Back in the game

It’s been a long time since I blogged. I guess the routine wasn’t firmly in place. But, as the spring semester draws to a close here in Japan, I think blogging needs become a regular thing again. I was initially blogging for my peers, but now I think the main focus of my blogging will be students of English. At the end of the day, it’s the students that are important to me. My research is my research, and that will get published where it gets published. The students, however, need a place that they can come and find content written for them. I think that’s what I can provide. This is my summer project, so look out for new content in September!

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Graded Readers

Krashen’s comprehensible input theory has always appealed to me. It seems to make sense. Lots of exposure to language that is understandable and a little language that is new. The new information can be understood in context without the overt teaching of grammar or vocabulary. It encourages the learner to join all the dots and to develop confidence in doing that. 

I’ve never explicitly taught a graded reading class, but I have recommended them to my students, particularly those who have done little or no reading primarily because they say it’s boring. In my view, it’s not that they found the process of reading boring, it’s that they simply chose the wrong books. 

If you walk into a library, not every book there will be of interest to you. You need to take your time to find books that you are interested in. This is clearly also true for a language learner, but with the added requirement that the level of the language in the book must within range of comprehensibility. If the book is too easy, no language development happens, and if it’s too difficult, motivation will suffer. Graded readers are the solution.

With a graded reader, learners can read relatively effortlessly, with just the occasional bump along the way. This is vital in order to build confidence and also to cement in their memory those high frequency words, collocations, and grammatical structures. 

Vocabulary is a key issue for my students. They have large gaps in their vocabulary – there are quite basic words that they are not familiar with, but they occasionally pull out some very high level vocab at times. This clearly doesn’t lead to effective or natural communication. The fundamental reason for this mishmash of vocab is how the students learn vocabulary. 

Most of their vocabulary us learned for tests, especially entrance tests for high school and university. This is usually done using word lists and vocabulary books. Needless to say, these approaches don’t lead to a deep understanding of the words being ‘learned’. More on this in my next blog post.

Language teacher as a language learner

I’m not going to try to argue different sides to this – I believe that a language teacher is a better teacher if he or she also a language learner. Well, let me peddle back a little – I know plenty of language teachers who do not gave a high proficiency in another language, and they are very effective teachers, but I think they could benefit from being on the other side of the textbook, sometimes. 

Taking some of your own medicine might be the way to phrase it. It’s very easy to tell the students to create word lists, do listening practice, or brush-up on a particular grammar point, but are you doing that in a language that you are learning? 

I’ve lived in Japan for over 10 years, and the first 3 years saw me study the language very seriously. I was teaching at elementary and junior high schools, so I was surrounded by the language all day. I was the only native English speaker at the various schools I taught at, which meant that I needed Japanese to communicate with most of my colleagues. Thinking back, what a luxury it was to have such a clear purpose for my language learning. Compare that with students in my hometown in the Western Isles of Scotland studying French, even though they have never been there, met a Frenchman, or even (in my case) eaten a croissant! (I was probably 16 older when I had my first croissant. The deprivation…). 

I was also fortunate to have time at work to study Japanese. Again, how great to learn some grammar or a piece of vocabulary just to hear it used by a colleague walking past your desk! An instant sense of progress.

So, back to the teacher as a learner. We need to understand the struggles that our students face. We need to know how they feel when they are put on the spot to answer a question or roll out a sample sentence using newly-acquired vocabulary. We also need to have an understanding of flow from a learner’s point of view – how do you handle a new piece of vocabulary? Where do you record it? What details do you record? How do you revise it? We need to know how to do it and how it feels to do it. Yes, we tell students to find example sentences, synonyms, phonetic script, collocations, etc., but do we do that when learning another language? I don’t. We tend to go for the path of least resistance, which I’m not sure even exists for Japanese… Anyway, we’re lazy, so we need to give our students a break. Sometimes.

We can, and should, be role models. The students really respond well when they find out that I’m studying Japanese, that I’m struggling with a language too. I’m taking my own medicine. 

I showed the students my Quizlet sets today and they were quite impressed (I think…). They can see that I have a system and that I have spent time putting together my word lists, making sure that I’ve got the right kanji for each English word. We’re in it together. I’m not just a native speaker who sits back and waits for others to learn English… 

Music and language learning

I’m teaching a semester-long class in computer assisted language learning and we’re systematically going through the different skills. I started with speaking as it’s something Japanese students often struggle with. We’re just coming to the last week of looking at listening and I wasn’t sure whether to include a class on music or not. In a way, it seems so obvious and a bit if a cop-out: use your computer to listen to music… well, thanks for that brainwave, Sensei!

However, as I looked into it I realised that there are some things that can and should be highlighted for the students. Firstly, helping the students to think about a method or procedure for listening to music is important. Just watching videos on YouTube is fun, but wrap some pedagogy around it and you have a very different experience.

Taking time to think about the name of the song, what it might be about and what words might appear in it is useful preparation and can create a simple purpose for listening. The students can then listen to the song, trying to note down any lyrics they can pick up. They can then Google the lyrics and see how accurate their predictions were. True, this is hardly game changing stuff, but it is vital to give the students some structure to help them with their self study. This, I would argue, is especially true with Japanese students who tend to wait for teachers to tell them what to do – they simply don’t think about how to learn by themselves. I think students in other countries would already have figured out how to exploit a song on YouTube for language learning.

Music Streaming

There are also many new technologies available now. Music streaming has arrived in Japan, a country that was very slow to adopt the downloading of music. In fact, CD sales are still huge here. Up until recently, Apple Music was the only serious music streaming option, but they struggled to convert free trial users to paying customers. Enter Spotify. The Scandinavian company has finally arrived in Japan and uses a freemium model. This will surely draw in some punters. Combine this with apps like Shazam that can help you identify a song you are listening to (on the radio, for example) and you are able to find songs you love and listen to them over and over again for free. No buying of CDs, just an unlimited selection of music to listen to.

As for the benefits of listening to music for developing language ability, I think I’ll leave that for another post.

Twitter

I’m rather late to the party on this one. I’ve tried most of the social networks and the only ones that I’ve really stuck with are Facebook and Instagram. 

Facebook started out as being a very private thing for me, connecting only with my friends and mainly for a bit of online banter. It then morphed into something else – around the time that my parents joined and my work colleagues became ‘friends’. This completely changed the dynamic of the network, which changed even more when companies and celebrities starting seeing the potential access they had to the public. 

Instagram, on the other hand, has never been about personal contacts. I know very few of the people I follow on Instagram, and that makes my use of it a little more free and easy.

Twitter was once described as your’Facebook status on crack’. And it can be. People will happily tweet tens of times per day and quite possibly about completely inconsequential things. But that’s fine. That’s how they choose to use the platform. However, and this is what I’ve only recently discovered, there is a world of Twitter folk who share very interesting and useful things – you just need to find them, your tribe.

At the JALT conference, I noticed that a lot of people had a professional face on the internet, not just Facebook or Snapchat. This is partly why I’m blogging now, to create a space for my professional self and to allow that to be separate from my private online accounts. Twitter also came up as one of the main ways that people publicly share information. The great thing about Twitter is that it is totally open. There are followers, but no friends. That provides much more freedom to connect with people. Creating a Twitter account solely with the aim of expanding my ELT horizons allowed me to immerse myself in the discussions going on. Click through a few hashtags and you can quickly find your tribe. It was truly wonderful to discover that there are thousands of people out there who are excited and passionate about teaching English. Twitter, I’m sorry – I completely misunderstood you!

Poll Everywhere

Today was my first day back at work since the JALT conference and I was keen to try out something that I heard about over the weekend. After completing the mid-textbook test with the students I saw an opportunity to use Poll Everywhere.

It’s a very quick and simple way to get a response from people in your audience, or your classroom. Usually, after a test I ask the students how they felt about it – easy, hard, so-so. Inevitably (and I should know better after all these years, but I ask the question almost without thinking), the students respond with a wall of silence. There is no way anyone is going to put their neck on the line and say how they think they did. This is where Poll Everywhere comes in.

Simply create an account and you can whip-up a short poll with a few sentences and a couple of clicks. I can then ask the students to get their smartphones out and visit the url where the poll is being conducted. They are then presented with the questions, which are nicely-formatted, and they can simply tap their response from the available multiple choice options. Click next to move onto the next item and, before long, you have the anonymous responses of all the students.

I was able to find out that the test was easy for about 50% of the students and the “language in context” section was the hardest. The ability to get responses from the students instantly could be priceless in some cases, although I already knew that the test was on the easy side. One could certainly find more interesting uses for this, and even use it for quizzes. The students had no hesitation to give their answers. More importantly, there was no login or sign up required by the students, so it was quick and painless even on my first attempt using it.

 

JALT 2016

This year saw my first visit to the annual conference for the Japan Association of Language Teachers (JALT). I must admit that it was more than I expected it to be. There were a lot of highly experienced instructors and researchers, and it was great to see what topics people are engaging in at the moment. A lot of food for thought!

Areas of particular interest to me were extensive listening and CALL, but there were certainly a lot of inspiring ideas to consider.

I plan to introduce the xreading system to my students soon, and I hope I can do some research on how the students respond to it.

In terms of CALL, Quizlet Live seems to be the hot topic at the moment. I think my students would love to use it, but internet connection issues at the university might scupper that. I also enjoyed a short presentation about using Google Drive as a tool to collect speaking homework from the students. The presenter claimed that his students really enjoy doing it, even though they don’t get specific feedback. I think I would have to try hard to convince the students of the value in this, but assigning it as 30% of their final grade might be enough encouragement for them! What homework I would set, I’m not really sure yet, but I do like the idea of using the transcripts from the textbook CDs.