In Which I Try and Explain My (not so) Peculiar Situation

I realized the other day that I usually include a sentence like, “Many of my students didn’t attend junior high school,” in my blog posts.  It’s my shorthand for explaining my school environment.  But it probably doesn’t do much by way of giving a full picture of what my school is all about.  So I thought I would take a few minutes and do a better job of putting the issues I deal with on this blog in context.

Most of my students, about 80%, have suffered from school refusal syndrome.  Before I worked here, I had never heard of school refusal syndrome.  And even though it puts me at risk for loosing my A+ Empathy rating, I had always figured that students who didn’t come to school fell into one of two groups, those who were ill and those who were truant.

But after talking with a large number of students who actually woke up in the morning, got dressed, and packed up their school bags, only to find that they couldn’t bring themselves to walk out the door, I realized that these students weren’t just skipping out on their education.  They wanted to go to school.  They just couldn’t get out the door to do it.  Not surprisingly, school refusal syndrome is usually marked by a kind of generalized and pervasive anxiety about school.  This anxiety sometimes results in somatic features such as upset stomach or headaches.  But if you ask students suffering from school refusal syndrome, they will insist that in spite of the anxiety, stomachaches, and whatever else they might be feeling, they would like nothing more than to go to school (Hersov, 1972).

Aside from the syndrome presenting itself as physical symptoms, there are other major psychological symptoms which correlate strongly with school refusal syndrome, including: avoidant disorder, social phobia, fear of evaluative situations, depression, attention deficit disorder (Kearney and Silverman, 1993)…actually the list stretches on and on.  One striking aspect of most of these symptoms is how closely they align with the kinds of issues that impede second language acquisition.  And on top of that, in Japan school refusal is defined as a minimum of 30 days of absence from school per year.  That means that students missed at least 90 school days during their junior high school careers.  Most of them missed much more.  And some did not attend school at all from the age of 13 to 16.  Now in such a situation, I tend to think the best thing we could probably do would be to split up the English classes by levels, providing students with the kind of targeted content which would help lower anxiety and increase a student’s chances of success.  But, at least for the first semester, the school has decided that the most important thing we can do for our students is provide a school environment in which they feel comfortable coming to school.  And for most students, that means helping them develop a strong social network.  Basically, they need to develop supportive friendships, and to do that we let them stay together in their homeroom classes throughout the day.

So my classes are made up of a dizzying array of students with varying levels of English ability.  There are students who like English, studied on their own at home, and are at an intermediate level or above.  And then there are students who are almost entirely unfamiliar with the English alphabet.  With that in mind, I’ve tried to find and implement activities which can engage students of all levels.  The activities need to be challenging enough so as not to induce boredom, but not so difficult that they result in the kind of anxiety that keeps a student from walking out the door in the morning.

One of the first things I noticed in class was that regardless of the level of a student’s other skills, almost all the students were true-beginners when it came to listening.  But because some of the students cannot write, dictation, one of my favorite listening activities, is pretty much unusable in class, especially at the beginning of the year.  So in place of words, I do a simple substitution table activity during which a student creates a sentence using images instead of words while the rest of the students keep up a running dictation of the sentences by drawing pictures as well.  The activity is a slightly modified version of one John Fanselow introduced during a recent in-service at my school (and is actually now available online at: Nveer epxailn gaammr relus or aks yuor stutends to). Interestingly, image based tabling also closely mirrors a number of low stress early literacy activities recommend for very young L1 learners by the Center for Early Literacy Learning (CELL, 2010).

A traditional substitution table for S+V(be)+adj might look something like this:

I                    am            happy
you               are               sad
he/she           is               wild

Students would have just a bit of freedom to mix and match the words in the table to form sentences and get a bit of practice with the pattern.  As the students become more familiar with the pattern, they are given more freedom to replace different components within the sentence.  An image based substitution table, on the other hand, looks like this:


image based substitution table

[side note: If you are wondering what the equal sign is all about, it’s the symbol that students have written the most for “be” verb in my classes.  So it’s kind of become a standard part of the image based tabling vocabulary.  And it makes pretty good intuitive sense.]

One of the benefits with using images for tabling is allowing students who can’t read to more fully participate.  But more than that, it also allows students who are super hesitant to produce orally and can’t read to participate in class, and I have a bunch of students like that.  For those kinds of double whammy students, all they have to do is point to the images to construct a sentence and then the teacher (or a partner if they are doing pair work) can produce the sentence orally.  But for me, the most exciting thing about image based tabling is how vocabulary is no longer a stumbling block to communication.  If a student can take a word in their L1 and come up with an image for it, they can create a sentence.

So how does it actually play out in the classroom.  Here is a series of picture-based transcriptions produced by a student while the class was tabling ‘be’ verb in the simple present tense:

“be” tabled in the simple present

That third sentence down is  just wicked groovy.  “My mother is busy.”  The student knew neither the word “busy” nor the possessive my, but they were able to create a full on image based sentence.   And their partner understood it and said it back to them in words.

As students’ reading and writing skills increase over the course of the year, students are encouraged to replace pictures with words to a larger and larger extent, but we always return occasionally to pictures.  Once students have developed a set of stable images to represent words, drawing the pictures often takes less time than writing words and allows for greater amounts of language exposure during any given class period. In addition, requiring students to translate information from words to images and then back, results in a series of decoding and encoding steps which requires a deep level of cognitive processing.  This deeper level of processing, especially as it relates to image creation, has been shown to lead to high levels of retention (Craik and Tulving, 1975). Paul Nation (2009, p. 47-49) also points out that these types of transformation exercises provide good opportunities to not only learn vocabulary, but, “grammatical items contained in the spoken or written text,” as well.  And students become quite adept at visually representing grammar items.

[picture based transcription of ‘be’ tabled the simple past tense]

As can be seen in the student produced table, a small arrow served to help remind the student that the verb was in the past tense.  Similarly, writing three equal signs helped remind the student that the verb was also modified to agree with the third person plural subject.

All in all, image based substation tabling (and image based dictation as well) allows all students to engage with the language on a pretty even playing field.  It is challenging enough for the higher level students to stay engaged, but accessible enough for even the lowest level student to succeed.  And by giving students five to ten minutes at the end of class to convert each image-based sentence back into words, I can also provide students with the kind of practice they need to develop some fundamental writing skills without the pressure of orally decoding and writing at the same time.

I was talking to one of my coworkers today about the particular challenges our students face when it comes to learning English.  He said, “It’s kind of a difficult situation.  The more I know about our students, the more I feel we’ve set ourselves an impossible task.”  I would be lying if I said I didn’t sometimes feel the same way myself.  But all learners have their own obstacles to overcome when learning English.  Even for the students at my school, it’s really just a question of degree.  I have a third year student now who started her high school career without being able to read even the most simple sentence.  She sometimes would hover outside the classroom door, afraid to turn the handle and walk in.  She went from drawing pictures, to writing sentences, to being able to engage in full dictation exercises without any visible signs of anxiety.  And lately, she has been helping to coach the first year students to prepare for their mid-term exams.  Part of it is just the fact that she has grown up and grown out of some of her symptoms.  But I would like to think that picture based dictation and the other challenging yet low anxiety activities we use in class were the soil which, at least in part, helped make her growth possible.

p.s. image based substitution tabling became the basis for a slightly more detailed activity called pictogloss, which you can find more out more about right here!
p.p.s If you are interested in John Fanselow, the man who introduced me to image/picture based dictation, I highly recommend joining his upcoming iTDi course, Contrasting Conversations: Activities for Exploring Our Beliefs and Teaching Practices, in May.


Center for Early Literacy Learning. 2010. Center for EarlyLiteracy Learning. 3 July, 2012 <;

Craik, F.I.M. and Tulving, E. (1975). Depth of Processing and the retention of words in episodic memory.  Journal of Experimental Psychology 104: 268-284.

Hersov, L. (1972). School Refusal. British Medical Journal 3: 102-104.

Kearney, C. and Silverman, W. (1993). Measuring the function of school refusal behavior: the school refusal assessment scale. Journal of Clinical Child Psychology 22 (1): 85-96.

Fanselow, J. (n.d.a), Nveer epxailn gaammr relus or aks your stutends to: tapping the richness of sketches/images/icons for generating language

Nation, I.P.S. and Newton, J. (2009). Teaching ESL/EFL Listening and Speaking. New York: Routledge.


4 thoughts on “In Which I Try and Explain My (not so) Peculiar Situation

  1. another enlightening ELT post kevin, thanks!do you think that this pictogloss approach would work with older students and adults?how do you decide the initial "sentence components"?tamura


  2. Hi Mura,Thanks for stopping in. I do think that this approach would work for older students and adults as well. I have run it with very serious high school students who are cramming for entrance exams in Japan, and after a few minutes of shock at having to draw pictures, they quickly start to see the benefits in it. So even serious, more mature students will give it a go if they do it for long enough to notice just how easily words and grammar structures seem to slip into long term memory. Currently I use the sentence components which are dictated by the crazy structural syllabus which I have to teach. But the components could be anything which could be done as a tabling exercise. Levels of politeness in rejecting an invitation or the first two lines of a fairy tale would work just as well as traditional structures such as past perfect tense or simple commands. The thing is to provide a table framework which allows for a really large amount of sentences to be created, listened to, and drawn in picture form. If you are looking for a bit meatier activity, I have the longer paper I could send off. It's about 6000 words and goes into a bit more detail on how to use the technique over the course of a semester.Kevin


  3. I’m floored. You’re talking about “Futouko”–Absentee Syndrome? Eighty percent?? I had a hard time getting to the meat of your post because of the shock that registered. You teach in a very special kind of high school that specializes in kids who didn’t fit the system in Jr. High, I assume. Wow–what a challenge. The pictograph is good, and a universal thing–even kids who understand the grammar point in question would enjoy drawing stick figures, and kids who didn’t get the grammar or reading yet would come one step closer. I will try this myself, I believe. Looking forward to perusing more of your posts.


    • Hi Ruthie (can I call you Ruthie…seems a little impertinent of me)

      Yep, 80% Absentee Syndrome. I would say about half of those students missed an entire year of junior high school. And maybe 1/3 missed 2 years or more. They really didn’t fit the system, and the system didn’t do much to try and adapt to their needs. Bad situation all around. But in some ways, that sense of alienation and not fitting in makes English (at least for a certain percentage of the students I get to work with) more attractive. Thanks for taking the time to comment. And I would love to hear how a dose of pictograph-based tabling goes down in your classes.



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