Category Archives: in Japan

TPRS Workshop in Nagasaki! – Cancelled

Waterfront in Nagasaki, Japan
Image via Wikipedia

Update: This workshop has been cancelled.

There will be a 3-day TPRS workshop in Shimbara, Nagasaki, Jan. 15-17. The workshop will be in English with interpretation in Japanese. The workshop will be led by Susan Gross, a TPRS veteran (Ben Slavic mentions her constantly on his blog as his inspiration and teacher), and Melinda Kawahara who has been teaching in Japan for 21 years and whose lessons are all based on TPRS. She runs her own language school called Lindy Lizard English House.

To find out more, visit the elt calendar.

Susan Gross is so well known that, once the word starts to get out, places are likely to fill up very quickly.

Susan Gross’ website, like Ben Slavic’s, is a treasure island of information and resources on, about and for TPRS. Check it out.

Here’s what I emailed some friends to let them know about this workshop:

I want to tell you about this workshop next month.

Do you know about TPRS?

You can read more on the ELT calendar and download a bilingual pdf flier from there.

The workshop will be led by Susan Gross, a veteran of TPRS and nationally known in the US as a TPRS teacher and teacher-trainer.

I think TPRS has much potential for teachers of English in Japan, particularly in the elementary and high schools, i.e. for near beginners up to intermediate (and that includes most of the uni students I teach!).

Since finding out about TPRS a few months ago, it has had a big impact on my teaching. Briefly, I’ve completely changed the way I teach. It’s too early to point to definite results in terms of test results, but I’m enjoying teaching more now than I have for a long time.


* there’s a lot more eye-contact in class between me and students
* I’m talking in English with students for much more of the time (over an hour each class)- before, I had students do pair-work a lot of the time, and I spoke to students individually, but not so much to the whole class
* my classes are more focused on fluency
* I know much more accurately how much my students understand, and work hard to ensure that ALL of them understand EVERYTHING I say
* many students who were tuning out because they did not understand and I hadn’t noticed, are now paying attention
* students are learning tons of vocabulary each week and RETAINING much of it (I do spot quizzes each week)
* a lot of the ideas for input comes from the students, from things they say or write or suggestions they make (e.g. in a recent session on health, I was asking students “Have you ever broken a bone?” then “When?” and “How?” Then I told them I’d broken my foot over 10 years ago and I asked them to guess how. One student suggested an elephant stepped on it. I accepted his suggestion (much more interesting than the truth!)
* students are the focus of the language input: I’m talking about them as much of the time as I can
* classes are more fun (we laugh more) and less stressful for me and students

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Japanese Wikipedia resources

As I’m at present teaching a class on World News, and as I found some of the info on Wikiepedia and bias and the Neutral Point of View page to be of possible value to those World News students, I tried to find the equivalent pages in the Japanese version of Wikipedia. Here’s what I found after just 10 minutes searching; if you find better, more relevant ones, please post them in the comments –

  1. Wikipedia:ウイキぺディアへようこそ a general introductory page to the concept and purpose of Wikipedia, including guidelines for contributors, and containing links to more specific pages on point of view, checking sources, copyright, etc.
  2. Wikipedia:記事を執筆する (kiji wo shippitsu suru) guidelines for contributors, including a brief mention (with links) to the neutral point of view (chuuritsu na kanten 中立的な観点)
    and to using reliable sources (shinrai dekiru jouhougen 信頼できる情報源)
  3. Wikipedia:五本の柱 (go-hon no hashira – the 5 pillars or key principles of Wikipedia)
  4. Wikipedia:基本方針とガイドライン (kihon houshin to gaidorainu – basic policies and guidelines), a long and detailed page which my students may not have the patience or motivation to read, nor me!
  5. Wikipedia:信頼できる情報源 (shinrai dekiru jouhougen – reliable sources of information), referred to above. This looks very promising as it alone of the pages I’ve seen and referred to above is bilingual, with the English on the left and the Japanese on the right.
    In particular, I think I’ll use the some definitions (fact, opinion, primary source, etc), and
    beware false authority.

Cultural difference

Teaching English in a foreign country is a whole different game. I read a few teachers blogs, teachers in the US, UK, Australia, Hong Kong, New Zealand, Canada. Almost all are teaching in their own native language, and teaching students who mostly have the same native language as the teacher. When you’re teaching students who do not share not only your native language but also your cultural values, it seriously warps the playing field.

A couple of days ago, I had a final, last-day-before-the-summer-vacation class. As we had already had our exams and tests, I brought in a couple of English games: Clue and Scrabble. We played Clue(do) first.

This is a board game with cards for all the suspects, the murder weapons and the rooms in the mansion. By a process of elimination, players figure out who dunnit using what weapon and where: a player enters a room and makes a guess; if the player to her left has any one of the cards (suspect, weapon, room) named in the guess, that player must show the card.

It was amusing to watch my students play. They did not seem to know the concept of elimination. They all seemed to be most pre-occupied with finding out what cards the other players held, not by elimination but by pure guesswork. Whenever a player, in response to another player’s guess, showed that player a card, some would shout “Oh, I know! I know” (often, this was mere theatre), while others shouted, “Wait! Just hang on a minute!!” while they perused their own cards and stared with fierce concentration at the board.

Very soon after the game began, at least two of the 6 players abandoned their checklist saying it was no help or it confused them! The other players sometimes used their checklists and sometimes not. It seemed that, rather than using a process of elimination, they were trying to intuit which cards were in the envelope (the crime cards). Some students actually encouraged each other, or claimed to, “read the air” literally (空気を読む kuuki wo yomu).

I was strongly reminded of John Holt’s elementary school pupils who seemed to avoid using their knowledge and powers of reasoning, and, instead, using guesswork and intuition to try and divine the “right answer”.

If I were teaching people from my own or a similar (say, European) culture, I would have no hesitation in labelling these efforts as misguided, ineffective and “wrong”. But I’m a stranger in a strange land. For all I know, this way of “thinking” may be just as effective as my Western rationalism. I have come across some examples of intuition in this culture which I would flatly have refused to believe if I had heard about them at second-hand and not experienced them myself.

Students seem to use a similar approach when learning English: rather than recognizing patterns or thinking things through using their knowledge of English syntax or spelling patterns, they try to intuit (pronunciation, meanings of words or phrases) – they are hoping to hit the jackpot with an inspired guess.

A slightly different tactic, but which to my mind springs from the same mindset, is to try and memorize everything: when practicing conversations, I fondly imagine I am giving them the lexical and syntactical “building blocks”, which they must then put together to create something new. But often they reproach me saying they are not ready, they haven’t memorized the examples yet!

Despite my tendency towards cultural relativism (not to be confused with moral relativism), I still strongly suspect that my students are trying to take a short-cut where there isn’t one.

So, which is it? Are these students culture-bound, using an approach to learning which is familiar to them, but unfamiliar to me, and which I should therefore tread lightly around before criticizing? Or are they exhibiting a tendency fostered by schools? A tendency that John Holt described as a strategy* designed to fool their teacher into thinking they know what they really don’t know?

*The anxiety children feel at constantly being tested, their fear of failure, punishment, and disgrace, severely reduces their ability both to perceive and to remember, and drives them away from the material being studied into strategies for fooling teachers into thinking they know what they really don’t know.

Cultural difference
Originally uploaded by passionfly

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.