Standardised tests are shite, but might also have their uses

Perhaps as some kind of cosmic joke, I’ve spent the past 3 years being nominally in charge of the TOEIC class at my school.  Instead of worrying overly much about TOEIC, I mostly just ran a series of classes which used a wide range of standardised tests (TEOIC, EIKEN, TOIEC-Bridge, TOEFL, TOEFL Jr.) to help students become independent learners.  But this April, quite suddenly, I was told that I would be in charge of training teachers on TOEIC prep for our entire school system.  The reason, which is not a particularly bad one, is that my students showed sharp gains in their TOEIC scores over the past school year, a mean jump of 105 points in 9 months.  But it’s put me in kind of a bind as to how I can train teachers to teach something that I haven’t actually been teaching myself.   So I thought I would put together a series of blog posts to try and get down in concrete form the 10 principles that have been guiding what I do in my “TOEIC” classes, so that, hopefully I can pass my ideas on to the teachers in some kind of usable form.  This first post will focus on the first three principles.

  • (1) Don’t torture your students: when I first started teaching TOEIC, I actually did have students work with TOEIC materials.  Mostly what happened was a bunch of students would ended up sighing heavily and saying things like, “I don’t understand any of this.”  Which led to one of my deep seated beliefs about language teaching; when it comes to learning, asking your students to regularly engage in tasks which are clearly beyond their abilities is similar to setting a hungry dog’s food bowl on the other side of one of those invisible electric shock fences.  They start off all happy to do what they think they are supposed to do, put pencil to paper, give it their best shot, experience serious pain, and when it’s all over are left wondering what the hell happened.  They also associate the stimulus (difficult test) with the uncomfortable physical (exhaustion) and mental (depression) result, pretty much guaranteeing that they will avoid thinking about the test whenever possible.  So while all of my students have to take the TEOIC test at the end of the school year, no students in my TOEIC class are forced to take practice TOEIC tests.  Instead, I have begged, borrowed, copied, and downloaded a wide range a standardised tests at a wide range of levels and students are free to take any test at any level which I have placed in a series of boxes spread throughout the room.  When I think a student is able to get a fairly decent score on the TOEIC, I might nudge them towards starting to do a few TOEIC practice tests, but, in the end, I leave that choice up to the student.   This means that there are all kinds of TEOIC test prep books which have been bought for the students and remain mostly untouched.  This makes my boss a little crazy.  But it doesn’t seem to bother my students.  As an added bonus, over the past few years I’ve come to recognise that independent learners are students who are pretty good at selecting their own learning materials.  By allowing students to select a test they think is appropriate, take it, tally up their score, and see what language they have already mastered and what language they still need to acquire, students have a chance to develop the ability to select appropriate materials.

 

  • (2) Let ’em take tests: over the past 3 years I’ve come to realise that test taking is a skill, and like any other skill, time on task and repetition are essential to getting better at it.  I think Paul Nation (2007, p. 1) has a very succinct take on the time-on-task principle, “How can you learn to do something if you don’t do that during learning? How can you learn to read if you don’t do reading? How can you learn to write without writing?”  And I would say similarly, how can students learn how to manage their time on standardised tests, weed out incorrect distractors, utilise their own oral memory (by very quietly vocalising questions during a test), and do all the other things that help moderately boost test scores without practice?  So my students take a minimum of one practice standardised test a week.  Since it is both the taking of the test and the manner in which they take the test that matters, the scores they get on these practice tests have no impact on their semester grades.  There’s another reason why I think that taking more tests as opposed to less tests is a pretty good thing; it all comes down to input.  Sure students could take one test and then study the hell out of it, look up every word they didn’t know, parse the grammar in each reading passage.  But in the end, I think that, for the most part, what my students are missing in their language learning here in Japan (an EFL context if there ever was one) is exposure to lots and lots of comprehensible English.  And while the vocabulary and grammar focus test questions and longer reading passages are not the most scintillating material in the world, if the test is at the students’ level, it very much is meaning based input, and a pretty large chunk of input at that (I once sat down and counted the number of words in a EIKEN Step test for lower intermediate learners and came up with 2500 words, or the same number of words in many graded readers targeting the same level).

 

  • (3) Dream is to goal as watching sports is to exercise:  I’ve got a lot of students who sit down in my first TEOIC class and tell me that their goal is to get 800 points on the TOEIC test.  These students are just starting their intensive language education, are often reluctant to speak, and have had minimal exposure to the target language.  So while I know that at the end of 3 years in my program some of them will actually get around 700 or more points, 800 points is probably not the kind of goal they should be focused on at the beginning of their language journey.  Part of becoming an independent learner is being able to identify achievable and time constrained goals and map out the incremental steps needed to reach those goals.  So each practice test a student takes in my class is accompanied with a goal for that immediate test as well as a monthly goal or overarching goal for 4 tests.  I also work with each student to make sure that their goals include a metacognitive component, or to put it in plain English, a goal that gets students to think about the test itself and pay more attention to how they are taking the test either in real time or after they have completed it. Some of the more popular goals set by my students include:
    • be able to identify beginner level questions on the first section of the TOEIC writing section and answer 50% of those questions correctly.
    • answer 50% of the TOEIC listening questions correctly and identify one unknown phrase in each incorrect question upon repeated listenings.
    • get a passing grade (60% or above) on the EIKEN level test at my current level for three tests in a row without looking at the answers (more on this later)
    • get an 80% or higher score on the listening section of the TOEIC Bridge test and identify 15 unknown words or phrases while in the act of taking the test.

 

So that’s it for my first 3 principles on how I use standardised tests and test-prep to help my students become more independent/autonomous learners.  I don’t think any of these ideas are particularly novel.  They’ve been influenced by my own experiences in class and through the writings of Rebecca Oxford, Paul Nation, and John Fanselow amongst others.  But I do feel that squeezing them into blog form has helped me clarify a few things.  Hopefully readers might be kind enough to post a few questions or comments to help me refine my thinking further.

The next post will be focused on (4) the importance of teaching skills over content, (5) the use of student developed vocabulary notebooks, and, perhaps, (6) the role of guessing from context.  Hope you’ll come back for it.

 

 

 

Directions, are they really useful

a pretty useless string of directions in staircase form

a pretty useless string of directions in staircase form

The other day I was watching and transcribing a video of a class I had run earlier in the day.  It was a lower intermediate class on mental and physical health with some of the material drawn from a coursebook.  The 14 high school students in the class had been working with this particular language for about 2 weeks.  When planning for the lesson, I had struggled to find a way to make the language seem, if not vital, at least fresh again.  Before I was an English teacher, I had been a social worker in Chicago and part of my was doing intake evaluations at a community mental health centre, and later at a large state mental hospital.  So I decided to pull my past experience into to classroom and teach my students how to do a basic mental health evaluation to check if a potential patient is physically able to take care of themselves, and is oriented to time, place, self/person, and situation.  The students were engaged from the beginning to end of the two consecutive 50 minute lessons.  And in general I though the class went pretty well.  But going over my transcript, I noticed that I had given the following directions during the lesson:

  • Stand up, change partners, and have the same conversation again.
  • First write your answers to the questions down in your notebook.  After you’re finished, close your notebook and then say what you wrote to your partner.
  • Make sure you are listening to your partner.

Now I could be off a bit in my estimates, but I would guess that I have probably given these 3 directions to students about 123,678 times in language classes over the past 15 years.  I have also transcribed my classes almost 100 times at this point. And yet, yesterday was the first time I noticed just how strange that collection of sentences seem.  They are something you would only, ever, hear in a classroom (and perhaps primarily a language classroom).  They underestimated my students’ ability to think for themselves and naturally understand what they should be doing.  And each and every one of those sentences, with minor tweaking be turned into language that a student might actually hear or want to use outside of a classroom.

Why would I say, “Stand up, change partners, and have the same conversation again,” when I could just as easily say, “You all have some very interesting things to say.  I bet someone else would be interested in hearing it.  Why not tell someone else about it?”  In fact, since most students finish doing fluency practice (which was what was going on when I said this) at different times, I could also just as easily walked over to a pair of learners that had finished practicing a conversation and said, “That sounded really interesting.  I bet [insert name here] would like to hear about that.”  And I’m sure there are many, many more ways to give these instructions in language which seems to value what the students say as meaning based conversation (not just language practice) and which can also be used outside of the classroom.

And then there is the long string of directions, “First write your answers to the questions down in your notebook.  After you’re finished, close your notebook and then say what you wrote to your partner.” These seem to be to be particularly ripe for some tweaking.  Having to understand and remember 3 steps in a process seems to put an unnecessary burden on the students.  I could easily separate out all three steps and modify them so they end up looking something like: “Why don’t you organise your thoughts by writing them down first.” And then, when a student (or all the students) have finished, I could add, “How about if we exchange some opinions.”  I don’t think I would need to tell students to close their notebooks at all.  The students who felt comfortable talking without their notes would, the students who needed the notes to comfortably engage in conversation could use them.  In fact, I could probably lose that last bit of instruction entirely.  Instead of telling the students to talk to each other, i could just model the behaviour by going up to a student and sharing my ideas on the topic which they have just spent some time preparing themselves to talk about.

Finally, the idea that I need to tell my students, “Make sure you are listening to your partner,” seems particularly egregious.  My student know that they should listen to each other.  When they can’t, there’s usually a good reason for it.  Mostly I find that the language they have to produce after their partner finishes speaking is so overwhelming that they are pretty much using up all their working memory just trying to make sure that they can say what they are supposed to say next.  And let’s say they could listen to their partner but don’t, I’m guessing that this is a sign that our ideas of what constitutes ‘listening’ might be different things.  Instead of telling them to listen, if I want them to exhibit a particular kind of listening, probably I should model it and encourage them to do it. as well.  For example, having students repeat the key points of what their partner says before they start to speak themselves is a good, solid, active listening technique.  It’s rarely used in Japanese conversations.  And not only does it require listening, it’s a skill that they can use in many communicative situations.  And I do in fact teach this type of ‘active listening’ or mirroring technique in some of my classes.  So if my students don’t seem to be listening to each other during a conversation focused activity, I could just encourage them to use these types of active listening techniques as opposed to the slightly rude and rather vague listen-to-your-partner thing.

With a little bit of thought, I could probably turn a lot of the directions I give to students into something more useful, and by useful I mean the directions themselves could be a source of language input.  I’ve spent a fair number of hours (smashing my head against a wall) wondering why students sometimes don’t bother to listen to activity directions.  Perhaps some of that time could have been better spent asking myself, ‘is what you’re saying really worth listening to?’

[A big thank you to all my friends who helped my write this post by joining in on the #isitreallyuseful twitter party.]

In Place of Coursebooks

As #TheGreatCourebookDebate–kicked off by Geoff Jordan–rages on (see here, here, here and here and here), I thought I would take a moment to share something that’s been going down in my classes.  I realise that this post might seem only tenuously connected to the coursebook debate, but I hope you will give me the benefit of the doubt and read to the end.

A few months ago I stumbled upon Tesal Sangma’s blog, TESL with Tesal.  Tesal is an English literature/language teacher in India and also a poet.  At the time, I was planning the syllabus for a two hour a week project English class and thought that working with tanka (a form of short Japanese poetry) as well as poetry from one other country could be an interesting way to get my students thinking a bit more about the language they are learning, how culture relates to communication, and something about the flexibility of language and the need to move beyond word for word translations.  Tesal agreed to have his students from the Bachelor of Social Work programme at Martin Luther Christian University in Meghalaya, India take part in the project as well.  Soon after, Tesal sent me a series of poems from North-East India.  He spent time adding explanatory notes to each poem and formatted them for easy printing in a PDF file.  I’m including a link to a PDF of ‘Soul Bird’ by Temsula  Ao in this post because it is a lovely and accessible poem.  In addition, I have shared it with some of my students, and the general reaction can be summed up by Re-Chan, who upon reading it, simply closed her eyes and said, ‘Wow.’

Soul Bird

06 Soul-bird

Starting in July, I will be using this and 3 other poems from North-East India in my class, but the first half of our linked classroom project has been focused on tanka.

I had a few goals for the project which I jotted down and shared with Tesal before we started.  Basically, I was hoping that my students here in Japan would:

  • learn about tanka itself and be able to discuss the poetry form and its importance with people in other countries.
  • become more familiar with the structure of English, specifically the difference between the mora and the English syllable.
  • become more aware of the importance of line breaks, stress, and other features that distinguish poetry from prose

I brought a number of contemporary Japanese tanka collections to class and my students each picked out two tanka they liked.  We spent a bit of class time discussing why the students had picked those particular poems.  Many, but not all of the conversation, went something like this:

A: I think this poem is very good.  That’s why I picked it.

B: I think it’s very good, too.

Once students had discussed the poems, I had them form small groups, each group composed of students with similar taste in tanka, as they would be working together as a group to translate 2 of their selected tanka.  The next class period was structured in a ‘translation house’ style.  Groups picked one tanka and translated it (very) roughly into English.  Groups then exchanged their rough translations with each other, and translated the other group’s poem again, this time they were directed to focus on the level of the line as opposed to individual words only (which is what happened the first time around).  Once the poems were translated a second time, groups exchanged tanka again and did another translation.  Finally the tanka came back to the original group, and using the previous three translations, they decided upon a final translation to send to the students in India.  But as the students were finishing up their translations, one group in particular noticed that the poem they were sending might be hard to understand for someone who wasn’t Japanese.  They added some explanatory notes about Japanese culture and soon the other groups added a note or two to their own translated tanka.

To help facilitate the dialogue between the students in India and the students in Japan, I asked my students to come up with a question for each tanka that they would like the students in India to answer.  To see if the questions they had written were understandable, and if the answers provided the kind of information they were hoping to learn, my students spent one class period asking each other the questions and transcribing the answers.

In the end, we sent the students in India this PDF:

from the height

Exchange through Tanka-Stein

The PDF is collection of 7 tanka which includes:

  1. a tanka in the original Japanese
  2. a transcription of the tanka into the English alphabet
  3. an English translation of the tanka
  4. cultural information which the Clark students felt would help non-Japanese readers understand the poems and
  5. a series of questions to promote a dialogue between the students in Japan and India.

We also created and sent a link to a Lino Board called Exploring Tanka, which contained the English translations, the questions from my students here in Japan, and some of their answers to these questions.

Exploring Tanka

Over the past week, my students and the students at Martin Luther Christian University have been engaged in a pretty interesting dialogue on the Exploring Tanka Lino board.  And over the course of this two month project, students have dealt with a number of language related issues which clearly exceeded the three goals I had identified before we started the project.  Either by themselves or in their groups, and with my guidance or wholly on their own, my students have:

  • Explored using Google Search as a good to identify collocations, chunks of language, and slotted grammar patterns that they could use in their translations as well as when engaged in dialogue about the tanka.
  • Learned to identify aspects of Japanese culture which, while perfectly ordinary to them, might seem extraordinary to people from other countries.
  • Realised that translation, and writing in English in general, often requires multiple drafts and that time between drafts is also necessary in order to produce something of progressively higher quality.
  • Developed an appreciation of the need for extensive answers when engaged in a dialogue, especially when discussing such things as interpretation and personal reactions to poetry and other forms of art.
  • Improved their ability to form 5W1H questions in various forms.
  • Written and asked questions to check their understanding of a text, as opposed to using comprehension questions developed by someone else

Seeing all of the benefits that come from a project-based language class, you might come to the conclusion that I am not a huge fan of coursebooks.  And you would be mostly correct.  I do not think that coursebooks, aside from saving teachers a chunk of time here and there, have done very much to make the world of ELT a better place.  But time is what I find myself wanting more than anything else at the end of a week, and so I still do use coursebooks.  In fact, over the course of the poetry project, I also taught a coursebook unit on ‘Talking about TV’ in which my students managed to practice all of the skills touched on above.  Perhaps, as Geoff Jordan has suggested, I, and other teachers like me, only find coursebooks valuable because we use them “in ways so entirely different from the way the authors intend them to be used.”  Perhaps if ELT was structured in such a way that I had more time every week to think and plan for my lessons, I would be less ambivalent about coursebooks.  Perhaps, I would be writing with conviction about how there is really no place for coursebooks within a language classroom.  But for now, on a very personal level, I still see that they have a place within my school, within my class.

While I still see that coursebooks serve a need, I also see glimmers of how that need can be met in other ways.  Perhaps that’s part of the reason why I wrote this post.  Perhaps that’s part of the reason why I took the collection of tanka poetry and worked with my students to turn it into a PDF file that I hope other teachers might be willing to use in their own classrooms.  Because if there is one thing I can fault coursebooks with, it is the fact that they provide seemingly simple and convincing answers for questions which are never simple and rarely answerable. We really do not know the best way to learn a language.  We do not know exactly what materials will engage students and keep them exploring, using, and playing with language in a way that will best help them acquire English.  But the more spaces we have for teachers and students to make, change, and use materials that are built organically, out of the interests and needs of students themselves, the greater the chance that we will begin to find the answers to those questions which actually suit our particular students’ needs.  Answers as quirky as a poem, or even, perhaps, as stunningly individualistic as the learners who make up our classes.

From this Teacher’s Family

from teacher familyThe ‘From the Teacher’s Family’ issue is up over on the iTDi blog with posts from Rose Bard, Matt Shannon, and Ayat Tawel.  Each post is a story of what being a teacher does and means to our families.  They are posts filled with the joy that comes when our families know our jobs change lives.  They are also stories of the insecurity that comes with yearly contracts, the loneliness of waiting for a weekend when a partner doesn’t have to work, and the pain of sometimes feeling forgotten.

Each of the iTDi bloggers was given a list of 11 possible questions to use (or not use) during their interviews.  I thought I would simply share those questions here, in case any other writers might be interested in doing a similar post and were stuck for ideas.  But the other night, before going to sleep, my wife Mamico asked me if I would interview her.  I prepared two glasses with ice and took down the bottle of Japanese style whisky we sometimes sip when chatting late at night.  I must have pulled a strange face, because she said, “Don’t worry.  I don’t have much negative to say about you being a teacher.  I want you to know how I feel.”  So here are the 11 questions and Mamico’s answers, as well as the gratitude that comes from people I love and respect sharing their lives and thoughts with me.  Thank you Rose, Matt, Ayat and Mamico.

1) What are three good things about having a mother/sister/wife/daughter who is a teacher?

You’re always thinking about how to teach children.  So the way you interact with our daughter never changes  No matter what she asks you, you always try to give her a thoughtful and serious answer.  And if I ever have a question about English it’s really easy to ask you and I know I’ll get a good answer.  You also always have interesting stories to tell about your day at school.

2) Were there ever a moments in your life when you wished I wasn’t a teacher?

Well, for example, when Luca doesn’t understand something you sometimes try to explain it too well, in too much detail.  It’s kind of the opposite of the good part of you being a teacher.  You take about two steps too many and I’m sometimes thinking, ‘That’s enough, that’s enough, that’s enough.’

3) Was there ever a moment when you were very proud of something I did as a teacher? 

Well, recently, we met one of your students at a music festival.  I remember you talking about that student last year and what a hard time he was having at school.  And during the music festival, while we were sitting together, he was such a kind, and thoughtful, and decent boy.  I thought that you must have had a very good influence on him.

4) How do you think me being a teacher has made life more complicated for you?

When something hard or bad is happening at work, and you are under a lot of stress, I’m thinking about what I can do for you.  A lot of times I realise there actually isn’t anything I can do.  I can just think, “Poor, poor, Kevin.”  It’s not really a problem for me.  But I sometimes feel uncomfortable because there’s not much I can do for you.

5) Do you think I am well suited to be a teacher? 

Oh yeah!  You are a natural born teacher.  You like teaching.  You like studying.  And you believe that people can change.  Even when your students are not ‘good’, you believe in them.

6) What other jobs do you think I could have done or should have done aside from teaching?

Aside from social worker?  Wait, let me think.  You are a very caring person, so you could probably be a nurse.  But you’re a little too forgetful to be a nurse, really.

7) Why do you think I became a teacher?

I think you became a teacher because you wanted to be in an environment where you could always be studying.  I think you wanted to have a job where continual studying would be useful to the work you were doing.

8) Why do you think I continue to be a teacher now?

Because you like your students and you really want them to grow.

9) How would our lives change is I stopped being a teacher tomorrow?

You would be depressed.  And we would be very poor.  But really, I think it would be so boring, for you and for me.

10) Do you have any message for teachers around the world who might read this post?

Thank you for the job you do.  Thank you for teaching and caring for the children and the adults who still believe in trying to improve and learn new things.  Oh, and thank you for being very kind to my husband.  I think he loves teaching because he knows he has the support of so many other teachers.

11) Do you have any message for other family members of teachers around the world?

Please listen to the stories of your family member’s students.  The more stories you hear of real students’ lives, the more you will want to support and cheer on the person who you love who is a teacher.  Actually, the more stories you hear of students, the more you will want to support all teachers.

Learning to Laugh

For six years I was a social worker in Chicago.  I worked with clients with severe mental illnesses, teen runaways, young men at high risk for HIV transmission.  I learned a lot and often times found myself wondering how the powers that be (my bosses, the health care system, family members of my clients, my clients themselves) could possibly let a guy like me do an important job like this.  I worried about if I was doing enough.  If I was making unfixable mistakes.  If I was a pretender.

During this time in my professional life, it was my good fortune and plain dumb luck to be teamed up with Thomas Dunning, a veteran social worker and golden-haired prince of a man with the quickest smile in the city of Chicago.  I remember the first time I expressed my fears to him about the job I was doing.  Instead of a furrowed brow and the serious leaning-in response I expected, Tommy D. sat back in his chair and laughed.  The warmest laugh you could imagine.  A deep bubbling laugh, sweet like honey; a laugh that rose up and wrapped you not in shame, like some laughter does, but in joy and understanding.  And after he laughed, Thomas Dunning asked me, “What makes you think that what you are doing is so important?  That you are so special?”

I don’t want you to get the wrong impression.  Tommy D. did not always laugh.  He cried like all of us cried when we lost a client, when a teenager came to us broken and needing to be put back together, when the world was just too dark.  But it is his laugh I remember and miss most of all.  It was his way of reminding me, of reminding anyone who cared to listen, that we are not the centre of all things.  That while what we do might be important, it is not the final word, or even the most important word.

There is all kind of advice for us language teachers, things we should and should absolutely not do in our classrooms.  One of them is, ‘Never laugh at your students.’  Social workers get similar advice about never laughing at their clients.  Like all advice with the word ‘never’ in it, this advice is mostly worthless.  Tommy D taught me that it’s almost always OK to laugh.  Avoiding laughter wasn’t going to help anyone.  What I needed to do was find a way to laugh, my own way to laugh, which helped my clients feel safe.  It is the same laugh I carry within me now, the laughter which, I hope, helps my students feel safe as well.

It wasn’t until much later that I realised Tommy D., my first real mentor, was teaching me something much more important.  It wasn’t just about laughter.  It was about all rules which tell us ‘don’t.’  Rules which tell us  ‘don’t’ are the simple way out.  Don’t-rules are someone saying, ‘Hey, don’t think too much about about it.’  Don’t-rules are the simple path which cuts us off from finding our own way.  The real path to growth is rarely about believing in a list of don’ts.  Thanks to Thomas Dunning, I started to see how real growth began when we looked at all those don’t-rules, and tried to figure out when and why they sometimes need to be do-rules.

[The new iTDi blog is out .  From the beginning of March, I’ve been the acting editor/curator.  This issue, the blog posts are all about people like Thomas Dunning, people outside of ELT who have influenced us as teachers.  I hope you will give it a read, and perhaps join in the conversation by sharing an ‘Outside Influences’ story on your blog and linking to the iTDi blog.  This is my first time taking responsibility of something as large as the iTDi blog.  I am hoping not to make a total mess of it.  But while I’m worried, part of me knows it’s going to be just fine, just as long as I find a way to, at least once in a while, laugh at myself, and everything else going on around me.]

A thought on error correction

By Evan-Amos (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

People have all kinds of ideas about error correction.  Error correction is the technical term for when a teacher tells someone that’s learning that they made a mistake.  Personally, I don’t think there’s any problem with error correction.  Correcting errors is just fine. It’s correcting people that causes problems. A lot of teachers think they are correcting mistakes, but their tone of voice, the look on their face, even the amount of time they wait before offering a correction are all sending a message.  And if that message is less ‘there was a mistake’ and more ‘you made a mistake,’ then sure, the student is going to feel miserable.  They might not take risks in the classroom again.  We talk about error correction without really differentiating it from people correction.  But they are very different things.  And learning how to do one without doing the other is part of the reason why teaching can be so hard.

Dialogues: moving away from the words on the page in 5 easy steps

"Valentine and Proteus" by Henry Courtney Selous.  Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

“Valentine and Proteus” by Henry Courtney Selous. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

The other day I attended a roundtable discussion through Nara JALT on, “The New Academic Year: Resolutions, Reflections and Revelations from the Classroom.”  It’s a great title, and it was a great two hours of teachers just talking about what they had done in the classroom this year.  In Nara, (the ancient capital of Japan by the way) teachers, or at least the teachers at the roundtable discussion, seem to be using lots of dialogues in their classes.  But they all had pretty much the same two big worries:

1) Students get stuck in the simply-read-the-words-off-the-paper-without-looking-up stage.  And even if they manage to look away from the paper once in a while, they rarely sound natural or seem to genuinely engage with one another.

Or

2) The dialogues are bat shit crazy a little unnatural and a tad on the boring side.

I think there is probably a pretty strong relationship between point 1 and point 2 here.  I mean, if you read something that resembles the dialogue from a James Cameron movie, minus the cool special effects, it’s going to be pretty hard to  sound natural when you’re saying your lines.  It might also be a little difficult to pretend you’re interested in what your partner is babbling on about.  But let’s put that issue off to the side as I’m hoping to touch on it in a followup post.

Let’s say you’ve got a coursebook, you have to use it, and it’s got some dialogues in it.  What are a few things you can do to help pull students away from the page? How can you help the students actually “get into” what they are saying?  Truth is, I used a coursebook this year.  And I used the dialogues in that coursebook.  And I tried out a whole bunch of different ways to use those dialogues. What worked with my students might not go down like a storm in your class, but when I used the following activities, students in my class could finish up a 50 minute lesson and present a dialogue with: no paper in their hand, a decent sense of prosody, and an occasionally surprising and authentic seeming gesture or two.

1. Listening for Silence: before getting into the nitty gritty of dialogue practice, have students listen and put a slash between words whenever they hear a pause.  These chunks of language between the slashes are called sense groups or syntactic groupings.  Often times they are clauses.  And during dialogue practice, if students try to produce a full sense group at a time, they will immediately sound much more natural.  Added bonus: it gives the students a good reason to really listen to the dialogue a few times before they have to produce it.  I think one of the big reasons students keep their eyes glued to the words on the page is because that’s all they have to work with.  Unless a student has a chance to hear a dialogue multiple times (and in my experience I’m talking 6 or 7), they are going to have no confidence in their ability to orally produce the language.

2. Look/Think/Turn Over/1-2-3-Speak: Students love the paper in their hands.  They grip it, stare at it, refuse to glance up from it.  You can command your students to, “make eye contact.”  But once you wander away to a different part of the room, they’re just going to go back to staring at the paper.  So get the paper out of their hands.  Have the students put the dialogues on a desk just off to the side.  They can look at the paper as often and for as long as they want.  But before they start talking, they have to flip the page over.  And not only do they have to flip it over, they have to count to three before they talk.  Yes, I realise that this will make things even more stilted sounding.  But only at the start of the exercise.  If they have those sense group slashes marked on their dialogue, most of the students will be able to hold one syntactic grouping within their working memory.  And the more they practice saying that one natural chunk of language, the more human they will sound.

3. Less becomes More: Students refuse to let go of their dialogue worksheets because they don’t feel that they’ve remembered the words.  And they don’t feel they’ve remembered the words because they keep relying on that piece of paper.  So how about showing the students that they are actually remembering huge swaths of language while they practice.  How?  By having them whittle away at the text.  After a few practices with the dialogue, have them rewrite the dialogue without any vowels.  So a line like, “I have to catch the 6 O’clock bus for Bugharvest,” ends up looking like, “ – hv t ctch th 6 clclk bs fr Bghrvst.”  This will provide them with enough information to practice, but will also tax their working memory enough to aid in memorising.  The next step is to rewrite the dialogue again, only this time, they only get to jot down the first letter of each word and then a dash for each remaining letter.  So they would end up with “I h_ _ _  t_ c_ _ _ _ t_ _ s_ _ O_ _ _ _ _ b_ _ f_ _ B_ _ _ _ _ _.”  At the beginning of the year my students met this task with a lot of moaning and complaining about how I’d asked them to do the impossible.  But actually, by this point in a lesson, students have pretty much remembered most of the dialogue and find that they can get through it with little to no problem.

4. In Your Own Words (L1): A final option is to let students write out an L1 equivalent (not word to word translation) of each sense group in the dialogue.  I know that there is some controversy about how much translation, and L1 in general, we should be using in the class, but if you are really having a hard time prying students away from the printed dialogue, it might simply be a sign that, as they are speaking, they are trying to puzzle out the meaning of what they are saying.  The more sure they are about the meaning, the more confidence they will have in trying to convey that meaning and not simply saying the words.  In my experience, when my students use a sense group translation as a kind of cheat sheet for their final practice, they are much more willing to use gestures and sometimes even try on different accents.

5. Put Some Ground Beneath Their Feet: A few years ago, the teacher in charge of the drama thread of our English program observed a class of mine which made extensive use of dialogues. During our feedback session, the drama teacher asked if I ever gave the students a set of stage directions.  He grabbed a script for a play off his desk and pointed to the stage directions at the start of the scene and said something like, “Without a stage, a set, and some props, students are floating in an ocean of words.  But even without all those things, a good set of stage directions can set the students down on firmer ground.”  So if your students are gripping their dialogue sheets like a castaway clinging to a life-preserver, perhaps what they really need is some stage directions.  Here is an example of simple stage directions for a dialogue about one high school student asking another high school student for help with their homework.

John and Tracy are in the park near the school.  John is sitting on a bench, holding a book.  He looks worried.  Tracy and standing under a tree a few feet from John.  She notices him and walks over.

But But But…a final word

Yes, I realise that almost all of these activities seem to give the students a good excuse to stare even harder at the paper in their hands.  Slashes between sense groups usually mean students look at the paper longer so that they can remember where to pause; words without vowels take time to decode which also means more time staring at the paper; and of course stage directions have to be read and understood.  But even though this series of steps results in more interaction with the paper over the course of a class, it also provides the kind of support and framework for students to eventually set the paper down on their desk and walk away from it.  And when they do walk away from it, they are sure of:

  • what they have to say
  • how to say it
  • what it means
  • where they are saying it.

When a student knows all these things about a dialogue, there is a much better chance that they will be able to speak their lines, if not with emotional conviction, at least with a healthy dose of confidence.  And here in Japan, with the students I’m teaching now, that sense of confidence is often the point at which real communication can finally start to take place.