Classes, including language classes, at Japanese universities are almost all 90 minutes, once a week. Students may take several language classes, e.g. a speaking class, a writing class, a reading class, etc., so this will add up to more than 90 minutes of English a week.
Why is this? Have studies been done that show that, yup! 90 minutes once a week is the best format for learning a foreign language (or anything else, for that matter)? On what, then, was the original decision based to create a system of 90-minute classes once a week for 15 weeks? What were the factors involved in coming to this decision? Certainly no-one seems to question it, except a few crazies like John Holt and John Gatto.
Students develop a belief (and who can blame them?) that passing a course is more or less a matter of showing up to a sufficient number of classes. Last year, I failed a number of students who failed to come up to the bar in terms of language proficiency. Some of them complained. Among their reasons was that they had a nearly flawless attendance record (and some with less than sterling attendance had managed to pass). This is in spite of the fact that according to the published syllabus, 0% of the final grade is based on attendance.
Yet students can be excused for believing this. After all, many teachers take attendance. Although the final grade is not based on attendance, students who attend less than 60% of the classes are theoretically disbarred from passing, so the instructor is supposed to keep track of attendance. In several institutions, attendance is taken by means of a machine attached to the wall near the main door: as students file in, they slide their student ID card through the slot and their attendance is automatically registered. Students who are not registered, tho, due to a bug or a delay in the system, must inform the instructor if they want their attendance to be counted. (I wonder what is to stop students from sliding their card thru the slot, then surreptitiously sliding their ass out the other door?)
Has anyone done studies to see if it is at all possible to improve in a foreign language, when classes are taught once a week for 90 minutes a time? How about the factor of the number of students in a class? I have one class of “spoken English” which has 40 students registered. So far, all of them have shown up. Is this the optimum number and I just did not get the memo?
A few years ago, I took a course in a language-teaching approach which comes the closest to Stephen Krashen’s ideal. The course was led by one of the top trainers in the field. At the end of the course, I told her my situation (90-minute classes, once a week, 15 weeks) and asked her if this approach was viable under such conditions. Her answer: “Forget it!” (I ignored her advice, but am beginning to think she may well have been right.)
Many more years ago, I took a course led by Nicolas Ferguson who had developed a system called Self-Access Pair Learning (SAPL), and a proficiency test for listening and for speaking. I recall that he said progress was minimal with less than 100 hours of ideal instruction (by which he meant 100 hours of speaking and listening in the target language). 90 minutes x 15 (1 semester) = 22.5 hours, or 45 hours in an academic year. Hmm. Not even half-way towards the amount of practice necessary to make a significant difference (i.e. measurable progress).
The Japanese academic year has started. This year, I plan to continue to have my students do a lot of freewriting (or free writing), which I became enthusiastic about last year after reading McCrorie (see these blog posts, for example).
Specifically, I use it in classes other than the pure “Oral English”-type. I use freewriting in an Academic Writing class, a linguistics class, a reading class, and a writing class.
Do you use free writing with your EFL or ESL students?
What do my students think of it? I’ll copy some of their comments later (click here to jump straight to my students’ comments and miss the fascinating background blah-blah). But first… Read more »
I taught the rules for the pronunciation and spelling of the letters “c” and “g” in English last week to an Academic Writing class of university 2nd-year class of European Literature majors. Here are some of their comments:
- I didn’t know the rules of pronunciation of “c” and “g”, so I was surprised when you told them in last class. I would like to know more about rules of pronunciation of English.
- the rule of how to pronounce surprised me. I wonder why I don’t know this rule though I’ve studied English for 6 years.
- I was stunned by the rule of “How to pronounce C and G”. I never knew such rule until last class, but the rule was so solid. It’s useful, so I thought they should teach this rule in junior highs and high schools.
I am stunned they were stunned! I might do more on the rules of English spelling, although it is not in the textbook and not on the syllabus. The homework was to write a comment about the class. The 3 students quoted above were the only ones (out of 18) who mentioned the spelling rules.
Here are some more comments from students in a different class where I spent a few minutes on the various different ways of pronouncing the English vowels and some of the consonants:
- I learned some letters have some sounds. For example, “a” has three sounds. I felt interesting because Japanese letters have one way to say.
- I learned how to pronounce alphabet. I realize vowels and consonants in English. Pronunciation in English has a voiceless sound and a voiced sound. For example, “f”,”h”,”p”,”t”,”s”, and “k” are voiceless sounds, “b”,”d”,”g”,”v”,”l”,”m”,”n” and “z” are voiced sounds. And “p” and “b” are minimal pair. Minimal pair means a voiceless sound or a voiced sound. I think that Japanese don’t care [I think she means “are not aware of”] voiced or voiceless sounds when we usually speak Japanese. So, I have difficulty speaking these sounds. I want to practice these sounds in class.
- I studied vowels last Friday in S in E class. I was surprised to know that the English word must not end in “i”. I had not known it.
In that class, I’m going to town on teaching them the 44 sounds of English and their relationship to the 26 letters of the alphabet, because it’s a content course on linguistics. I’m still undecided how much time to spend on this in my other classes. I spent a little time on it in one oral English class because they are Pharmacy majors and probably need to learn a lot of technical words in English, many of which will have Greek or Latin origins. I will need to get feedback from students on this, to see how many of them (if any) find it useful.
Do you teach the sounds and spellings of English in your classes? Which classes, and how much time do you spend on it?
Below is a list of books by Macrorie that are available on Amazon Japan.
But first, why read Macrorie? He’s old hat – all of these books were written in the last century, and most in the 1970s! Nobody writing about freewriting for ESL or EFL cites Macrorie.
If you are interested in freewriting, especially from a teacher’s point of view, here’s why I like to read Macrorie:
- Macrorie’s procedures include the following injunction, which no author of an academic paper on teaching ESL/EFL writing ever mentions, but which really puts Macrorie in the top class of teachers: to put down some kind of truth (by which he did not mean “going topless”).
- He understood that Engfish (that bloated, pretentious, dead language which is almost incapable of expressing truth) is a symptom; a symptom of poor or failed learning. This is how students write when they have not really internalized, integrated, digested the material, but they want to convince the teacher that they have. Why have they not digested the material? Because real learning cannot happen unless the person first brings their own experience, their whole self, to bear on the material. Yet this is what teachers (perhaps unwittingly) discourage students from doing, starting in elementary school. So Macrorie’s purpose for freewriting, in a class other than pure composition, is to invite students to bring their experiences to bear on the material BEFORE the teacher starts teaching. (This theme is expanded on in more detail in Twenty Teachers.)
- He describes in detail his classroom procedures, both the successes and the failures.
- Most of his books (perhaps not the earlier ones) include a list of “shovel-ready assignments (1 or 2 per chapter).
- His books include many examples of student writing, both good and bad, which you can use as is in your classes to give students an idea of what is (and is not) meant by “good writing”.
Here’s my list of Macrorie books:
And here’s the same list of books available from Amazon.com.
Lake Otaki, Nagano, Japan, August 2012
Looks great, doesn’t it? And it is. But just try getting a 3G signal in this place! It’s like trying to catch fairies. Or herd cats (I’m reminded of “counting cats in Zanzibar“, a line from Thoreau).
Despite the frustrations, and in between breathing deeply of the gorgeous scenery and sweet airs of Nagano, and having great fun with hammer, screws, power-drills and wood (but failing to actually make anything), I was able to continue my I-Search by googling “freewriting + EFL” and downloading whatever I could.
I also continued reading Ken Macrorie.
Ken Macrorie invented freewriting. Well, that’s not quite true, but he was the one who put it on the map of college English teaching (that’s teaching native-speaking English students, not ESL or EFL).
In Uptaught and A Vulnerable Teacher (that’s the order I read them; I think their chronological order is the reverse) he wrote about his Damascus moment and how he successfully coaxed numbers of quite ordinary students to produce some quite extraordinary writing, and he gives plenty of examples, which is partly what makes me come back for more, and also what convinces me that Macrorie’s approach of using freewriting combined with critique sessions by fellow students and Macrorie himself really do work.
In Uptaught, Macrorie recounts an incident that took place in an office while he was busy photocopying samples of student writing for publication. A colleague told him a lot of other teachers don’t believe in his approach. “Here’s the evidence”, replied Macrorie. He measured his success by the quality of his students’ writing, and felt that all teachers should be thus evaluated, but they never are.
Although Macrorie was the father of freewriting in college classrooms, I have yet to find more than one academic paper which cites him (the only one so far is Marta).
Macrorie himself wrote that he got the idea of freewriting from a 1936 book by Dorothea Brande. Now Dorothea Brande is quoted by one of my academic writers (Meghan Whitlock, in The Importance of Informal Writing in the Classroom: A Guide to Formal Writing – PDF warning), but not cited, and the context suggests the writer has no clue that Brande was the original source for the name “freewriting”.
So we have Brande mentioned, who preceded Macrorie, and Elbow, who got the idea of freewriting from Macrorie and how to use it with college students, also mentioned. But not Macrorie. He has disappeared down the memory hole.
Where is Macrorie?
“I warn against defining sincerity as telling true things about oneself. It is more accurate to define it functionally as the sound of the writer’s voice or self on paper – a general sound of authenticity in the words. The point is that self-revelation – breast baring (going topless) is an easy route in our culture and therefore can be used as an evasion. It can be functionally insincere even if substantively true and intimate. To be precise, sincerity is the absence of “noise” or static, the ability or courage not to hide the real message.”
“Beginnings” in the chapter “Hope” of “Uptaught”. Macrorie is here quoting Peter Elbow.
In some of the many articles and academic papers I’ve read recently on the subject of freewriting with EFL students, the authors have criticized freewriting as being self-indulgent and leading to bad habits, or they have expressed reservations about letting students do freewriting or do too much of it (“It’ll make you go blind, my boy!”). They seem to associate freewriting with self-indulgent “letting it all hang out” revelations. Where do they get these ideas?
Because that was clearly not what either Macrorie (the father of freewriting in college classrooms) or Elbow (the man everyone thinks is the father of freewriting) had in mind, as you can see from the above quote. Everybody cites Peter Elbow, but I’m starting to wonder: have any of these folks actually read him?
(I know that if this was a scholarly article, I should leave a footnote here identifying exactly who makes those accusations or expresses those reservations. But I’ve read so many uninspiring articles and studies in the last couple of weeks that my head’s spinning, and I’m not going to read them all again. But please go ahead.)
Engfish, a term coined by college writing professor Ken Macrorie in the 1960s, represented everything Macrorie hated about college writing, both by students and professors. Here’s Macrorie:
Most English teachers have been trained to correct students writing, not to read it; so they put down those bloody correction marks in the margins. When the students see them, they think they mean that teachers don’t care what students write, only how they punctuate and spell. So students give them Engfish.”
Why “Engfish”? One day, a student collared Macrorie in the hallways and showed him a piece of writing written in the style of James Joyce about another English professor. Did Macrorie think it good enough to be submitted for publication in the university magazine?
… the stridents in his glass lisdyke him immersely. Day each that we tumble into the glass he sez to mee, “Eets too badly that you someday fright preach Engfish.”
A light went on for Macrorie, and the rest is history.
Macrories gives plenty of examples in his books, .e.g Telling Writing
I went downtown today for the first time. When I got there I was completely astonished by the hustle and the bustle that was going on. My first impression of the downtown area was quite impressive.
Beautiful Engfish. The writer said not simply that he was astonished, but completely astonished, as if the word astonished had no force of its own. The student reported (pretended would be a truer word) to have observed hustle and bustle, and then explained in true Engfish that the hustle and bustle was going on. He managed to work in the academic word area, and finished by saying the impression was impressive.
Engfish. A language in which fresh truth is almost impossible to express.
…a name for that bloated, pretentious language I saw everywhere around me, in the students’ themes, in the textbooks on writing, in the professors’ and administrators’ communications to each other. A feel-nothing, say-nothing language, dead like Latin, devoid of the rhythms of contemporary speech. A dialect in which wards are almost never “attached to things,” as Emerson said they should be.
For an expanded definition of Engfish visit About.com
I-Search is a term concocted by Ken Macrorie, a famous writing teacher in the U.S., who wrote extensively about using free writing in college English/composition classes. Though in the 40-odd academic studies of freewriting in EFL that I’ve skimmed recently Peter Elbow is the name most often cited in connection with freewriting, Macrorie was the one who came up with the idea.
Later, after discovering how to successfully draw out good writing from his university students, he coined the word “I-Search” to refer to a new kind of research paper, to replace the traditional term papers that students are expected to write, and which usually result in reams of writing that no-one will ever read (possibly even the teacher). It was part of his attempt to wean students (and any writer, really) away from what he called Engfish – phony, “academese” writing with no personal voice in it. Institution-talk. Macrorie made extensive use of free writing in his composition classes.
Here in this blog, over the next few weeks, I’m going to try and write my own I-Search, and my topic will be, Is it possible to use I-Search in EFL writing classes and if so, how?
What I want is students writing papers that are of value to them, as well as to others, instead of serving up plagiarised pages that offer no evidence that the student has learned anything at all, or pages of mangled “English” that were obviously “written” in 10 minutes just to satisfy course requirements on a subject the student couldn’t care less about (perhaps because the teacher chose it).
The writing students do in school, in class, in my case for ELF classes, is rarely exciting, and often phony: stuff for the Teacher. In extreme cases, wholesale cutting-and-pasting from the Internet may occur. And if you have EFL students as I do, you’ll probably be faced with machine-translated gobbledygook from some place like the aptly named Babelfish site.
Hardly surprising, when students are short of time and yet expected to write good English.
The name “I-Search” is, as I understand it, an attempt to bring the “I”, the personal voice of the writer, including the writer’s own experiences, back into college writing, including academic writing.
The name reminds me of these lines from Ayn Rand’s “The Fountainhead”:
(Peter Keating) “Wait. This is terribly important. Dominique, you’ve never said, not once, what you thought. Not about anything. You’ve never expressed a desire. Not of any kind… Where’s your ‘I’?
“Where’s yours, Peter?” she asked quietly.
Perhaps I-Search is also a search for one’s “I”, one’s real voice.
My I-Search question is: will free-writing and I-Search work in Japan with EFL college students? Read more »
PD = Professional Development
PD – Professional Development – is in full swing in almost all colleges and universities around Japan. In the uni I work at, it boils down to two things: student evaluations and classroom observation. I open almost all my classes to observation, and I video most of my classes, too, for my own use mainly.
Here’s an article on PD by an administrator in the U.S. It’s a list of suggestions to administrators as to how to make PD effective and palatable. It is not a bad list, but I’m not an administrator, so what caught my attention was not the content but the source article:
Reeves, D. (2010). Transforming professional development into student success. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.
I’m in the middle of reading some books by acclaimed university writing teacher Ken Macrorie. Here’s Ken’s comments on teaching and teachers and evaluations, etc (from the days before PD became obligatory):
Departments in universities tremble when time comes for promotion and tenure to be awarded teachers because the chairman and his advisers- usually the full professors who have and tenure and the highest rank – have no notion of how good or bad they colleagues are as teachers.
Every few years they feel guilty about acting upon gossip and prejudice and chance meetings in the hall. They debate whether to make visitations classrooms to see the teachers in action. “But that’s not fair,” some say, “maybe your hit him on a bad day.”
Sometimes the committee looks at if valuations of the teachers written by students.but they aren’t of much help because almost every teacher comes out the same way. “He wears a brown suit every day.” “His assignment are too long.” About 2% in each class say: “He’s one of the best teachers I’ve ever had.”
… I have been discovering that the professor should be tested by the performance of his students. Since most teachers don’t improve their performance, the students have nothing valuable to say in evaluations. They could say, “a failure,” but they seldom realise that is the truth because most of their professors are failures.
A senior student came into my office to tell me how he looks forward to getting out of school so he can once again read with pleasure. He should have put that down in his teacher evaluation.
And from the section on freedom,
All those years I thought students needed to be forced. Because I was always telling them, they had no chance to tell me.
(All quotes from Uptaught.)
[Sarcasm mode: on]
From the Korea Herald:
Many English teachers in Korea face a common problem: A lack of contact hours makes it difficult to give students enough speaking practice.
KAIST professor Tim Thompson launched the website www.educationanyware.com on Aug. 1 to give teachers the chance to offer speaking practice using video recording.
The project has changed somewhat from its inception in 2010, when Thompson and a fellow professor started work on a program to help deal with the lack of contact time with students.
Thompson mentions in passing a key problem: the tests that students are supposed to pass:
“There’s so much teaching to these tests and that’s why they’re getting rid of all the native-speaking English teachers in Seoul. It’s because they’re like, ‘Yeah, we don’t need talking teachers; we need teachers who are going to prepare them for this grammar test,’” he said.
Fancy! Using the Internet to increase listening and speaking opportunities for language students! Thank God for PhDs and university professors. Progress would be little or none without them.
Although the concept sounds simple, Thompson said he was not aware of another similar offering, although he knew of one that was audio based.
“You would not believe the number of people who have said to me, ‘What, nobody’s already done that?’ But actually, having coordinated with the guys who put it together, it really is quite complicated,” he said, explaining that the balanced combination of technical skills and teaching expertise was rare.
That’s where the universities and PhDs come in. This isn’t just something anyone can set up. It takes brains, years and years of book-learning and writing papers no-one ever reads with tons of footnotes, to be able to come up with such a system.
Does it have to be a system, I hear you ask? How quaint! I suppose you think anyone could do this with an Internet connection, a website and a YouTube account? Ha-ha-ha!
How will it be used? Who will pay? I’m glad you asked!
Originally a downloadable Flash-based program with animated interviewers, the concept has changed slightly, becoming an open platform on a website where users can upload videos of themselves setting questions or speaking tasks. Read more »