Category Archives: EFL


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I am reading everything I can find about TPRS.

I recently got Blaine Ray‘s Fluency Through TPR Storytelling, and have been reading it each night until I fall asleep.

Today, I got hooked on Ben Slavic’s page. Yesterday, I downloaded all the handouts, docs, posters, everything that wasn’t nailed down. I spent the early hours of this morning reading them until I fell asleep. I’m doing the same today.

I want to credit AJ Hoge for turning me onto TPRS. He mentioned it on an old blog he had years ago, when he was teaching English in a university in Thailand, I believe. He wrote a bit more about it after he returned to the States. I didn’t investigate at the time. It was only when I happened across AJ’s most recent site that I felt an urge to find out more about this method.

What prompted me to do so was a few things that AJ said in a video or somewhere on his blog. They were very similar to what Ben Slavic wrote here: Professionally sad.

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The new autonoblogger

This blog started as a log of my attempts to introduce my students to the joys of autonomous i.e. self-directed language-learning. Basically, it’s the story of one failure after another since I started in 2005.

This blog ground to a halt in October 2007: I’d run out of steam, of ideas. I’d run into a wall.

I resurrected it in October 2009, mainly to learn how to import a Blogger blog into WordPress and to give autonblogger it’s own domain.

I’ll blog about new directions  I’m taking in teaching English, which may take me away from “autonomy” or self-directed learning, but I’m keeping the “Autonoblogger” name ‘cos I like it.

A couple of years ago, I began exploring something called The Immediate Method. Not a quick way to get pregnant, but an EFL approach developed by French teachers in Japan to have their students start using new structures and vocab as soon as possible by “testing” them almost immediately, i.e. by having conversations with students on themes or topics that involve using the structures and vocab that were introduced earlier in that lesson.

Having conversations with students is fun: I get to know them a little more personally. Students also enjoy talking to me personally – it’s one reason why they take an “Oral English” class (the other reason is because the class is compulsory!).

But. My students weren’t improving. They were not becoming more fluent. They were not developing confidence in their speaking. Some of them were not practising the structures and vocab enough (or at all). While I was having conversations with students, I was not “teaching” them or monitoring them. Although I did assign them work to do (“Write your own conversation based on the model in the textbook, and practice it”; “If you’ve finished your conversation test, do the grammar exercises on page….”), some did not do it.

Then I discovered TPRS.

(to be continued)

Funny ads

Via Google (click on “add more content” to your iGoogle page), I discovered Funny Ads. I’ve had it on my iGoogle page for a few days, but didn’t watch any of them until today. A number are in languages other than English (some of those have English subtitles), and a number are “silent”, where the pictures tell the whole story.

Humour is an element common to all those I saw at a quick glance, and I think they would be great for teaching English, e.g. as prompts for a writing assignment (write the story you saw, create your own ad), or a speaking task (tell your partner what you saw; what is the ad for? Do you think it’s an effective ad? Why/why not?), or a multimedia project (create your own ad, video it, upload to Internet).

My favourite is the Deutsche Postbank one.

Using English to process meaning (revisited)

Doug’s recent comment reminded me of one reason I enjoy keeping this blog: getting comments from people who work in EFL as well as from those who work in other fields.

Yes, meta-language in textbooks is one of the (many) banes of a teacher’s working life, but I’m not sure this is the whole problem in my case. I keep coming back to what Steve wrote about using English to process meaning. The students in the class I wrote about are ranked as “high level”; they regularly get 80% or more on the weekly vocab quizzes I give (correctly spelling items like “relaxation technique”, “coping with stress” – do you think they’ll pick up the hints I’m dropping for them?!?). Yesterday’s class (Touchstone 2, Unit 3) had short written interviews with 6 people on what they are doing to stay healthy. The activity was to circle the ones that had a healthy lifestyle and note why. We read the interviews together, then I explained the activity (it’s written in the textbook as well) and let them get to work. Except they didn’t. Blank looks. Much fidgeting with pens, sighing, the laying down of the head on the hands, unblemished sheets of looseleaf paper. Perhaps it’s “end of term blues”? I go around the class, asking individual students “Which ones have a healthy lifestyle?”. After a while I come to a student who tells me he doesn’t understand what “which ones” means.

Afterwards, a colleague suggested the students can’t process language, they can’t decode. They can understand and recognize discrete items, but not figure out what those items mean when strung together in a written (or spoken) sentence; in short, he said, they can’t read.

Using English (grammar) to process meaning

Steve Herder at Japan Action Research in EFL wrote recently about his joy at hitting on an activity that allowed students to use the grammar they have learned to process meaning. I started to leave a comment, but pretty soon found that it was turning into an essay, so….

Here’s the essay:
lack of experience actually USING GRAMMAR they’ve learned in order to PROCESS MEANING.

I’ve been thinking about this since I read it here. I had the reverse experience the other day, when I discovered that a “high level” class (they scored well on the proficiency test at the beginning of the year, they regularly get high scores in the weekly vocab quizzes I give) were quite unable to a) read an understand the comprehension questions (in English) on a short piece of written English. The questions were simply asking them to identify certain key concepts and topics in the text, but many seemed unable to understand what they were supposed to do.

The problem seemed to be the meta language of the instructions; yet the language does not seem particularly difficult to me: Look at the article again. Find these things. Then compare with a partner. 1) an interesting topic of conversation 2) an example of an information question 3) a question to show you’re interested in the other person… (The text is Touchstone 2, CUP).

It was then I realized I usually explain textbook tasks in Japanese. That day, I did not. Why do I usually explain in Japanese? Because I sense that they will not be able to suss out the instructions on their own, perhaps?

In some classes, students express a desire to talk to me. In many classes, students seem to expect that this is what the class is for: it will give them an opportunity to interact personally (one-to-one) with me, the “furner”. When I first started teaching in Japa, I did this a lot, but not so much recently. It got old: students may (or may not, it varies) actually want to talk to you, but what became clear was that many of them were quite incapable of making themselves understood even in broken English; of those that could, fewer actually had something to say.

“First, you prepare something to say. When you’re ready, come back.” I did that for a while, but although a few in most classes are ready and willing, most need more practice first, so I slowly abandoned the “conversation class” and spent more time drilling (in fun ways) and generally having students practice using the language.

Perhaps a further couple of reasons I abandoned the “conversation corner”, the “fireside chats with the foreigner” (do you get the feeling I’m a little uneasy with this?) are:

  1. my growing awareness of a belief among Japanese students of English that they can somehow learn English ONLY by being in the presence of an English-speaking foreigner – “English by osmosis” – and that practice (alone or with a Japanese partner), drills (both oral and written), learning vocab, are either irrelevant or can somehow be bypassed when you have a real, live, English-speaking (and preferably blond(e) and blue-eyed because we all know that those are the only real foreigners) “gaijin” to yourself, if even for a few minutes;
  2. a growing awareness of a patronising attitude (in some cases, open disdain) on the part of colleagues towards the “conversation” teachers: glancing references like “students are not going to progress much if they’re just repeating ‘hellomynameis’ every day” (so that’s what they think we’re doing).

But what if students’ desire to “talk to the foreigner” was actually (at least in part) a desire to use (English) language to create meaning?
Something I should realize by now that has probably been sadly lacking in their experience of English language education.

Instructional objectives in university EFL classes

On Harold Jarche’s blog, I found a post about a book called Analyzing Performance Problems. Thinking it might help me analyze why my students don’t “perform” (i.e. study, learn, practice) as well as I think they should, I borrowed it via the inter-library loan and read it. Fascinating. Helped me look at what goes on in my classrooms from a different perspective.

I then ordered Preparing Instructional Objectives by Mager (one of the co-authors of “Analyzing”) and was again fascinated. It forced me to examine the following

1) what are the students required to be able to do by the end of the course?

2) what are the skills required in order to be able to begin (undertake) the course?

3) what criteria attend the performance objective(s) (under what conditions will the learners be expected to perform)?

Mager gives examples of “instructional objectives” which aren’t: they are procedural instructions or refer to what the instructor will do, but make no mention of what the learners will be able (and expected) to do by the end of the course. E.g. “In this course the instructor will cover the Middle Ages, the Renaissance,… “

I take a look at the syllabi and course descriptions I have been given and the ones I have created. Uh-oh. Almost none refer to what students are expected to be able to do by the end of the course.

Topics are listed, and in some cases notions and functions, but not much that could be clearly labelled an instructional objective. No criteria are given, either. In other words, how am I expected to assess the students? In writing? With an oral exam? And if the latter, what kind?

In one case, I have been told I’m expected to give an oral exam at the end of the semester (next month), but no specifics are offered in terms of objectives or criteria.

Actually, that is not quite true. I have been given one unequivocal condition:

We also ask that during these final exam sessions, students not be allowed to leave early. Students can be given written work to keep them occupied while other students are performing their speaking tests, for example. Even if teachers cannot be in the room, physically, they are expected to provide work for the students to do to keep them in the classroom until the end of the class period.

A point Mager makes in his book is that, if instructional objectives are clear, this should leave the instructor free to achieve those objectives in his/her own way and his/her own time: if the objectives can be achieved in 6 hours instead of 10, great.

I have spoken with other instructors about instructional objectives, i.e. what are our students expected to be able to DO by the end of the course? Generally speaking, the Westerners are sympathetic to this approach whereas the Japanese are not and raise all kinds of objections. A recent one was, “what about the slower learners? Won’t they feel frustrated and badly treated if they are the only ones left in the classroom at the end while everyone else has left early?”

My interpretation: a class is a group. In a collectivist society, the group is paramount. In other words, the purpose of having a class is to create a group, and this is more important than actually learning anything. I recently met a student who was in my class last year; she said, “Everyone in that class still has a strong esprit-de-corps”. They all bonded. How nice.

I had this exchange last year with an older Japanese woman who was auditing one of my classes: I was asking why I am expected to take attendance in class, and why attendance is given such weight in Japan, pointing out that attendance was never taken at any university class I attended in the UK. I also gave my friend’s example: he had figured out early in his first year that lecturers were reading out info that was already in books in the library; he therefore studied the books and didn’t go to any lectures. He passed the final exam with flying colours. This lady was outraged: this seemed to deeply offend her sense of justice – it was unfair that he should be given the same graduating certificate as the others when he had not put in the equivalent time in class!

I have also experimented with such an instructional objective approach in a freshmen EFL class: there were 10 speaking tasks; students had to practice them until they could perform them satisfactorily. Part of the idea was to allow those who were superior in ability to finish early, because the administration forbade us from granting some students the credits for that class without taking the class, even if the pre-test showed that they were well above the target level of ability.

This experiment did not work well, as basically, students did not practice and simply goofed off. Despite repeated explanations (in their native language), they seemed to completely fail to grasp what we were trying to achieve. Instead they sat there, waiting to be taught.

This experience, together with administrative intransigence with regard to allowing students to “test out” of basic classes, re-inforced my belief that credits are awarded primarily for time spent in the classroom, this being the clearest “instructional objective” I have yet been given. Parents pay for so many hours in the classroom, and this is what teachers must provide. If a teacher misses a class, he or she is expected (in many institutions) to make it up to ensure that students are provided their full quota of 15 90-minute sessions per semester. I understand this, but I also chafe: it fosters a lack of clarity in terms of performance objectives. Apparently, no-one seems to have a clear idea of what students are expected to be able to do after their 15 90-minute sessions.

My textbook doesn’t work

Having spent half the weekend in Tokyo for JALTCALL 2007, and after spending too much time preparing in previous weeks, I decided to cut out the fancy stuff, and just go by the book for once: just follow the instructions in the teacher’s manual. Would you like to know how it went?

I knew you would! Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin.

The book I’m using was chosen for me, and is pictured above (see more details on the Longman website): Powerbase Elementary.

Keep books closed. Hold up a newspaper/magazine and point to a job advert. Say what is it? Try to elicit advert or advertisement in L1 or in English. Say It’s a job advert.

Open books. Ask students around the class Are you a accountant? etc, and elicit replies.

Oops. Didn’t read this instruction in time to prepare. I didn’t have a newspaper or magazine (stopped reading them years ago, so I didn’t have one handy in my bag). I skipped this part and just told them “these are adverts. These are job adverts.” Pretty ingenious, eh? I also skipped the part about asking them “are you an accountant?” because all the students in the class are university students, they all know each other, and so they can all answer “no” to any question I ask them; they know it’s pointless and they’ll just look at me like, “what…… are you doing?” Moving on.

Focus attention on the adverts. Ask students to read them quickly and fill the gaps with the jobs in the box.

Walking around the class, I noticed hardly anyone doing this. Did they not understand? Thinking this might be the case, I went around pointing to the jobs highlighted in yellow which are supposed to be used for this exercise, and showed them where on the actual job adverts they were supposed to write their answers. Nobody seemed thrilled, but they (oh! so slooowwwwly) got into gear and started reading and writing. No collaboration, no talking. You could hear a pin drop. I put on some background music. A couple of guys were already asleep (this is the last period in the day). I walk briskly around the room, jollying them along, but asking myself “what’s the point?”

By now, some have quickly finished the exercise, while others have just started, and yet others are doing nothing at all except possibly waiting to be told the answers. (This is a teacher’s exercise, so sooner or later teacher will check the answers aloud with the class; they can just wait till then and write down the answers. Saves time and brain “wear and tear”.)

Already feeling disheartened, I plough on:

Ask students to read the job adverts again, then ask check questions such as What is Trevor Gibbons’s telephone number? Where do they want a piano teacher?

This is toe-curlingly slow. Nobody answers. I have to stand in front of someone or call their name, then wait up to 30 seconds or even longer while they figure out that I’m asking them a question, that it has something to do with the text in front of them, that they are going to have to actually read the text to get the answers, and is it really worth the effort? Meanwhile, I’m aware that most of the rest of the class have tuned out because I’m asking a particular student. I belatedly realize I should have added another activity: read the friendly text. Again. After a couple of questions, I abandon this activity, and move on. They don’t read the text. They only read the text, when they hear a question regarding it has been directed at them. Then they hold the whole class up while they stare at the text trying to figure out where in it the answer lies.

The next activity requires them to match (write) verbs with nouns, such as “send” + “an email”, or “make” + “arrangements”. I walk around the room, but most students have already finished the exercise, while (again) some haven’t even started. Do I make the quick ones wait and insist that the slow ones complete the exercise (some students don’t even have the textbook; I’ve lent my copy out already)? Or do I abandon the slow ones and move right along? I decide to abandon the slow ones.

Now it’s listening time. There are 2 conversations on the CD which refer to two of the jobs listed in the adverts. Which ones? I make a meal of the explanation, to make sure everyone gets what the activity is, where to write the answers, etc. I play the CD. I just let it run, and, remembering that up to now I’ve kind of been flogging a dead horse, I decide not to replay it, but ask students what they think the answers are right after stopping the CD at the end of the 2nd conversation. The first student I pick looks at me with an expression that tells me she hasn’t got a clue, and may not even understand what it is I’m asking her. This time, perhaps, I should have gone more slowly… I long for the days when I did drama, and barely used a textbook at all…

To be fair, it’s not entirely the textbook’s fault, nor the students’: some are not interested in English at all, but others genuinely want to try speaking it. Some of the fault is mine, for not properly preparing and anticipating some of these problems in advance (I’ve worked here long enough, I should know by now. And I did! I just wanted to try just following the teacher’s manual for once, instead of spending hours creating my own version of the text and the teacher’s book, because that just takes too much of my time).

But they want to talk to the foreigner, me, not their partners. Talking to one’s Japanese partner in English is so weird and unnatural that they do it as little as possible. They are not really interested in learning to use the bricks and mortar or the language, they just want a genuine opportunity to speak it, and they want to say and hear something fun, funny, cool, or all three. What would go down well with this group is a scene from a popular movie, which they read out or maybe act out with appropriate gestures and movements.

There is a major mismatch between the students’ wants on the one hand, and the curriculum that has been prepared for them on the other. The textbook is well put together, based on some sound pedagogical principles, but it fails to grab the students’ attention or imagination: they’re not interested in learning grammar or practising discrete grammatical or lexical items. They just want to talk. I need to come up with something fast. Maybe some role plays with role cards? There are far too few conversations in this textbook, conversations that students could use as models (not just for listening exercises) to base their own creative efforts on.

In an earlier class, I had had students practise three different conversations, then perform them for me in pairs or threes. This went rather better than the last class of the day, the one I described above: altho I was not “teaching” for most of the class, students were practising their conversations in English for much of the time (some downtime while they waited for their turn to perform for me, inevitably), and enjoyed the interaction with me, some hamming it up (including pretending to be completely clueless and unrehearsed, simply in order to spend more time getting my attention and annoying the groups waiting for their turn).

Blogging with students (2)

Steve Herder asks a couple of questions:

Q1) How much L1 vs. L2 you use when getting the students set up to this point?
A1) I have used almost entirely L1 (theirs! not mine), throwing in some English words which I think would be useful to know (create, account, register, login, logout, URL, password, user name, ID, firewall, subject, body, upload, download, address, dashboard, post (noun and verb), entry, comment). This setting up is already taking much longer than I had anticipated. I want this over and done with as soon as possible, yet I don’t want to rush it and have most students only half-understand, or not properly signed up.

Q2) Do you feel they are working with you during this process or are they somewhat resisting?
A2) “They” are not one entity but 27 or so individuals, so I can’t answer for all of them. Most seem willing, as they are learning something new and I’m there to help out on the spot with problems. A few are slow and I think this is simply due to their inexperience and inexpertise using computers. During the last session, 1 student asked me how to change the colour and design and several students listened and then went quickly to their own “templates” and tried it out. This was satisfying: they are starting to take the ball and run with it, not just follow directions.

I’m assuming students see the blogs and the Y!Group as simply a class requirement, like having a quiz every week. I’m hoping that, through using these tools, they will eventually realize the independence that is being offered them, both by me and by the tools themselves. The discovery of how to change the look of their blog was one such realization, albeit a small one. It’s not just how to change your blog’s appearance, it’s that the teacher hasn’t mandated a particular look and the student is free to make any changes they like.

I’m also assuming it will take a while for this to sink in.

Teaching vocab

(Photo by seaworthy on Flickr).

I’m looking for vocab teaching activities. I really don’t have time to make many materials, so I’m looking for stuff that’s already out there.

I’ve insisted my students buy word-cards. I show them how I want them to use them, in class. I’m going to set a target for them of 20 new words per week, starting after the holiday (called Golden Week). I’ve been giving them breakdowns of the textbook units we’re using (using VocabProfiler), showing them how the vocab breaks down into K-1, K-2, AWL and “OFF-LIST” types. We’ve covered some basic vocab info, so they now realize it makes sense to learn the most frequently used words first. They still only vaguely realize what this has to do with them (“doesn’t the textbook, or the teacher choose those words for us?”).

In class, I have them pick 20 words they don’t know or are not sure of from the textbook, focussing on the first 1,000 most frequently used words (they have a copy of the VocabProfiler analysis in front of them). Using an example from the textbook, I point out how “new words” can (and should) include new meaning for words they already know. As several words that came up recently included words now used in Japanese, I pointed out that the meaning in Japanese of such words usually uses only one of several meanings of the original English word, and sometimes changes to a new meaning altogether, and therefore they should beware of “false friends”.

I found this system called SAFMEDS useful for using word-cards.

Yahoo groups (2)

Yesterday brought up 2 other issues to consider when using Yahoo!Groups in class: firewalls and web-access.

Everyone signed up (or I signed them up) ok. They got their welcome message from Yahoo!Groups and the one from me. But nothing after that. Messages they send to the group get stopped by the firewall. Everyone got a message titled (in English) Barracuda Spam Firewall, but the content was all garbage characters, completely illegible.

I asked about this today and was told that students need to add the yahoo group to their white list. How do they do that? “They’ll get a message from Barracuda. The instructions are all in there.”
“Erm, I think they already got that message.”

The other issue is web-access to the group’s messages. To ensure maximum privacy, I had switched this option off when creating the group. Now that no-one in the group was getting each other’s messages, at least until we learned how to add the group to our white list, perhaps we could at least read the messages via the web. Perusing the group settings, I couldn’t find a way to change this setting (this in Yahoo!Japan).

I also, belatedly, realized that signing students up directly means students do not get a Yahoo!Japan ID (unless they happen to have one already). If they had one, they could sign in to the group and read and send messages that way.