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:
- 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;
- 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.