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Back to life – starting over

I’m resurrecting this blog after many years (last update was 2010).

I will write about some chronic issues that I’ve encountered over the years, and which never go away or seem to improve. These are the major speed-bumps in my teaching.

After teaching for over 30 years, and now approaching retirement, I want to pass on whatever wisdom or insight I may have acquired with regard to teaching English to college students in Japan, and if possible, to throw some light onto these major stumbling blocks or obstacles.

The major obstacle, I’ve found,  is a culture gap: a gap between (obviously) my English/British/European culture and the Japanese, but also a gap between European and Japanese values, and perhaps between the older and the younger generation.  The gap is only partly linguistic: it is not just because they don’t speak or understand English and my Japanese is still limited. It is also because of major differences in values. The problem becomes one of how to identify these differences, and then how to talk about them and resolve them if possible. Until recently, I had no real way to talk about them with students, except privately with a very few interested ones, and mostly they would agree with me but be unable to offer any practical suggestions for future action.

Here is a brief summary of some of the issues I encountered, with a list below of other topics I plan to address in future posts: Continue reading Back to life – starting over

Academic writing software

Following my two earlier entries on academic writing software, today, thanks to James Atherton’s questing VoLE blog, I found a link to this (possibly) useful website: Write your own academic sentence!

Too lazy to write it yourself? Let the Virtual Academic do it for you

Need a sentence for your latest article? Write one here! Just select a word or phrase from each drop-down list and click “Write It.”

Don’t like the sentence? You can use the same words in a different sentence by clicking “Edit It.” (Click “Edit It” repeatedly to see several options!) Or to write something completely new, you can change one or more of the words you’ve selected and click “Write It” again. Have fun!

TPRS and Krashen’s theories of SLA

TPRS was developed by Blaine Ray who was “converted” when he discovered James Asher’s TPR – Total Physical Response – method of teaching a second (or foreign) language.  Then he found students got bored with commands after a while, so he started telling stories and asking students for input on the details of the stories, and found it worked and was fun, and called it TPR Storytelling. Well, it’s not really Total Physical Response, and actually Ray’s since changed the name so that “TPRS” now stands for Teaching Proficiency through Reading and Storytelling. It was only later that Ray (and others) came across Krashen’s theories of second language acquisition, and found therein lots of support for what they were doing, as well as pointers for improvement.

Krashen is known for the acquisition-learning hypothesis, the input hypothesis, the monitor hypothesis, the affective filter, and the natural order hypothesis (this last is not Krashen’s own hypothesis, and Wikipedia has removed the natural order hypothesis page; for details, see order of acquisition).

Acquisition-learning: “learning”, according to Krashen, is explicit learning about the target language: grammar explanation, for example, and associated exercises and worksheets. Acquisition, he posits, is a mysterious activity that requires a great deal of comprehensible input.

The input hypothesis says that people learn a second or foreign language the same way we learn our first language: by being exposed to (through listening and/or reading) massive amounts of comprehensible input, and not thanks to lots of explanations about how the language works. In other words, Krashen says that language is essentially acquired, not learned.

Even if you accept this, and many don’t, the question for a language teacher is, how to provide the massive amounts of comprehensible input that is required? I accepted the hypothesis, as it seemed to match how I had learned French, English and German and later, Japanese. However, I didn’t see a practicable way to provide the input in class, the same reaction that Susan Gross had, who later became one of the stars of the TPRS firmament. I then got interested in self-access centres and teaching students to be more autonomous because I realized that a) learners do need much more input than can be provided in class, and b) they need to go out and get it on their own.

Well, TPRS seems to go a long way to solve the problem: it provides a great deal of comprehensible input in class, and it also has developed a high standard for comprehension: everyone in the class should understand everything that is said in the foreign/second language. And they’ve developed simple tools to enable a teacher to at least aim for this.

“Comprehension precedes production” says Krashen’s theory. Well, TPRS does not require students to produce much language at least at the beginning (although you can if you want: you just need to tweak the questions). This was a relief, because I had found that students were not producing correct language and they weren’t getting any closer to it. They seemed to have hit a wall.

In fact, Krashen’s theory goes further and explains what happens if you force production too early (before language is properly acquired). Krashen also theorized that grammar is acquired in a natural order, that this order is pretty much the same for children regardless of language or culture, and that it cannot be changed by instruction.

What happens when you force production too soon? The result is garbage. I see this all the time with my writing students. Many of them expect me to correct their writing with a red pen, which I have not done. One simple reason is that their English is so screwed that I do not know where to begin. They need to go back to basics. I had started with an ambitious program of reviewing the rules of written English, starting with basic punctuation and the simple sentence. However, although they understood the explanations, they still weren’t able to write correct, simple sentences.

“Acquisition activities are central, though some Monitoring may be useful for some people sometimes”. Krashen posits that “learning” develops the Monitor, the “editor in the head” as it were, and that that is useful and helpful for more advanced learners, but it is death for the beginners, because it inhibits them production and makes them overly concerned with avoiding mistakes and producing correct forms. The cost is a serious lack of fluency.

Krashen’s hypothesis explains why learners produce garbage, even after “learning” the language for years: these students have not acquired the basics of English. They have been given too much explanations, they have “learned” too much and not acquired enough. In addition, they have been asked to produce before they are ready. In that case, they either rely on parroting or memorization, or they rely on their native language’s grammar and syntax (or, in the case of my writing students in the computer lab, they rely on machine translation, which produces garbage of an even higher order than they would themselves).

In my experiments this past month with TPRS, I’ve been using very basic, very simple grammar: the present tense, the past tense, first, second and third person verb forms. I have noticed that, even after 20 or so repetitions of “third-person ‘s'”, or using the past tense when telling a story, when I ask students for short phrases that require a subject and a verb, they still don’t use the correct form. OK, you’re thinking: 20 repetitions isn’t much. Yeah, but I’m getting the same results even after 4 weeks of 3 hours per week.

After reading Krashen’s theories, and what other TPRS teachers do, I’ve stopped requiring my students to produce correct language; I’ve also stopped correcting them, except by repeating correctly what they try to say. I’m deliberately taking the pressure off them to produce correct language. We’ll get to that later. At the moment, I’m focusing on what I now believe to be the key ingredients: personalization (because many of them have been turned off classroom learning) and lots and lots and lots of comprehensible input.

I tried TPRS with a 2nd-year class for the first time last Friday. Because they were 2nd-years, I figured I should try and make it more challenging: I threw in complex sentences like “Did you have breakfast before you got dressed, or after?” Boy, that threw them (I didn’t ask it right off the bat, of course, I built up to it, but even so, the result was a palpable silence: it was obvious I’d run into a complete wall of incomprehension).  No. Even 2nd-years still need what they obviously have not had enough of: comprehensible input and lots of repetition.

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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)

Marzano – a comment

After coming across Dr Marzano on the Excelsior Gradebook website, I did a little search (never afraid of hard work, me), and found this inspiring review of one of Marzano’s books, Classroom Assessment & Grading That Work.

Another Marzano book What Works in Schools: Translating Research into Action has the blurb

Any school in the United States can operate at advanced levels of
effectiveness-if it is willing to implement what is known about
effective schooling. “If we follow the guidance offered from 35 years
of research,” says author Robert J. Marzano, “we can enter an era of
unprecedented effectiveness for the public practice of education.”

That’s all we need to do? Follow the guidance from a staggering 35 years of research? You mean that hasn’t been tried before? What a genius! I foresee an era of unprecedented effectiveness for the public practice of education! He’s right! Waddaya mean, look at the track record? History is dead!

Still, I’m intrigued. I ordered some of his books (not the ones mentioned here, unfortunately, couldn’t find those) via inter-library loan and we shall see what we shall see, boys and girls.

A mismatch between curriculum and student desires

I mentioned my sense of a mismatch between curriculum provided by the institution where I work, and the students’ wants, and I wish to clarify this.

In a sense, there will always be a mismatch, or at least a gap: it’s inevitable that young people will want to do some things that their elders don’t want to spend time on or are unwilling to provide for; and conversely, things that others, from their greater experience and wisdom, can see as important and/or necessary which the young cannot as yet see the point of.

Dan Meyer, an ambitious young math teacher, has been banging on about this on and off since he first saw the light: about the importance of capturing students’ attention and imagination, remaining lively, even dramatic:

The truth, if you’re a speaker addressing an audience, is that the only way to get your audience more engaged is to become, yourself, more engaging. There is no shortcut. The solution is simple but not easy and the difference between those two adjectives lies somewhere on your TiVo.

I’m not advocating abandoning all leadership and letting the students lead the way.

Yet I cannot help feel that the gap or mismatch in many points where students contact the curriculum, is huge and multi-dimensional.

In another class, I abandoned all leadership and let students lead the way (!): I asked the students what they wanted to do. One said, “Go for a walk.” These kids parents are paying serious cash so their offspring can have the privilege of spending time with a fully trained language professional (me); they’ve all said clearly that their objective (this is an optional class – they are all volunteers) is to improve their English-speaking abilities. Yet when asked what they want to do, their answer is “goof off”. Where are they at? I sound chiding, but it’s a serious question. I sometimes feel like someone, person or persons unknown, has been seriously messing with these kids’ heads for the last 10 years or so.

In yet another class, a “higher-level” class, according to test results, and certainly they are all very diligent and quick and do well on vocab quizzes, I set them some reading and writing activities (from Touchstone by Mike McCarthy, CUP). I walked around to see how they were getting on. Some were slouched across their desks, apparently gazing at the textbook, but with no pen in hand or paper to be seen. It takes several attempts at conversation before they volunteer that they don’t understand what they are supposed to do, even tho I just explained it twice, once in English, once in their native Japanese. Maybe my Japanese was crap? Who said that? Highly possible, and yet at least half the class got it.

What got me was not just the incomprehension, but the lack of expression. Incomprehension was ok; just give up. I sensed years of being bamboozled in class, of not understanding a word, and yet having been trained not to make that apparent: just sit tight, maybe it doesn’t matter, maybe we won’t have to hand it in, maybe it won’t count, just let it blow over.

I posted many moons ago, about a student who was sitting not doing anything in class. It took at least 10 minutes of talking to her (more like interrogation in that I mostly questioned her) before it became apparent that the cause was she failed to understand a part of the English dialogue they were supposed to be practising. It took a further full 5 minutes of slowly going thru the dialogue with her to identify exactly where she did not understand. Why didn’t she ask? I figure: she’s just not that motivated (she just wants the credits), or she is motivated but this particular material is so numbingly boring she can’t bring herself to practice it, or she’s learned that raising a hand and asking for help is likely to get her a shame-inducing scolding for daring to suggest that the instructor chose inappropriate materials or failed to adequately explain. It’s apparently common for Japanese to get upset when they are asked a question, as it suggests some kind of inadequacy on the part of the instructor and hence borders on insubordination. (This is what I’ve been told by numerous adult Japanese when I asked them why nobody ever asks questions in a class or public lecture).

So many of the students I come across seem tired, bored, apathetic, and seem to have very low expectations of their university classes and teachers. It’s all boring, it’s all unengaging, and that’s par for the course. You just grin and bear it, or lie down, shut your eyes and think of pachinko (or majhong, or pastries, or Keiko, or whatever your fancy is).

Switching from my old hipster PDA

After reading David Allen’s Getting Things Done, I quickly moved to his system. For archiving and for “live” projects, the A4-sized file folders were great. But not for the stuff I wanted to lug around and “read and review”. So I liked the hipster PDA idea (and a variant here).

But it looked tatty, and I was always rooting around in my bag for the stack (or “ring”) of cards I needed.

Then I discovered PoIC. It doesn’t mesh exactly with GTD or hipster PDA, but I like it. One thing I like about it is its analog (versus digital) style. I came across it when I had a bad cold, a cold which affected my eyes and made me physically ill just looking at a computer screen. I felt I had reached a limit of my online, screen-staring activities.

(Photos here. Article on how index cards lead to increased creativity here).

A new record system

I’m developing a record system, cobbled from bits and pieces garnered here and there. I use manila file folders for each class (from David Allen’s excellent GTD). This holds every thing I need for today’s class, plus the previous class (e.g. homework I collected, handouts I used, plus the 1-page record sheet I use). Everything prior to 2 sessions ago goes in a larger, heavier 32-ring file.

All this is heavy to carry around, so I’m experimenting with a different system using 3×5 index cards, called Pile of Index Cards (or PoIC) by hawkexpress, who’s done an amazing job with his bilingual wiki. This is much more than a class record system, but I’m tweaking it for my own purposes. The index cards are much lighter, and I can just about fit a 90-minute class record onto 1 side of 1 card (and if it won’t fit, I splurge and use 2 cards). Plus, they’re fun to use.