An Idea for Introducing Debate in EFL Classes

Debate in EFL has a heavy image. Partly it is the result of formal debating. Politicians and bureaucrats often love the idea, but then they would, wouldn’t they? Teachers are wary of it: most think it is too much trouble for too little benefit. There is always reams of text to get through, dozens of expressions to teach, and long…agonizing…blocks…of silence that need to be waded through. And students, well, they don’t really have any idea about what good thinking is, why it is important, how it can help them, and how an activity like debating can be a way to learn it. In summary, almost nobody is screaming for debate. And yet it seems clear that the skills involved in debate are critical for learning, critical for learning success, and (in my humble opinion) a possible solution for the tragedy now occurring in high level (進学校) English classes.

Teaching debate is teaching thinking. In debating, we verbalize ideas, explain them, and assess them. To debate, you must have ideas about something. You must explain your ideas in a persuasive manner. And you must find and offer support for your ideas. You do this by building up your ideas (making them more persuasive and providing more powerful support), while looking for possible weaknesses in other arguments or ideas. The key words, from Bloom’s taxonomy, are Understanding, Analyzing, and Evaluating. In doing debate, you train yourself in these critical skills. This can help you in thinking, writing, giving presentations, and making decisions. That’s a lot of benefit from one activity! In learning how to debate, these skills are made visible. The process is visible. It can be taught. It can be seen, discussed, and evaluated in a social setting.

So there are good reasons for doing debate. But can it be enjoyable? Many people would say yes. If we believe what game designer Raph Koster says, “Fun is just another word for learning,” there is no reason why it shouldn’t be.

Below is an activity I tried recently as an entry-level activity to introduce debating. The purpose of this activity is to have students generate arguments, evaluate their arguments, and think about ways that they could make them stronger with support. The activity is based on pictures so we can accommodate different levels of proficiency and don’t need to spend time explaining language to students. The goal is for them to get involved in the process as quickly and completely as possible. It is and introduction to debate. And so the next step is to use their performance to see what their needs are and make decisions on subsequent activities and teaching. One of the eventual goals of the course is to have a full formal debate, but first we must focus on the thinking process.


Day One

Step 1 Look at the pictures. Below are some pictures. In pairs try to answer two questions, using just information you can see in the pictures. Do not use any reference materials (dictionaries, websites, etc.). Just look at the pictures and answer the two questions. Try to generate as many possible reasons for your answers based only on what you see in the pictures.

  1. When do you think these pictures were made?

  2. Where do you think these pictures were made?






Step 2. Look at your answers to the questions. Look at your reasons. Look again at the pictures and try to generate more possible reasons. Then rank your reasons according to how strong you think they are. Choose the two reasons you think “prove” your opinion best. You can use the template at Exploratree to map out your ideas and explore them.

Step 3. Write out your answers to the two questions as two paragraphs. In each paragraph, carefully explain the two reasons you have for your answer.

Step 4. Share your ideas with a new partner and then with a small group. Listen carefully to the ideas of the other students.

Day Two

Step 5. In small groups, review the questions, the answers,  and the reasons you gave last time. Look at the reasons again carefully. They are opinions you have based on things you see in the pictures. Could you do any research to support your opinions? Think about what research you could do. What would provide “proof” for your opinions? Check around on the web or in reference books to find facts that support your opinions. Write these in the Supporting Evidence section of the graphic organizer.

Step 6. Share your views again in small groups. Listen carefully to any opinions that are different from your own. Write them down in the Conflicting Views section of the graphic organizer. [Teachers: you may need to shuffle groups here. It is important that each group contains some different opinions].

Step 7. Assess the different opinions the emerged from your group. Decide which ones you think are “correct.”

Step 8. Rank what you think are the most powerful arguments that emerged during this activity.

Step 8. [The teacher leads a discussion on the process the students have just undertaken. What they have just done is very similar to a debate: they have taken a stance, constructed arguments, and contrasted them with other arguments].

Step 9. [Optional: the teacher talks a little about the pictures. They were drawn by a man imagining the future. It is quite amazing that he got a lot right! In the pictures, he corrected predicted 1, a drive-thru, 2, a petting zoo, 3, e-learning, and 4, video conferencing. The power of human imagination is strong.]






By the way, the images were drawn by Jean Marc Cote between 1899 and 1910 in France.

The images are available from many sources on the internet. One interesting source is the Paleofuture blog:

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. 3: Moving Right Along

This is the third post considering the implementation of Dylan Wiliam’s ideas on formative assessment in EFL classrooms in Japan. The ideas were gleaned from his wonderful 2011 book titled Embedded Formative Assessment. The first post in this series looked at learning intentions. The second looked at eliciting evidence of achievement. This post will consider how and when teachers can best provide feedback to learners. This part of the book takes up the theoretical rationale for giving feedback.

Let’s start with a question: is a grade feedback? That is, is it information–meaningful, understandable, actionable information–that contributes to the learning process? Mr. Wiliam says usually it is not. In the language of assessment, there is summative assessment and formative assessment. And grades are not formative assessment. And in Mr. Wiliam’s view, formative assessment is really all that matters.

If we think carefully about it, and Mr. Wiliam has, we can see that there are four possible responses to feedback: the learner can change his behavior (make more or less effort); the learner can change his goal (either increase or reduce his aspiration); the learner can abandon his goal altogether (decide that it is too hard or too easy); or the learner can just reject or ignore the feedback. As teachers, we know which of these actions we want learners to take, but what the learner actually does depends on how he sees the goal, the feedback, the feedback giver, and a host of other factors. Feedback seems straightforward in the teaching/learning culture we grew up with. But it is not. In fact, getting it right is really hard. But before we even try to get it right, a more fundamental mindset change is necessary. We have to understand that much of the “feedback-giving” we have traditionally done as teachers has been a waste of time–our time mostly–and has not contributed to learning. Much of or the “feedback-giving” we thought was so important, turns out to either have negligible effect or even negative effect. Yup, negative.

Feedback needs to “cause a cognitive rather than emotional reaction in learners”. It must “make learners think”, and it is only effective “if the information fed back to the learner is used by the learner in improving performance.” And this is why just giving grades is problematic. Students first look at their grades, then they look at the grades of other students, and they generally don’t even read those elaborate comments you spent all that time writing. Providing good feedback is difficult. It requires breaking down each learning intention into micro-skills, or micro-concepts, or significant units, and then being able to identify exactly what the learner is not doing right and how he can improve. The timing is also important. Performance must be fresh in a learner’s mind and there must be time to make use of that feedback on subsequent performance. The amount is important. It must be focused enough to be understandable and actionable. And learners need to believe they have the power to make changes that lead to improvement. They have to trust the teacher and believe in themselves. These are not givens. Teacher praise of effort (see Carol Dweck, who Mr. Wiliam cites often in this chapter) affects this, but so do task perception and the social atmosphere of the classroom.

For language classes with their combination of knowledge learning and skill building, this is a challenge that will require at least two distinct approaches. For skill building, the teacher must act more like a coach. Speaking, writing, listening, and reading must be broken down into micro-skills and learners need to be given feedback on each one so that they and the teacher get a picture of how they are doing and what they need to improve. Let’s take listening as an example. Mr. Wiliam suggests a chart of micro-skills based on the rubric of learning intentions for the course and a score of 0, 1, or 2 for each. 0 means no evidence of mastery; 1 means some evidence of mastery; and 2 means strong evidence of mastery. Both the learner and the teacher get a good idea of what is being done well and not so well, and the rubric (provided earlier) clearly states the conditions of mastery performance. The teacher can then concentrate on giving advice for improving performance. Let’s say the micro-skills include  genre identification, understanding reduced speech, identifying transition signals, or keeping up with native speed levels. The teacher has ways of checking all of these and knows ways of improving each of them.

For productive skills like conversation skills or presentation skills, the same can be done. In addition, video can be used to give feedback and provide a marker against which future performance can be judged (though Mr. Wiliam doesn’t specifically suggest this in the book). I tried this back in the day of VHS analog video and it worked really well, though it was very difficult to get learners to watch critically and reflect on their performance and think about how to improve it. The original idea came out of work done at Nanzan University in the 1990s by Tim Murphey, Linda Woo, and Tom Kenny (here is a later article explaining how it is done). Recently, with digital video and with every student sporting a smartphone or a tablet, this can be done much more easily. Techsmith has a brilliant app available for exactly this purpose, called Coach’s Eye. It allows you shoot and annotate a video and then share it.

For any kind of written work (translations, example sentences, paragraphs, essays, culture notes, etc., something Mr. Wiliam suggests is providing feedback without the grade. This can be done individually or in groups. For groups of four, for example, essay comments can be handed out separately on four sheets of paper. The four corresponding essays are also handed out and the learners in the group must work to match the comments to the paper. This forces them to consider the comments and it gives them a way to compare their performance on specific criteria against that of others. After that–and this is a critical step–the learners are given a chance to make adjustments to their papers and resubmit them for actual grading.

Mr. Wiliam quotes Alfie Kohn in the chapter: “never grade a student while they are still learning.” This is good advice. It can help a teacher to get into the best mindset to move learning along. Mr. Wiliam provides a strong case for doing this. The differences in learning outcomes between classes that employ formative assessment and those that do not are stunning. Teachers should be coaches, encouraging, developing, and training essential skills for performance. Formative assessment is the key, I believe, to getting teachers to assume a more effective role in the classroom and to building a community of learning. More on that last point when we look at what Mr. William has to say about leveraging peer feedback in the next post.

Next: Part 4, Getting other learners involved.

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.




Dub Your Own Movies

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

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


ClassikTV with some old European movie clips.


And BombayTV1 and BombayTV2 with Indian movies.

Phonics Resources

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

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

GenkiEnglish provides this one to help learn letter sounds. provides this site with an interactive chart to help with spelling and sounds.

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


Whyville is an educational site that is a little like controlled 2D Second Life with a focus on education. Young users make their own avatars and then explore the island of Whyville, playing educational games and interacting (through chat) with learners from all over the world. The website states that “inside Whyville, citizens learn about art history, science, journalism, civics, economics, and really so, so much more. Whyville works directly with the Getty, NASA, the School Nutrition Association, and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (to name just a few) to bring incredible educational content to kids in an incredibly engaging manner. Today, there are countless learning games and activities on Whyville…which is probably one of the reasons Education Daily states that Whyville is one of ‘edu-gaming’s biggest successes’.” Registering as a teacher in Whyville allows you to bring your students on and manage their accounts. Interesting content and a controlled, secure environment for young learners with a little proficiency.

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.


In an introductory writing course I teach, the textbook asks students to make a scrapbook to introduce themselves. There is even space provided–in the form of topic titles and empty square boxes to write in located in the last few pages of the textbook. There are  interesting and exciting topics such as “My Favorite Holiday” and “What I Do to Stay Healthy” and “My Daily Activities.”  But the best part is the big blank title page, a full-sized blank page with nothing on it but the words, “My Autobiography, by ______________.” Students simply add their names and then apply their creative energy to filling up all that blankness by drawing pictures or pasting in pictures to illustrate their activites, health tips and favorite holidays, etc. The lockstep nature of the whole thing is distasteful. It squelches creativity. And while I do sometimes ask learners to write on some of the topics fixed for them in the autobiography, I have never asked them to do the whole thing the way the writers of the book suggest. I find the whole thing really uninteresting, from any perspective I try on it (with the possible exception of the publisher who is getting paid for mostly blank pages). Instead I get learners to write in their journals and I give them different topics or similar topics with a different focus we all agree are more interesting. But it is still text.

Blogs can be a better alternative, if you intend to make a lot of use of them in a course. But for lower level learners and learners who don’t have the computer literacy, or when we just want to allow for a little more creativity in a face to face classroom-based situation, there is a flexible tool available. It is called Glogster and allows you to make a digtal multimedia “poster.” Like the autobiograhy title page in the writing textbook, it is a single blank page. But unlike that page, it screams out to be filled up with images, video, info or poetry.  As a platform it forces the learners to think about design and content. And the results are engaging. The posters on display at the site are now organized by categories (rather loosely, however), and you can take a look at some of the ways others have expressed themselves: travelogues, interactive calendars, cartoons, movie intros (with the preview, critics’ opinions, etc.). A great resource, no registration and no downloading required.

Website (Writing & Reading): Chatroll

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

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

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

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