doing in the particular activity while we are doing it
  concentration: we are able to screen out all distractions and focus on the particular activity

In addition to recording student interaction, at the ending of the class, students answered a questionnaire about their experience to help me ascertain the extent to which they felt there was activity had clarity, flexibility, feedback, and concentration. In my opinion, students do not necessarily experience flow because a teacher employs a superior activity. Rather, students experience flow when they perceive that the activity facilitates clarity, flexibility, feedback, and concentration.

At two conferences in August, JASELE and JACET, I will make presentations related to these classes. My goals in the presentation will not be prescribe superior teaching techniques to produce fluent speakers of English but rather to consider 1) What constitutes real and meaningful L2 communication in the EFL classroom in Japan and 2) What is quality classroom life in my particular context. I think these questions are the most important ones to answer. Looking at learner behavior can tell us the extent to which students find the class meaningful as well as provide feedback to the teacher as to whether or not their expectations are unreasonable.  

  • Allwright, D. (2003). Exploratory Practice: rethinking practitioner research in language teaching. Language Teaching Research, 7(2), 113-141. doi: 10.1191/1362168803lr118oa
  • Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1994). The Evolving Self: A Psychology for the Third Millennium. New York: Harper Perennial. 
  • Hiep, P. H. (2007). Communicative language teaching: unity within diversity. ELT Journal, 61(3), 193-201. doi: 10.1093/elt/ccm026
  • Kumaravadivelu, B. (2009). Understanding Language Teaching. London: Routledge.
  • van Lier, L. (1996). Interaction in the Language Curriculum. London: Pearson Education.

Monday, July 15, 2013

The Collapse of English Education in Japan

Today, I went to a symposium by Kumiko Torikae, Haruo Erikawa, Yukio Otsu, and Yoshifumi Saito. The title was 英語教育、迫り来る破綻ーーみんなで考え、行動しようーー or "The Coming Collapse of English Education: Let's think and act together [to prevent it]." They recently wrote a book with the same title and the symposium was sponsored by the publishing company. The speakers discussed the following topics which were based on what they wrote in the book:
  1. Prof. Haruo Erikawa: Protecting children from the reckless demands global corporations are making on English education 「グローバル企業の無謀な英語教育要求から子どもを守るために」
  2. Prof. Yoshifumi Saito: The Puppet Show of Confusion in English Education  「英語教育混乱のカラクリ」
  3. Prof. Yukio Otsu: Three reasons why I am against Elementary School English Education 「わたくしが小学校英語教科化に反対する3つの理由」
  4. Prof. Kumiko Torikae; The Chronic Reformatory Sickness and Global Syndrome that Plagues English Education
 All four speakers are very famous in the Japanese English education world. Their reason for publish the book is this year's proposed reforms in English education. For the sake of developing "global citizens," this year politicians have proposed using the TOEFL test as either an entrance exam for universities or an exit exam for high schools. They have also proposed that English become a subject in elementary schools (Currently, fifth and sixth graders have English activities once a week but this is not considered a subject). The speakers argued convincingly that TOEFL is not the right test for high school students. High school students graduate knowing less than 3000 words but TOEFL requires a vocabulary of about 8000 words. This incredibly brief summary does not do these speakers justice. They were witty, well-informed and very convincing. They presented a range of issues with current English education policy. I did buy the book they were selling and I think that it is a worthy read for anyone who is interested in English education policy reform. I definitely look forward to reading the book and discussing it with my seminar students (advisees). 

The criticism I have of this symposium was that the title was to think and act together but we were not really able to do this. The speakers spoke for 25 minutes each and after that the participants wrote questions for them to answer on paper. Many participants wrote questions and I can understand that this enabled the speakers to get a general feeling for what the audience wanted to discuss. We had 90 minutes for question and answer in which the speakers gave their insights into the questions and problems written by the participants. At the very ending, the speakers opened the floor for further questions and comments. Five people spoke and the second to last person, quoting the Japanese teacher's union (Nikkyousou), said that he felt that the most important role for English education in Japan was to improve students' ability in Japanese. First, I will say that this is definitely one of the benefits of studying a foreign language: learning to look at your own language more objectively. At least two of the speakers answered and said that they agreed that this was very important. This actually really disappointed me because I feel that if this goal is made a priority then learners' English abilities will not be developed at all and classes will be primarily focused on translation. The speakers have all criticized "communicative English," and I think a lot of their criticisms are valid. However, I also worry that at the ending of the symposium they were encouraging teachers to maintain the status quo instead of really improving English education.

Postscript: After writing this I stumbled upon a blog post by Prof. Yosuke Yanase  which raises the same point I do (although much more convincingly) and also summarizes the main issues of the symposium very well. If you can read Japanese, check it out!

Saturday, February 09, 2013

Practice Lessons for Pre-service English Teachers

Today was our last day of classes at the university. In my English teaching methodology class I have been experimenting with different ways for students to do practice teaching in the class. It is extremely important for students to experience teaching because that is the only way they can link such theories as learning strategies, communicative competence, etc. to English teaching. However, practice teaching is not easy because I have 43 students in the class. This means that it is not feasible to have one or two students do their practice teaching in class and have the others pretend to be students. If we did this, then maybe each student would teach no more than one 10-minute lesson a semester. Therefore, I have decided to have students do their demonstration lessons in small groups. Here is what I did for our practice teaching day:

First, I chose four activities from the Internet TESL Journal:
Lesson 1: The Bragging Game
Lesson 4:  The Syllable Game

Then I divided the class into 5 groups of 8 students. Each group had 4 teaching pairs.
Lesson 1Lesson 2Lesson 3Lesson 4
Group AKota and AiriMay and YuiHaruka and EmiMiki and Saki
Group BMai and ChikaKotaro and ShoheiHiroki and MakotoHamaya and Matsun
Group CShunsuke and HikaruMasato and TatsukiShunta and SatoruTakumi and Eiki
Group DTakahiro and AiFlowers and MachikoMarin and YurikaYoshi and Ryouhei
Group ESatoshi and WataruAyu and MoeShiho and KanakoYui U and Takayuki

Then, each student was given the following blogging assignment (taken from our class blog):
I would like you to write the lesson plan in your blog specifying the following. Next week, you and your partner will conduct a 10 minute lesson based on your plan.
Activity:  What kind of activity is it? Adjust the activity so that it encourages acquisition, interaction, or focus on form. Your activity can cover more than one of these.
Strategies: What kind of learning strategies does it encourage?
Learning styles: What kind of learning style is most appropriate for your activity?
Communicative competence: What kind of communicative ability does it encourage and why?
Procedures: Write the steps you will take to carry out the activity. At the ending of your activity, there should be some kind of reflection to help students realize the skill/strategy you wanted them to practice. 
See my sample lesson for an example 
Although you will be team-teaching, you should write the lesson plan in your own blog. It is ok to write the same thing as your partner.
The text books we use are the TKT Course and 新しい時代の英語科教育法と実践 . The items that I asked students to specify(Activities, strategies, learning styles and  communicative competence) were concepts that we studied in the textbooks. When we did the actual practice lessons, all groups did Lessons 1, 2, 3, 4 in that order. We were able to finish on time easily. What impressed me was that each pair of students taught their lessons differently depending on their goal. This meant that they were thinking very deeply about their teaching which I think is great. The problem areas were first, with five groups teaching at once it is hard to understand what each group is doing. I had two other teachers come to class that day to help me but I will not always have these kinds of resources. Second, I was not able to look at all the blogs before the class and give feedback on the lesson plans. I was just too busy. I was fortunate in that one of the other teachers volunteered to read the students' blogs. Third, sometimes when you are so busy orchestrating students' group work, keeping time, etc. it is hard to give students good comments on their lessons. Despite the problems, I am going to continue to use this format next semester. Although I need to think of ways that I can follow the students' lessons better, the most important thing is that the students, themselves, learn from this experience and determine themselves how they should improve.  

Wednesday, February 06, 2013

Using Vocabulary Notebooks: Tips For Organization

Between April and August, I wrote tons about using vocabulary notebooks (hereafter VNs) and then abruptly stopped. (You can see the posts here). VNs were basically "vocabulary sheets" that could be put into a two-ringed binder (See a sample below).

Although I continued to use them from October (when the second semester for university starts in Japan), I was too busy with other things to devote as much time to experimenting with them. This semester I did not really expand on VN activities, but I did improve in incorporating them more smoothly into the curriculum. This semester, of 22 students, I would say that 20 routinely entered words into their VNs. The key to this success was 1) making VNs an essential part of the class evaluation while trying to encourage independent learning and 2) being more organized.  I will explain both below:

1. Making VNs an essential part of class evaluation but encouraging some independent learning:
We routinely had quizzes about words that students wrote in their VNs and I routinely collected students' vocabulary sheets. Although it would be great if students would autonomously update their own VNs to satisfy their need for learning English words, without any kind of external measures from the teacher, students will not update their VNs.

However, when we had readings outside of the textbook, students would choose the words that they wanted to learn. Also, when we had quizzes, I let students choose which words to write on the quiz. For example, if students wrote 4 vocabulary sheets from a unit, they would choose about 3 words per page. For the quiz, I would give students a blank vocabulary sheet and they would fill it in. Also, they did not have to write the phonetic symbols for each word but they would have to write where the accent was.  Lastly, they would only have to write the "derivations" and "important information" for about two thirds of the words. The reasons for this is that in can be too tedious to write all the lexical information for words you want to learn and for a lot of words receptive knowledge will suffice. Here is an actual quiz:

In addition to the quiz, I would collect students' vocabulary sheets after their quizzes and give them marks of ✓+, ✓1/2, ✓, ✓-, depending on how much effort they put into their sheets. Last semester I realized that students wrote a lot of incorrect information into their sheets and would actually correct this information. This semester, though, I did not do that. However, I believe there was less erroneous information in students' VNs this semester. The reason was, I think, is that they chose the words to write productive information (derivations, "important information," example sentences) for and did not have to write this information for words that they did not intend to learn. Additionally, they had a semester's worth of experience using VNs and they were more used to the practice of finding the word information. Nevertheless, I think that frequently students did write incorrect information. However, I could not spare the time to check the sheets, this is an issue.

At the ending of the semester, students had a self-evaluation sheet which contained their grades for each assignment and quiz. Students had to calculate their numerical grade in the last class and then tell me whether they deserved an A+, A, B, C or D. (At many Japanese universities, they do not use numerical grades). Of course, students' VN marks were also on the evaluation sheet (see below). Actually, I accidentally forgot to record some of the grades for students VN sheets (especially if they turned them in late), so with the self-evaluation sheets students were able to confirm to me that they had filled out their sheet even if there was no mark. A real evaluation sheet is shown below:

2. Organization
One of the things I struggled with last semester was that I had a difficult time keeping track of the number of vocabulary sheets I asked them to write and students were also confused about how many they should have. This semester, on the course vocabulary resource page I recorded each time I asked students to record words in their vocabulary sheet from readings we did, songs we listened to, or discussions that we had. I also recorded when they had a quiz based on a particular sheet or when I collected the sheets to see that they had been writing in the VNs (see below)

Also, students wrote their names and the topic for the words on each vocabulary sheet. I used a new system to have students turn is assignments including VN sheets. Each student at the beginning of class would be given a clear file with their number on the outside (students were given a number from 1 - 23 at the beginning of the semester. They were numbered this way on the class list I received from the university).  When students turned in a VN sheet, they would put it in their clear file. This made it MUCH easier for me to keep track of the sheets. If I had students hand them in with no files and received a big stack of VN sheets, I know that I would have lost many of the sheets.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

What I Learned About Teacher Education in Thailand

For 13 days I rotated around three unique schools and saw three unique groups of student-teachers teach at each school. In my post before I left for Thailand, I wrote:

in Thailand I want to see how students will fix their own lessons and how this experience will change their view of what effective teaching and their image of themselves as teachers.
In the blog, I try hard not to write about people or schools in such a way that would reveal information they would not want shared. I am a little worried that what I would write might reveal certain details that schools and or the student teachers would prefer not to be shared. However, I do think that I can share what fascinated me the most about this whole experience.

At the Thai schools we had three groups of people working together on planning the ideal English class. These groups had different life experiences and views on teaching, they were Japanese college professors (who were American!),  Thai and non-Thai English teachers working in Bangkok or Ayutthaya, and Japanese pre-service teachers. We had different ways in how we perceived good topics, appropriate activities, our ideal image of teachers, how to interact with students, and how to use materials.

I think that for the classes that were most successful, the pre-service teachers, the Thai teachers, and the American teachers were able to exchange dialogue about the classes, understand each other, and negotiate changes that everyone could be happy with. For the classes that were not as successful (all the classes were actually good, I think), the pre-service teachers, Thai teachers, and American teachers were not quite able to reach a common ground. Nevertheless, the opportunity to collaborate on planning these classes was an incredible experience which taught me about myself, my students, and the Thai teachers; it also brought us all closer together. This trip taught me about how difficult and exhausting communication can it made me a more open and honest communicator and made me feel more alive.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Using the Japanese Portfolio for Student Teachers of Languages in a Class Discussion

I am in Thailand right now but need to get my mind off it. So, I am going to write about using the J-Postl. The J-POSTL or  the Japanese Porfolio for Student Teachers of Languages is adapted from E-POSTL or the European Portfolio for Student Teachers of other Languages. The J-POSTL consists of 100 descriptors that students can use to assess their teaching ability. The descriptors help students assess their knowledge or ability related to their context, teaching methodologies, using resources, planning lessons, conducting lessons, etc. The descriptors are useful in that they can raise students' awareness of the techniques, skills, and knowledge that very good teachers have. For example, look at the following descriptors for conducting lessons:
  1. 73  I can start a lesson in an engaging way.
  2. 74  I can be flexible when working from a lesson plan and respond to student interests as the lesson progresses.
    75  I can adjust my time schedule when unforeseen situations occur.
    76  I can time and change classroom activities to reflect individual students’ attention spans. 
The problem with J-POSTL is the sheer number of descriptors can make it a little overwhelming. However, the developers of the portfolio recommend that students only do a few descriptors at a time. I tried to do just this last month. My students in my teaching methodologies class did a one day teaching practice at an elementary school where they conducted a foreign language activity (English activity) using the standard elementary school English textbook, "Hi, Friends"After their practice lesson, we had a class discussion using part of the J-POSTL. For the discussion our goal was to Determine the essential skills necessary for conducting foreign language activities in elementary school, this is what I did:

  1. I gave students a list of descriptors from J-POSTL about using resources, lesson planning, and conducting a lesson (using a lesson plan, content, interaction with students, classroom management, classroom language). I have written the list of descriptors I used at the bottom of this page.
  2. I asked students to write a circle next to they thought they were able to do in the lesson, a cross next to what you were not able to do, and write a triangle next to what they thought was not relevant. (5 minutes)
  3. Each teaching group of students (7 groups of students each conducted a class) watched a video of their class. If their thinking changed, they could change their answers they wrote in 2. (15 minutes)
  4. Each teaching group comes to a consensus about the 5 items they thought they were most successful in accomplishing in their classes and the 5 items they were least successful in accomplishing. (20 minutes)
  5. Next, students made seven new groups so that each new group consisted of a member from each of the original groups (like a jigsaw task). They shared the results of 4. with their new group members. After that, as a group, they chose what they thought were the four most important items for conducting foreign language activities in elementary school and gave reasons why. (20 minutes)
  6. Lastly, each group presented their top four items. I wrote them on the computer (using a projector of course) and as a class we chose the top 5 items. 

In steps 4 and 5, I told students that they could add their own items if they so wished. The final list of the most important items consisted of the students' original items rather than those of J-POSTL.

Number of VotesItem
40Enjoy the class
23Use English as much as you can.
20Don’t use Japanese too much
16Try to speak easy English
12Prepare for the class perfectly
12Prepare for many activities

I thought that this was VERY interesting. I think it means that it is difficult to tell students to look at their classes from a perspective that is different from their own. The J-POSTL makes A LOT of sense to me because I am an experienced teacher. Student-teachers, however, are new to teaching and they might perhaps focus more on the very basics such as "enjoy the class" rather than the detailed techniques, knowledge, and skills written in J-POSTL. Also, it could have been the nature of the task itself that influenced students' answers. Nevertheless, I was surprised that every item that students voted as most important were their own original ones.

I should be writing about my students' teaching in Thailand right now, but actually being able to think about my orderly and predictable life in Japan has been a little therapeutic for me.

Appendix: Items from J-POSTL used in the class discussion

47 I can identify and evaluate a range of coursebooks/materials appropriate for the age, interests and the language level of the students.
48 I can select texts and language activities from coursebooks appropriate for my students.
49 I can locate and select listening and reading materials appropriate for the needs of my students from a variety of sources, such as literature, mass media and the Internet.
50 I can make use of ideas, lesson plans and materials included in teachers’ handbooks and resource books.
51  I can design learning materials and activities appropriate for my students.
52  I can recommend dictionaries and other reference books useful for my students.
53  I can guide students to use the Internet for information retrieval.

A. Identification of Learning Objectives
54 I can identify the Course of Study requirements and set learning aims and objectives suited to my students’ needs and interests.
55 I can plan specific learning objectives for individual lessons and/or for a period of teaching.
56 I can set objectives which challenge students to reach their full potential.
57 I can set objectives which take into account the differing levels of ability and

special educational needs of the students.
58 I can set objectives for four main skills of listening, speaking, reading and writing

respectively, according to the focus of individual lessons and/or period of teaching. 59 I can set objectives which encourage students to reflect on their learning.
59. I can set objectives which encourage students to reflect on their learning.

A. Using Lesson Plans
73  I can start a lesson in an engaging way.
74  I can be flexible when working from a lesson plan and respond to student interests as the lesson progresses.
75  I can adjust my time schedule when unforeseen situations occur.
76  I can time and change classroom activities to reflect individual students’ attention

B. Content
77 I can relate what I teach to students’ knowledge, current events in local context, and the culture of those who speak it.

C. Interaction with Students
78  I can keep and maximize the attention of students during a lesson.
79  I can encourage student participation and student interaction whenever possible.
80  I can cater for a range of learning styles.
81  I can help students to develop appropriate learning strategies.

D. Classroom Management
82 I can create opportunities for and manage individual, partner, group and whole class work.
83 I can manage and use instructional media (flashcards, charts, pictures, audio-visual aids, etc.) effectively

E. Classroom Language
84 I can conduct a lesson in the target language, and if necessary use Japanese effectively.
85 I can encourage students to use the target language in their activities. 

Friday, January 04, 2013

Off to Thailand

I am writing from a hotel in Narita and am off to Thailand for almost two weeks. Another colleague and myself will be accompanying 10 students to Bangkok and Ayutthaya where they will be teaching English at high schools. I think that the students have been preparing hard for their teaching but I still don't think that they are quite ready. Last year, students went to Thailand with an almost perfect lesson plan. However, I took great pride in watching their lesson but then wondered whether students were actually teaching their own lesson or actually teaching my lesson. This year, students have chosen their own topics, activities, etc. Students are divided into 3 groups. Each group has made lesson plans and conducted demonstration lessons. Here are the topics of each group.

Group 1 (Three female students teaching at an All-Girl's High School in Bangkok): Valentine's Day in Japan, Traveling in Japan
Group 2 (Three female students teaching at a coed school in Ayutthaya): Origami, New Years in Japan
Group 3 (Three female students and one male student teaching at a coed school in Bangkok): Seasonal events in Japan, Japanese food stalls

One regret I have is that during the demonstration lessons I tend to talk A LOT and the students do not have much of a chance to give each other feedback after the lesson. If I see something during the lesson that I know would not work well in Thailand I become filled with an uncontrollable urge to point it out and give students my own ideas about how to remedy the problem. I do not have the patience to let students resolve the problem themselves. However, I also think that because the students have not gone to Thailand, they CANNOT understand why some thing might not work. I have been accompanying students to Thailand for a couple of years and feel the overwhelming urge to impart what I have learned before students have had a chance to try to work out the problem themselves. I need to learn to speak less.

No matter what I tell them though, they won't really be able to understand why or why not their lesson will work until they actually teach in the Thai schools. Therefore, in Thailand I want to see how students will fix their own lessons and how this experience will change their view of what effective teaching and their image of themselves as teachers. Well, I have to get ready to go.