Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Why Homework Doesn't Work

So this just happened.

I was on the train coming home from work when a group of elementary school girls troops in and sits in my booth. They chat there in their yellow hats for a second before one says "OK, let's do homework."

All the kids reach into their leather backpacks and haul out their drill books.

"First, Maths" says the little leader girl. They all open their books to the same page and ready pencils. Leader girl starts dictating out answers, and the followers start meticulously copying them into their own books. This goes on for two stops.

"Next, Japanese" continues the leader, and the girls switch to their Kokugo drill books. Again, the leader starts rattling off readings of various kanji, which the others dutifully write down in hiragana in their drill books.

This group dynamic is why homework doesn't work in Japan. I suppose there is some minimal benefit to copying answers, but it pales in comparison to the learning that happens when one actively engages with the materials and works through them, making both mistakes and discoveries in equal measure.

By the time students reach my classes at university, Japanese kids have an outright allergy to homework. They feel its uselessness, and abhor its presence. This is why I tell them 1) I don't care if they make mistakes and 2) I only give homework worth doing. Drills are all done in class, and usually in pairs so students can discuss why answers are right or wrong. The homework I give is instead either thought-provoking tasks that showcase what they have learned, or else time-consuming creation or investigation necessary to realize a project they are working on. It is mostly individualized, so that although they may consult with each other and get others to check they homework, each feels responsible for doing and, more importantly, understanding their own homework.

The concept of 'homework' needs a revision if it is to have any use in education. This is true outside of Japan as well as inside.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

First Class of the New Year (steal this idea)

The first class of a new year presents several problems.

First, students are in a stupor following the winter holidays. You can't continue where you left off, and there isn't enough time in the semester to start something new.

However, you have to motivate students and have them working with you to get over the final push in the face of oncoming tests/exams and FREEDOM!!

What to teach? Buzzwords are the perfect first class back topic.

Step One - Their buzzwords.
Get students in groups and introduce the term 'buzzwords'. In Japan, the Yukan company makes a list of most popular buzzwords, so I write them on the board and have students explain what they mean in English. Have each group take one word, research it for 5-10 minutes, then explain its origin, use, and meaning.

Step Two - English buzzwords
Although the English world doesn't have one authoritative ranking on English buzzwords, choose one that seems reasonable to you and repeat the above procedure, having each student group explain one buzzwords. Tell students that if they cannot find the word in the allotted time that is OK, as researching pop culture there is no penatly, but they must at least make a good effort.

Be non-judgmental in your comments and praise students for their effort.
I have included 2016 English and Japanese buzzwords below:


English Buzzwords 2016
1.      webrooming 6th December 2016
2.      liquid biopsy 2nd November 2016
3.      nowcast 4th October 2016
4.      mic drop 13th September 2016
5.      sharewashing 2nd August 2016
6.      moto-doping 6th July 2016
7.      swipe 8th June 2016
8.      Brexit 3rd May 2016
9.      crowdbirthing 7th April 2016
10.   rainbow 26th February 2016
11.   vapourware 23rd February 2016
12.   Physical Cookie 9th February 2016
13.   sandscape 2nd February 2016
14.   stuffocation 19th January 2016

Japanese Buzzwords 2016
Yukan 33rd ranking
  1. 神ってる
  2. 聖地巡礼
  3. トランプ現象
  4. ゲス不倫
  5. マイナス金利
  6. 盛り土
  7. 保育園落ちた日本死ね
  8. ポケモンGO
  9. (僕の)アモーレ
  10. PPAP
  11. 復興城主

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

The Three Types of TOEIC Test Questions

The last few years at my old workplace I used to teach a TOEIC class. Very soon I saw that just going through the sample exercises and answers would be boring for both students and myself. More importantly, doing TOEIC simulations didn't seem to give students any concrete skills to handle the test.

So I started to 'flip' TOEIC lessons, increasing student interest, motivation, and investment in classes. One strategy I devised that students praised was the idea of a typology of TOEIC questions.

Basically, I realized that all TOEIC questions were based on the 'Three Bu.' These are in order of frequency of appearance:

1) 文法 bunpo, or grammar. Mostly seen in Incomplete Sentences.
2) 文脈 bunmyaku, or context. Mostly seen in Photograph and Short Conversation questions.
3) 文化 bunka, or culture. Mostly seen in Reading

For instance, if a question requires students to choose between verbs (wait, waited, waiting, to wait) it is testing grammar. If it is a phone message left by a job applicant with questions about content, then it is testing contextual knowledge. If the question is a conversation about how to get downtown in New York, it requires some context familiarity, but also a knowledge of NY transit culture.

I have seen these three patterns of question time and time again. Giving students the 'Three Bu' framework empowers them by allowing them to understand what is asked for and thereby eliminate red herring answers better while identifying correct candidates more confidently. This framework also challenges teachers to use a wider range of materials in class, not limiting themselves to drill books as is so often the case, but adding texts that introduce corporate culture and English world content and situations.

Look at the examples below and try to identify where the fit in the Three Bu framework. Questions were taken from englishclub.com

Example One
To: Supervisors
From: Judy Linquiest, Human Resource Manager
Sub: Probation periods
As of January 1st all new employees will be subject to a 3 month probationary period. Medical, holiday, and flextime benefits will not apply to new staff members until the full 3 months have expired. After the three months have been completed, please contact your employees and inform them that their probationary period has ended. The HR department will contact you by email 2 days in advance to remind you of the date. Thank you for your cooperation.

What is the main purpose of this memo?
A) To inform all employees of a new expiration date.
B) To put staff members on probation.
C) To introduce the HR department.
D) To inform supervisors of a change in policy.

Example Two
The person who is taking the minutes will be seated __________ the chairman.

A) from
B) to
C) next
D) by

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

You Know You're From Here When...

Study abroad preparation classes are a contradiction in terms.

By its nature, study abroad will challenge students' cultural assumptions and language abilities, forcing them to grow and adapt to their new surroundings and unexpected circumstances. This means that they are the epitome of experiential learning, and that any attempt to prepare for such an experience will fall short. Conversation drills and city guides may form a limited guide to interaction in the foreign atmosphere, but will quickly be outstripped by on the ground experience and knowledge from local informants.

Yet there is a way to glean some insider local knowledge from the internet. A great resource of local knowledge of any destination city is the "You know you're from (city) when..." list.
These lists exist for just about any metropolitan centre, English speaking or not.

On the plus side, YKYF lists are genuine language, filled with local knowledge and cultural tidbits not in guidebooks, and are a hoot to read. On the minus, such lists don't use easy or safe language, and by their insider nature may include references or expressions that are incomprehensible to even the teacher. Their informtion is also always interesting, but may not be overly practical or useful. Still, they can provide invaluable local knowledge and thus are worthy of consideration. A student who went to Sydney, Australia said the most important thing I taught her was from a YKYF list, namely that cabs could not be found at three am when bars closed.

Here's how I teach YKYF lists.

Have students brainstorm sources of information on their destination, and let them search if they have net access and computers or smart phones. They will undoubtedly find travel websites or tourism guides. Explain that although these have good, reliable information, they are also limited in scope.

Next, have students find a list, decipher it for ten minutes,vthen present their findings. If the class are all going to the same destination, find one list and assign list items to different students. If there are multiple destinations, split students into groups based on city and have them each choose and present an item.

Note that you may have to help them with complex or obscure references, so wander about helping.

For homework, have kids make one or two YKYF items for their own hometown and present next class. For example, a student informed me that his hometown of Takarazuka was spelled TakaraDUka by locals.

Thursday, June 2, 2016

Flipping Vocab Tests

Vocabulary tests.

Usually consisting of sample sentences with blanks where you insert words you guess you're supposed to have learned.

Ho hum. Let's flip this paradigm!

First, we rarely use or learn words naturally by their lonesome. They are always in context, and always either spoken & heard or written & read. Thus my vocab test must provide content as well as a lanuage skill.

I have to give just such a vocab test in a Speaking & Listening class of five students next week.

Here's what I plan to do:


Before the test, I had students come up with a small list of words to be tested. We drew from words that cropped up in discussion during the semester, but could have just as easily used canned words from the textbook.

Next, I had students come up for an explanation and example sentence for one word. We checked their responses then I gave them homework - do the same for the rest of the list.


On test day I will give students a blank sheet with space or their name and eleven numbers. I will have the vocab written on scraps of a paper in a bag on my desk. For the first five, I will have students come up one by one, take a word, and without saying the word, explain it to the other students. They will mark an X for the one they read themselves.

For the remaining words, I will draw and read them, and students will have to write the explanations in English.

I may fiddle with number of items and double the value of the written portion, but as a plan, this seems like a novel, multimodal way of testing vocab that breaks the old, artificial mold.


Friday, April 29, 2016

Introducing Total Physical Response

Total Physical Response (TPR) is a methodology (ie method derived from theory) that made the rounds on the TESL circuit a few years back. The theory goes that by having students actively move their bodies while doing English, they would acquire L2 skills faster and more permanently. Like many other such unorthodox approaches, such as teaching or learning styles, it resulted in lots of creative (mis)applications of the theory to classroom practices, while also failing to inspire corroborative research or large scale implementation.

That is not to say TPR is wrong or useless.

In fact, it does hit on several real gaps in L2 learner repertoires, namely

1) Many learners almost never perform, describe, or hear of physical acivity in L2, and thus are unfamiliar or unable to describe or understand activities in L2. This is a lack of vocabulary and conceptualization.

2) This unfamiliarity with physical activity in L2 is exacerbated by the sedentary nature of SLA past childhood - pantomiming 'Head, shoulders, knees & toes' is the limit to TPR activity for many learners.

To give my students TPR experience, I do the following activity:

First, I have students stand. Then, I tell them I will teach them an English game, then ask them to follow my commands. I break the activity into steps and wath students as I explain without giving any nonverbal clues.

For instance, today I taught the child's game of 'slap hands.' In the past I have used yoga postures, but slsphands requires less physical exertion and lets students in inflexible clothes also participate. I explain the game thus:

"Stand facing your partner.
Put both hands out.
The older of you puts hands palm up.
The younger puts their hands palm down over their partner's hands."

Here I stop and point out mistakes students have made following my simple commands. I explain their unfamiliarity is natural, introduce the idea of TPR, then get a student to come up and gently show them how slaphands is played.

With Set Up finished, I next explain that students will be given ten minutes to explain a Japanese game, physical activity, or movement from sport or dance. Stress that the activity must be physical, as some students may try to teach a word game.

When students have finished working in groups, have a representative of one group come up to explain an activity to you. Turn your back on the speaker so there are no nonverbal clues as to what to do. Do exactly as students tell you so they can see where their description is lacking. For instance, a student trying to make me do Jumping Jacks said "Open hands and feet," so I stood on tiptoes with my hands opened like crabclaws.

Although this is good for lightening the classroom atmosphere, it is also a direct and thought-provoking demonstration of TPR in action.

First, it is easiest to circle errors or awkward parts of student descriptions and have them work together to fix the English or find proper expressions online.

However, this reversion to sedentary language study is a waste of TPR's potential. Instead, I teach a yoga position, such as the Warrior, to students. Next, I hand out different positions to groups, have them make explanations, then let them teach the class. The explanations generated by students can be checked for errors and intelligibility, then used with a visual on vocabulary tests.

Comments or questions? Leave them below!

Monday, October 5, 2015

Welcome welcome!

Empty cup teaching.

If your cup is full, you can't learn anything new.

This is a blog for ideas, lesson plans, and suggestions for English as a Second Language teaching.

It will be unconcerned with traditional limitations such as textbook, classroom facilities, and class size.

These are one size, free associated lessons that can be used, adapted, or ignored as you deem fit.

They are inspired by 15 years teaching experience, know-how gleaned as a tri-lingual speaker, and formation as a critical and reflective educator.