How does your ‘g-a-r-d-e-n’ grow?

This year I did a short survey with the first year students who are planning to enter the International Course from April.  The first part of the survey consisted of 10 questions checking frequency around things like how often a student uses a dictionary when reading in English, if they study materials other than those assigned by the teacher, and how often they attempt to use new language outside of the classroom.  Those answers left me sobbing and cradling my head in abject misery were pretty much what I expected.  Most of my students did not attend junior high school, so I spend a lot of time teaching basic study skills.  It was the follow up interview that left me with the feeling that I needed to dig up the garden of next year’s curriculum and do some quick replanting.
Over the course of 5 days, I interviewed 17 students and asked all of them, “What’s the most difficult thing for you when it comes to studying English?”    5 out of the 17 students gave an answer along the lines of, “When I read a word on the page, I often don’t know how to pronounce it, so I don’t know that I know the word unless I look it up in the dictionary.”  One student even gave the specific, if slightly scary example of the word ‘k – i – l – l – e – d’ which he came across in a graded reader mystery.  And like many of the students, he seemed pretty ticked off that English isn’t easier to read.  As if there was something personal about how the letters on the page don’t line up with the sounds in his head.  And I can’t blame him.  I spent the first 30 years of my life mispronouncing ‘chasm’.   
The students’ answers led me to a thicket of further questions: 
  • How did students acquire the vocabulary without also acquiring knowledge of its written form? 
  • Is there really such a large disconnect between the students receptive oral and receptive reading vocabulary? 
  • Does the process of looking up a word only to find you already know it leave my students feeling elated at the vocabulary they already have in-hand or depressed at not recognizing what they know?
  • How can I help students connect form and phonetics?
  • Can skills to infer meaning make up for phonetic/spelling issues?
I think there are a bunch of simple answers to these questions, like teach students to use the pronunciation button on the bottom corner of their dictionaries, look at the written word, repeat until finger hurts.  And there are more time consuming answers such as teaching the IPA.  I’ve got two ideas I’m think about playing with.  The first is to use more shadowing exercises in reading classes.  The other is to do dramatic readings of written texts.  But helping the students after they join the International Course, while necessary, doesn’t really solve the underlying problem of the form/phonetic disconnect.  Are my students unique?  Or is this just one of the relatively reasonable outcomes of shifting to a more spoken/conversation based curriculum?  Is this part of what happens when a move to ELF cuts down on pron work in class?
Spring is on its way.  Even here in Japan.  There’s a nice pool of afternoon sunlight coming in through the window.  I’m going to pick up Adrian Underhill’s Sound Foundations and start rereading.  I’m thinking a generous sprinkling of lively pronunciation activities in the first year reading classes is in order.  Maybe that’s just the fertilizer I need to help students’ vocabularies grow and spill out from one skill group into another.
Nakanishi, T. & Ueda, A. (2011). “Extensive Reading and the Effect of Shadowing.” Reading in a Foreign Language (23) 1 pp. 1-6. 
Ng, P. (2012). “Dramatising the EFL classroom through Reader’s Theater”. The Language Teacher ((36) 2 pp. 28-29.
Underhill, A. (1994). Sound Foundations. Oxford: Macmillan Publishers.

Image from Project Gutenburg eBook of The Little Mother Goose by Jessie Willcox Smith (


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