Humor is playing with language, and teaching it can usefully combine authentic input with creative output for a dynamic aspect to second language classes. Richard Hodson has been researching and teaching humor for several years and shared with us some of its principles and how he uses it. Incongruity, superiority and psychic release are the accepted reasons for funniness; pedagogical credibility is based on the linguistic and extra-linguistic knowledge required to teach and learn it. Some difficulties are the subject matter, i.e. recognizing and avoiding taboo topics, that it is too personal or culture specific—so that some people just don’t get it-- and varying student levels, necessitating lengthy explanations that can sometimes stall the class, losing the attention of some and the interest of others so that in the end it’s just not funny anymore. This is not a problem for Hodson, who concedes to being quite amusing in his classroom—while encouraging his students to be as well by modifying jokes, rewriting the endings—and evaluating each other with Likert scales of happy faces. For us, the evening was an entertaining and interesting introduction to a potentially very useful methodology.
Reports of our meetings. Click on a month to see details.
Nicoll distributed copies of self-evaluation forms and explained how he uses portfolios in his reading classes at a small aspiring Liberal Arts college doggedly pursuing its perceived vocation as a teaching institution in the face of pressure to pursue grant money and the blurring line between “standards” and “standardization”. He offered various meanings of portfolios-- and a picture of one, pointing out that quasi-privatization and the politics of pedagogy and research have put teachers between a rock and a hard place, looking for alternatives to TOEIC for language assessment.
Growing out of the student autonomy movement, Common European Frame of Reference (CEFF) and European Language Portfolios (ELP) using dossiers, self-regulation, life-long learning and can-do statements, are models for the Personal Assessment Checklist System project. PACS is about rationales, goals and constraints; pilot data gathering for English and IT courses; and building systems, where students answer questions with their cell-phones (fun for students and easier for teachers) and self-assess their burgeoning language skills and confidence with Likert scales.
There was some discussion of how other teachers used methods similar to portfolios for their classroom and coursework organization— with alternatives and improvements offered by Nicoll’s research.
Fun and Easy Japanesey
Matthew Jenkins used Japanese throughout his talk to demonstrate how exclusive use of the target language, while not necessarily the teacher's native language, may expedite learning, in combination with gestures and role-playing reminiscent of Asher's Total Physical Response. He asked his audience to pretend to be beginning Japanese students and gave us a little lesson, introduced with puppets modeling a basic self-introduction which we mimicked and practiced, pointing out that popular activities are ones that allow participants to talk about themselves. He then continued in Japanese to show how usefully the target language can be incorporated into classroom management (with TPR) to maximize student exposure to it.
Easy Steps to more English Use in the Classroom
Yukiko Arima shared some of her experience with genuine communication in Australia, noting the lack of target language use in English classrooms in Japan and citing surveys that appear to indicate that Japanese teachers simply do not feel confident enough to speak it. She gave us a group project of brainstorming important aspects of teaching and learning under the headings of Confidence, Chance and Contents, which were then shared and discussed as part of her main focus of encouraging teachers to be confident, active learners for themselves as well as to be good examples for their students.
Teaching English in English: Easier advocated than done in Japan
As a professional teacher of English in Japan, Hiroshi Otani finds it difficult to use a lot of English in his classes. While encouraging them to keep on trying, he described some of the major challenges that JTEs are facing in Japan, including their own command of English, the continual shifts in Monkasho curriculum requirements and the deeply rooted translation culture in this country. Though supporting grammar explanations in the students' mother tongue and not expecting students to answer in English, Otani encourages teachers to move from explanation to activity- oriented teaching to maximize usage.
After these three engaging observations of the current state of English teaching in Japan and how to deal with it, brief and appropriate mention was accorded the Elephant In The Room, the University Entrance Examination, which has to change before anything else does, and then our plenary speaker gave some pointers on teaching grammar.
How to Make Grammar Easy (By First Making it Difficult!)
In the tradition of 'teacher' as 'learning assistant', Scott Thornbury showed us how he helps students discover rules of grammar for themselves by "problematizing and personification". He presents a language challenge in the simple quiz format of questions with multiple choice answers-- but deliberately skews the answers so that the wrong ones appear correct-- until attention is paid to the grammatical format of the question and answer, which forces students to learn from the mistakes they make. He gave several further illustrations of how it is more interesting and memorable to intuit the rules than to have them explained-- along with various means of encouragement and ways to let students know how close they are to the target. More can be found here: www.thornburyscott.com
To finish our mini-conference, many of the attendees adjourned to the nearby Flamingo Cafe for a meal together and to continue illuminating discussions for as long as was possible.
We had another great session of experienced teachers and expert computer users who are continually finding and testing what’s new and applicable to language teaching out there on the net— and provided us with some succinct, accessible explanations.
Swanson told us what kinds of classes he teaches and what sort of online resources he has found appropriate for each—and cautioned against trying to sign in a whole class at the same time to Google Docs— maximum ten per session is doable. It is free and easy to create and edit documents online while collaborating in real time with other users. Picnik can enhance and present your photos with just one click; Smart.fm is a researched new teaching approach that follows responses and graphs mistakes and successes into a learning curve; Howcast gives step by step instructions to do anything imaginable, similar to wikiHow; Survey Monkey will create and publish up to fifty online surveys for free, at a time; Animoto will make a show from photos—and video, up to 30 seconds for free; 280 Slides is like PowerPoint but easier; TypeWithMe is useful for online (student) collaboration, each in a different color; Audiopal tweaks your recorded voice or text message; VoiceThread is a multi-participatory multimedia slide; 50+Web 2.0 Ways To Tell a Story uses over fifty web services to help users put a story together. With Bill Pellowe’s Mobile Audience Response System (MOARS), the students take quizzes and surveys using mobile web-based browsers.
Cruz uses the internet outside of the classroom to find ‘real English’ for reading and listening practice, because not everyone speaks like the voice actors on language CDs. His list includes Japan Today and Voice of America Special English as well as English Listening Lesson Library Online (ELLLO) -- supplemented with his own site, JapanLEO, which offers ELLLO’s conversation transcripts completed with the deleted pause markers.
Holloway accesses the web to download materials for his Junior High School students, as well as to find support for his views when arguing with colleagues. From his long list of useful sites, he uses the Time For Kids site for its personal narrative, news story and how-to article organizers, MES-English.com for writing practice with its word find and shadow words components and Puzzlemaker and Handouts Online for printout material. BBC Skillswise offers a huge bank of ESL materials to help teach grammar, spelling, reading, writing, listening and vocabulary in English; Tokyo Shoseki has a similar offering for Japanese learners.
It was an extremely useful and highly informative evening of introductions to leading-edge technology that gave everyone something to take to class.
Instructors at primary, secondary and tertiary levels of English language education in the Kitakyushu area shared their successes, failures and insights from using dictionaries in their classes.
Frustrated at the lack of appropriate elementary level bilingual dictionaries, Mark Gibson made his own-- and his students know that every new word they learn is in it, very useful in the development of a unique curriculum in his private school.
Eiki Hattori and his colleagues have Jr. HS students create their own dictionaries to prepare for vocabulary tests. New words and phrases are included with phonetic signs, accent markings and Japanese definitions.
Go Yoshizawa showed three different kinds of electronic dictionaries used in his high
school and explained some of their merits, such as the Jump feature to explain the meaning of an unknown word used in the definition of another; and the word quiz as an ice-breaker to start a class. They are also very useful for rephrasing English sentences.
David Latz gives his university classes fifteen weekly vocabulary quizzes, which mimic the T.O.E.I.C. Bridge Test in requiring more than one usage of a word—and in turn prepares them well for that test, whose score is included in their grade.
Seeing a student’s T.O.E.I.C. scores improve dramatically with “non-stop reading” led Gibson to further research, which convinced him of its validity as a way to ensure greater retention of the material. Reading too slowly results in not getting enough information to engage the whole mind simultaneously and productively; speeding up results in more understanding because more information is immediately available to build better images to effectively process input.
A physical challenge, reading speed needs to be addressed before comprehension. Skip the painstaking and disruptive process of looking up all new vocabulary—a lot can be understood through context if the input is fast enough to engage the whole mind. Fifteen to twenty contacts with a word are enough to get it from short-term to long-term memory, which is the best place for it.
Introduced first at a company and then a university, Gibson’s program starts with testing reading speed and comprehension, leading to explanation and discussion of their relationship and introduction of strategies for improving both simultaneously, as well as techniques of imaging, predicting and dealing with unknown vocabulary. As an immediate indicator of marked improvement, cloze testing is very motivational-- as well as useful for course grading.
Discouraged by the old paradox of using written tests to examine verbal competence, Steve Quasha has developed a system of personalized portfolio rubrics designed to tap into students’ intrinsic motivation via creativity and critical thinking which require them to identify strengths and weaknesses to most effectively take charge of their own learning. One example of the many rubrics he showed us was, “List 15 useful expressions, phrases or idioms you learned from this class.” Peer assessment is part of this dynamic, a significant shift in motivation from writing only for the teacher. It also adds continuity to the process, surely satisfying to teachers frustrated with seeing students’ interest rarely extend beyond the grade on a carefully corrected paper.
Quasha distributed examples of student “process” portfolios connecting new language learning with daily activities via imaginative tasks requiring investigation and reflection—changed often to avoid student recycling of answers and also because different classes have separate objectives. Peer feedback is encouraged-- in both English and Japanese-- and helps lead to final assessment portfolios, no small tangible and treasured end-product of an EFL course.
Jenkins agrees with Thornbury that second language acquisition research is useful for validating our classroom practices and as a starting point for developing new techniques-- as well as a bulwark against imposters promoting questionable teaching methodologies. After distinguishing between second and foreign language acquisition he introduced several of the better-known theories in these fields and invited us to discuss them in the context of actual classroom application. We brainstormed in groups to recall and consider a specific kind of lesson we had done or seen, and then tried to match it with a supporting theory from those he had told us about. When some time had been spent on this, each group in turn reported their conclusions followed by a general discussion of further possible practical exploitation, and difficulties that might be encountered.
TRIDENT (Triangular Denary System for Translation Disparity) is a triangular grid devised by Robert Murphy as a tool for making such dimensions of language as uniqueness vs. universality and figurativeness vs. literalness more tangible for students. Within minutes we had grasped the use of the grid and were able to assign words from a text to each of the nodes.
Recent brain research from Harvard has shown that emotional connection is as effective as repetition in moving learned material into long-term memory, and Murphy argued that manga provide that kind of emotional connection for students. If you accept Lange and Piage’s premise that we are all cultural beings and that language is the quintessential expression of culture, it makes sense to incorporate occasional translation exercises into TEFL lessons. In the Kitakyushu dialect cartoon with which we experimented, the pictures made the context very clear. Using the TRIDENT grid, we could physically measure the distance between the colloquial language of the manga and the flat and flavorless English phrases students meet in their textbooks. Working out a range of translations for various nodes on the grid has led Murphy’s students to ask important questions and feel at home with English.
Collett and Swanson gave us an inspirational couple of hours regarding CALL in the classroom and out, integrating students’ lives ever more closely with using English in functional and fun ways. Social networking Facebook and micro-blogging Twitter are big, as are all their followers and competitors, and everyone is using them already anyway-- but there are hassles and dangers so why not use their concepts and the services subsequently developed, and design your own system to exploit this opportunity for authentic communicative language practice?
These two experts walked us through the basics of various networking set-up, pointing out further potential exploitation possible with more sophisticated management, and that for a small monthly fee it can all be done for you. Keeping up with current events on the personal and global level is attractive to most people, however it can be de-motivating if students find themselves unable to keep up with the responses—and unwilling to have their mistakes floating around in cyber-space forever, another good reason to set up a closed network for your classroom. And the good news is that Swanson and Collett are both willing to help you do that.