Data Driven Blinders

IMG_3885-2I believe in data, to a large extent.  If I want to understand how to better provide a chance for my students to learn, I need to know what is happening when I am with my students. How many open ended questions do I ask during the time we are together? How often do the students work together, confirm answers with one another, seek out more information? How often does learning last for a day? for a week? A year? If I collect this type of information, I can make changes, and foster a better atmosphere for learning.  I believe this.

But I also believe that what we take as a given, what we think must be true, limits what kinds of data we look at.  If we believe all second graders should be able to master addition and subtraction, there are so many things we will not have time to look at. Addition, subtraction, sight-words…this list of what we ‘know’ children need to know goes on an on. So recently, I have come to believe that our children are in classes where teachers are being forced to teach and keep track of data at the expense of some basic principle which we do not NEED data to know are true.

  1. Children need time to play.
  2. Children need time to interact with each other and care about each other.
  3. Children need to see that their own curiosity can lead to valued and valuable learning.
  4. Children need to continue to believe that they can solve problems individual and with other children, without assistance from adults.
  5. Teachers need to help show what it means to respect other people, to listen to other people, and to support other people. If they do, students can get on with doing what they should do (see 1-4)
  6. Teachers need to take time out to listen to what is being said by their students; they need to take time out to watch what is being done by their students. This is arguably more important than any set curriculum which teachers and students must follow within a given period of time.

I’m pretty sure that all of these 6 things, these very basic ideas of what it means to learn about yourself and your place in the world and be supported in that process, are what educators focus on when they can. But shouldn’t any learning space be set up so that first we make sure that 1-6 is the foundation for everything that happens in a classroom? If we make students feel valued and secure, if we help students take care of each other, if we can show our students what it means to be respectful, I have a feeling that students will happily get on with learning all those things we are so sure they NEED TO KNOW by a certain age.

Data is important, but data always exists within a set of parameters. I have a feeling that the way the parameters are set now have walled teachers and students off from doing the the most important things they need to do for learning to take place…to truly see, understand, and respect each other. We have centuries of data to show that when people don’t do this very basic work, things rarely, if ever, turn out the way we would hope. And hope, well that is the very lifeblood of teaching and learning. With hope, we believe that what we cannot do today, we might be able to do tomorrow. With hope, we believe not only in ourselves, but in each other. With hope, we start to stumble down the true path of learning.




On respect and teaching

Hi. Long time no see. Hope you’ve been having a good life. Things here in Japan are unusually chilly. That’s not a metaphor. Just the weather. I got a hot cup of coffee on my desk. I can see clouds through the window and all the green hints of spring so visible yesterday are just so much gray today. On Monday, students will come to my high school, walk through the doors, and a new school year will start.

When I started teaching twenty years ago, I thought that respecting my students meant doing my job and teaching them. Those words ‘teaching’ and ‘respect’, they’re pretty slippery. But back then, teaching to me meant giving important information to students, and respect meant treating them as capable learners who could absorb what I had to give them.  Even now, I don’t thing it’s a terrible way to frame what most teachers do in their classroom. But somewhere along the line, I felt like it wasn’t working out for me or my students. In a lot of ways, it came down to numbers. If I wanted my students to really improve their English skills, you know, be able to engage in conversations, read a web page, send an email, they would need to:

  • learn some basic vocabulary, perhaps the 1500 or so most frequent words in English
  • develop their listening skills to be able to decode conversations in real time
  • be able to read quickly enough, perhaps 150 or so words per minute, to make reading a viable and enjoyable way to obtain information
  • be able to speak with enough fluency to keep a conversation moving along

There’s more I could add to this list.  There is always more. That was the problem with me trying to provide my students with most of what they needed to learn to become competent English users. So I stopped trying to be the source of information and started to help my students learn how to study. I made a system for how students could create word lists, flash cards, and even Quizlet sets that required a bit more time and concentration, but which resulted in better retention and less focus on vocabulary studying. I created a set of meta-cognitive exercises so students could read a text and start to pay attention to how they were reading. I even put together a curriculum so students could do a bit of contrastive analysis in class and compare for themselves how Japanese and English structures were similar and different and then make their own grammar resource books which captured their developing understanding of the target language. If you are interested in any of these ideas, just let me know, I’ll send you examples and classroom materials.

Anyway, I was pretty happy with how things were going in my classes. My students were getting good scores on their standardized tests. They knew how to study effectively. They got into good universities. I thought I had arrived at a better idea of teaching and respect. Teaching was helping students develop the skills they needed to learn, and respect was trusting that students wanted to learn and would learn.

But the thing was, some students didn’t end up learning. In my classes of twenty students or so, there was always one or two students who didn’t do the work that would lead to developing the skills they needed to be autonomous learners. I wouldn’t yell at these students. I would sit with them, walk them through the process again and again when necessary.  And when they didn’t complete the word lists we had started in class, or didn’t do the reading assignments I had reviewed with them in class, I kind of shrugged and thought that eventually they would. Eventually they would do the work they needed to do. I believed in them. I respected them. I was helping them develop the skills they needed to learn. Whether they did it or not, that was up to them.  But when a student couldn’t meet the goals they had set for themselves, couldn’t get that TOEIC score, couldn’t get into that university, it didn’t make me feel any better to shrug my shoulders and try to convince myself that respect was an adequate substitute for learning.

Over the past few years, I’ve learned that providing some of these students with weekly vocabulary lists, concrete grammar exercises and explanations, and graded reading exercises with standard comprehension questions leads to better results. So in a way, I’ve come back to where I started twenty years ago. But not all the way.  Because now I know that teaching is not about providing crucial information and it is also not about helping students develop a skill set for learning independently. Respect is also not about simply believing in my students. Teaching and respect is what happens when I face my student with a clear vision not of what I want them to do, but of who they are as a person and how we are relating to each other moment by moment. Teaching and respect are the result of two people, a teacher and a student, working together to understand each other honestly.

It is a gray and chilly day here in Japan. On Monday my students will walk through the front door of my high school, many of them for the first time. This year, I hope at least a little more than last year, my classroom will be filled with the the kind of respect and teaching that does not leave a bitter aftertaste of regret. This year, I hope my classroom, that all of our classrooms, are filled with those moments of clarity and connecting with our students that fills even the grayest days with the small true warmth of learning.




Standardised tests are ________, 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.]

Why not leave it up to them

IMG_4127-2Yesterday was the start of the 3rd high school semester here in Japan.  That means all the students came to school for a one and a half hour “School Opening Ceremony.”  There were speeches about how important it is to study and prepare for university entrance examinations, why learning Japanese history is a key component to finding your place in the international community, and a final speech on how Japanese culture has a tradition of the ‘fresh start’ so this semester was everyone’s chance to change and become a better student.  And once all of these very serious (and very long) speeches about change and the importance of studying were finished, we had 20 minutes scheduled for homeroom, were supposed to say ‘sayonara’, and send the students back home…without holding classes.  Which got me thinking about how cavalier schools are about students’ time.  We tell them when to come, how long to be there, if they can stay late or not.  And especially high school teachers (and certainly I am accusing myself of this as well) are constantly trying to impress on students the importance of using their time effectively.  And yet, in a traditional school environment, students are actually given very little control over how they spend their time aside from whether they pay attention to the teacher or not.

After the School Opening Ceremony yesterday, as I was about to start my 20 minute homeroom, I stood up at the front of the classroom with a folder of flyers, standard test result reports, study abroad applications, and even an advertisement for a lecture by the architect Ando Tadao sponsored by my school.  I looked at the students.  Most were happily talking about what they did during winter vacation.  They were animated and smiling and listening intently to one another.  One student had a book, Key Words to Mastering English, open on his lap and seemed to be having a wonderful time studying vocabulary.  And not a few students were busily trying to finish their winter homework assignments.  I looked at them and decided that all of the things I had to say, pass out, or return to them could probably be done on a one-to-one basis.  I walked from table to table and gave the students the flyers and chatted a bit about some of the buildings Ando Tadao had designed and why it would be an interesting lecture to attend.  I laid standard test results upside down on the desk in front of students without interrupting their conversations (they new what they were and how to read them).  I handed each student a study abroad application and spent a bit of time with students who had expressed an interest in going to Australia in the second semester.  And 30 minutes later everything was passed out.  It took 10 more minutes than usually.  But when I stood up in front of the class  and made eye contact with a few students, saying, “I missed you,” to each one in turn, it got quiet pretty quickly.  And then I told the entire class, “I really missed you all,” and ended the homeroom.

Which got me thinking.  How often do I demand an entire classes’ attention?  Does everyone really have to be listening to me when I talk about what is going to happen next in class?  When I talk about the average score of a test?  When I introduce a group work assignment?  There are plenty of students in my school who can figure out an activity by themselves after a few seconds of watching without any directions from me at all.  And if those students can be using that time more effectively (and want to use it to do something else), what kind of message does it send when I demand they stop whatever their doing to do whatever it is I want them to do?  When we talk about a student-centered classroom, shouldn’t some control of how students use their time in the classroom be at the heart of that idea?  So here’s a few other ways teachers can allow students a bit more choice in how they use their classroom time:

Don’t give oral instructions for written work:  Give simple written instructions of how to do a written assignment and then walk around class and check in with students who seem to be having difficulty.  Students who read and understand the instructions can start the assignment when they are ready.  Or if they want, they can help explain it to students who are a little lost.

Don’t start with the class, start with a student:  teach what you want to teach to 1 or 2 or 3 students who are ready to learn.  Take a small white board to class, sit down next to the students and start teaching,  If another student shows interest, invite them over to join you.  Show the students that when you start teaching, it is actually worth listening.  If the students really believe this, they will be much more willing to stop what they are doing to listen to you.

Don’t collect homework:  I’m not a huge fan of homework on the very best of days.  But I do give it to students.  Often times I just want them to have a bit more practice working with the language we used in class.  If my main purpose is (forcing) providing students with practice time out of class, why would I collect and mark the homework?  And why would I stop the entire class and use everyone’s time to collect homework whose main purpose was to provide individual practice and review time?  Instead, let students know that if they want feedback on homework, they can turn it in to you and you’ll be happy to let them know their areas of strength or weakness.

Don’t assign classwide listening tasks: while listening, we often give students a task such as ‘write down every verb you hear,’  or ‘while listening circle the stressed/key words on the transcript.’   But this both ends up using time for instructions and assumes students need similar listening practice.  Instead, give students a weekly (or bi-weekly, or even monthly) task which is more suited to their individual needs.  So if you like to start of your lesson with a listening activity, everyone in the class is primed, ready to go, and knows why they are doing what they are doing. After the activity, what should you do with the stuff they have just written down on looseleaf paper or in their notebook?  See: don’t collect homework.

Don’t collect tests:  See don’t collect homework.

Don’t collect anything: see homework and tests (caveat: you need to explain the system of how you give feedback at the beginning of the year.  And you need to hope and pray that there are at least a few students are going to give you something so that when they get the most excellent feedback you have to give them, other students realise that it is a pretty groovy thing to voluntarily hand in assignments, tests, etc.)

Don’t wait for activities to end: If students are doing individual work and 1 student  seems to be finishing up, then grab her or him and start the next activity with that student, alone.  And when another student finishes, well the first student already knows how to do it, so just pair them up and let them go.

Don’t officially end your class:  If you follow most (or even some) of these ideas, there’s a very good chance that when class time is winding down there will be a lot of students doing a lot of different things.  What’s the point in stopping them all and making them look at you?  Really, what’s the point of officially ending class in general? Instead, with a minute left in class, just walk around to the students and let them know you are leaving the class to get ready for your next lesson.  And let the the students keep doing what they want to do.  Trust that they will leave the class in time for the next class of students to come on in.  And you know what, they might just keep learning right up to the very last second. I’ve even had pairs or small groups of students head off to a nearby cafe to continue their lesson sans teacher.

There’s this term, ‘classroom management.’  Whenever I hear it, I kind of get itchy all over. Why would I want to manage my classroom?  I think I’d rather spend my time creating an environment where students can, as much as possible, manage their own learning.   Luckily, as a teacher, how I spend my time during a lesson is mostly up to me. I wonder how classrooms might look if students, whenever possible, were provided with that same opportunity.

The Best (and yet still mostly useless) Lesson I’ve Taught This Year

After 14 years of teaching, in one form or another, the Physical Description Unit, I finally have found what might be the perfect set of 3 priming activities and a task-based consolidation lesson.  You know the Physical Description Unit, don’t you?  Sure you do.   It’s the unit one where you get to teach fun stuff like:

– low frequency body-part vocabulary such as ‘eyebrows’, ’cheekbones’, ‘forehead’, and ‘earlobes.’

– the use of ‘has’ vs. ‘be’ (“She is tiny, but she has really huge ears!”)

– adjective order (general descriptor, size, shape, and then colour as in, “She has gorgeous, long, wavy, brown nose hairs.”);

– review of negative structures for ‘be’ and ‘has’, especially useful for people who have no defining characteristics (“Well, he’s not tall, and he isn’t short and he doesn’t really have long arms or legs.  He is just kind of normal looking.”)

– cultural norms and their influence on how we describe people (As in, “She has really cute, big ears.”  Big ear-ness being a ‘cute’ thing in Japan.)

– vague ways to describe age (“He is over 50, I think.”)

This is THE unit for non-stop conversation if the students in your class all have friends or family members who lean more to the Steve Buscemi side of the memorable-people-spectrum.  It is not, however, the very best unit for Japanese students who sometimes tend to think that all other Japanese people look the same.  Still, I put together a series of exercises for the unit which seemed to do the job and the students, according to their feedback, were satisfied with it. So here it is:

Activity 1: make a slide show of famous people who are chosen more for their distinct features than their fame.  I recommend Simon Rattle, Meghan Trainor, Angelina Jolie, and Lyle Lovett to name just a few.  Give the students 30 second between slides to write a short physical description of each celebrity photo that flashes up on the screen.  Wander around and pick up a few sentences that students produce.  Write the sentences up on the board, but leave a blank in place of the target language you want students to focus on.  Have the students form pairs, fill in the missing words, and then generate some rules around the target language.  My students produced the following rules:

– Use ‘is’ when describing a person’s whole body.

– Use ‘have’ when describing a part of a person’s body or something connected to their body like hair.

– Use ‘look’ when using an adjective such as ‘friendly’ or ‘crazy’

– Use ‘looks like’ when comparing someone to something or someone else.

Activity 2: have students get into groups of 3 or 4.  Each student picks one photo from their cellphone.  They all lay their cellphones down in the centre of the table and together they chose one and only one of the photos to work with.  As a group they write a physical description of the person in the picture.  Then it’s quiz time.  They show the pictures on their cell phones to another group and then read the descriptions out loud.  The second group listens, discusses, and guesses which photo is being described.  If the students show a decent command of the language at this point, you could turn it into a fluency activity by structuring it as a 4/3/2 exercise in which students have to present their descriptions in successively shorter amounts of time.

Activity 3: This activity starts off as a homework assignment.  I instructed the students to ask one of their family members to be a model.  Students were told to take a decent amount of time to really look at the family member and write a detailed description of him or her.  To help ensure the students weren’t slacking off, I included a few completely arbitrary rules such as: when writing about a person’s hair, you must use 4 adjectives; when writing about a person’s mouth, you must use at least two adjectives; when writing about a person’s earlobes; you must use 316 adjectives and 11 adverbs .  Here is an example of a description one of my students produced:

example 1

Consolidating all those physical features in one lesson composed of 6 easy steps:

1. take all those fantastic descriptions of students’ family members that the students did as homework and tape them up all over the walls.  Label each one with a number.  It should look something like this:

example 2

2. Have all the students wander around the room and read the descriptions.  You can give them a task to make it all a bit more focused.  For example, I gave my students the following two tasks: 1) correct any errors you find in the written descriptions.  2)  try and guess who wrote each description.

3. Students each pick one description which they like.  They then have to draw a picture based on that description.  I set it up in the same style as a running dictation.  The students can read the description as many times as they want, but they have to return to their own desks to draw the picture.  This ensures that students have to hold the language within their working memory which can help facilitate retention (Craik and Tulving, 1975) .  And in addition, they are transforming the language into images, which John Fanselow believes helps, “our brains make more connections than if the mediums remain the same.”

4. Now hang up the pictures on the white board and label them all with a letter.  It will look something like this (quality of artwork will vary):

example 3

5. Have students form small groups and discuss which picture goes with which description and why.  My students were producing excellent sentences such as, “I think picture I is #4, because she has beautiful, long, straight, black hair and she looks like a TV announcer.”  They should write the numbers directly on the picture.  It will look something like this:

example 4

6. Then comes the big reveal.  Hold up the picture and ask who drew it.  Once the student has proudly shouted out sheepishly raised their hand, ask them what number description their picture is based on.  Give both the picture and the description to the person who originally wrote the description.  So now you have a student holding a description of someone in their family, mostly likely their mother, and a picture based on that description.  This alone is often enough to cause a few giggle-explosions.  Ask the student who wrote the description to look at the picture and tell the class some of differences between the picture and their actual family member.  This ends up producing such sentences as “My mother doesn’t have long legs.  And my mother doesn’t have giant hands”

I wrapped up the lesson by asking my students to take the pictures and descriptions home and show them to their family members.  It hadn’t been part of my lesson plan, but as you might have noticed from the above descriptions, the students wrote extremely positive and warm descriptions and I thought it might be a nice gift to the family members.  I also really wanted the students to share the pictures as well.  I thought they would generate a lot of conversation.  And it turns out they did.  One student, M-Chan, told me her mother cried when she read her description.  And K-Kun said his family couldn’t stop laughing when he showed them the picture of his younger brother.  They finally decided to hang it up on the refrigerator door.

So there you have it, the very best series of activities for physical descriptions I’ve ever run in my class.  There’s only one problem. This weekend, I was hanging out with some friends at a professional basketball game in Nara, Japan (yeah, I didn’t realise that professional basketaball was a thing in the Japanese countryside either, but it is)photo-11 and one of my friends said, “So, does your brother look like you?”  And here was my chance to use all that language I had just taught my students.  But you know what I actually did (and I bet you do know.  In fact, I bet you might even be touching your cellphone as you are reading this, thinking, ‘God, Kevin is so slow, I’ve been thinking about cellphones since the second paragraph’)?  I took out my cell-phone and looked for a picture.  But there wasn’t one!  So, do you think I actually used that language I taught my students?  Of course not (and I bet here you might be thinking about opening an SNS app just to see how easy it is to find a picture of your brother, or sister, or mother).  I just looked at my brother’s FaceBook account and flashed everyone his picture.  And everyone agreed, by the way, that my brother did look like me, only he’s much more handsome (true that).

So what am I left with here?  I guess you could argue that, in the odd case my students witness–or worse are the victims of–a crime, they might need this language of physical descriptions.  But even if that happened, I think they would be a little too flustered to rely on the English they learned in this lesson and would be using an electronic dictionary or, perhaps more likely, their cell phone translator apps as they talked to the police.   I guess you could also break down the unit into smaller components and find some useful language points in there.  Knowing specific body part vocabulary might come in handy in the case of an injury; and ‘has’ versus ‘be’ as a comparison of an overall state versus a specific characteristic such as, “The house is big and has wonderful views of the mountains,” might be useful in other contexts.  But the fact is, I wasn’t focused on ‘other contexts’.  I was focused on teaching students how to make physical descriptions.  I’ve been teaching this material for 14 years.  During those 14 years, I haven’t stood still.  I’ve changed it up, tried out new activities, even revisited the underlying assumptions I have about how language acquisition works.  But in the end, I’m left wondering if I only really taught physical descriptions again this year because I’ve taught it for the past 13 years.  It’s especially ironic and disheartening that this lesson utilised so much tech (power point, the internet, cellphone pictures) and yet I somehow failed to recognise how those same changes in technology had mostly done away with the reason for teaching the lesson in the first place.

So here, in this blog post, I have shared with you the very best lesson plan that I will never use again. But before I end this overly long post, I’d like to share 3 questions that have been haunting me lately.  How much of what I teach is truly necessary language? If what I teach is not justifiable based on usage, but I teach it well, and it helps students generate and develop their own language system, does that make the lesson viable?  And perhaps the question that bothers me the most, how can I be sure that with these eyes clouded with experience, I’m able to clearly see the language needs of my students in the here and now?

You can’t grow without it

The kanji for yoyuu.

There is a word I simply adore in Japanese, ‘Yoyuu.’  It’s kind of a fuzzy, all purpose word which means time, mental capacity, margin, monetary ability, elbow room, and the list goes on and on. If I want to buy a cool new bicycle with a banana seat, but I’m already over my monthly budget, I might say, “God, I want that bike, but I have no yoyuu.” Or, after a long stretch of working overtime, I might say, “I finally have enough yoyuu to spend some quality time with my family this weekend.” It’s a word I use regularly in Japanese. It’s also a word that I grope for in English lately when I talk about teaching.

Starting this year, I’m a home room teacher. On paper, things don’t look quite that different from what I was doing last year. I have 22 scheduled teaching hours a week. I’m in charge of the standardised testing classes, the lower-intermediate communication skills classes, and I manage the extensive reading program. The only real difference is that every morning, when I stand in front of 28 first and second-year high school students, the ultimate responsibility (at least in the eyes of the Japanese education system) for whether they stay in school rests on me. Sometimes the students are a bunch of wilting flowers. Sometimes I’m sure that Walter White has dropped a little something in their morning cup of tea. I take attendance, make the daily announcements, and then I have ten minutes left to do any old thing I want. But mostly, what I want is to find a way to flip a switch and help my students get to a place where the rest of the day is going to be about learning. Over the past few months we’ve:

  • used the internet site to explore how different countries perceive and report on various news stories.  For example, last week we spent two morning homerooms discussing how the U.S. and Australia’s take on the new U.S. CO2 emission regulations differ (U.S.: Largest attempt to combat warming in Amercan history; Australia: Europe demands U.S. do More).
  • watched the video for Michael Jackson’s new song and compared how it is similar to Off the Wall and some of the reasons for those similarities.
  • discussed the fact that Japan had its steepest population decline of the modern era, and brainstormed the reasons why people aren’t having children (students opinions included: it’s a pain in the ass, adults don’t have any money, there’s no ’yoyuu’.)

Because it’s a mixed homeroom of all the 1st and 2nd year students in the school, the students’ English levels are vastly different, their basic study skills are…yada yada yada. There’s a lot of reasons for why these short morning lessons are challenging. But I find a way to make them primarily in English and (I hope) mostly understandable. Sometimes I pass out a copy of a Japanese article I’ve taken from my daughter’s Japanese children’s newspaper. These print papers target elementary school students, use only the most crucial vocabulary, are written in clear sentences, and are short. A student who has quickly read through one of these articles is very much primed to listen to a short talk on the topic in English.  To make everything a bit more comprehensible, I’ll often list up key vocabulary/chunks of language on the board with the Japanese equivalents, have the students form a stronger/weaker pair, and hope that the chemistry between the students is just right so what I’m talking about gets students talking to each other.

I guess I’m trying to say there’s a lot of stuff I’m doing in my classroom. Sometimes it works. Sometimes, not at all. But the thing is, even when it does work, the fact that I taught my class and it went well is one of the smallest parts of my day. Now I finish that morning homeroom class and make notes of who didn’t make it to school today. Who didn’t bother to take out their notebook. Who seemed to be angry with whom. At the end of the day I call parents, I plan how to rearrange the seating chart, I talk to the other teachers about students who had a better or worse day. And I hope and wonder and pray that these students will spend the next year moving forward more often than they move back.

There’s a lot of about this whole teaching thing that I still don’t really understand. And maybe I never will. But right up until this August, there was one thing I was pretty sure about. Being a better teacher meant taking time to reflect on my classes, plug into my social and professional network of educators, and make sure I was finding a way to see the prism of my classroom from as many angles as possible. I was in fact, so positive that this was essential to developing as a teacher that I wrote articles and blog posts about it. I encouraged and cajoled and perhaps to some people, even crossed the line into that depressingly colourless world of proselytisation. I don’t exactly regret doing any of those things. It’s just that, now, I realise the only reason I could do those things, from classroom reflection to being a Twitter-pusher, was because I had ’Yoyuu.’

I still talk to my co-workers about what’s going down in my classroom…sometimes. I still read blogs…on occasion. But when it comes to what makes my classes better (whatever that means), I’ve found that a teacher pulling up a chair and helping to correct the weekly vocabulary tests, or a spontaneous offer to cover my weekly study-hall, or even a cup of steaming coffee unexpectedly waiting for me on my desk all seem to impact my classes more directly than what I used to believe was the one and only way to develop as a teacher.

It’s a humbling experience, this struggling to teach without any ’yoyuu’. I wonder if I didn’t come off as a kind of jerk over the past few years, thinking that I had found the magic key to professional development. If I was a little (or maybe a lot) condescending at times, I’m truly sorry about that. I’ve kind of got it now. The next time I’m talking to a struggling teacher, I’ll put my ideas of what they need aside. I’ll maybe cover a class for them, help them grade some homework, or just brew up a fresh pot of coffee. Because while RP, PD, and all the other things that I used to think meant being a serious teacher are important, none of it’s going to matter until you can find just a little bit of space—to catch your breath, get a chance to look around, and maybe, if your lucky, begin to set down some roots.

Addendum: over the past few months I realised that there are many superstars in my PLN who really are all about making ’yoyuu’ for other teachers. I just wanted to say thanks for the great example. I’m a little embarrassed I never noticed just what you were up to before.  But I’m watching now.  And recently, I’ve even found a bit of time to take down a note or two.

Yoyuu is the space where we remember to look up at the moon, framed between tree branches
Don’t worry, I have enough yoyuu to take pictures of the moon.

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 


The JALT Extensive Reading Special Interest Group



Today, March 4, 2014

It suddenly got cold again here in Osaka.  I woke up this morning to find a thin skim of ice on the basin into which our rainwater collects and the sunlight reflecting off the ground frosted white.  I was happy to grab an empty seat so I could sit down on the warm train ride into town.  I was reading over a research article by Nick Ellis on working memory and its influence on language acquisition.  I was trying hard to keep track of the running dialogue I have with an article when deciding how any particular piece SLA research is transferable—or not as the case may be—to my classroom practices, when the doors opened and a young man with stubble on his chin and the hint of a mustache shuffled over to the seat besides mine.  He sat down heavily and thunked his backpack down on the ground in front of him.  I looked at him and slid the Ellis article into my bag. 

     I turned to the man.  He had bags under his eyes.  “Michi?” I said.

     He looked at me.  He smiled.  “Kevin?”

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Today was my school’s graduation ceremony. I was kind of surprised to find eight of my old students waiting for me outside of the ceremony hall after the graduation ended. They handed me a bouquet of flowers. I was a little confused and asked why they were giving me flowers. “Because you’re graduating, too,” Junchan and Nanae said.

I realized they were right. Next year I am moving to my new campus modeled after an AmericanSchool. The International Program I helped coordinate, the one they graduated from, was officially ending. Today. This very evening.

I was a little chocked up. So I tried to change the topic. “So who did you come to see graduate,” I asked. I figured they had come to see one of their friends receive their diploma. “For you. We came to say congratulations to you.” They said it at the same time. Some in English. Some in Japanese.

So I gave up and cried. And said thank you. And, like I did at the end of so many classes I looked them in the eyes and said, “I love you.” And today all that love came back to me. Today, too, I feel blessed to be a teacher.

Today, March 4, 2014

I noticed that around Michi’s eyes, there were flecks of sleep.  His hair, just as it was when he was my student, was a mass of wild tangles. 

              “What are you doing now?  Where are you working?” I had heard he had a job on a farm.  I held my breath.

              “I work over at the dollar store part-time.  And I work in the vegetable fields.”  He pointed vaguely towards the window.  The city rolled by and I felt a little disoriented.  Where amidst the tumble of streets and eruption of office towers in Osaka did Michi go to pick vegetables? 

              “Do you enjoy it?” I asked.  He froze in that way he used to in class when he didn’t understand.  “Do you like working in the vegetable fields?” I asked.

              “Oh, yeah.  It’s good,” he said.  He looked down at his bookbag.  All of the zippers were closed.  There were no stray pieces of rumpled paper poking out.  His shoes were laced up and knotted.  In the two years since he had graduated he had grown.  He seemed like he could take care of himself.

              “Do you have any work in the fields in this season?”

              “No.  Not now.  Now the plants are just starting to grow.  So I work at the dollar store.”

              And then my stop came.  “I was so happy to see you,” I said. 

              “Yep.”  He nodded.  And then I got off the train.


When Michi walked into my International Course classroom for the first time, he was functionally illiterate in Japanese and English.  He couldn’t read or write Chinese characters, and couldn’t get beyond A-B-C in English.  He took part in our first ER classes and read books about Floppy sounding out one letter at a time.  By the time he graduated, he could hold a simple conversation.  He could write a sentence.  But he never did figure out how to put his class notes into a folder.  And he never managed to get above 30% on the standard academic ability tests he had to take twice a year.  At that time, I had just started in my new job.  I had all kinds of ideas of what my students needed to know.  I had all sorts of lines in the sand by which I measured success and judged my students.  I was not always kind to Michi.  I was not always kind to myself.

I sometimes wonder if there is any job quite as bittersweet as that of being a teacher.  Do people working in other professions see the ghosts of their past all around them?  Is every success matched with the ache of “I could have done more?”

My friend Josette LeBlanc recently wrote, “Teaching can be a lonely profession. Often, we don’t have anyone to turn to who understands the challenges we face. Self-care may be the only strategy we can turn to when the job gets too hard.”  She ends her blog post this way: “I want to propose an idea to all teachers: be kind to yourself no matter what happens. No matter what.”  Her words come at a good time.  In three weeks I start my new semester in a new campus and I’m tired of seeing my students as a yardstick by which to measure my success.  I’m tired of hearing only part of what they say to me because I’m always also half listening to the whispers of what I said yesterday or last week or last year.  So I’m going to give it a try, this being kind to myself.  Maybe if I find a way to quiet the voice of self-judgment, even for just a moment, both the ghosts of the past and the bouquets of the present will take on a new hue, will stand out with a new kind of clarity.  Maybe, with practice, they will both reflect the joy of now the same way even the March frost reflects the morning sun.

Don’t know a word…get ridda it!


Special thanks to John Fanselow for the basis of this idea.  The text from the photo and idea itself was lifted from his, as of yet unpublished, booklet "Is it a bird? Is it a plane? It's superman!"

Special thanks to John Fanselow for the basis of this idea. The text from the photo and idea itself was lifted from his, as of yet unpublished, booklet “Is it a bird? Is it a plane? It’s superman!”

This is a simple trick to help students get over their fear of unknown words.  When reading a text, have the students copy all the words they don’t know into their notebooks in random order.  Then have them go back to the original text and using a black marker, have them redactate (completely black out) all of those words they didn’t know.  If the students are working on guessing the meaning of a word from context, this will help them focus their attention on the words and phrases the do know as opposed to worrying over that one word they don’t know.  I also find that even in a longer text of 200 words or so, when students see that there are only 5 or 6 blotted out words in total, they realize that they do know and understand a vast majority of what they have read.  This sometimes allows students to try and guess the meaning not only from the context at the sentence level, but at the paragraph level, and occasionally at the level of the whole text.   As an added bonus, students can then go home and try and, using the their notebooks, replace the redacted words, a kind of student created mini cloze-test.   

(And thanks also to Sandy Millin for her fantastic Twitter feed for the inspiration to post this very short blog post.)