Untitled (or Ringing Like Bells)

This blog posting is partially untitled for a reason, that reason being that when I went looking for a translation for the term above (shingakkou) I couldn’t find a good one. There is a  Wikipedia entry in Japanese, but no counterparts in other languages. I would like to describe this type of school and complain and contrast a little. I visited one such school last week, an extremely high level shingakkou, the kind that many parents and many cram schools spend an awful amount of time and money trying to get kids into. I observed an English lesson. And let me state plainly that I was impressed. But I was impressed in the same way that a you might be impressed by a particularly gory and disturbing news  image if you make the mistake of clicking on it while browsing. But I’m getting ahead of myself. First let me try to explain what a shingakkou is. I’ll start by providing  a translation for the definition for the one in Japanese on the Wikipedia  page: They are a category of school that places high priority on matriculating graduates into higher level universities (or high schools, or junior highs). By higher, I mean academically more widely accepted as being higher in level than other similar types of schools. The focus is always on that next level of school and the narrow, insidious exams that function as gatekeepers. The students obsess over exams, and so do their teachers, and their juku cram school teachers, and their parents, and the the administrations of the schools. Everyone is obsessing over tests and how to best prepare these young people to succeed on these tests.

Many of the learners in the class I observed were not paying attention. Some were studying independently from other lists of grammar and vocabulary explanations. Some had crashed on their desks, no doubt tired from having been studying lists of grammar and vocabulary explanations until the wee hours of the morning. Most would raise their heads and point their attention occasionally during the lesson to be sure to get the complete list of vocabulary and grammar from that lesson that might appear on the next test, but not necessarily to listen to the teacher or align their motives with hers. You see, they have been trained for how to deal with language that appears on tests with constant streams of grammar and vocabulary explanations, either by university prep cram schools and/or past English classes whose strongest purpose was to get them ready to take and pass tests. They know what they need to “get” for those tests and they can do so very efficiently. That is not to say that they are good at English. Using English is not a priority for them; in fact it is a distraction that they are not particularly interested in (as the teachers at such schools explain).  And neither they nor their parents seem at all interested in rebelling. They just do what they need to do to pass those tests. They are winning this game and they want to keep their eye on the ball. I was there to observe the teacher’s lesson, so we could offer some advice–some tweaks for improvement in delivery or choice of activity or whatever. But what I saw was shocking, and I am not referring to the teacher necessarily. The teacher is just one part of this system, and from talking to many such teachers, I know that they feel haggard and powerless.

I do not claim to have a ready answer to this dilemma, but I would like to point out that it is indeed a big problem–education is being substituted with (and sacrificed for) test preparation. The very kids who could be exchanging opinions with students in other countries, who could be fine-tuning presentation skills in English, mastering digital integration of technology and language, grappling with global issues and identities, and questioning and growing and enjoying the experience, are not. They’re doing worksheets and practice exam questions. Lots of  them. And not much else. Even the content of the textbooks is not thought about or felt–there is no time for anything but those essential grammar and vocabulary explanations, and then it’s on  to the next few paragraphs.

Please don’t make the mistake of thinking this writer is some misinformed idealist who simply doesn’t understand the system. I was in the classroom with 38 bright students, one  teacher, one observing head teacher, and another teacher trainer and I am confident in saying that no one was enjoying the experience. Pedagogically, I can also tell you that the lesson could have been much much more effective. But the problem runs much deeper than a  little pedagogical approach shift can address. In fact, I would call it more than a problem. I would call it a crisis, and a tragedy of waste.

Please give me a few more minutes of your time. Specifically, please give up 20 minutes to listen to Ken Robinson speaking at TED. Just click on the image below, or on this link. I’m not saying that Mr Robinson has the answer either. I think he is  doing a good job of defining a problem with education in the US and UK and probably other places right now. But of course  seeing a problem and doing something about it are different. I have listened to several of his speeches now (including this nice one that is also very worth some of your time) and I am always struck by how I agree with so much of what he has to say, and yet I never like the last few minutes of his talks. They are always disappointing. But let’s not quibble yet. Listen to the talk with an open mind and see if it doesn’t resonate.

There, doesn’t he make sense? Life and education are not linear. Providing opportunities to collaborate creatively and use imagination, opportunities to explore the relationship between feeling and language and meaning, this is what the schools should be doing for learners. Yes, I know the learners need language, they need to see examples, receive instruction, get feedback and correction. But they also need to learn to produce in English, to do so collaboratively and autonomously. And that needs to be built into the system. But fat chance of that. Junior highs want to get these kids into better high schools and high schools want to get them into better universities. And so do their parents. They don’t mind kicking English learning down the road for a few years if it means getting their kid in a high level school. They know the game, too. So that’s why the system doesn’t change–there is no pressure on it to change. Everyone is unhappy, but the stakes are too high. The high schools are now competing with cram schools to see who can do test prep better. That is seriously messed up.

On the weekend I went to see a youth production of Guys and Dolls (Jr). In one song, the straight-laced mission girl finds herself in love (and slightly drunk) and liberated and she sings a fun little jazzy song, If I Were a Bell. The lyrics of the song took on a very different meaning from in the musical when I heard it, however. Instead, I thought about education. As I watched these high school and jr high school kids having the time of their lives putting on a theater production, I thought about the passion, the fun, the purpose, and the camaraderie–all so very missing from the class I had observed 48 hours before. I thought of how brilliant and wonderful they were and how they themselves were responsible for that. And I wished also for those poor students at the shingakkou to be given more a taste of what it is to collaborate and present something that uses language to communicate and delight; to be liberated, not through spiked dolce y leche (the scene before explains…) or the love of Marlon Brando, but through production and communication and purpose. Instead of the slog I witnessed, I would love to have seen them lighting like lamps, waving like banners, or ringing like bells as the kids in the theater production so joyfully were doing.

Ask me how do I feel
Ask me now that we’re cosy and clinging
Well sir, all I can say, is if I were a bell I’d be ringing!

From the moment we kissed tonight
That’s the way I’ve just gotta behave
Boy, if I were a lamp I’d light
And If I were a banner I’d wave!

Ask me how do I feel, little me with my quiet upbringing
Well sir, all I can say is if gate I’d be swinging!
And if I were a watch I’d start popping my springs!
Or if I were a bell I’d go ding dong, ding dong ding!

It’s a nice thought, but I wouldn’t bet on shingakkou learners being given the chance to do anything productive and meaningful in the near future. The system is so totally conspiring against it…

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.

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.


Personality Assessment

Every textbook series seems to have a unit on personality. It’s one of those “high interest” topics that textbooks often manage to turn into a slog. But it doesn’t have to be that way. The web is full of sites that playfully help users think about their own personalities and compare them to people, things, or characters. On Facebook, you can take tests that ask what type of beer you are, what decade best fits your personality, etc., etc., etc. But you don’t have to get onto Facebook. Recently there are many sites on the web that analyze your personality and compare you to something or someone. They can be a lot of fun and a nice introduction to some of the ways people talk about personality or their characters, and like and dislikes. They work on the assumption that everyone is familiar with what they are being compared with. Below is a list of different sites that you may want to use with your learners, organized by what your personality is compared with. They are taken from Kyle Mawer and Graham Stanley’s Digital Play blog, a blog that focuses on using web games and game-like sites for language learning .

Which Star Wars character are you like?

Which High School Musical character are you like?

Which Twilight character are you like?

Which superhero are you like?

Which Harry Potter character are you like?

QR Codes


The thing above is a QR (Quick Response) code. QR codes can contain various information including text, links, phone numbers, and even some images. They are primarily aimed at cell phone users recently and are becoming increasingly common in advertising. At the recent Wireless Ready conference, one presentation discussed the way in which QR codes can be used in classes. You see, these codes are easily generated with one of the many online generating services (just google QR cod generator). And once you have the code squares, you can print them out or paste them into a blog or website. You can use the codes to have learners put short texts (up to about 140 characters) into their cell phones. These messages can be saved and learners can take them with them. The presenter at Wireless Ready was doing interactive treasure hunts with groups of his learners. Of course, you could also give some important vocabulary or usage information. The best part is it involves no downloading for either the creator or the user, and no internet access fees.

Website (Writing & Reading): Chatroll

Chatroll is a chat-discussion tool that recently opened. Learners can join or start discussions on any topic.

As I mentioned in my last post, increasing the amount of time learners engage in English is essential for success. Of equal, or I should say related importance, is the need to provide activities where learners can participate in communities of use–places where they can construct identities of themselves as English users. Hanna & de Nooy (2003) asked students learning French to participate in online debate forums at the Le Monde newspaper website. Their students met with mixed success. The ones who wrote simplistic messages asking for help learning French were ignored or met with sarcastic comments. Others who tried hard to actively participate and express their ideas, met with better success. The focus for everyone–the native French users in the forum and the learners–had to remain on the content of the discussion. Hanna and de Nooy say “…the critically important message for this study, framed in the vernacular, is that if you want to communicate with real people, you need to self-present as a real person yourself. From an instructional perspective, encouraging (or requiring) students to participate in noneducationally oriented online communities would involve teaching students how to recognize genres, and subsequently, how to engage in discussion that does not ultimately revolve around the self…as the exotic little foreigner/the other” (pg. 73). That means that using the language and participating as an individual is essential to identity formation and language development.

Which brings us to the big problem of where. Forums for language learners are often too simplistic (“Hi, my name is Hanako and I like music. Do you like music?”) or learners may have been forced to participate and are not likely to participate further (“I’m Ali. I lke pretty girl….aaaaammmmmmmaaaaaaaaaaa!!!!!!!!!!”). Large forums for native speakers (or near-natives) may be out of reach for many or most of our learners, as the Le Monde exercise showed. The answer might be smaller forums on much more specific topics that learners already have expertise in. Lam (2000, 2004) followed the development of a learner who found his voice and his entrance-way into linguistic competence (of a sort, anyway) by participation in blogs related to a Japanese pop singer. On the negative side, the dangers of this type of learning don’t go away so easily. These sites can also just as easily host predators as active learners. Students need a little heads-up training in online community self defense.

A new site and promising site for this kind of participation is Chatroll, where people find chat partners by topic. The name is made from combining chat with blogroll. There are already lots of topics here, but users are free to create their own topics. This latter function is what makes the site really useful, I believe. Learners can more easily get to linguistic competence and an identity as an English user if it develops through their topic identity. But they need to be able to find or create a group that specifically matches that topic. By being part of a group of similarly-interested individuals, the chances of meaningful interaction are greatly increased. The only problem at this point is that there aren’t that many people in the Chatroll system yet. Hopefully that will change. There may be some topics here that instructors are uncomfortable with ( the flirting group comes to mind immediately, and there is probably some more dicey or racy content). I plan to get my students to report on what they do in their blogs so I can monitor as best I can how they participate.

Website (Reading): Virtual Puzzle Games

Two games to introduce here that are accessible to English learners in Japan. The first is Phantasy Quest. It is simple but engaging with limited vocabulary. You play a shipwrecked sailor trying to find his way around an unfamiliar island with suspicious inhabitants and find the woman who was on the ship with him before the shipwreck. The next is Job Pico, a challenging problem/mystery-solving puzzle in which you try to escape from a room. The situation is that it is a kind of job interview task that you need to perform to show that you have the smarts needed for the job. It’s a nice interface (playable in both Japanese or English for people who might get stuck and want to remove the language barrier for a while). The game has great 3-D walk-through graphics and could be used for some reading practice or, even better, for a type of do and report orally assignment.

Website (Vocabulary): Learnit Lists and Quizlet

Some of language learning requires rote memorization, and rote memorization can be facilitated by technology, which can help in the organizing and delivery of content. It can also play an important role in feedback. Of course, a learner with flashcards or a classroom activity can often accomplish this as well, but computers can do it all faster and more efficiently. These days, however,  it sometimes seems that it is not fashionable to talk about rote learning in EFL because of the bad name the audio lingual approach still has, and the educational technology field to still pretty busy exploring social technologies and trying to distance itself from the time when CD-ROM-based fashcards and multiple choice questions was what people meant when they talked about using computers for language learning. But while social learning is very important, some rote memorization can go a long way in improving proficiency, especially (but not only) for less-proficient learners. Learning vocabulary requires much more than just memorizing meanings, however. To “know” a word, learners must know the meaning, written form, spoken form, grammatical behavior, collocations, register, associations, and frequency of that word (Schmitt, 2000). Last week, I  found out about 2 recently developed vocabulary learning sites, Learnit Lists and Quizlet. Each site uses a different approach and focuses on different vocabulary.

Learnit Lists focuses on the 1000 most common words and aims to help you learn 10 words daily in your target language by serving you a new list every day. There are 15 language pairs available, including English, Spanish, French, Chinese, Japanese & Czech (you choose which language you want to go to and which language you want to go from). More languages will be added they say. The lists are simple one-to-one translations of important words and thus are out of context. I also found many errors in the Japanese translations of English words (nouns for verbs, particles as verbs). But even meaning aside, the site cannot help you with the spoken form, grammatical behavior, collocations, register, or associations. It can only give you the written form of high frequency vocabulary words (and no phrases or fixed expressions as far as I can see). Also, there is little learner control of content. Possibly useful for entry level learners, when the developers get the translations cleaned up.

Quizlet attempts to marry the best of rote learning techniques with the power of social networking. It bills itself as the “end of flashcards” and provides a nice system of self training and testing that you plug your own content into. If learners can be educated a little about the nature of vocabulary, they can then use this tool to learn it more efficiently. They can also share lists with others, reducing the time needed to input the vocabulary (which while it will facilitate learning, may cause some learners to avoid using this tool).  Some very common content is already available (important SAT vocab, prefixes and suffixes, for example) and there are groups creating ESL vocabulary with pronunciation and other content as well. The author lists the features as follows: the system keeps track of your progress, facilitates sharing with e-mail notification when others contribute sets to your  lists and allows chat boxes so learners can talk to each other while learning. Also, any language can be input and accent buttons for non-English letters can be used. The learning system is also nicely designed. It  provides pages that allow learners to familiarize themselves with the vocabulary, a call and response learning function and a testing function. Combine this with easy input and editing and sharing and you have a very powerful tool. Highly recommended!

Schmitt, N. (2000). Vocabulary in Language Teaching. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Website (Reading): Game Goo

Game Goo is a site that says it provides “learning that sticks.” There are lots of reading games here, and they are organized by level. At the lower levels are phonics games focusing on sound discrimination, etc. My favorite game on the site is Monkey Business, a game where learners must arrange parts of a sentence to complete bridges for a monkey to cross. It would make a nice fluency activity for lower level learners. There is not too much vocabulary and much of it repeats. Fun and encourages speed. Flash-based.

Website (Reading): Power Proofreading

Houghton Mifflin Company produced this site that features short written texts from various elementary school levels that need to be edited (corrected). Learners can see the text and number of corrections that need to be made. Learners click on various parts of the text to make corrections in a pop-up box. Nice interface. Good levels. Good feedback. Sort of a long introduction. Needs Shockwave.