The Test Won’t Change, But You Can

The textbook is a byproduct of the examination system and so are ALTs. It’s the reason we are turned into tape recorders and reading comprehension teachers and vocabulary drillers. We become support tools for a broken textbook based on a broken exam. 

We all know that the textbook won’t change until the exam does. But we ALTs can change whenever we want. We have so much flexibility in our job descriptions that we can make our job virtually anything we want it to be. We change it with the materials we bring to the table and the attitude we bring to class.

Why wait for the system to correct itself — if it ever does? We can change things for students today by becoming the communication teachers students really want and need.

Make Games and Programs for your Students with iSpring

I wanted to introduce you to a fantastic piece of software I have been using over the past year. The software is called, iSpring. It allows you to create presentations in PowerPoint and then convert those presentations into flash and HTML animations, which can be used in class — or uploaded online for students at home.  It is my goal to deliver greater chances for students to interact with English and learn better communication skills. I belive language-learning software can successfully accomplish this. Normally creating software on this level would take years of schooling in computer programming and game development. But with this software, I am able to bring my ideas to life and directly to my students.

Here are two examples of the kind of games and software I have been able to create, using iSpring.

 1) Talk More! English: language software for students 


click on the image to try a demo

This software uses high-quality audio, pictures and animations which are brought to life with iSpring. I am able to take whatever target sentences I want and transform them into living conversations for students to access and review at home.

2) Zombie Ping-Pong

zombie English
click on the image to try a demo

This game uses ping-pong as a metaphor for communication, giving questions the power to drive the ball back and forth. Incorrect responses are signified by “dropping the ball” in the game.

The benefits of this software and these games to my students have been incredible. My students go home and practice English at home and come to me the next day telling me they used my software to teach their younger brother or sister English — or that they finally learned how to say something that just didn’t register for them with the textbook. The link between the work I do and the impact on students has been quite immediate. Using this software has given me the opportunity to make a difference with students and their exposure to English in ways never before imagined.

iSpring is really great for a lot of reasons but the top three reasons for me are as follows.

1)      High-quality audio and image conversions. The same crystal-clear integrity of audio and images I create in PowerPoint is preserved in the flash animations iSpring creates.

2)      Ease of use. The button for converting a presentation is streamlined into Microsoft PowerPoint so I can easily create flash whenever I’m ready. Once the file is finished converting, I can immediately upload it on a website or use it on my computer for class.

3)      Simplification and access to powerful tools. In the past, it would take hundreds of hours of studying computer programming and game design to create the kind of software I’m able to build in PowerPoint. This software opens the world of computer programming to people who otherwise wouldn’t be able to.

I hope that seeing this post will give you some inspiration for creating some software of your own. If you have any questions or you would like to contribute to this project please post your comments below.

Bring Communication to Your 1st Graders (JHS)

How would you feel if your sibling asked you to wash these dishes?

How would you feel if your brother or sister asked you to wash these dishes?

Interesting conversation involves two things: emotion and a little negotiation. And what topic is more emotionally charged for teenagers than dividing up the house chores when their parents are gone on vacation? That’s what we found out, using this quick communication activity in which students work in pairs to negotiate about which chores they will do while their parents are away for the week. Please read below to find out more about this activity and to download a free copy of the worksheet that goes along with this idea.

Activity Quick Stats:

Click here to: Download the free worksheet

Level: First Grade Junior High School

Time: 15-20 minutes (depending on how many pairs students make)

Grammar Point: Making requests using “Can you ______?” (e.g. “Can you do the laundry?”)

Set-up: Explain to students that their parents are going on vacation for the week and they need to decide who will do the house chores such as washing the dishes, shoveling the snow and so on. Using the grammar “Can you _____?” students will negotiate about who will do which chore. Obviously some chores on the list are more undesirable than others (e.g. “Can you clean the toilet), so students have a greater incentive to participate actively in negotiations and connect some emotion to the language they are using. After all, “Okay, I can clean the toilet…” has a different ring to it than “Okay, I will make breakfast…”

How to play: After practicing how to say each chore, students will play rock paper scissors  to decide who makes the first request. Following the model dialogue at the end of the worksheet, the winner will request that their “sibling” do one of the chores.  Students can say “No, I can’t” to any item on the list, however, to be fair, they have to say, “Yes, I can.” to at least one chore per turn. The student making a request each time someone has agreed to do a chore. The negotiations finish when all the chores have been agreed to. With 5 chores to divide up, one student will finish with 3 chores to do and another with 2 chores to do. Students should make a memo about which chores they agree on.

An example  dialogue will look like this:

Student 1: Can you clean the toilet?

Student 2: No, I can’t.

Student 1: Okay, can you wash the dishes?

Student 2: Okay, I can wash the dishes.

(Students make a memo and SWITCH)

Student 2: Can you make breakfast?

Student 1: Okay, I can make breakfast.

(Students make a memo and SWITCH)

…and so on…

Click here to: Download the free worksheet

This activity worked really great with all our 1st graders because there was a consequence to the decisions they made (albeit imaginary). We increased the level of engagement from the students by switching partners 3 times, checking who agreed to do each chore after each round, and giving students a chance to think of their own “chore” for the last round.

Let me know if you have any questions. eliotc[at]gmail[dot]com

Emotional Contradiction

Isn’t it funny that a rainbow makes the shape of a frown?? And it’s supposed to be such a happy thing. Photo source: Jenn and Tony Bot, flickr creative commons

At times funny, surprising, cute, hilarious — or even sometimes scary — emotional contradiction is a great teaching device.

As when your students say, “Fine thank you, and you?” while scowling or slumped over their desks.

It just doesn’t make sense to say, “I’m angry!” with a million dollar smile on your face. Or to cheerfully shout, “Lucky you!” if someone says, “I failed my English test.”

More than just a great source of entertainment in the class, emotional contradiction is a great teaching tool.

Rather than letting these strange interactions to take place without comment, we try to point out these emotional contradictions in class to illustrate a variety of important lessons about communication. For example:

-How do we connect emotion with our words?

-How does our behavior effect communication?

-What is does a good, appropriate, engaging in a particular conversation?

-What is strange, inappropriate, unfavorable?

Native speakers are experts of emotional contradiction. Start pointing out the contradiction to lighten the mood and get students connecting the right emotions to their words. A textbook isn’t going to teach them that.

Learning because they Want to

William Kamkwamba, source: wikipedia

This is a picture of William Kamkwamba, giving a lecture at TED (Technology, Entertainment and Design) in 2007. He’s from Malawi, a small country in southeastern Africa. He’s an inventor, engineer, designer, author — and from what I can tell, a genuinely kind-spirited individual. He’s famous for teaching himself basic physics and engineering from a book he found in a library, and rigging together a electricity-generating windmill with scraps of material he found around his village and at a junk yard.

Kamkwamba’s self-designed windmill, 2002 Source: wikipedia

Kamkwamba’s story is a classic tale of ingenuity and how self-directed energy can lead individuals to discovery, invention and greatness. Kamkwamba pursued a dream with zeal, so it didn’t matter what his resources were. Passionate people tend to be pragmatic ones as well. He used what he had available and accomplished what should have been impossible. When someone has passion — or a will to do something — resources are secondary.

When I hear stories like Kamkwamba’s, I’m reminded of students living in the first world. In many cases, their situation is completely opposite of people like Kamkwamba. These people often have all the resources but none of the will — none of the passion.

I’m also reminded of Japanese English classrooms. The resource to passion ratio is stunning. Students have all the resources they need (and more) to become fluent in English, yet so many don’t.

There’s a tendency to blame results on resources. But what about the passion?

Give someone passion but few resources and anything is possibleBut the opposite isn’t really true: Give people every resource but no passion and everything is impossible.

I’m tempted to say if we could simply inspire passion in students to learn English we could basically throw them scraps of newspapers and they would teach themselves. It’s an absurd  notion, but I think you get my point.

There is a passion deficit in English classrooms. Students have every resource they are going to get. The missing link? You guessed it – Passion. Figure out how to bring that to the table and we’ve just changed the game of English education in Japan.

New New Horizon and the Status of the Communication Revolution

I’ve given each book a good read-through and done a bit of analysis. Here are some of my reactions. I don’t want to start off this post complaining, so I thought I’d cover the stuff I like so far. Here’s:

The Good

-There are updated pictures and cultural references to *more* recent films, music, events and so on. This might pique the interest of students more.

-They include more reaction words like “Oh!”, “Wow!” “Oh Really?” These words add emotion to texts and make them appear more natural.

-The reference materials in the back off each book are well organized and appear to make it easier for students to study English.

-The content incorporates stuff from more parts of the world, although it is still pretty American-centeric.


The Questionable

I haven’t seen this book in action yet and don’t know how my teachers will embrace it/use it so instead of saying “stuff I don’t like”, I’m going to put up some question marks.

-?-There is a lot more material and a lot more reading. Just a quick glance through the book will give you the impression this is a more weighty book than the last. And in fact, it is true, according to my initial analysis of books 2 and 3:

More Reading Comprehension in new New Horizon (word doc.)

-?-This focus on reading comprehension means that a lot of grammar and sentence models are centered around “reading” English to the detriment of “spoken/communication” English.

-?-There seems to be a bit of information overload in general. These new textbooks are packed to the brim with grammar explanations and reading. Consequently, they don’t seem to give much weight to anything in particular. Everything is presented pretty much as “study this because it is English.” An interesting method, indeed, which one might compare to giving someone a dictionary to learn English. Yes, all the words are English, but you have to admit that words like “baseball” should be given more emphasis and priority than a word like “ascetic.”

-?-They moved the 2nd year “giving directions” activity to the 1st year textbook. This activity was hard enough for my 2nd year students. I have a feeling it is going to flop in 1st grade.

Preliminary Conclusions:

New Horizon appears to have doubled down on the “prepare students for the test” approach to teaching English with the amount of emphasis they put on reading comprehension and grammar in the new textbook. It’s a little disappointing and frustrating because it is going to suck up class time and probably overwhelm students.

I’d say one of the best things ALTs can do right now is to do a little filtering for students and teachers. As native English speakers, we have a good eye for what is relevant and useful in spoken English, so we can perhaps sort out some of the mess and help students/teachers prioritize some of the material here. For example, I have gone through each book and created lists of all the best conversation questions that appear and what page they’re on.

Where does this put the communication revolution? Perhaps it’s a bit of a setback, but the need for more communication is still here more than ever. It doesn’t make our job any easier, but maybe this book will highlight again the absurdity of the “dead language approach” to teaching English.

What are your reactions so far?

Guess What?

By John Hatanaka, ALT, Yamagata City

"Guess what?!"This is the poster I printed off for my kids and put around the school.

I’ve had a breakthrough with my students recently. When I see my kids in the morning, they no longer say “Good morning!” to me. Now, instead of just, “Good morning!”, they usually ask me a second question. “Guess what?!”, they say. I ask them, “What?”. And then they have to tell me about something from their day.

Instead of a teacher, I become a listener, and a conversation starts as I reply with follow-up questions. It’s kind of like physics, I think. “Guess what?” is an easy English phrase that all students can say. And it gets the ball rolling. An object in motion stays in motion. And if you can find a clever way like this to get the conversation rolling, you are already off to a good start.

I like the English passport idea. Maybe I’ll start to offer a “Guess what?” stamp if my students use a “Guess what?” question. Passports are Great!