Extensive Reading, bring in team qualitative

I promise that this seemingly random image of a tank has something to do with this post.

I promise that this seemingly random image of a tank has something to do with this post.

I’m getting ready for a presentation on Extensive Reading for Nara JALT and don’t have much time to blog (or do anything really, except write and put together PP slides).  But I thought I might share a bit of what I’ve been thinking about as I put together my presentation.  If you’re going to be joining me in Nara on April 6th, I highly recommend that you stop reading now, or things might be a little dull as you wait for me to finish talking so we can all head over to the park, enjoy the cherry blossoms and get our drink on.

In my experience, Extensive Reading works.  I have numbers to back it up.  Over this school year my students average reading speed went from 128 words per minute to 185 words per minute.  The average number of words they could hold in working memory based on a read/think/write exercise (see my T-Dad post for more info) jumped from 4.21 to 6.63 words.  And total words produced in a…

Is that enough yet?  Are your eyes totally glazing over?

I had a friend who was a pretty normal guy.  He worked with me at the local deli.  He could fry a perfect Reuben sandwich, could fix a broken meat steamer, and was, in general a great guy to hang out with.  But if you got him talking about tanks, you were in trouble.  He knew the tread width of all the German Panzers; could compare artillery casing thicknesses; and got extremely excited about power to weight ratios. As he would talk on and on about tanks, he became less and less aware of whether anyone was listening to him.  More often than not, no one was.  But I was.  I was mesmerised by his ability to amuse himself with the minutia of tanks.  I sometimes wonder if when I talk about ER, whether I’m engaged in the same kind of self-amusement that Tom was wrapped up in.

You see, there’s an ever growing body of research showing that ER really works, but as popular as ER is becoming, it’s not an integral part of every, or even most language programs.  Probably in part because the best way to convince teachers that something is worthwhile is not by throwing a bunch of numbers around.  If you are talking to other researchers (or other tank enthusiasts), that might work.  But teachers know that there are individual stories behind that data.  And that in a real teaching situation, it’s probably those stories, the individual encounters of teachers and students, the actual engagement with a learner, a text, and a teacher, which is most important.  So pull out as many numbers from your magic bag of I’m-gonna-convine-you as you want.  It’s not going to work.

And let’s say a teacher is slightly moved by all those stats, and they go and look at some of the articles.  What do they find out, aside from the numbers?

From Mason and Krashen’s (1997) treatment section of an ER experiment: “The experimental classes in each institution read from graded readers.”

From Bell’s (2001) method section of a ER paper: The experimental group (n= 14) received an extensive reading program consisting of class readers, a class library of books for students to borrow, and regular visits to the library providing access to a much larger collection of graded readers (up to 2000 titles).

Even Richard Day and Julian Bamford’s Extensive Reading in the Second Language Classroom, which I think is a brilliant book and pretty much lays out everything you need to know to start an ER program, can only go so far in preparing a teacher for what’s going to actually happen in an ER classroom.  Basically, all of the advice out there for ER, is like the instructions for building IKEA furniture.  It looks simple enough on paper, but it leaves you (or at least it leaves me) with the sneaky suspicion that the most important part of putting it all together has somehow been left off the page.  And of course it has!  As good as designers are at making universal symbols, a set of directions for putting together a mishmash of 83 separate nuts bolts and planks which uses no words and only arrows, is by it’s very nature going to be leaving out the most important part of building anything.  How tight the screws have to be.  Whether once you put a bolt in place, will you be able to take it out again (often the horrifying answer is no).  How loud you will curse once you realise that the very middle shelf has been put in backwards.

So what am I trying to say with this mild rant about ER articles and people who talk about ER?  Not much, really.  All I’m trying to say is that instead of focusing on the big picture, we need to be spending more time presenting individual stories, small grain case studies of what students are doing in an ER classroom, and what role a teacher takes on with an individual student.  Because while you need some basic instructions to get going (see Bamford and Day’s Extensive Reading top 10, neither the big picture basic instructions, or the hard data of successful ER programs is going to convince teachers that they might want to implement ER in their own classes.  I think we have reached a moment in the development of ER and it’s penetration into the ELT community, where qualitative information has become much more important and valuable than quantitative information.  And as a case in point, I would like to share a short story of one of my students, Karin.

My school doesn't allow us to share photo's of students, so I asked my daughter to draw an image of Karin to help you visualise what's going on in the following case study.

My school doesn’t allow us to share photo’s of students, so I asked my daughter to draw an image of Karin to help you visualise what’s going on in the following case study.

Filed under: reads too fast

Karin is not a traditional reader in that she likes to sit down with a book in her native language and lose herself in the story.  But she reads huge amounts of material in Japanese every week because she is training to be a professional MC/announcer.  And not only does she read huge amounts of materials in Japanese, she also reads them out loud.  Probably with an eye to her future, she actively volunteers to read materials out loud in English class whenever she gets the chance.  So it’s not surprising that her reading speed is a much better than the class average at 210 words per minute.  In fact, at one point she was reading so many words per minute (almost 300), that I decided maybe a little intervention was in order.  I took her aside, complimented her on having a reading speed as fast as a native speaker’s.  I told her I was interested in hearing if she was able to use her “narrator super powers” when she read in English.  I had her select an early intermediate level text (800 headwords), pick a page, and gave her a minute to read it through one time.  According to the vocabulary test we had given at the semester break, Karin had a receptive vocabulary which covered about 90% of the first 1000 most frequent words in English and 70% of the second most frequent words in English.  So asking her to read out loud from an 800 headword text should have been quite a stretch for her, even after having read through it once.  I told her I was going to be timing her and asked her to read as clearly and quickly as possible.  She read smoothly, with inflection, at a rate of just under 200 words per minute.  Just blazingly fast.  And I think that most people listening to her would have thought she really understood what she read.  But when I asked her, “How much of that did you understand,” she shrugged and guessed 60%.  So we talked about why we measured words per minute (WPM) in class, and how extensive reading WPM score was pretty different from what an announcer was aiming for when it came to speed.  We kind of hit upon a bargain.  She would alternate between keeping track of two scores.  Her AWPM (yep, announcer’s words per minute) and her regular WPM.  When she was keeping track of her regular WPM, she would focus on enjoying and understanding the story.  When she was doing her AWPM thing, she would read out loud in a quiet voice and focus on speed and pronunciation clarity.  After our talk, both her WPM and AWPM fell below her feverish 300 mark and became a more accurate reflection of her reading speed.

Any Conclusions To Be Found Here

Now I realise that Karin is not your standard student.  But, when it comes to how and why students read, I pretty sure there is no such thing as a “standard student.”  Every student is going to have their own goals, problems, and successes.  When Bamford and Day explain that in ER, “Teachers guide their students,” they are giving us the IKEA instructions for what we need to do.  But I think it would be nice to have a centralised place to collect the stories of how that guidance played out in a real classroom.  A repository of case-studies, tagged with the issues or main features presented by each student, would go a long way in helping to provide a better picture of what is happening in ER classrooms around the world.  At the same time, it would provide the kind of detailed advice that teachers in an ER program often need when dealing with individual students.  And best of all, it’s just these kind of stories of real life problems and real life success which can help show interested teachers just what ER is all about.  Because marshalling an army of ER effectiveness data has only gotten us so far.  It’s time to let the individual stories of our students carry us the rest of the way.

P.S. If you are interested in ER, and would like more information, I highly recommend:

The Extensive Reading Foundation 

ER-Central

The JALT Extensive Reading Special Interest Group

Extensive Reading, but what if…

479be-books

Rob Waring is putting together an amazing new resource called ER-Central dedicated to all things Extensive Reading.  About 3 years ago I caught the ER bug.  Since then I’ve noticed some bloggers and friends have offhandedly remarked that ER has a kind of culty feel about it.  I’m not sure exactly what makes ER culty, but I would agree that a lot of teachers who have implemented an ER program seem a bit over the top.  I know because I am one of them.  I find myself saying things like, “ER has changed my students’ lives.”  But in a short conversation in a pub during a conference, I rarely have time to talk at length about why I’m so hep on extensive reading.  Actually, sometimes I do talk for quite a long time about ER, but the person I am talking to usually gets glassy-eyed and so I stop.  And I figure if I just write the same kind of things that I talk about at the pub, your eyes will go all fishy-eyed as well.  So if your interested in a nice introduction to ER, I recommend you check out Rob Waring’s article “Graded and Extensive reading—questions and answers”.

If I’m not going to talk about what makes ER great, what am I going to talk about?  I thought I would write up a list of the biggest worries I had about extensive reading before I started the program at my school and how things played out in the actual classroom.

Worry: My Students are super low-level learners and the only appropriate material for them to self-select and read has big colorful pictures of a dog named Floppy.  Won’t my students get angry and throw big colorful books at me for trying to get them to read kiddy stuff?

Reality: After a bit of training to help students chose books that they could read without much stress, it turned out that Mr. Fluffy was a very popular guy in my class.  Students read the children’s books.  They enjoyed reading the children’s books.  And according to surveys, the feeling of being able to read and understand a book (big colorful pictures or not) was much more important to them than the book being age appropriate.

Worry: My students have short attention spans.  I usually change up activities every 10 to 15 minutes in class.  Can I really expect them to read silently for 50 minutes?

Reality: Extensive reading is not a magic attention span expander.  I shouldn’t have expected my students to read silently for 50 minutes.  50 minutes is a long long time.  I rarely read for 50 minutes at a stretch.  But 25 minutes ended up being no problem at all for my students.  Which means that I now have an extra 25 minutes of class time 3 times a week to do other languagy things in class.  And my students have 25 minutes 3 times a week to really enjoy their reading.

Worry: I have no way to measure if the students are actually learning anything.  If I set up a bunch of tests which the students see as connected to their ER time, that’s going to really dampen their enthusiasm for reading.  I’m going to spend hours and hours of each week fretting over my students not learning.

Reality: Just setting the last minute of class time aside for students to measure their average words per minute ends up being a pretty amazing evaluative tool.  Students know that their reading speed isn’t connected to their grade.  But they get to watch the number climb from week to week.  And it really does climb.  My 3rd year high school students who have been reading 25 minutes a lesson, 3 days a week in class have seen their average word per minute reading rate jump from 50 words per minute to 120 words per minute.  Many students are reading at 150 words per minute now and some have crossed over the 200 words per minute threshold.  That means that when they take a standardized reading test, many of them don’t have to (or even try) to use test taking strategies, but actually read and try to understand the entire passage.  And reading in this way does not negatively impact their scores (whoops, think I crossed over into culty territory there…sorry).

Worry: Just because I make students read in class, doesn’t mean they are enjoying reading.  What if dedicating time to reading leads to students feeling some serious resentment and getting even more anti-reading?

Reality: Yes, reading time is reading time.  Students are not allowed to sleep or chat each other up.  I found that when a student starts acting out in class, a few well-timed questions about the book they were reading was enough to bring them back to the text.  I general, I think it’s really important to be nonjudgmental and just find out how they are reacting to the text in front of them.  Do you like the main character?  Do you understand the story?  Are there any phrases you’ve read you want to use yourself?  If the student isn’t digging the book, I remind them they are free to go get a different book any time they want.  Sometimes they do.  Sometimes they don’t.  All in all, keeping students on task isn’t very difficult and opens up all kinds of opportunities to interact with students about a text.  And the more students read, the less I find I needed to try and draw their attention back to the book.

Worry: My higher-level students will read books which are too hard for them and get turned off to the whole ER experience.

Reality: My few higher-level students sometimes read books which are too hard and which they don’t really enjoy reading.  They do this for a while and then go get an easier book.  They enjoy the easier book even more.  Students, when given the chance, are pretty good at regulating their own learning.

Worry: Students don’t actually read books in Japanese.  Shouldn’t I use class time and have students explore language in a way that is more in line with what they do in “real life”

Reality: Many of my students did not read books for pleasure before joining my course.  Many of them do not read books for pleasure outside of class now either.  But after three years of running an ER program, none of my students has ever said to me, “Kevin, can we cancel reading time?  I just don’t want to read any more books.”  As an added bonus, reading is still a pretty useful skill to have and probably crucial to functioning in the “real world” for the foreseeable future.  And as an added added bonus, if students improve their reading, they will certainly have a better time interacting with friends on FB in English in the “real real world.”

Three years in with a 25 minutes a class, 3 classes a week extensive reading program has helped rid me of most of my worries:

  • Floppy…not an issue.
  • Don’t like to read in first language…so what.
  • Reading super difficult books…yep, and sometimes super easy books and sometimes just right books.
  • Resentment…nope, only when I have to cancel ER time because of scheduling conflicts
  • Better use of time for real life English…reading for pleasure is “real life”
  • Concentration issues…just adjust the length of reading time so it’s not an issue
  • I want to evaluate something…one minute speed reading.  (Actually, I still wrestle with the whole evaluation thing.  I actually have figured out two things that kind of work for assessing student development, but I think that’s really something for another post.)

Anyway, those are the worries I had before I started my extensive reading program.  I just wanted to share them with you.  If you are thinking about implementing an extensive reading program and feeling anxious about the whole thing, I hope this will help you feel a little less nervous.

If anyone reading this had some worries about an ER program, implemented it, and found things to be different than they imagined, please leave a comment and help spread the calm.  Because—sorry, gonna get just a little culty here—an extensive reading program really can change a student’s life.

To Gather Up (A Short Story for ELLS)



Photo by David Sky



I live in Lone Temple, a small town surrounded by a ring of mountains.  I am the town’s station master.  Not that it’s much of a train station.  Just two tracks, one platform, and two freshly painted benches.  I paint the benches myself twice every year.  This year in the fall I painted them sunrise orange.  Last week, I painted them tear drop blue.  Sometimes someone will notice and say something nice about the color, and that makes me feel pretty good.  

During a Lone Temple winter, there is snow and more snow.  Every year the neighborhood children build a snowman in front of the station.  Each year there are less and less children, but they manage to get the job done.  This January they built a real giant of a snowman.  It took them all day and it was already dark when they finished and ran home.  It was a cold evening and there was a touch of salt in the wind. Suddenly, I felt sorry for the snowman.  He was out there, left behind, and probably already forgotten.  So I dug through the Lost and Found box and pulled out a bright red knit cap.  I had to stand on a step ladder to put the hat on the snowman’s head.  The snowman had a strange half smile made out of grey rocks.  I thought he looked a little more comfortable with the hat on.

There is always something to do at a train station.  There’s always a floor to sweep, a weed to pull, a sign to straighten.  But there is also nothing that must absolutely be done right now at a station.  And this is also good.  I can make a cup of coffee and watch the steam curl up towards the ceiling.  I can set a small plate of smoked fish down behind the worn row of lockers and wait to see which cat comes to eat it first. In this way time passes.

It was a long winter and the snowman didn’t really start melting until the beginning of April.  He got a little smaller every day and by May first, he was gone.  I went out, picked up the bright red hat from the ground, and started to put it back in the lost and found box.  I looked at the long pair of soft leather gloves, the folding umbrella with the bent handle, the pack of faded playing cards, the loose collection of keys and broken watches and I changed my mind. I put the hat in the bottom drawer of my desk instead.  It wasn’t a lost thing anymore.  At least, not for a little while longer.  Not as long as there were still enough children to gather up the snow that was sure to fall in the winter.


470 words total
Flesch Reading Ease Score: 96.2
Flesch-Kincaid Grade level: 3.2
Words contained in the GSL: 96.63%

You can’t learn if you’re not awake

Summer vacation is about three weeks away.  My students are starting to feel that tug of freedom.  I can see it in the way they glance out the window more often lately, the way they bounce into the classroom, more energetically, but a few seconds later each day.  And I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a little less focused myself.  But I feel these last few weeks before the break are crucial.  If the students just sort of fade off into vacation, it will be that much harder for them to bring themselves to do their summer assignments.  And what little English they are exposed to and take note of now, will certainly get baked out of them as they play around at Universal Studios Japan in the August sun.   
So I’ve been using a few new activities in both my listening and reading classes lately.  These activities aren’t novel or even that much different from what we’ve been doing for most of the year.  In fact, I think a big shift in class structure right now would give the kids just the excuse they are looking for to mentally cut out early for vacation.  So here are a few of the small changes I’m trying out to keep the students engaged during reading exercises: 
Instead of handing out a plain text to students, I’ve been making use of a mirror font so the text reads the way it would if held up to a mirror (sorry if that was the most superfluous explanation ever).  The first time I passed out a mirror-fonted text, a few students shouted out things like, “I can’t read this!”, “This is impossible!”, and “This isn’t even English.”  But after I read the passage out loud while students read along, their brains adjusted and they were able to read it on their own.  Still, by playing with the semantic visual patterning, students had to work a little harder and it made the actual task (a summary activity) a little more challenging.  All in all, there was a precipitous drop in window gazing. 
I’ve written about it before, but I’m not at all convinced about the benefits of comprehension check questions.  So I’m always trying out activities which I think might get students interacting with a text and also let’s me gauge their comprehension of the text as well.  Lately I’ve tried replacing key words in every few sentences of a text with words that clearly don’t fit.  So a story about a pilot might end up having the word ‘flying’ replaced with ‘dancing’.   One of the reasons I like this activity is that it can work with both bottom-up and top-down skills.  Students can scan the passage from beginning to end and then look for words that don’t seem to fit within their mental model of how the entire text should read.  But they can also come at it from the sentence level, for example by looking for mismatches between verbs and direct objects.  And even better, this activity can be done in small groups as well, which can help provide the scaffolding needed for the lower level students to better comprehend the text.  Of course this activity requires a lot of typing on the part of the teacher if they are using a course book.   But I find that the to ability occasionally slip in a truly bizarre substitute, such as “child” for “chicken”, “bubbly” for “dangerous”, or the  name of the school principle for a minor character will usually get a few laughs and makes it worth the effort. 
Instead of changing words in the text, you can also insert extra words.  Not only is it another way to make reading a little more challenging, but during the first few read-throughs, if students can identify a majority of the unnecessary words it serves as a pretty fair barometer that the level of the text is appropriate for the students.  And if students are able to provide a simple reason in either their L1 or the L2 as to why the word doesn’t belong, it’s a fair bet that they had a pretty high level of comprehension around what they read.
Last Thursday I walked into class and all of the windows were wide open.   A warm wind was blowing into the room.  One of the third year students had his head on the desk in front of him.  He was asleep, a half eaten lunch box in front of him and chopsticks still held loosely in his right hand.  I felt a little pang of jealousy.  You know, I’m sure there’s all kinds of ways to keep students awake in class.  But for me, I find that raising the difficulty of routine activities, adding a small twist to basic tasks, is often enough.  And the fact that these obstacles result in a higher level of awareness and a greater depth of processing might also lead to a host of other benefits such as greater vocabulary acquisition and higher chance of reordering of interlanguage.  But maybe that’s claiming a bit too much.  After all, at this point, it’s really just about making sure that the students are there, conscious in the class with me.  And I’m willing to bet you an ice-cold lemonade that if the that sleeping third year student had been trying to eat with his left hand instead of his right, he would have been wide awake when I walked into class the other day.

It’s not teaching, if you’re not noticing

This year I get to teach 6 hours a week of a structural syllabus linked up to a series of short texts about Earth Day, sugarcane growing in Okinawa, and the Alabama bus boycott.  Each of the short texts helps (?) highlight a key grammar point while also working hard to confuse or bore even the most dedicated student.  Now I don’t want to just spend an entire post complaining about course materials.  A recent blog post on reflecting vs. complaining from Michael Griffin has me wanting to jump from complaining into something a little more productive.  But please, someone tell me how ‘environmental’, ‘many other things’, ‘overpopulation’, ‘serious’, ‘hunger’, and ‘get together’ got selected as key vocabulary to teach a remedial 1st year high school English class for students who, for the most part, did not attend junior high school. 


Still, I’m trying to see the whole experience as a way to stretch myself as a teacher.  I mean, how often will I get the chance to teach present simple tense, the interrogative form, and negative sentence construction all within a fifty minutes lesson?  I even spent an hour the other day teaching a series of grammar points to an empty classroom because my use of whiteboard space had the logical flow of a maze from a mouse and cheese experiment.  In a way, I even had kind of a good time plowing through three discreet grammar points as my voice echoed off the walls. 

Fortunatley, grammar only makes up 50% of the unit tests.  The other 50% is basically students’ ability to reproduce the text.  So if students get familiar enough with the texts, they have a pretty good chance of passing the test.  I try and have the students work with the text at least 4 or 5 times during the first 10 minutes of each lesson.  At least one of the activities is based around ‘depth of processing hypothesis’ or the idea that mental activities which require more processing will help in retention (Craik and Lockhart 1972). During the first lessons, I had students turn their books upside down as they read aloud and directed students to mark off sense groups as I read the text to them.  I’ve even had the students read the text out loud and verbally stress all the nouns or verbs and this activity seemed to hit the sweet spot where the students wrinkle-up their foreheads in thought but rarely shook their heads in frustration.  But once I asked all of the students to read the text and replace all sentences using “be” verbs with the yes/no interrogative form.  This basically resulted in a whole lot of silence.  So it’s kind of hit or miss right now between activities which require more processing and those that result in an insufficient memory error.



The other activities I run are based on the Baddeley’s ‘retrieval practice effect’ or the fact that, “the very act of recalling something facilitates its subsequent recall,” as long as the item is in fact successfully recalled (Ellis, 1995).  So the activities need to require some effort at recall, but failure means just a bunch of wasted time.  Some relatively successful activities included laying a strip of thin paper over each student’s book and having them read the text, cloze tests, and C-tests (in which letters of words, as opposed to entire words, are removed from the text).  



At last count, my students have read the text about Earth Day a total of 17 times in class and even the handful of upper level students still seem pretty engaged.  But I was starting to run out of ideas for opening activities.  Luckily, Rachel Roberts, on her blog elt-resourceful has had a series of posts on reading that are just chock full of good ideas.  So the other day I spent the first five minutes of class trying out the read-for-one-minute-and-see-how-far-you-get-activity.  I pulled out my handy kitchen timer, set it for a minute, and had the students just read the text.  At the end of a minute, I said stop and had students circle the last word they had read.  Then we repeated the whole process again. And while students were silently reading, I watched.  I watched as their eyes slid down the page, watched as they flipped pages, watched as some of their mouths moved as they read.  And I noticed one student who was doing none of these things.  She had her hands folded flat on the table in front of her and her eyes remained fixed and opened to the point where they seemed to be almost tearing up.  


During lunch, I found the girl, A-Chan, and said (in Japanese), “Class was pretty difficult today, huh?”  And she nodded.  And then I took a deep breath and I said, “So, you can’t read English?” And she nodded slowly.  And I said, “Do you want to learn how to read English with me?  We can study after school starting next week.”  And she smiled.  She smiled and nodded yes.  So we set up a study schedule and I’m going to be doing some one-on-one reading tutoring for the next few weeks.


But I have to admit that saying, “You don’t know how to read,” was one of the hardest things I’ve done as a teacher lately.  I worried about how she was going to react, how upset she might be if I had made a mistake.  And I would be lying if I said I didn’t also think about the responsibility it would entail if she said yes.  But I’m starting to realize that this is what being a teacher is all about, just recognizing where you are needed and finding a way to be there.


For the past three weeks, I’ve spent the first ten minutes of my first year English classes focused almost entirely on how to ensure that the students will pass the first unit test.  I’ve been hopping from activity to activity and kind of forgot, that for some students, passing that test couldn’t be less important.  So a big thank you to Rachel for an activity which gave me the time to watch my class, notice what was going on, and realize where I needed to be.  And a thank you to you too A-chan.  For meeting my question, not with shame, but with a smile.  Now let’s do some reading.    

References:
 

Craik, F. I. M. and Lockhart, R.S. (1972) ‘Levels of processing: a framework for memory research’. Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior 11: 67–84.

Ellis, N.C (1995) The Psychology of Foreign Language Vocabulary Acquisition:

Implications for CALL. Computer Assisted Language Learning, 8: 103-28

Remembering What You Already Know

I’ve got five more days to whip a structural syllabus (for which the word structural is a terrible misnomer) into something I and the other teachers in my school can actually teach.  I have 17 days to get my presentation on informal writing in a TBL structure ready for my first TBLT conference presentation.  It’s 11:00 PM at night and I am working on 11 hours of sleep for the past 2 days.  And I’m gonna blog.  No time limits.  No goals.  Just a story about how my week went and what I think I might be able to do about it.
On Monday I was working with the new International Course students.  We were doing a very short reading (~200 words) about a truck driver named Raj from Singapore.  I was using a technique I had learned from John Fanselow, a kind of pictographic dictation exercise (a dicto-pict?  A picto-dic?).  Students were instructed to listen to a story and replace each word in the story with one image.  The exercise went pretty well.  Once students had finished the pictograph–which only took about five minutes–they then used their picto-dictation to re-tell the story to their partner.  Unfortunately, all the function words seemed to vanish.  “Raj loves to drive his big truck,” was transformed into, “Raj loves drive big truck.”  And perhaps even more disturbing, all traces of tense fell out of the narrative.  “Raj drove his truck yesterday,” became, “Raj drive his truck yesterday.” 
So I did what most normal teachers would do.  I threw my arms in the air and sent an e-mail to the guy who taught me the activity.  And John was good enough to send me an email back, asking me to just take a minute to reread the principles of our program.  So I did.  And that’s when I noticed this sentence in the middle of the first paragraph, “It is our job to help students realize how much they already know about language.”  I sent John an email back thanking him for his time and worked to put together a lesson which would meet the minimum standards of my job as laid out in the above bolded and italicized sentence.
In the next lesson, I also did a short, 200 word story about a crazy student named Sally who had a seriously deranged anxiety dream (she stopped a truck with her head, if you’re interested).  As usual, I started the class by reading the story and asking the students to write down what percent they had understood.  The average ended up coming in at about 68%.  In my experience, 68% usually means that most of the students are feeling pretty frustrated and wondering why I don’t hand out key vocabulary words like the other teachers in school. 
Before I read the story a second time, I gave the students a worksheet in which every word in the story had been replaced by a dot.  Each line of the page looked something like this (if the spacing get’s all internet crazy, just imagine a straight line of dots, please):
・ ・ ・ ・ ・ ・ ・ ・ ・ ・ ・ ・ ・
I asked the students to draw a slash between sense groups, which they would be able to recognize by a short pause in the flow of my speech.  The students had done a number of sense group activities in their first year classes and they had very little trouble with this activity.  Now that they had the story broken down into sense groups, I asked them to listen one more time, only this time I wanted them to write the first letter of the first word above the first dot in each sense group.  That ended up producing something like the following (sorry if there’s any crazy internet spacing issues here):
         M                          W                           S            
        ・ ・ ・ ・  / ・ ・ ・ ・ / ・ ・ ・ ・ /
I repeated the process two more times, asking students to write the first letter of each verb in each sense group and then the first letter of each noun above each sense group.  By the third reading, students had produced something like the following:
         M  T                       W   S    G               S   W         
        ・ ・ ・ ・  / ・ ・ ・ ・ / ・ ・ ・ ・ /
I then gave the students five minutes to form groups and reconstitute the story in it’s entirety.  Basically I had run a variation on a staged dictogloss activity.  After the students had reconstituted the story, I asked them again to write down what percentage of the story they had understood.  The average had now jumped to just under 100%.  The students had been reminded of how much they new about language.  They knew what a sense group was.  They knew how to identify parts of speech.  They knew how to listen for specific sounds and information.  They knew how to put together parts of speech into well formed sentences.  So as a final exercise, I asked the students to try the picto-dictation exercise again.  And this time, during the retelling of the story, words were marked for tense and the magically vanishing function words managed to remain right were they needed to be within each sentence.  
I recently wrote my first guest blog post for Barbara Sakamoto’s “Teaching Village.”  I wrote about using short stories within the language classroom.  I also revised the post for an ELT journal.  I was pretty surprised to find out that my idea of skipping any meaning based exercises when first working with a text was controversial.  I’ve been avoiding comprehension exercises for so long, I’ve forgotten that they are a regular part of many classrooms.  The reason I stopped using them was pretty simple.  If you ask a student, “Who is Bob?” and the students says, “He is the character Timothy’s father,” what does that actually do in the way of language development?  And if a learner doesn’t know who Bob is, does telling the student the answer (or having another student give the correct answer) do anything in the way of language development?  I just couldn’t see any positive outcome when it came to comprehension checks.  But I found that if I had the students work with the language in the story from a few different angles, the meaning of the story would emerge.  But something doesn’t emerge from nothing.  And that’s what I had forgotten during my Monday classes, when I suddenly asked my students to interact with a text through a 100% novel activity.  Not only were they struggling to understanding the meaning of the text, they were also trying to understand the meaning of the activity.  Activities are not an obstacle course.  At their best, they are a way to reveal to students what they already know about language.
I have 5 more days to take an antiquated structural syllabus and turn it into a series of teachable lessons.  I’ve got 17 days to polish up my first TBLT presentation.  But tomorrow and tomorrow and the tomorrow after that I have to go into class and help students remember how much they already know about language.  Writing this blog is one of the ways I can do that, by remembering the things I sometimes forget about teaching.  Like the fact that teaching isn’t about providing answers, but about asking questions.  That once the class bell rings, external deadlines have nothing to do with my students.  And that reflective practices aren’t reflective if I only do them when I feel like I have the luxury of time.     

Measurements (A short story for ELLs)

509 words total
98.00% within GSL  (98.6% excluding proper nouns)
Flesch Reading Ease Score: 89.7
Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level: 3.3


I like to measure things.  I know exactly when it started.  It was July 16, 2002.  I was 7 years, 214 days, 3 hours and 6 seconds old.  I was looking at an old wall clock in the living room.  I said to my mother, “I’m hungry.”  She pointed to the clock.  She said, “Dinner is in 10 minutes.” 

I watched the second hand move.  600 seconds later, I sat down at the dinner table.  34 seconds after that, I began to eat.  I don’t remember what we ate.  But I do remember that it took me 1022 seconds to finish my meal.  At the time, I was only 239,252,406 seconds old, but I knew something important.  If you could measure time, time which you cannot see, or hear, or touch, or taste, you could measure everything.  And I did.  

I measured myself twice daily (currently 174 centimeters), how fast my mother talked (210 words per minutes), and how slowly my father walked up the stairs (1.3 kilometers per hour).  It was after I entered high school that I began to measure things most people claimed could not be measured.  For example, loneliness.  Loneliness can be measured in eye contact.  An average person who only looks into another person’s eyes 37 times per day will feel lonely.  When I was fourteen, I spent 62% of my days in loneliness.  And fear, fear is when your heart beats 21.3% faster than average.  I spent one month in fear, studying for my high school entrance examinations.  

I had an old friend.  Her name was Tammy.  She used to hold my hand with 30 kilograms of force or 7 kilograms more than the average girl her age.  Her eyes were blue.  Color is a wave.  The blue of her eyes was 472 nanometers long, which is the same as the ocean on an August afternoon.  She told me that really, I could not measure anything.  She said that 1 centimeter, 1 second, 1 kilogram were just ideas and did not really mean anything.

The day before we left for our separate universities, we ate in the best restaurant in town.  We ate cake topped with gold leaf.  The cake had 248 calories, enough to keep a body running for 3218.69 meters.  She said goodbye to me 19 times.  The last time she said goodbye, she looked down at a 37.4 degree angle.  She did not look up when I said I would see her again soon.

At university, I learned to measure the electrical force of surprise, the speed of memory, and the time loss of confusion.  I wrote papers which my friends did not read, but still said were wonderful.  I moved into my own office on the first floor with a big window.   But lately I think that maybe Tammy was right.  Maybe measurements do not mean quite so much as I think.  When Tammy used to talk to me, her breath smelled almost sweet.  It was a special kind of smell.  I think it might have been vanilla.  But I cannot be sure.  And I have no idea of how to measure a thing forgotten.