Repeat After Me: It’s the Feedback


The other day I observed a few lessons by a very good Japanese English teacher at a junior high school. At one point in the lesson, while the students were reading the textbook passage out loud, she walked around the classroom with two pads of post-it sticky notes, one green and one pink. As she listened to the students, she gave them pink notes for parts they did especially well, and green notes for parts they were having trouble pronouncing. On each note she wrote a specific phrase, word, or part of the word the students were either doing well or needed to improve. And at the end of the class, she made some general comments  and engaged the students in a little extra practice of specific pronunciation errors that many students were making. Each student who received a green note, however, was responsible for coming up to the teacher after class and demonstrating that they could produce the sound correctly.

I was deeply impressed for a couple of reasons. First, because this is the first time in three years and dozens of observed EFL lessons that I have seen a teacher do this. It was great to see a class that dealt with pronunciation at all; and it was especially impressive to see a Japanese teacher deal with pronunciation in this manner. Too many JTEs ignore that fact that English, like any language, is first and foremost a system of sounds. The written form dominates language lessons in Japan, where learning English has traditionally meant essentially learning to read English. Listening activities usually consist of listening to the blocks of audio that just verbalize the text content. And I think it’s fair to say that most JTEs won’t go near pronunciation in a class without an ALT or a CD ready to model the “correct” pronunciation. It takes confidence, and it takes an acceptance of the view that a JTE is a valid example of language use in the classroom–language as sounds, language as culture, language as a means of communication, all of which the teacher displayed nicely. And second, this teacher demonstrated something that is incredibly important in pronunciation learning (and indeed in all of language learning): formative feedback.

For any type of learning, it is essential that people can see what they need to do (a model), can give it a try (practice), receive feedback on their performance or learning (formative feedback), and then get a chance to do it again to correct problems. Of particular importance is the feedback loop of performing a skill or demonstrating knowledge and then receiving quick, actionable, formative feedback that can immediately be used to make improvements. Yet this simple procedure seems to be a rare thing many  language classrooms, even when the subject is as clear a skill as pronunciation. That it is effective seems to be beyond question. Hattie (2012) stresses the importance of feedback, particularly disconfirmation feedback (Hey, you’re doing that wrong!), and Wiliam (2011) makes the case for embedded formative assessment that I found so compelling I did a series of posts on the book last year. Both of these authors are concerned with general learning and teaching. In the last year or so, however, I have increasingly come across papers and books that make the case for feedback in language learning, like this one from Derwing and Munro in Pronunciation Myths:

“Ample studies have shown that improved pronunciation can be achieved through classroom instruction…However, it is becoming increasingly clear that a key factor in the success of instruction is the provision of explicit corrective feedback (pg. 47).”

Not only is explicit formative assessment important, the claim is made that it is essential. Without it, that is under conditions of exposure alone, learning (improvement of pronunciation) does not seem to happen at all! Derwing and Munro  mention two studies to back this up. The first is Saito and Lyster (2012) who managed to get Japanese students to improve with only four hours of training with the dreaded /r/ and /l/ sounds. The other is Dlaska and Krekeler (2013) who found that explicit instruction feedback was much more effective than just providing models. After years of don’t-disturb-the-learners-while-they’re-engaged directions, it seems that the role of explicit correction is finally being recognized.

You might argue that what the teacher I observed was doing was not that efficient or important. In cases, like EFL courses in Japan, where time is so limited, it may seem unreasonable to spend time on pronunciation, especially with the high importance of entrance exams and other high-stakes tests. Indeed many teachers argue that pronunciation is something they just don’t have time for. But actually, the teacher wasn’t spending much time on it at all. Most of the correction happened while the students were doing a reading fluency task (reading the text content multiple times). The teacher’s general comments and whole-class feedback/practice, took less than two minutes. Several years of similar feedback will undoubtedly have a positive effect on student pronunciation, student confidence, and student attitudes toward the importance of making the sounds of English reasonably accurately. In addition to the teacher’s feedback, student to student (peer) feedback could also be put to use. That will also help with sound discrimination training and meta-linguistic skill training.


Dlaska, A. &  Krekeler, C.  (2013). The short-term effects of individual corrective feedback on L2 pronunciation. System, 41, 25-37.

Saito, K. & Lyster, R. (2012). Effects of form-focused instruction and corrective feedback on L2 pronunciation development: the case of English /r/ by Japanese learners of English. Language Learning, 62, 595-633.



Formative Assessment Pt. 4: Getting Other Learners Involved

This is the fourth post considering the implementation of Dylan Wiliam’s ideas on formative assessment in EFL classrooms in Japan. The ideas come mostly from his wonderful 2011 book titled Embedded Formative Assessment. You can learn more about Mr. Wiliam from his website or from a BBC documentary titled The Classroom Experiment (available on YouTube: Part 1 and Part 2). The first posting in this series looked at learning intentions. The second looked at eliciting evidence of achievement. The third looked at how and when teachers can best provide feedback to learners. This post will look at cooperative learning and peer involvement in learning. Mr. Wiliam’s point is that when learners are working together and helping each other, they are naturally giving and getting formative feedback.

Real cooperative learning is a little like real communism. It’s a nice idea but in actual practice, too many people just game the system for their own benefit to get maximum reward for minimum effort. Teachers have serious–and well-founded–concerns about the amount and quality of participation that is brought to the group table by all members. Mr. Wiliam’s comparatively short  chapter on activating students as instructional resources for one another approaches the topic with a tone that makes you think he shares at least some of that sense of trepidation. The research is clearly positive, and Mr. Wiliam presents the profound effects that have been found for cooperative learning, if it is done right (which it usually isn’t). Mr. Wiliam explains how it works (motivation, social cohesion, personalization, and cognitive elaboration) and what two elements are crucial (group goals and individual accountability) before ending the the first part of the chapter with a discussion on how many teachers have a problem with pure, uncut cooperative learning (holding everyone accountable by giving everyone in a group the same score as the lowest-scoring member) and then citing stats that show how few teachers are actually making use of real cooperative learning in their classrooms (very, very few). And on that mixed note of confidence, he begins listing his techniques. I’ll get to the techniques I think might work in Japanese high school EFL classes in a moment, but first an educational culture point needs to be addressed.

There seems to be a strong sense that Japanese classrooms are naturally more cooperative because, well, Japanese group culture makes it easier. Mr. Wiliam states the same thing in his book, listing as “proof” the contrasting proverbs of the squeaky wheel gets the grease (US) and the nail that sticks out will get hammered down (Japan). In addition to the book containing  a mistake with the Japanese version of the proverb, I think this generalization is more than a little stereotypical. Anyone who has seen Japanese students “unmotivated” in regular classes come together in a club activity or festival project knows that  group power and individual accountability are impressive but cannot be taken for granted; and anyone who has seen PTA mothers–dedicated, concerned parents all–trying to avoid being elected for positions that require work knows that Japanese, like anyone else I imagine, can go to pretty great lengths to remain uninvolved, despite being a members of a nation known for being responsible and group-oriented. But I don’t want to get on Mr. Wiliam’s back because his main point is sound: we want to get everyone more involved with helping each other because there are great benefits when that happens; and it really matters how you do it.

One idea that any school can use is the “Secret Student.” You can see it in practice in the BBC video. It is a devious bit of peer pressure judo teachers can use to promote better behavior in the classroom and I think it would work brilliantly in Japan. Each day one student is chosen at random as the secret student and his/her behavior is monitored by the teacher(s). If the student’s behavior/participation is good, his/her identity is revealed to the class at the end of the lesson or day. And the whole class gets a point that goes toward some reward (a trip to an amusement park in the video!). If the behavior/participation of the student is unsatisfactory, the identity is not revealed and the class is informed that they did not get a point for that day. This would almost certainly help to improve participation and reduce disruptive behavior (two really big problems in most high school English classrooms). The only problem is what reward can be offered. It would have to be something possible yet motivating.

One technique to get started with cooperative learning is “Two Stars and a Wish.” Students give feedback on other students’ work  by stating two things they like and one thing that they think could be improved. Mr. William suggests using sticky notes for this feedback. He also suggests picking up some of the feedback comments from time to time to teach students how to give better feedback. This last point is important because it is precisely the generally poor quality of student or peer feedback that makes many teachers to unenthusiastic about peer feedback. There are many times in a language course when students are just out and out unable to provide good feedback. But learning how to give feedback well when it is possible to do so is a real learning opportunity that can benefit the giver and (eventually) the receiver. This technique could be used well for anything students write, translate, present, or any time students produce anything in the target language.

One activity that he suggests, “Error Classification,” probably wouldn’t work in a language classroom as he suggests. This activity requires learners to pour over writing examples to classify the errors made. It sounds nice, but it is unlikely the learners would be able to do this at all but the most proficient of classes. And even if they could, spending so much time on superficial mechanical errors  may not be a good idea. Another activity, “Preflight Checklist,” might be much better for student writing assignments. For this activity, students are given a list of requirements for the writing assignment (things like proper format, clear topic sentence, logical organization, subject-verb agreement, or whatever the teacher is focusing on at the time). Another student is responsible for checking the writing and signing off, meaning certifying that the first student’s writing meets all the requirements.

And a final activity that I think would work well in EFL classes is providing a little time at the end of a lesson or section for pairs or groups to discuss and report on what they have learned. This can be a nice student-led review, and a chance for teachers to see what has and has not been grasped well.

To really get the benefit of cooperative learning, teachers need get learners to have group goals and accept the idea of shared responsibility and accountability. This may be problematic in many situations for many reasons, depending on the year, the course, and the proficiency and motivation differences of learners. I have recently observed a class where the teacher was making extensive use of group cooperative learning. Out of six groups, it was working for three but not really working for the other three. For it to work, it seems that some training, some acceptance of the approach, some accountability, and a fair bit of time are all necessary. When it comes to cooperative learning in Japan, perhaps introducing more chances for learners to see, formatively assess, and then communicate that assessment might be the best way to start. Real cooperative learning is hard, takes a serious commitment, and can all be for naught if not done (and embraced) well.

Next: Part 5, Encouraging greater autonomy and ownership of learning.


Formative Assessment Pt. 1: Learning Intentions

This the first post of a series on considering embedded formative assessment in EFL  classes at high schools in Japan. In previous posts (here and here), I mentioned some of the potentially powerful reasons for making use of this type of formative assessment. Dylan Wiliam, a teacher/administrator/researcher/teacher training from the UK believes that the single most effective (and cost-effective!) way of improving learning is for teachers (and learners) to provide assessment for learning, not assessment of learning. This requires a rethinking of the purposes, timing, and techniques of assessment. In Japanese EFL classes, it will likely involve more than this…In this series, I will look at the possible application of Dylan Wiliam’s stages of formative assessment here in Japan. To learn more about Dylan Wiliam, you can visit his website, or read this article from The Guardian, or read his latest book about why and how to make greater use of formative assessment, Embedded Formative Assessment. A BBC documentary of his initiatives called The Classroom Experiment is also available on YouTube (Part 1 and Part 2). But before we go on, it is important to clear one thing up: assessment for learning is perhaps not the assessment you are thinking of if you are thinking about grading. It has very little to do with grading and everything to do with informing the teacher and the students (and possibly others, including peers and parents) about how to learn. So the topic of testing for grading will not be addressed here.

Where are we going? Or more precisely, where am I going? This is the question that should be on the minds of all learners as they select a course or arrive for the first lesson. It is a question that needs to be kept in mind as learners proceed through courses as active monitors and agents in their own learning. But often in institutionalized settings, it is not. Instead, the learners do not voice any expectations they may have and just flip through the textbook for a hint of the things they will learn. It’s frustrating for some, but years of similar starts to courses have made it unquestionably normal.

Too often in high schools in Japan, the teachers actually have a fairly similar experience. They flip through the textbook to see what it is they are going to teach in the upcoming year. That is, many schools fail to create a curriculum with specific skill targets for each year and instead they let the textbooks (OK, Ministry-approved so they must be appropriate, no?) decide what they are going to teach. It is the content of the textbook that becomes the de facto syllabus for the course. Having students learn–usually meaning “memorize”–the content of the textbook becomes everyone’s purpose. And it is at the point of this decision to not make a syllabus with specific skill targets and instead just teach the textbook from start to however far we get, that the first obstacle to deploying embedded formative assessment  emerges. For once the textbook becomes the object of learning, it changes the course content into a body of knowledge or information. It shifts the goals of the course from the learner’s skills and ability to something outside the learner. The starting and ending point of learning is no longer the learner, but the percentage of the textbook that the learner can “master.”

That is not to say that the textbook content cannot be a good part of a syllabus for a course. Used flexibly, by a dedicated teacher, a good textbook contains enough interesting activities and content that it can provide structure for a course and facilitate learning. But there’s an expression in English that we need to keep in mind: when the only tool you have is a hammer, every problem begins to look like a nail. For HS teachers in Japan, the textbook becomes the hammer with which they address the needs of every unique learner in the class. It is not the most effective way to teach and it doesn’t have to be this way. With clear skill targets, the teacher and the learners get a way of talking about learning. The teacher gets something she can show, demonstrate, and measure the progress of. The learners get a model and a yardstick. Of course all language courses feature a combination of knowledge content, skill content. But a greater emphasis on skills by everyone in the classroom is necessary to prevent the course from focusing completely on knowledge and understanding, things that will not actually matter that much when learners try to make use of the target language in the real world.

“It is important that students know where they are going in their learning and what counts as quality work, but there cannot be a simple formula for doing this,” says Mr. Wiliam. Look at that first part again: “know where they are going in their learning and what counts as quality work.” The learners need to have a better idea of what they can do now and and what they will be expected to be able to do and know by the end. They need to see it. They need to see themselves, the target, and the gap. This is, at present, not a common way that schools, English departments, or individual teachers approach the kids who come to them to learn. The focus of Mr. Wiliam’s book and  assessment for learning (AFL) is entirely the classroom and the learners in it. He does not spend any time discussing placement tests or proficiency tests. Instead, the learners are asked to consider learning intentions for every unit, topic, or module the class will encounter.  And he provides several concrete suggestions as examples for how this can be done. Many of them are collaborative in nature. I went through them and pulled out the ones that I thought could be adapted for use in English language classes in Japan. In most cases, the actual example is described as how I would imagine using the technique in HS English classes. If you want the complete list of original examples, you’ll just have to get the book, something I recommend anyway.

First up is passing out 4-5 examples of student work from the previous year. In the book it is done with lab reports, but it could be done with any kind of student writing (or if you have recorded examples of presentations or student speaking, that would work, too). In groups, the learners rank the works and report on how they assessed them. This lets the criteria for better performance become salient through comparison and discussion. Teachers may want to provide some topics or questions to guide the learners’ attention to specific aspects.

A variation of the  above involves the work of the present class. After the writing assignment is completed, the teacher collects them all and reads them, selecting what he thinks are the three best examples of student writing. No other feedback is on the paper at this point–no grade and no comments. The teacher hands out copies of the best student writing. The learners are asked to read them for homework and then discuss why the teacher thought these were the best. Then–and here’s the important step–all the students (including the authors of the best papers) get their papers back and are given time to redraft their writing. They then, finally, submit them for a grade.

In “Choose-Swap-Choose” learners choose a good example of their own work from several they have made (a short recorded speech, for example). They then submit these to a partner who then chooses the one he/she thinks is best. The two students discuss their choices if there is disagreement.

One good idea of reading aloud or pronunciation classes has learners in groups practicing the recitation of a short passage in the target language. Each group then chooses the learner who they think has the best accent and the whole class listens in turn to the representatives of each group. The teacher comments on the strengths and weaknesses of each one.

And finally, have the learners try to design their own test or test items for mid-term or end-of-term tests. Of course, this should be done while there is still time to make use of the feedback that emerges from this activity. But in making test items, students clearly show what they think they have learned and what they think is important.

The main thing to point out from all of the above techniques is that they provide feedback to both the learners and the teacher. The learners can use that information to make adjustments to their learning. And the teacher can use it to see what has been learned and how well in order to make adjustments to teaching. All of these techniques promote meta-cognitive skills. They also contribute to the creation of a community of learners. According to Mr. Wiliam, they also definitely lead to better learning. But would this approach work at high schools in Japan? The answer is a great big “it depends.” It depends on the levels of motivation and trust in the classroom. It depends on whether the teacher can afford the time it takes to allow learners to examine and discuss the work of others. And it depends on the mindset of the teachers. They need to be willing to try out a more learner-centered approach to teaching and learning, one with a greater emphasis on skills. Many–too many–teachers prefer to teach content at the students and leave the learning up to them. Too many have their syllabus strapped to the ankles of the syllabuses of the other teachers teaching the course in a given year. There is nothing to do but move along in lockstep. But I think that some of these ideas could be put into practice in almost any school in the prefecture where I work.

In the next post, we’ll look at what Dylan Wiliam says about how to elicit evidence of learning. Part 2: Eliciting evidence.




March Treasure Hunt: Video for Self Access

Here is a list of good video sites that could be used for self access by learners.

First is Randall’s Cyber Listening Lounge. I think many people are familiar with this site for listening practice, but recently Randall Davis, who manages the site and the content, has added some videos for culture learning. As with the other activities on the site, the content is well organized and there are activities to promote learning. Much of the video content itself is not really exciting, but it often is connected to other listening content on the site, making it very useful for lower-level learners.

English for All is another well-organized site with high quality videos (maybe too high in quality, and the large file sizes sometimes cause streaming problems). But there are twenty lessons on different life skills with a variety of activities. You can register as a teacher and create a “classroom” for your learners and monitor their progress. The site is probably more appropriate for college learners or adults.

Real English has a large number of videos especially appropriate for lower level learners and younger learners. You’ll find videos connected to many of the topics in language learning textbooks here (greetings, directions, etc.) . I think the site might be a good place to send learners for a little controlled real world listening practice.

And I’ve  introduced it before, but my favorite video site at the moment is English Central. Great for listening and pronunciation practice. New features are being added regularly.

English Central: Practice with Video

English Central. You choose a video, listen, and then record your voice. The system then gives you a pronunciation score and detailed feedback about your weaknesses and how you can improve them. This is a great tool for intensive listening and pronunciation work. I really recommend that you take a look at the demo at the site. The site allows both student and teacher registration. Teachers can manage and track their students using the tools at the site. Registration is free for the time being.

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.

An Alternative to Second Life?

There is a Second Life-like site that I recently came across. It looks more like a wholesome version of the Sims, with buggy or jet ski races, fashion shows, scavenger hunts and other such activities and events. It might be a good alternative to Second Life, especially for younger learners. I haven’t tried it yet, but it looks like it could work well. Sign up is free for now.

Website (Speaking): VoiceThread

It seems that there are almost too many tools available these days to allow students to interact with course material and with each other. In a Treasure Hunt column many months ago I introduced Splashcast and how it can be used in Moodle to deliver student-produced content into a course. What I did at the time was to record students as they spoke in class in a Speech and Debate class and then feed the recordings into a Moodle page with a Splashcast player. This allowed all students the chance to hear (and compare) the voices of all students from one page. It was fun, it worked well and the interface was easy to use. The downside (or the upside, depending on your point of view I guess) was that the entire exercise had to be controlled by the instructor. It didn’t take all that much time–the students simply took turns doing their short speeches into my laptop along with their turns speaking for different partners in class. But it did provide a few logistical challenges, and if you have more than 10 or 12 students, the exercise will probably be unmanageable to do in class, and that means more scheduling challenges. A better way might be to use VoiceThread. Here, students can post sample speeches, and post comments on any image or media you load onto the page. They have the choice of voice comments or text (for those students who don’t have a microphone) and the interface is very clean and very intuitive. Though the VoiceThread people have created a safe space for K-12 learners and educators, EFL students are left to their own in the regular part of the service. That said, I searched around and didn’t find any content anyone in my classes might need to warned about. I love the way student comments are arranged around the media: this can make the experience more classroom-like (by which I mean familiar, in a good way). Registration needs an e-mail address and a password, as well as a name.

Update: There is a good tutorial available for VoiceThread here. The authors are especially interested in using this tool for digital storytelling.

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.