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.
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.
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.
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.