Classroom debate resources

Getting students to debate in EFL classrooms is not easy. It takes time, patience, and practice, of course, but knowing how to and how much to support students is probably most important.

In the world of debate in Japan, there are two main styles: policy and parliamentary. The former requires research and more preparation, and places great emphasis no argument support, while the latter requires students to think logically on their feet. I tend to favor policy debates for reasons of academic skill development and content exploration. The following materials can be used for policy debating in EFL classrooms. This activity will require at least 6-10 hours of instruction and practice if everyone is unfamiliar with debate. Because of classroom times, a short debate is necessary. The following materials are for a short (45-min) policy debate. Please adjust the times to match your situation. In general, allowing students more preparation time before speeches and questions leads to better results.

Templates

Affirmative Constructive DebateTemplate_AffirmativeConstructive

Negative Constructive DebateTemplate_NegativeConstructive

Attack (for both) DebateTemplate_Attack Template

Defense-Summary (for both) DebateTemplate_DefenseSummary

Other Resources

Debate Management Sheet and Chairperson Script Debate Management Sheet and Chairperson Script

Debate Management Sheet and Chairperson Script (with more prep time) Debate Mgmnt Sht and Chair Script (more prep time)

Debate Flowsheet (for note taking) DebateFlowsheet

The Slow Drive to Data in Japanese EFL

highway image

Japanese public school education, as a whole, is remarkably cost efficient, or so it seems at first glance on paper. Japan spends right around the OECD average per child for both primary and secondary education, and much less than the U.S., the U.K., or the Scandinavian countries, or indeed most European countries. Yet, Japan continually scores high on international tests of achievement in reading, math, and science. On the most recent PISA test (2012), for example, Japan was 4th in reading and science, and 7th in math. This is a stunning achievement, one that most countries in the world would love to emulate.

No doubt some of these impressive results are at least partially due to factors outside the school and classrooms of public or government-mandated schools, however. We really can’t underestimate the effects of high expenditures by parents on supplementary education, expensive cram schools, or juku  in particular. There is an industry built up around these school-companies that boggles the minds of the uninitiated . They come in many flavors, but generally speaking do only one thing—prepare kids to take tests, especially entrance exams. They do this through a combination of tracking entrance exams and demographics, and providing intensive preparation for taking those tests. They are data collecting and processing machines, making extensive use of data for all parts of their operations–from advertising, to information gathering, to student performance tracking. They do this all in a way that is extremely impressive.  There is in Japan both a strong cultural emphasis on the importance of education, and a climate where frequent test taking is considered both normal and important. The jukus have leveraged that to create an industry that is huge, ubiquitous, and because parents are paying 35,000 yen-50,000 yen  per month per child to these businesses, economically very significant. Combined with the general education, this is  an education system that, although expensive and requiring serious commitments in time (evenings, holidays), is effective for the education of reading, math, and science.

But somehow not for English. PISA does not test English, but comparisons on norm-referenced proficiency scores across countries reveal Japan to be a poor performer. TOEFL iBT scores from 2013 show that Japan is not punching at its weight. If we look only at overall scores, Japan (70) is woefully behind China (77), South Korea (85), and Taiwan (79), but remarkably similar to Mongolia, Cambodia, and Laos. And if we look only at the scores for reading, the skill that receives by far the greatest amount of attention in the school system, the results are not really any better: Japan (18), China (20), South Korea (22), and Taiwan (20). The scores on the IELTS tests a show similar, though less pronounced pattern. On the Academic version, Japan again scores lower than its Asian neighbors: Japan (5.7). South Korea (5.9), and Taiwan (6.0). Now I know some people have validity issues when comparing countries using test data, and certainly that is true for TOEIC scores by country, because that test is so widely applied and misused. But the TOEFL iBT and the IELTS are high-stakes tests that are taken by a fairly specific, highly-motivated, and well-heeled demographic. The scores say nothing about average students in those countries, not to mention the less proficient students, to be sure, but I do think they are fair to compare. And I know that students and programs are much more than the sum of the ability of students to take tests, but come on. It is not totally wrong to say that almost the entire purpose of English education in junior and senior high school, and the accompanying jukus, is to get students ready for tests, and yet the results are still pretty poor.

graph showing percentages of jr and sr high kids who go to juku

Percentages of students who go to juku (and how often per week) from elementary school to high school http://berd.benesse.jp/berd/data/dataclip/clip0006/

So what explains the problem? Well, this has been the subject of endless debates, from what should be taught to how it should be taught. Lots of people blame the entrance exams, but let’s be careful with that. It is probably more accurate to say that the type and quality of the entrance exams is certainly preventing the power of the juku machine to help improve the situation. What I mean is that the types of tests jukus and most schools focus on are different from tests like the TOEFL iBT or IELTS. The TOEFL iBT and IELTS assess all four skills (reading, listening, writing, and speaking), and they do so in a way that judges whether the test taker can use the skills communicatively to understand and express ideas and information. Entrance exams in Japan, however, very often have an abundance of contextless sentences and a abnormally large number of grammar-focused questions. Simply put: the preparation students engage in to pass high school or college entrance exams will not help all that much when students sit down to take the TOEFL iBT or the IELTS tests.

If entrance exams tested four skills and the quality of written and spoken expression, you can bet that the jukus would find a way to prepare students for that (and a very large number of parents would be really willing to pay them handsomely to do so), instead of the (mostly) discrete vocabulary and grammar items they can get away with focusing on now. You can be sure that they would find ways to bring data collection and analysis to bear, if they had to deal with this new reality. The fact that their system works so well for multiple choice items  and the fact that productive skills of English are not well-suited for multiple choice assessment is probably one of the biggest problems for Japanese English education.

But it’s not only the tests that are a problem. The current official policy for public school classrooms favors a better balance of the four skills, using the L2 more predominantly in the classroom for procedural and communicative interaction between the teacher and the students and between the students themselves (communicative language teaching, or CLT). However, what the Course of Study pushes for and what the teachers in classrooms are able to manage is not always the same. Of the recent policy mandates, it is the Teach-English-(mostly)-in-English directive that is causing the most consternation among teachers, probably because it is so obvious and measurable. Teachers are mostly, if often tepidly, complying with this policy, and in many cases are trying hard to make it happen, according to statistics I’ve seen. These statistics on use of English are tracked regularly using questionnaires and self-reporting by teachers. And the numbers show that about 50% of teachers are now using English at least 50% of the time they are in classrooms—although there is great variation between teachers at the school level, district level, and prefectural level. Almost no one is recording classes regularly and counting the minutes, however, with this group the only exception I know. The case of CLT use is fuzzier and less reliable still, partly because interpretations of what are and are not CLT activities vary. Compliance with CLT directives is happening, but its deployment is certainly not systematic, and it is not widespread, and it is not receiving a lot of classroom time. Even these modest changes (inroads?), however, have taken tremendous effort to achieve, both in terms of government resources and effort on the part of individual English teachers who, in most cases, never experienced lessons taught in English (or using a CLT approach) themselves as students, were not trained to conduct lessons that way in pre-service education courses or training, and received very little in-service guidance or training as they attempted to comply with government directives. It’s a lot of effort and resources going toward something that might not work, something that is debatable; because not enough clear evidence exists to prove it works. Not yet, at least. Neither the public school system, nor the Education Ministry have the resources, expertise, or system for gathering English subject performance data effectively and efficiently. In classrooms, teachers rarely track performance. At the school or program level, there is no concept of tracking micro-skill development over months or years, at least none that I’ve seen. Maybe it’s happening at some private schools, but my guess is that all anyone is tracking is multiple choice test-taking performance, with maybe some vocabulary size and reading speed in programs that have their act together a little.

The reason I bring this up, however, is to make you think about what is driving this policy, why people have the faith they have in approaches, methods, or materials, without really knowing if or to what degree they work. In the world of EFL in Japan, a lot of faith drives a lot of programs—more specifically, a lot of faith and a lot of tradition. Walk into any mid-level high school and you can find students in English classes being prepared for multiple choice tests they will never take, for example. Within existing lessons, there is a lot of tweaking to make interventions “work” better, no doubt. And while sometimes that means more effective, it could also mean more time-efficient, or easier for students to do. The honest truth is that “effective” is often hard to determine. By definition, effective interventions (even those that have been carefully researched) must be sustained for rather long periods of time—months at least. Micro-skills are hard to decide, hard to set goals for, and hard to track. But the potential effect is great.

Adding more English to classrooms might make students a little better at listening (though Eiken scores comparing prefectures that differ greatly in the amount of classroom English used seem to show no correlation). And I haven’t seen any data that suggests that students in Japan are doing better at anything English-wise because their teachers have tagged a little bit of “communicative” writing or speaking to the end of regular explanation-heavy lessons. I’ve made this point before: a little bit of CLT dabbling is unlikely to have much effect (though this should not be interpreted as criticism of introducing more CLT or any CLT activities into a classroom—you gotta start somewhere, you know). I have spoken to more than a few high school and university teachers who express great alarm at the state of grammar knowledge of the students they see regularly. The suggestion I hear is that all of this CLT stuff is coming at the expense of good old grammar teaching. While I am sure that this may be impacting the ability of students to tackle entrance exam questions, my own experience and my own opinion is that students these days are indeed more able to use at least a little of the knowledge of English they build up over the years in schools, something that was really not the case years ago. And, by the way, if you have ever sat through grammar lessons in high schools in Japan, you probably won’t think that more of that could be better for anything.

But that brings me to my point. We are all slaves to our own experience and our own perspective; as Daniel Kahneman  calls it, what you see is all there is.  All we seem to have is anecdotal evidence when it comes to program-level decisions. If only there were a way to take all that data generated by all that testing in Japan and make it work better for us. In closing, I’d like to leave you with a quote for John Hattie’s wonderful book Visible Learning for Teachers:

“The major message, however, is that rather than recommending a particular teaching method, teachers need to be evaluators of the effect of the methods that they choose” (pg. 84)

Making EFL Matter Pt 1: Goals

As I write this, high school teachers across Japan are busy writing or polishing up  “Can do” targets for the students at their school, in compliance with MEXT (Ministry of Education, Culture, Science & Technology) requests. The purpose is to get schools and teachers to set language performance goals for the four skills, goals they can use in creating curriculum and in evaluating progress. It is, from what I have hear, not going smoothly. There are many reasons for this, not least of which is the novelty of the task. The challenge is to take the current practice of basically teaching and explaining textbook content and expand on that by setting more specific targets for reading, listening, writing, and speaking. Most schools did not have, nor attempt to teach, specific writing, listening, and speaking skills. In fact, I think it is fair to say that most schools and teachers viewed English more as a body of knowledge to be memorized than as sets of sub-skills or competencies that can be taught and tested. Even reading, by far the skill area that receives the most attention in senior high, is rarely broken into sub-skills or strategies that are taught/developed and tested.  So I see MEXT’s request as an attempt to break schools and teachers out of their present mindset; to get them to approach language teaching as a skill-developing undertaking, and to get them to focus on all four skills in a more balanced manner.

illustration of an opinion wheel featuring sections from agree strongly to strongly disagree

  As you can imagine, responses to the Can do list requirement have been varied. Of course schools are complying, but the interpretations of the concept of a 4-skill rubric for three years with can-do statements for each skill in each year don’t seem to be uniform. Some see the can-do statements as goals–impossible goals for at least some of the boxes of the rubric. So one problem is that many of the boxes in the rubric (especially for listening, speaking, and writing) will be filled ad hoc, never to be really dealt with by the program. Another  problem is that can-do statements as they are used in CEFR are not goals or targets, but merely descriptors. That is, they are meant to make general statements about proficiency. That is, even when schools do decide their can-do statements for the various boxes of the rubric, that will not be enough to make a difference. That’s because can-do statement can help inform in the setting of more specific targets at an institution, but they should not function as goals/targets themselves. A lot of people don’t get that, apparently.

That is to say, an important  step is missing. In order to design curricula, very specific sets of sub-skills or competencies must be explicitly drawn up. These are informed by the guiding goals (can-do statements), but are detailed and linked to classroom activities that can develop them. Let’s say we are dealing with listening. Can-do statements for a second year group might include something like this: Can understand short utterances by proficient speakers on familiar topics. This statement then needs to be broken into more detailed competencies–linked speech, ellipsis, common formulaic expressions, different accents, top-down strategies, etc., for example–that then need to be taught and tested regularly in classes. This is something that is not happening now in most public schools.

At the crux of the problem is the fact that many (actually I think we can safely say most here) teachers do not have a clear idea of the exact competencies they are aiming for in each skill area. Instead, most teachers tend to think of a few key skills that they develop with certain textbooks or activities. The MEXT assignment to write a can-do rubric could nudge schools and teachers in a certain direction, but it is a rather hopeful nudge for a rather complex problem. It could potentially be a game changer. If every teacher had to sit together and come up with can-do statements and specific competencies that they would develop in each skill area, the impact on English education could be huge. But that is unlikely to happen. The process of going from here to there is rather complicated and long hours of collaboration and re-conceptualizing are necessary. Instead,  schools are mostly assigning one unfortunate soul from the English department to do the whole thing him/herself. It is probably unrealistic to expect much change.

Actually, even if schools were to make good can-do rubrics and set specific target competencies, the real battle is only beginning. Making those targets clear to students and creating a system where learners are moving toward mastery is a tremendous challenge. According to Leaders of Their Own Learning, programs need to set knowledge, skills, and reasoning targets for students. These targets will necessarily come in clusters of micro-skills or micro-competencies. These are then reworded into can-do statements given to students at the beginning of each lesson, so students can know what they will be learning and how they are expected to perform. That’s a lot of writing, and it will require a lot of agreement to produce. And that can only come about after much discussion and conceptualization shifting and decision-making on the part of the teachers. But that’s not all. For these targets to work, everyone–teachers, students, parents, and administrators–must be on board. It is hard to imagine such vision and collegiality at public high schools in Japan.

Student-engaged assessment process diagram

From Leaders of Their Own Learning

The diagram above shows the process that Ron Berger and the other authors of Leaders of Their Own Learning recommend to improve student performance. Goal-setting is only one part of this, but it is an essential part. Without goals, none of the other activities are possible. In subsequent posts, I’ll be looking at some of the other parts, and some of the other ways that teachers and administrators can improve education.

This post is part of a series considering ways to add more focus and learning to EFL classrooms by drawing on ideas and best practices from L1 classrooms.

Part 2 looks at the use of data and feedback.

Part 3 looks at the challenges and benefits of academic discussions

The Missing Link: How EFL can get to CLIL

In my last post way back in May, I suggested that a little bit of communicative language teaching (CLT) is unlikely to make much difference in high school English courses in Japan. My reasons were that just dabbling with CLT is not enough. It results in short, mostly unconnected utterances, and it rarely displays age or grade-appropriate thinking. The teachers are not used to this approach, even if they find it appealing on some levels–I mean, where is the high school English teacher who thinks that English shouldn’t be used for communication, at some point, somewhere? But it is not just warm feelings about a language that help decide what actually happens in classrooms. What teachers are used to, what they have been trained to do, and what just about everyone seems to expect them to to do, are also forces that shape the culture of teaching in Japan. Among them is little knowledge/experience or clear vision of how to give CLT more prominence in classrooms.

Image: This way to the future

MEXT’s policies are actually pretty good, in my opinion (as limited as my perspective is). But the world of HS teaching is one of schools at vastly different levels, with vastly different types of students. Textbooks to be covered, (school, and entrance) exams on the horizon, and students increasingly distracted, are realities in teachers’ lives. A little CLT probably cannot do much to address these realities, even if it might be a little more pleasant than the norm now. What I think is needed is a new system, a system not organized by sequences of grammar structures but by sequences of performance skills and discourse/socio-cultural/linguistic knowledge. The goal should be to develop learners to the point where they can functionally continue to learn in English, gaining more detailed familiarity with the language and topics they need–in other words, get HS students to the point where CLIL (Content and Language Integrated Learning) lessons are possible. This is an interim goal, to be sure, but after students can basically function in a CLIL classroom, they can further develop their familiarity and competence with content related to their needs/futures. You may  be thinking that CLIL is an approach, a way of teaching language and content at the same time. How or why should it be a goal? Why not just go ahead and institute CLIL in high schools? Then you could have kids learning the language they need and the content, too. The problem with this is that it is not possible to just switch to a CLIL approach given the current mindsets and limitations of teachers. Sorry, but for many of the same reasons why CLT won’t fly even if you push it off the cliff, CLIL is impossible to just deploy in classrooms. Plainly put: you can’t get there from here.

I think CLT sometimes fails to gain traction because it is seen as a distraction from serious learning. Part of the reason is washback from entrance exams to be sure, but part is also the lack of perceived academic rigor of activities such as asking for directions, explaining your favorite dish, or inviting someone to a movie (or any of the many language functions commonly put in the eikaiwa column of teaching content. In my present job as a teacher trainer I regularly encounter this mindset. My colleagues and I find that the majority of teachers do not understand how reading can be taught communicatively, for example, since they have always thought of communicative language teaching as being all about speaking and writing. And now MEXT is suggesting a greater focus on productive skills and teachers are scrambling to try to make time to add just a little bit more to the status quo, a token bit of CLT. Will it be better than none? Absolutely. Will it result in the kind of integrative 4-skill lessons MEXT is aiming for? Well, the central mindset problem still remains: CLT is seen as a less-than-rigorous add-on to the “main” part of the lesson. Very, very  few teachers know how to teach language integrated with content. Very, very few seem to be able to break down the essential skills into teachable chunks that can then be sequenced. Those few who do are doing it by inventing their own curricula. And they are pointing the way forward.

Come with me for a moment to a small mid-level high school in Gifu Prefecture. Let’s listen in on some students who are discussing Rosa Parks’s quiet act of subversion. Was she right to not stand up? What would you have done, and why? After students complete a mindmap of their opinions, they get into groups of four and begin discussing the topic. The students have been told that they should try to use words, phrases, or sentences from the textbook as reasons to support their opinions.

Student 1: So you would stand up because you are scared to arrested?

Student 2: Yes.

Student 1: Someone will…you…not you?

Student 2: Yes.

Student 3: No, no, no, no. I disagree with [Student 2]. If I were [Rosa Parks], I would not stand up.

Student 4: Not stand up?

Student 3: No.

Student 4: Why not?

Student 3: I’m scared to be arrested, too. It’s true. But…[she opens her text book]…please look at this page. She said, “One person can make a difference.” That means we should move. If she had given up her seat, Barak Obama may not be president of the United States

You must visit a large number of classrooms to realize how remarkable this activity is. The students are communicating–exchanging opinions about the textbook content–interactively. They are saying something. Not something as in anything, but supported opinions. They are listening actively to each other and building on each others’ ideas. This, ladies and gentlemen, is an academic discussion. It’s not perfect, and it shows only a few of many necessary skills, but it’s happening mostly successfully.

Image: Discussions to CLIL

Discussions are big in L1 classrooms now in the US and many other countries. They are powerful tools for learning. They promote good thinking skills, good listening skills, social interaction skills, and language skills. The big question is: can EFL learners get the same benefits? The example above suggests that it is possible in a Japanese high school context. One example may not be all that convincing, but experience from the US suggests that language learners do benefit from this approach. Fisher, Frey & Rothenberg (2008) make the case of using content-area discussions for EFL learners. They also explain how to scaffold for these learners. Most of their activities include cooperative learning of some sort, and they show how through modelling, clear tasks and objectives, and careful support for less proficient learners, discussions can be a means of learning language and an activity that yields considerable academic benefits. As in the example above, students are trained how to act and interact. Talk is seen as a way of developing literacy, which facilitates the learning of reading and writing skills. Talk in groups comes with content and outcome goals, but also with language and social goals. The importance of this final point should be highlighted: discussions allow learners to learn much more than language, and much more than content. They learn how to learn with others, how to interact with others, and what to do when different ideas and opinions emerge in groups. These are, I’m sure you agree, important skills that are closely linked to language skills.

Zwiers and Crawford (2011) in another book on discussion focus on academic conversations. They identify key skills and show how to teach and train students in their use. Sometimes the words “discussion” and “debate” are thrown around in the world of language teaching. If you would like to know what skills are involved with discussion and debate, Zwiers and Crawford is a good place to start. We language teachers have been poor at identifying or focusing on the kinds of micro-skills that are needed for expression, disagreements, presentation, or interaction. Rather than seeing these things as skills that emerge naturally over time as our students gain proficiency, perhaps these skills can be used to drive the learning of language and thinking skills. In EFL settings,  we should be pushing our students to think better, interact better. Zwiers and Crawford are concerned only with the L1 classroom. Not everything will be teachable to EFL classes in Japan, but much will, and the potential benefits are certainly there. It seems to me that these benefits are also prerequisite skills for CLIL classrooms. Unless students are ready and able to engage with the content and each other, any CLIL lesson will be dead in the water.

Image: Two textbooks for teaching discussion

This post may not have convinced you of the importance of heading toward CLIL-type lessons at the high school level, or the necessity of  developing discussion/conversation skills to reach the point where CLIL is possible, but I hope it has given you something to think about. CLT without more rigorous thinking and opportunities for use seems unlikely to improve the state of English education in Japan. Content-focused academic discussions (along with presentations and debates) is an attractive option, I believe, though certainly not one that will be easy to implement. Like the teacher whose students we met above, we have a lot of curricula to develop.

 

 

Is CLT the Right Approach for Japanese High Schools?

Image offerening

In 2013, I observed a sample lesson at a middle-level high school in Japan. The purpose was to demonstrate a style of lesson and convince the attending English teachers to emulate it. One of the targets of emulation was teaching English in English, and the other was teaching English communicatively. Dozens of English teachers from across the prefecture were there, dutifully and cautiously observing the sample lesson, in which a teacher managed to conduct a textbook unit explanation and lead a productive task almost entirely in English.

Few doubts or complaints were aired by the observing teachers. They know which way the wind is blowing. They know that the education board staff running the lesson observation/training have an agenda, and that agenda comes down from the Ministry: teach English in English; do productive tasks; teach communicatively. They understand that  it is something that they should probably be doing, even though they did not experience this type of lesson themselves as students, even though they were never really trained to teach this way in college teacher training courses or on the job, even though they have doubts about their own English competence and are reluctant to put their shortcomings on display too much. So, they nodded politely, and promised to take the ideas back to their schools for further consideration.

Where, of course, it would be back to business as usual.

Nishino (2009) produced a paper that I still have trouble comprehending, but which I believe continues to sum up attitudes to teaching English communicatively in high schools in Japan. She found that Japanese teachers have pretty positive attitudes toward communicative language teaching (CLT), but mostly choose not to engage in it themselves. The reason, I guess, comes back to the lack of experience, training, and language proficiency on the part of teachers. But in my present position, it is my job to promote a greater use of English in the classroom by teachers and students, and that naturally involves more communicative activities.

For most Japanese teachers of English, however, this goes against their strengths, which often include techniques for grammar and vocab explanation, classroom management skills, and a proficiency with tasks that raise awareness of language features and encourage memorization. The CLT techniques my group (and the Ministry, and the BOE) are recommending often seem less than exemplary when observed in real classrooms, despite the authority of SLA research that stands behind the approach. This becomes painfully obvious when it is put on display, as in the class mentioned above, where the teacher had students write a short opinion about the topic and then share it with a partner and then the whole class. Even I couldn’t help thinking that the intellectual level was pretty low, and the pace was very slow. I’m sure many of the teachers observing with me had the following thoughts going through their heads: this is dumb and really inefficient.

And this brings me to the main point of this post. The dabbling with CLT that I have seen in classrooms here makes me wonder if it is worth the effort of teacher awareness raising, of teacher skill training, particularly if we see it as a goal unto itself. It seems that a little more CLT in classrooms is unlikely to make much of a positive difference in language classrooms. Students don’t seem especially more engaged, and the trite bits of incorrect language that often get produced are depressing–and are often incomprehensible to other students without a quick translation from the teacher. I know that  the system is failing pretty much at producing kids who can use the language right now. But I don’t think the fix will come with a few more CLT activities and a strict English-only policy on the part of teachers.

Of course, the answer cannot be business as usual either. Teachers have been yakking at students for years, explaining and translating, and that hasn’t worked out well at all. Van Patten (2014) in Interlanguage Forty Years Later, is particularly blunt in his assessment of the teaching of language by the teaching of rules, the kind most common still in Japan: “competence is not derived from explicit instruction/learning…[and that] holds true for all learners and all stages of development…” (pg. 123). Yes, instruction gets you something, but it is not competence. Form-focused instruction is very limited in what it can do for language learners, that much seems obvious to everyone–well, almost everyone….

So what it is the answer? I’m not sure, but more language, more language use, and more focused teaching seem to be the only way forward. Standing in the way, though, are the lack of proficiency of teachers (along with their lack of training/familiarity with alternative approaches), the culture of expectations that makes change difficult (the parents, the cram schools, the perceptions of entrance exams, the publishers, etc.), the passivity of students and their unfamiliarity with the kind of active use of the language needed to leverage learning, and the well-meaning souls whose hearts warm satisfactorily when students produce any kind of utterance (even when it is intellectually low, and mostly incomprehensible). Framed another way, what we need is more language processing and more responsibility for doing so in a comprehensible and academically appropriate manner.

korenbooksjapanesebooks

 

The image above (from a presentation on vocabulary by Rob Waring) shows a bookshelf with Korean English textbooks on the left and Japanese ones on the right. Notice the size difference? That translates to Korean students being exposed to thousands of words more during their years in mandatory education. The poverty of input argument for Japan is pretty easy to make if we look at just the amount of language students are exposed to, compared to Korea or Mexico (as Mr. Waring did), both of whom now handily beat Japanese scores on high stakes tests (TOEFL iBT, 2013: Japan 70, Korea 85).

There may be other reasons why Korean TOEFL test scores are higher. But certainly language exposure is one of them. Perhaps it is time to admit that in Japan, teachers explain too much in Japanese about too little target language. Adding a little “communicative” jibberish to that is unlikely to make a big difference, and may actually be detrimental in the long run if it lowers expectations further. In my opinion, more language immersion in the form of CLIL-type lessons at the high school level might be an interesting option to explore , since it provides CLT with sufficient input, thinking rigor, and responsibility.

 

 

 

Repeat After Me: It’s the Feedback

Phonetic_Chart

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.

 

 

Has EFL Become ESL?

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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.

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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. 

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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.

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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.

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EFL Gamification 9: Jr. and Sr. High

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In August, I gave–or I should say attempted to give–a presentation titled Gamification and High School EFL. Things did not go well. I tried to condense a previous 3-hr. workshop into an informative and thought-provoking 30-minute presentation. That was problem No. 1. But it wasn’t the only problem.

The day before, a keynote speaker named Kishimoto Yoichiro had talked about gamifying his university class on game design. It was very similar to what Lee Sheldon (another game designer teaching another game design course at a university in the US) had done. You can see my mini-review of Mr. Sheldon’s book, The Multiplayer Classroom, at this page. I enjoyed the presentation. Mr. Kishimoto was a thoughtful presenter and explained his rationale nicely and walked us through his syllabus carefully, explaining the assignments and the interactions. Having read Mr. Sheldon’s book, I understood what he was trying to show and say. But I don’t think many people listening felt that what he said had any relevance to their own classes;  I don’t think many people left with a clear idea of what gamification is and how they could put it to work in their own classes. When I started my presentation the next day, I asked the participants if they had been at the gamification plenary the day before and if they now understood what gamification is. Most of them had: “Um…not really,” was the hesitant reply.

I had hoped to drag them into the light in my 30 minutes. But in the end, speaking too quickly and working on an unfamiliar computer and with one of my pair of two short videos refusing to play, I realized that I had failed. I think I managed to explain gamification fairly well. I think I managed to communicate what intrinsic motivation is and why it is important. I think I even got everyone to understand why narrative is so important. But what most certainly did not happen was enlightenment. Participants did not leave with any sense other than that gamification is a quirky, fringe movement, kind of like cosplay, that some people are doing, but definitely isn’t for everyone.

I was angry that I wasn’t able to show my second video. There was a contrast I wanted to show between two classroom scenes,  a before and after a-ha moment I wanted to induce. At the time, I felt like I had brought them to the cusp of understanding, but lacking an essential component, the whole idea had collapsed. Thinking about it later, though, I realized that the stark truth is that my second video probably wouldn’t have made much difference. The stark truth is that real gamification–what I’ve been calling gameful design–requires a much better understanding and acceptance of the role of formative feedback, and the role of engagement (fun) and involvement (meaningfulness). The stark truth is that a form of gamification already exists in schools. Yup, you heard that right. It’s the way things are: students get points of performing actions. What teachers need to learn is not actually what gamification is, but rather what is the difference between bad gamification  and good gamification. What Mr. Sheldon and Mr. Kishimoto are doing is not replicable in most high school classrooms, not bymost teachers or most normal human beings. That’s not only because it is uber-geeky and requires intimate familiarity with the culture of games (as it most certainly does!), but because those two teachers were willing to throw out the prevailing system of point-giving after teaching and testing, and replace it with a feedback system based on earned points for everything (user experience points). And they were not shy about having learners do unconventionally fun things in the classroom, sometimes things which mimicked game elements (quests, boss fights, zones), and sometimes quirky, fun things for no other reason than because they are fun (everyone wear yellow on project yellow day).

Knowing what I know about high school EFL in Japan–the primacy of the textbook, the tyranny of entrance exams, the necessity of loose coordination of syllabuses between teachers due to sharing of exams while accommodating different  approaches,  my advice for most high school teachers is instead of gamification, think about introducing more gameful design elements into your classes.

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Some of the features of gameful design will work so long as you concentrate your efforts on two things: formative feedback and fun. You must have both of these. If you have only formative assessment, you risk being joyless (though certainly you will still be pedagogically effective). If you have only the narrative/fun, you risk being delightfully ineffective and eventually being seen as old hat and dull. I should add at this point that in my observation, most classes now provide neither narrative nor effective formative feedback. And if you are at all unsure why, you probably have never experienced an English class at a Japanese high school and you need to read up on formative feedback (start here). The hardest thing for most people to understand is how narrative can be used. Simply put, narrative  is a story structure that can be used to add a meaningful context for activities. Activities under a selected narrative assume part of their meaning from the story.  If a Hunger Games narrative, or a Harry Potter narrative, or a Buffy the Vampire Slayer narrative is applied to a series of activities, these activities become embedded in a system in which the heroes, villains, and general story organization and progression are already familiar.

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So can any of this be useful to high school teachers? Absolutely. And below I am going to offer some things that can be tried in almost any class and that fit with the gameful design approach. Notice how each one has a narrative element (based on a story), has a play element (competition here, collecting or challenging), and a formative feedback element (students learn right away what to do and how to do it, since it impacts the ongoing play). These are only a few examples, but I think you’ll get the point. All aboard!

General Organizing Narrative Approaches

The Harry Potter Approach: Organize your class into three groups to match the houses in the Harry Potter series: Gryffindor, Ravenclaw, and Hufflepuff (leaving  Slytherin out). The three houses are told that they will compete for the house cup throughout the year. Points will be awarded for in-class effort, assignment, quiz and test performance, etc. Points may also be taken for behavior infractions. Different parts of the syllabus can be re-named according to various classes held at Hogwarts: potions (grammar), herbology (vocabulary), charms (speaking), and defense against the dark arts (writing). Just about anything you can think of doing in or with your class can be re-imagined as something from the Potter series. And the pull of Potter on HS students is strong. This past summer saw a Harry Potter exhibition in Tokyo (with 8000 yen souvenir wands!) and next year sees the opening of a Harry Potter theme park in Osaka.

For Homework or Discipline

The Homework Tessarae: If your high school is like my daughter’s, you have trouble getting students to do homework. Well, in addition to connecting homework to classroom lessons (make sure HW content is “necessary” in the subsequent lesson), try the Hunger Games Tessarae. Tessarae is a system in the book/movie where characters can get more food for their families if they add their name to the Hunger Games lottery (reaping). In the book, adding your name to the lottery increases your chances of being chosen for the games (and probably dying), but we can we can put a nicer spin on this by saying that if you COMPLETE your homework on time and to a certain standard, your name gets added into a pot for a class lottery with a good nice prize. This idea is similar to the speed camera lottery idea tried successfully in Europe. If you do an exceptional job, you can get your name added even more times! This gives the teacher an easy way to acknowledge and reward effort. For classes using a Harry Potter narrative, this could be a Goblet of Fire.

The Secret Student: This idea, via Dylan Wiliam, requires that you select and monitor one student each day–secretly. At the end of the day, if the student’s behavior has be sufficiently positive, the student is identified to the class and a point is added toward a future reward prize (a class trip, a class party, a special sweet, etc.). If the secret student’s behavior has not been good (the student has been uncooperative, disruptive, or failed to speak only in English during the pair work activities, etc.), then the class is informed that they didn’t earn a point for the day. The name of the unsuccessful secret student is NOT revealed. For classes using a Harry Potter narrative, this could be used just as it is, with the addition of house points also being given or taken away.

For Projects

From Project to Game (extended from an idea by Nicola Whitton in Using Games to Enhance Learning and Teaching): Ask students to design and make an A-Z school or community introduction booklet. Each pair of students is assigned a different letter of the alphabet and a different topic (a=art class, b=basketball club, etc.). Their task is to take a picture and write a short description introducing that thing. The goal of the project is to make a student-produced photo introduction to the school or community. For the game part, the teacher is assigned the letter X. The teacher makes a cryptic photo card explaining that the X marks the location of some kind of treasure or treasure map or clue to the location of some treasure that students have to puzzle out. Over the next few days/weeks, the students are engaged in solving clues or riddles to find the treasure. See the post on ARGs if you would like to know more about this type of activity.

That’s it for now. I hope to update this list in the future, but I think there is enough here to help you understand what gamification–or rather gameful design–can do for you and how it can do so.

This post is part of a series on gamification:

  1. Intrinsic and Extrinsic Rewards
  2. Triggers, Ability, and Motivation
  3. Mechanics
  4. The Downside and How to Avoid It
  5. The Whole Hog?
  6. ARGs
  7. Required Reading
  8. HabitRPG and Other Web-based Systems

 

First Image: Fagment from Train Wreck, 1922. Source: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/3/31/Train_Wreck_1922.jpg

Second Image: Fragment from Train on a Big Bridge. Source: https://ja.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/%E3%83%95%E3%82%A1%E3%82%A4%E3%83%AB:KSR_Train_on_a_big_bridge_05-02-12_71.jpeg

 

Fine-tuning Your Classroom Skills: Doug Lemov Catalogs How to Teach Like a Champion

Teach Like a Champion Book Cover

Hey! EFL teachers in Japan! No disrespect, but you probably need this book.  If you  are a native speaker EFL teacher in a country where there is more interest  than accomplishment in learning English, you probably need this book. You might be one of the few educated, trained, and disciplined among us, but chances are, you are not. More likely, you belong to the majority– by and large and by most accounts, a ragtag bunch of misfitsMost of us fell into this profession and were not trained as teachers exactly; I mean, not in the sense of teachers who went to teachers college, studied theory and techniques, did practicums, and got jobs in school systems run by school boards, with standards, supervisors, paperwork, and training. Many of us were waiters, travelers, English majors, or other such mostly unemployables who began teaching EFL and then learned how to do it in a combination of certificate courses, graduate courses, conferences, and keeping our eyes open on the job. Or you may be a Japanese teacher of English as a foreign language, teaching in senior or junior high school after gaining a license that required only a few extra undergraduate courses, completion of a two or three-week placement at your old school, and passing the tests for the prefecture you are now employed by. You know your basic grammar, have a fairly good vocabulary, and are pretty confident that with a little prep time can explain anything between the covers of a textbook. But you have gaps in your knowledge of English usage and classroom management almost as impressive as the unwarranted overconfidence your native English-speaking colleagues bring with them into your school, so full or self-righteousness and irresponsibility. Both you groups of teachers would benefit from this book because not only were you never trained specifically for classroom and learning management, a lot has been learned about teaching and managing classes since you were at school. There is now a good mass of knowledge and techniques that I bet you never took a course in and most likely are unaware of. 

This book is not aimed at EFL teachers, not even a little. But it will tell you, and show you, how to do things with your students that will get them to pay more attention, learn more deeply, and make the most of the time you are now probably doing a good job of frittering largely away. This book by itself will not solve your problems, and you’ll likely find it pushes more regimentation and rigor than either  you or your students need, but man ‘o man there is a lot to be learned here. 49 techniques, roughly half of which you can adapt very nicely for an EFL classroom, are presented by Mr. Lemov. He gleaned them from observing teachers who were getting better-than-expected results in schools whose demographics made those results look almost miraculous. These are techniques that took chunks of a doomed demographic and put them on the Path to College. Some of them are techniques you might indeed be using. But I have managed enough native-English speaking teachers and observed enough Japanese teachers of English in high schools that I can say with quite a bit of certainty, you (and your students!) will benefit from this book. Mr. Lemov provides us with clear explanations, warnings against pitfalls, and short illustrative video clips to make the points easy to understand. Putting them to use will be more difficult, but not impossible, as most of the techniques require only slight adjustments in timing or language. But it is those small changes that can make a huge difference. Techniques such as Cold Calling (picking the student after you have asked the question), Pepper (asking a rapid sequence of questions as review), and concepts such as Ratio (getting students to do more of the thinking) and At Bats (maximizing practice opportunities) can transform the one-way slog of some English classes or the whimsical frivolity of others into real learning environments.

The book has a website. Go there first and look around.  http://teachlikeachampion.com/ Learn a little about Uncommon Schools or Mr. Lemov himself and what he does. Watch some of the videos and see the control and confidence and learning on display. I am quite certain you will begin to see where you may be falling short now. These are schools and teachers who refused to let demographics get in the way of success, who challenge their learners to perform at a higher level, and demand their attention and effort. If you don’t know how to get to that point with your learners, then you probably need this book. It is not a panacea, however, and you will still need to adapt the ideas to fit your subject and classes. In general, the techniques are very cognitive and very behaviorist and so Japanese teachers of English will likely find them more immediately appealing as they will mesh more nicely with current practices. Teachers would do well to not forget the affective and emotional when planning lessons, something Mr. Lemov spends too little time on (from a language teacher’s perspective). But this book can give you a lot of help learning and improving techniques you probably were never exposed to in your education and your own training. It can help you make whatever you are doing more efficient and more effective.

 

Ratios for English and Thinking

I’ve been reading Doug Lemov’s wonderful Teach Like a Champion: 49 Techniques that Put Students on the Path to College. It’s not because I want to put more of my students on the path to college necessarily–actually the only students I teach these days are college students. No, I got interested in this book because Mr. Lemov did (and still does) something really interesting. He looked at schools that demographically-speaking should have been doing poorly but were actually excelling and he looked into the classrooms for reasons why. His studies of these outlier teachers (videoing and cataloging their techniques) led to this book.  (I find that much of what he says lines up nicely with what Dylan Wiliam recommends as well –see my posts about his Embedded Formative Assessment). I think he is onto something important for learning and teaching–promoting more thinking and more thinking about thinking. Some might argue that that this is an L1 issue, but I don’t think so. And some might argue that it is a little regimental, but again, I don’t think that is the case with most of the techniques. Instead, I find the bulk of techniques are academically healthy and do not preclude more interactive, humanistic approaches. I also find that many–very many actually–of the techniques can be adaptable for EFL and some can be used just as is. This post is about Ratios, an idea–a lens really–that Mr. Lebov uses to talk about cognitive work, but I think can be useful  to consider in EFL teaching.

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The Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science & Technology (MEXT) has been pushing for greater use of English in the classroom these last few years but especially starting this year in high school. Many teachers accept this and are trying to follow this directive to some degree; but many teachers have already decided they’ll be using much less English than MEXT wants. At my institute, we’ll be observing classes and measuring the percentage of English teachers use with students to produce a ratio. Some teachers will try to up the percentage of English they use in the classroom while we are there, no doubt. Some will just go ahead and teach the way they’ve always been teaching, explaining things in Japanese mostly. The simple ratio of English to Japanese used in the classroom is too simplistic, some teachers argue. Some things are more efficiently taught in Japanese, some say. Students won’t understand if English is used, some say. They’ll complain and shut down, some complain. But the official MEXT line is for teachers to just do it and let the pieces fall where they may. And it was with this English-in-English issue on a back burner in my mind that I came across the technique labelled Ratio in the Structuring and Delivering Your Lessons section of Mr. Lemov’s book.  Mr. Lemov has a lot to say about ratios, not in language teaching, but in thinking teaching.

One of the most important goals as teachers is to cause students to do as much of the cognitive work–the writing, the thinking, the analyzing, the talking–as possible. The proportion of the cognitive work students do in your classroom is known as your Ratio  (pg. 92).

I really like this idea because it addresses something I see happening all the time in classrooms: the teacher is at the front working really hard; yet many, if not most, of the learners are not engaged and not thinking. A failure to keep learners engaged  at all  is one of the shortcomings I regularly observe, and when we talk about it, some teachers come back that it is not their job to “entertain” students. This misses the point in two ways. First, engagement and entertainment are  different things (though there is overlap). Without the attention of learners nothing can happen. You can “hook” them in many ways. You can bring in a little multimedia, do something unexpected, react to the content of the text,etc. But that is not the only thing missing from many lessons. There is also a definite lack of cognitive engagement in most classes, a point that many teachers seem to miss as well. Learners sit, minds passively waiting for the answer, for the chance to enter info into notebooks, with as little cognitive effort possible. “Thinking is hard,”Daniel Willingham says in Why Don’t Students Like School? “Unless the cognitive conditions are right, [people] will avoid thinking” (pg. 3). Mr. Lemov acknowledges that students need to be trained to think more actively. They need to be engaged in that thinking process as the teaching happens, as the lesson unfolds. He distinguishes between thinking ratio and participation ratio, two related but not exactly the same ratios. The goal of increasing  the participation ratio is to have students apply and consolidate their knowledge as often as possible. But challenging students to think and actively wrestle with unfamiliar ideas is also important. By just giving the information to students, a chance to make them think is missed. Students need to be encouraged to think whenever it is possible. Making them think and vocalize their thinking gives a good thinking ratio.

A successful lesson is rarely marked by a teacher’s getting a good intellectual workout at the front of the room. Push more and more of the cognitive work out to students as soon as they are ready, with the understanding that the cognitive work must be on-task, focused, and productive (pg. 93).

So how is this done? Well, Mr. Lemov provides 10 methods for integrating this while the teaching is happening. Instead of just giving the information, ask questions to pull it out of students. Break problems into smaller, more answerable parts, facilitate deduction with examples, ask for reactions or whys, and just generally teach the habits of discussion–the process, the language, and the need to support statements and opinions. This leads to better participation and thinking ratios, and ultimately to better thinking habits and better, more active, learning.

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Back in the EFL classroom, we can see a problem right away with the Teach-English-in-English ratio. It is too teacher-centered. It assumes that simply using more English in the classroom will result in more gains in proficiency. Um…it might over years of English classes with various subjects and instructors, but  I’m not sure most teachers buy into this cumulative effect aspiration.  It also ignores the thinking ratio and the participation ratio, which are very important because they focus on what is going on inside the learners. It can be argued that without a better thinking/participation ratio, more English will not necessarily result in significant English learning. Most of the gains will be exiguous at best. Students will get used to hearing some commands, some comments, some greetings, some procedural language–all important, yes–but they will not get used to engaging with an interlocutor in English, understanding ideas, reacting to ideas and feelings, evaluating and forming opinions, soundly supporting ideas, etc.  in English. Not unless there is engagement and thinking on a regular basis.

Teaching English in English effectively involves engaging learners in English and making them think. It is communicative in the most personal/academic/cognitive/affective way. That’s why I like the lens of thinking ratio. That’s why I think Mr. Lemov has something to offer for EFL classes. If teachers try to improve their thinking ratio and English ratio at the same time, I think there will be an improvement in both.