Has EFL Become ESL?


Years ago as a new teacher in Japan I learned very quickly to avoid materials that were not made specifically for Japan, very much a place where English is taught as a foreign language (EFL),  a context very far removed from the English-speaking world.  After a few painful slogs, I realized that, in particular, ESL (English as a Second Language) materials, or materials made to teach immigrants to England or Canada or the US, just wouldn’t fly in  classrooms in Tokyo. They assumed too much background knowledge. They contained too much content. They were long. They assumed that students would be much more active–in learning, in giving opinions, in communicating. What worked instead was easy-to-memorize dialogs, short, focused worksheet exercises, and zippy little info gap speaking activities. In a system with low expectations for communicative success and  limited opportunities for English use outside the classroom I guess we can say that it worked OK. At the time and for the most part, Japanese students  didn’t especially learn English to communicate with people from other countries and cultures; they learned English to pass exams and to appear more international/educated/cultured to other Japanese.

A lot can change, however, when  millions of people begin to travel overseas every year, record numbers of foreigners begin to visit, and just about everyone gets connected to the Internet. Indeed, the whole world changed. It has become, as this Economist article in 2009 suggested, much more difficult to find parts of the world that are not affected by the global movement of people and ideas. Japan included.


So what does this mean for English teaching in Japan? A lot, though you’d be hard-pressed to find changes in most jr. and sr. high school language classrooms in public education. A few teachers are making use of a few online resources, occasionally showing bits of Youtube videos for example, but most are oblivious to the fact that each student has in their pocket all the tools they need to learn English when they want to. The culture of learning is moving glacially, luckily for these teachers. Textbooks are still reassuringly analog, and teachers can still get away with explaining the content like mathematical formulas removed from wider communicative application. English is still being treated as a culturally distant “other,” needed in a certain way (mostly) for entrance exams, and otherwise put off indefinitely. And despite adding a few TOEIC courses, English conversation schools are still somehow managing to continue with a business model that basically sells access to native speakers, the same as they did in 1986.

But things are changing, make no mistake. Businesses are increasingly feeling the need to procure/cajole staff enough to double the number of people who can really function in English (from the 2012 level of 4.3% to 8.7% by 2017, on average) according to Diamond Weekly. And the larger the company, the higher the percentage. Companies with staff numbering over 2000 are generally aiming for having close to 20% of their workforce at a functional level (TOEIC scores over 730 at least). This is blowing back to public education, where there is increasing pressure to start teaching English earlier, and to start aiming kids at big proficiency tests earlier. In a Japan Times piece the other day, Osaka’s English Reformation Project is described. They are planning to put more emphasis on English, and more emphasis on the TOEFL test, believing that there is a global standard that needs to be accepted, and that Japan can no longer be an island that uses English in its own way for its own limited purposes.

Of course,  real change will only come when certain present mindsets change:  English must be learned in a formal institution; it must be learned from native speakers; you need to gain a certain proficiency level before you can begin using it for real communication; you prepare for entrance exams by cramming discrete vocab and grammar points; etc. Already we can see cracks. As the world continues to shrink, these cracks are likely to grow. Right now, if you can Skype and aren’t bothered by the accent of your conversation partner/teacher, you can begin practicing/learning English with a real live person for as little at 125 yen for 25 minutes. Similar services are sprouting up and there are more than a dozen companies ready to help you learn this way (not that you need a company, BTW), mostly making use of the large number of English speakers in the Philippines. The conversation school mentioned above doesn’t even have the Philippines on their map! But this, too, will change. The interactive multimedia do-it-yourself approach (as opposed to the go-to-the-bookstore-and-buy-a-book-written-mostly-in-Japanese approach, or the join-an established-conversation-school approach) has been slow in developing in Japan. But it is growing. It’s too pedagogically effective and cost effective to keep ignoring. Take a look at how some polyglots are making effective use of free web-based resources to learn any language they want. 


So where is this post going? Well, the point I really wanted to make is that the the shrinking world is also driving a new way of conceptualizing  English as a foreign language (EFL). With English on video, English on the radio, English podcasts, English groups and clubs, MOOCs, easy access to English books, and apps or websites available for any  language  learning  detail  you  can  imagine, does it make sense to assume that our students are really far removed from English-speaking opportunities and cultures? It may make sense to talk about English as foreign language as a starting point, but pedagogy should shift to recognize that English is no longer so, well, foreign. I have begun to think that all English teaching can now be thought of more the way that learning English inside English-speaking countries (ESL) has traditionally been defined. That is, what you learn in class, you can usually try out quite easily outside of class, if you have a mind to. Out of class time in EFL contexts can now be equally considered potential language use/exposure time.


I think this is one reason for the recent popularity of content and language integrated learning (CLIL, or content-based learning) in Europe and other places. This approach recognizes that English exists as a system of content and interaction that learners can plug into and work with. The idea is to create an immersive language learning environment in the classroom, wherever that classroom may be. This involves a rethinking of teaching and learning focus and goals, and more training for learning skills (such as discussion skills, presentation skills, and writing skills). If you are interested in further exploring CLIL or how to use rich tasks to facilitate better learning, I have two books to recommend. The first, on CLIL provides a good overview and rationale for this approach, while Pauline Gibbons’ book gets into the details of how to operationalize that in the ESL classroom, but as an EFL teacher, I found most of it attractive and applicable to the context in which I teach, a reaction I would not have had circa 1994. Click on the images for more information. The real question of what skills/language are most appropriate for the Japanese context is still being worked out, though. Test and test-prep schools have become so established that they cannot be ignored in any new approach. Certainly at the moment they are having a negative impact on learning English, at least for the purpose of enjoyment of communication and development of productive skills. A CLIL approach seems a interesting option, but it will require mindset changes, digital learning literacy; and cram schools and many entrance exams will have to redifine themselves.






LET Kyushu-Okinawa Presentation

On June 9th I was lucky enough to be able to go down to Miyazaki for the 42nd Kyushu-Okinawa Chapter LET Conference held at Miyazaki Municipal University. I had a great time there at the small but interesting conference, meeting up with some old friends and colleagues, and meeting some interesting people.

My presentation was titled Crossing Cultures and Aiding Learning: 105 Years of Treasure Hunting. The whole presentation was recorded for Ustream and is available here. The (abridged) slides are available here. And links for all the tools and websites mentioned in the presentation can be found here.

Many thanks to the organizers of the conference for the interesting content and their kind hospitality.

Dub Your Own Movies

Creative dubbing has been around for decades. Woody Allen did it in What’s Up Tiger Lily? in 1966. And there are thousands of great examples on  the web, including this one that let it’s author vent his criticism of Apple’s new ipad.

There are also some sites that make it easy for users to play with short movie clips, adding their own subtitles, music and limited effects. These could be great fun for EFL classes, allowing learners to get creative and play with the English they know.


ClassikTV with some old European movie clips.


And BombayTV1 and BombayTV2 with Indian movies.

Phonics Resources

Recently I have been working with English for younger learners. And for the sake of organization, I am posting some of the phonics sites that I have come across.

Scholastic provides this site based on Clifford with an audio activity for sound recognition. 

GenkiEnglish provides this one to help learn letter sounds.

Fonetiks.org provides this site with an interactive chart to help with spelling and sounds.

Some really easy phonics stories can be found here or  at Starfall.

October Treasure Hunt: Learning with Images

This month the topic is learning with pictures and I’d like to introduce some sites that help students to learn vocabulary by making use of the power of images. The first two sites chosen for this column are most appropriate for younger learners or learners of lower proficiency while the last two could be used effectively with any learners.

First up is Learning Chocolate. This site features more than 65 topics, and each topic introduces about 10 vocabulary items. Nice use is made of images and sound and learners are asked to complete several steps, each with a slightly different focus: a very nice visual learning tool.

The Online Picture Dictionary. Here you can make your own flashcard collections or spelling or word quizzes. The vocabulary is limited but teachers of younger learners might find this a nice source of images and simple activities.

Merriam-Webster’s Visual Dictionary Online is a great visual dictionary. It’s very comprehensive and you can use it with learners of all ages. There are options for each topic so you can get more specific if you want to, and audio pronunciations are also available. You can even use the graphics you find here for your blog if you cite the source.

And lastly, I have introduced Quizlet in this column before a few times, but many quizzes are now available on Quizlet with pictures. Here’s an example.

Free Online Games for Meaningful Language Practice

There are many massive multi-player online games available. I’ve introduced some in the past and I think they represent a very interesting language use/learning option for many learners in Japan. They are usually not cheap, however, often in the range of 1500 yen per month. Recently though, several games have drastically lowered their fees or even made the games free to use. Here is a list of some games that might be good (and cheap) for language learners:

For Older Learners
EverQuest II Extended
Pirates of the Caribbean

For Younger Learners
Free Realms
Wizard 101

Movie Scene Database: MovieClips.com


I love to use movies in my classes and I have often dreamed of a database of movie scenes that I could search to find language examples when I need some. Well, it’s not perfect, but MovieClips.com is pretty close to what I want. You can search more than 12,000 short scenes. I had good luck with searches for “apologies” and “compliments.” Many of the movies are unavailable outside of North America, unfortunately, and some movies require you to sign in because of age-restricted content, but I found it worked fairly smoothly. And you can create mashups (i.e., edit content together) with the scenes you choose.

Aug. 3 LET 50 Presentation


The venue for my presentation had neither a computer nor an Internet connection. But it actually fit nicely with the theme of the presentation, making use of the Internet even when your classes are not connected. Below is a link for the presentation I would have shown if the classroom had been connected. It also contains all things I introduced to the participants.

Web Games with a Little Twist: Academic Skill Builders

I have often introduced games in this space before. But recently I found a site that has two types of educational games. One type is single-player games, the sort of Flash or Shockwave games that are very common on the web. The other type is multi-player games that any learner visiting the site can access. With these games, learners can play competitively with 2 or 3 other players. The games that would be of interest to language learners are mostly spelling and easy grammar games found on the Language Arts page. There are also games for other subjects.


Collaboration Tool: Board800


There are many drawing tools. Most computers come with one drawing tool pre-installed and there are free tools available on the web (Open Office’s Draw is very good, for example). But Board800 is a little different. For anyone who would like to have a web-based drawing tool that can be used simultaneously by multiple users, it’s a nice application. You don’t need to download anything and you don’t even need to register or log in. Though it’s not a powerful drawing tool, Board800 can be a nice tool for online collaboration and I could imagine many uses for it in CALL rooms with learners in virtual groups.