Posts Tagged EFL

JALT Presentation on the Immediate Method

A friend and I are giving a presentation this Sunday (July 19) about an EFL approach called The Immediate Method, developed in Japan by foreign-language instructors. Here are some of the documents I will use in my presentation:

  1. bperry1 (pdf)
  2. bperry2 (pdf)
  3. azraextra (pdf)

Here’s the blurb from the JALT events website:

The Immediate Method

Date and Time:

Sunday, 19 July 2009 – 2:00pm5:00pm


Marc Sheffner and Konrad Bayer


The 2 presenters will introduce the Immediate Method, developed in Japan by French teachers several years ago (see their website for more details ) They will show how they use it in their university language classes (although the method is also used in J and SHS. What is “immediate” about this method? Simply, the instructor drills the class in a small number of grammar and lexical items that are grouped around a central theme, and, after allowing some time for independent practice, the instructor then “tests” students individually or in small groups by requiring them to “immediately” use what they have learned in conversation.The developers of this method have created textbooks to be used with it, but it is possible to use this method with other textbooks or no textbook. The presenters will describe how they use this method both with and without the official textbook.
Location: Tezukayama Gakuenmae Campus (Bldg #16)
Fee for JALT members: Free
Fee for one-day members: Free

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The Immediate Method Autumn seminar 2008

The other day, I took part in the 8th Immediate Method workshop at Kobe University. I gave a very brief report on how I’d been using IM in a couple of different university contexts. (A more detailed report was published in the Conversations in Class newsletter #3 (pdf), which can be downloaded from the Alma Publishing website.)

In an earlier blog entry, I asked what should English teachers at university be teaching. I’m still pondering this, but I think that while recognizing the limits of students’ linguistic abilities, I should also remember that this is university and students are here to learn to think, to conceptualize and to do so at increasingly sophisticated levels.

The IM book, Conversations in Class, is quite good for this purpose. Firstly, it contains both basic and more advanced material in the same book, and it also includes some concepts related to English and Japanese pragmatics of conversation. It provides a valuable and relevant introduction to different ways of thinking by introducing the 3 Golden Rules (pdf) – 3 basic differences between English and Japanese conversational styles or pragmatics: even the idea that there might be differences can come as a surprise to students. The purpose of the “3 Golden Rules” is not to introduce students to cross-cultural communication theory, or to comparative linguistics, but to help them hold conversations in English.

Once the students are familiar with the 3 Golden Rules (avoid silence, give long and rich answers, and use a combination of questions and talking about yourself), these differences can lead, perhaps, to brief introductions to other, related, concepts, such as high-context and low-context cultures.

John Taylor Gatto, told his students that he did not really care if they came out of his class knowing or remembering nothing about Shakespeare or his plays; as long as they remembered and learned some basics of thinking and researching, such as making and testing a hypothesis, he would feel they had got the important thing.

I know that many (or perhaps even most) of my students, even though they are English majors, are highly unlikely to need English in the future. I bear this in mind and try and give them concepts, via anecdotes or stories wherever possible, that might broaden their outlook and understanding.

In order to do this, I need to use Japanese quite a lot, but I still think it is worth it.

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Where to set the bar for EFL classes at Japanese universities?

(Photo credit: Limbo – “How Low Can You Go?” by sidneysealine3 on Flickr)

The other day, I met an acquaintance who, like me, teaches English at a Japanese university. We were attending a wokshop, and at lunch he asked me: is very basic EFL really suitable for university students? Isn’t the bar being set too low? “Passport” was at one point the most popular textbook amongst non-Japanese English teachers teaching university classes: what does that tell us about where the bar is being set?

A couple of weeks ago, I’d had a disappointing writing class, and I whined about it to a friend who, after seeing my online lesson plan, sent me this comment:

19 year-olds do need to reinvent the wheel of course, but all of these things take time away from other things, like learning to think and analyze… How about you … giving them a serious project to do that isn’t about trivia but also isn’t something so removed from them… I think it’s very, very difficult for us teachers to remember that their high schools kept them from engaging with adult concepts and ideas and so they really do need these 4 years at university to grow up… When you finally get to university in Japan, all you can think of is “Wow, what a relief not to have to memorize stuff for tests and read uninteresting books.” So giving them silly tests and HS type activities isn’t the way to go in my view, even though you make think, “This is all they are capable of doing”…I am continually amazed at how many people … have students do stuff that is quite childish and not really what university should be about.

At first I strongly disagreed with this: all my classes are English language classes, as opposed to content classes, and in addition my own students are of a lower English ability than his. However, I do agree that giving university students rather meaningless activities is an easy trap for teachers to fall into. The rationale, or excuse, often given is that teachers need to match what they offer to what the students can reasonably be expected to do given their level of English ability; a reasonable objection.

On the other hand, many students at university, even those in English Departments, are not realistically going to be using English in their careers. So what should EFL teachers teach and/or have students do in university English classes?  Below are some of my reasons for doing activities that require students to do some thinking, analyzing, conceptualizing and on various levels.

  1. One of my Japanese colleagues has expressly said she expects me to introduce students to new concepts and ways of thinking, not just teach them English (this colleague is an English speaker but does not teach English language).
  2. I know that many (most?) of my students, even my English majors, are highly unlikely to need English in the future. And their English level is pretty basic. So does that mean I’m limited to having them ask each other (or me) about their likes and dislikes, their favourite whatevers, because that is “all they are capable of”?
  3. In an earlier blog entry, I wrote briefly about one important role that I feel I can play as a non-Japanese teacher or “native-speaking English teacher” at university in Japan: the outside reference point, a point of comparison from outside their familiar context. This not only teaches them that there ARE different contexts, but also, by requiring them to explain their context in English to an imaginary non-Japanese person, forces them to think about that context from an outside point of view.
  4. A further justification for requiring students to think and analyze is the “kansoubun” syndrome.  Japanese students are very familiar with “kansoubun” 感想文.  What is  “kansoubun”? It’s a kind of “reaction paper”: students will write things like, “I liked this, I didn’t like that. I felt sorry for the main character. The hero was cool.”  Students seem quite unaccustomed to thinking and writing about the themes or ideas of, say, a movie or a novel, or a newspaper article.
  5. Marina Lee-Cunin in her book (2004) Student Views in Japan: A Study of Japanese Students’ Perceptions of Their First Years at University, St. Joseph, Trinidad and Tobago and Rochdale, UK: Fieldwork Publications. Paperback, 310 pages. References, Notes. ISBN: 095472450X quotes data that show that some students expect to be intellectually challenged at university and are disappointed; perhaps more students than we realize feel this way. (Lee-Cunin’s book is briefly mentioned in this January 2006 book review: Japanese Higher Education in Transition? by Peter Matanle in the electronic journal of contemporary japanese studies).
  6. Further reasons have to do with the kind of concepts and the kind of thinking students can or should be required to do.  I’ll leave that for a later blog entry.

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Conversation by numbers

Two weeks ago, I attended a lecture by Prof. Michael McCarthy at Osaka Shoin Women’s University, and sponsored by Cambridge University Press. The title was “The Learner’s Turn”, meaning both “It’s the learner’s turn to say something” and “How learners take turns in conversation”. Michael McCarthy is a linguistics expert specialising in corpora, and has authored several books on corpora and language teaching, including From Corpus to Classroom and the recent Touchstone EFL series.

McCarthy gave several examples from spoken English corpora of how fluent speakers take turns in conversation. He said, “Every turn in the conversation, except for the opening one, is a response to the previous speaker”, and proceeded to demonstrate how this works from actual examples. “Well, actually…” was one example, showing a speaker signaling that his answer was not a straightforward answer to the question that was put to him. Remove the “well actually” and you get an abrupt change of topic that sounds like a non-sequitur, and jolts the smooth flow of the conversation. The examples were all very interesting.

“Flow” and “fluency” were key themes in McCarthy’s talk, and ironically it was at one such moment when McCarthy was talking about “confluence” and “fluency” that I wondered whether I wanted to “go with the flow”.

McCarthy stated that conversation must flow; it’s not just an exchange of information. An example he gave was a short exchange between two strangers, one of whom asks the other for the time. The respondent, obviously searching for some kind of timepiece, but unwilling to simply remain silent (thus possibly giving the interlocutor a wrong message, such as “I’m deaf; did not hear your request”), says “Erm… uhhh….” before finding the timepiece and announcing the time. No problem with this; I teach the importance of flow in conversation to my students, and it’s one of the reasons I like and use AlmaLang’s Conversations in Class, especially its Cultural Golden Rules of English conversation (pdf).

McCarthy then gave another example of confluence or cooperation between speakers in conversation: leaving a question half-finished with a hanging “or?”, such as, “So, you wanna have lunch, or…?” with several examples from the corpora of spoken English. McCarthy pointed out that it would be odd, strange, abrupt for the interlocutor to follow this with a cold, “Or what?”, and this is the point, dear reader, where a doubt crept into your author’s mind.

I don’t disagree that it would be odd, or strange or cold to ask “Or what?”, but does this mean that speakers should avoid using this, simply because the corpora shows us that 99% of conversational exchanges show the speakers politely taking their turns and showing cooperation and confluence? There may be cases where you want to be cold and abrupt. Should we pattern our ways of speaking on that of the majority? Does the fact that “this is how most people speak” automatically mean that this is how I should speak? Isn’t this conversation by numbers?

McCarthy’s other main theme, apart from “fluency”, was that teachers can make use of this vast amount of corpora-data to identify what fluent speakers do with the (English) language, and then teach this to learners of English. The justification he gave was that by this means, teachers can help learners at least give an appearance of greater fluency. In other words, you take data on what most, fluent speakers of the language do, and then teach this to language learners so that they will sound like fluent speakers as soon as possible.

This has been tried before, in the area of language-learning strategies. The idea was first proposed by Joan Rubin and Anita Wenden in the classic A. Wenden & J. Rubin (Eds.), Learner strategies in language learning (145-156). London: Prentice Hall. The idea was, first, study efficient EFL learners’ language-learning strategies; then, teach those strategies to other, less efficient, learners, and presto!

This idea morphed into teaching autonomous language-learning strategies to less autonomous students, as it seemed that efficient language-learners were autonomous. I have had less than stellar results with this theory.

McCarthy did not address the question of why non-fluent speakers do not use the strategies of fluent speakers. Is it because they are less quick-witted than fluent speakers, or is there something else at work? The parallel that occurred to me is that of infants learning to walk or talk. Why not “teach” crawling infants the techniques that “successful walkers” use? Then they could perhaps make faster progress towards walking.

Or, why not “teach” speaking strategies to babbling infants? The babblers could perhaps then speed through the annoying babbling stage and move more quickly into speech (or perhaps into “speech-sounding” verbal behaviour), that would most assuredly impress relatives and neighbours!

But perhaps there is a reason why infants go through a crawling phase before walking? Perhaps there is a reason why infants babble before speaking? (See Wikipedia’s entry on Jean Piaget’s developmental process model for children). Similarly, perhaps there is a reason why fluent speakers use such words as “actually” and why non-fluent speakers do not; i.e. because the use of “actually” in conversation requires a conceptual understanding of the target language that is beyond beginners or even intermediate speakers. Perhaps the progression from beginner to fluent speaker requires going through stages, like the stages of physical and mental development in infants; stages that can neither be rushed nor bypassed.  (Cf Second Language Acquisition: Developmental Patterns).

Although the theory sells a lot of books, I remain sceptical. And rather than training speakers to “sound” fluent when in fact they are not, I  prefer a more cognitive approach: helping people to express what they want to say, rather than “selling” them the most popular expressions and turns of phrase.

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Guardian Weekly English-teaching resources

An email recently reminded me that the Guardian Weekly (British, online newspaper) has an EFL section, including lesson plans based on GW articles. The articles aren’t too exciting, but might be useful.

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