5 Things every new teacher needs to know

Unless you’ve just emerged from the cave, or live in other parts of the internet, you’ll know that Buzzfeed loves numbered lists. There are social marketers on the internet who do research on what attracts our attention, and weirdly, people love numbered lists. Of course, new teachers need to know more than just five things, so other than knowing how to unjam a photocopier is and learning where the toilets are, here is a short list. I’ll do more in the future.

1. Be flexible

Life happens, and nobody is a robot. We don’t live in Toyota production lines, and nothing important in life happens according to a schedule. Just go with the flow. If your boss says to you, “I’m sorry I forgot to tell you, there’s a free-talking class and there are eight students. You’ll use this textbook, and it begins in ten minutes”, don’t freak out. Bosses are people who are busy, they have many things going on around them, and they have to deal with a lot of things to deal with. Be tolerant and get on with the job you’re paid to do. I’ve found that some of my favourite ideas occurred when I just had to wing it. I’m not saying my best teaching ideas always came spontaneously in class, but when under pressure, you discover new things. For instance, many, many years ago I discovered that students can just talk. No book, papers, whiteboard, twitter, or topic required. Put them in pairs, demo a small talk situation, and get them to get on with it. Change partners after a few minutes, and repeat. If they finish early, tell them “What?! Do you have such short conversations with your friends at lunch?!!! You must be the boring friend. Ask more questions!” Encourage them to really communicate, beyond what the textbook has trained into them.


2. Smile

A smile goes a long way in smoothing over difficulties. It shows you have patience, and that in the greater scheme of things, it’s not a dire situation; nobody’s going to die. It’s truly the best way of dealing with unexpected things. Also, be nice to the school admin; they’re the ones who build and defend your reputation behind your back. They’re usually under pressure and have a difficult job of it, too. So just be nice to your fellow humans.

A teacher and student laughing. Creative Commons licensed image from http://www.flickr.com/photos/departmentofed/9609016298/sizes/l/

A teacher and student laughing. Creative Commons licensed image from http://www.flickr.com/photos/departmentofed/9609016298/sizes/l/


3. Inspire

Honestly, I hate textbooks. I’ll admit I used them like a crutch when I began teaching, but they are soooooo dry. Textbooks are designed to look great, they have wonderful pictures and great page layout designs, but the actual content isn’t so hot. The topics avoid offending anyone from any culture, and so taboo topics, and other non-mainstream topics are avoided. So, issues like race, human rights, sexual orientations, love, death, and others are never addressed, including key vocabulary and language students might need to deal with related issues. For instance, Japanese students looooooove food. It’s like it’s legally mandated that all Japanese TV channels show 23 hours of people eating food. Yet, when I ask my students what food they like, they reply with “I like お好み焼き”. Who outside of Japan would have a clue what this is? Students should not be trained into an insular belief I see affecting so many. Students and teachers don’t believe they need English, and think that words like shnkansen, kyoumuka, takoyaki, genki, and others can legitimately be used in “English”. Students need to see what real English looks like, and that there is a plethora of ideas out there, that doesn’t exist here in Japan. I’ll admit this is a very Japan-centric post, but I haven’t seen such a mentality when I was in Korea or Taiwan. So, use the internet, and show your students that there’s a huge, huge repository of information and ideas in English, on the internet. There really is much, much more information on the internet in English, than in Japanese. So, inspire them to take full advantage of being bilingual by spending maybe just five to ten minutes a lesson on inspirational things you or they find on the net. Get them to guess what inspirational quotes mean, they’ll use their dictionaries, and learn a new way of thinking about life. You also get to explain some culture specific background that textbooks completely avoid, too. There’s thousands of these pictures being shared on Google+ and Twitter.

Inspire your students to learn new ideas and ways of thinking from English-language inspirational quotes from the net.

Inspire your students to learn new ideas and ways of thinking from English-language inspirational quotes from the net.


 4. Give your students time to think and talk

Some teachers forget that they just need to let go. I’ve seen teachers talk to each student one at a time. If there are nine students, eight students are bored out of their brains waiting for their turn, and the speaking to listening ratio is 10% and 90%. If you have students working in pairs, then the speaking & listening ratio in the lesson is something like 45% & 55% (including 5% is you giving instructions and demos). It’s important to set up a talking or conversation activity, and say, “off you go”. Students will be quiet for a moment. In that time they’re thinking about what they need to do and their first words, and they’ll get started. If not, perhaps you didn’t demonstrate or set up the activity well enough, the level of the activity is too high, or some other problem. The other thing to consider is is that if the room is deathly silent, no one will want to be the first to break that silence. You could consider having the window open to allow the white noise of the traffic to provide some masking noise for the first speakers, or have some classical music playing quietly in the room.

The ideal ratio of language classroom interactions.

The ideal ratio of language classroom interactions, especially for conversation, communication, and free talking classes. To achieve this, have your students talk to each other in pairs.


5. Why not play music in class?

Depending on the class, I’ll play classical music or jazz with no lyrics in a class. Music is beneficial for many reasons. For most people, playing music while studying organises their thoughts and allows them to focus. It also provides a masking noise, so for shy classes, it is easier for the first person to start speaking, and the rest of the class will follow. Depends on the students, it can become an impetus to talking about music and related topics, which is perfect for conversation / communication classes.

Play music in the background of your classes.

Play music in the background of your classes. Not all classes, it depends on the group. Creative Commons license Vasta, at http://www.flickr.com/photos/vasta/357532726/sizes/l/

If you could add a few more things to the list, what would they be?

Listening and Reading Vocabulary at JALT

In less than two weeks my research partner and I will be presenting at the next Japan Associaton of Language Teacher’s annual conference. The topic is Japanese EFL Students’ Listening and Reading Vocabulary, and follow the link for details of time and place. As far as we can tell, we are the first to find a way to directly measure the difference between the lexical access Japanese students have in both visual and aural domains; and there does appear to be a difference. This is a pilot study, and so we are looking forward to hearing from the audience their views about it. So far, we are planning to expand the project and tweek it for another run in  April and later years, too… tbc.

Teaching Listening

I’m glad that I’m able to get out and share my message of “New Ways of Teaching Listening” with people. The JALT2012 conference last year was a short presentation, but allowed me to connect with people. On Saturday the 20th July I presented at Gifu JALT, and this time I had time to more fully explain where I’m coming from. For many teachers in ELT, teaching listening is giving students comprehension questions, playing a CD, and then checking the answers; this is not teaching listening, but testing it. So I feel I’ve become a kind of evangelist for both finding ways to actually teach listening, and then sharing the reasons why. As for the how, that’s slow coming. I don’t want to say too much on what I think is good, our industry had too much of that in the past, but instead I try to be evidence-driven: sharing ideas that have some evidence of positive effect on students. Thanks to Gifu JALT for gaving me the opportunity to start to share that message, the presentation wasn’t as smooth as I’d like it to have been, but it was valuable practice.

New Ways of Teaching Listening icon

New Ways of Teaching Listening

The Teaching Listening web page includes two PowerPoint presentations (in pdf form), audio recordings of the presentation (hosted on SoundCloud), and some resources that can be deployed by teachers on Monday morning. I hope to repeat (and refine) this presentation in the future, so the page is in a state of perpetual “under construction“.

Ethics, privacy, and respect

I think many people have many ‘ah-ha!’ moments in a week. A tweet from Australia’s ABC news with this big data story prompted a little ‘ah-ha! moment’. It’s about big data and the companies that wish to cash in on this. At the moment in Japan, the US, and apparently most African countries, it’s ok for them to sell their customer data to anyone who has the money to buy it.

Many Japanese learnt last night on NHK News that the IC card they use to pay for train fares, the East JR Suica card, has been collecting all manner of customer data including station they board and alight from, vending machine purchases and demographic details, and that data has already been sold on to at least one major company, and is now available for even small businesses to exploit. So Suica card users pay for their card use, and are also products that East JR can make more money from. That is to say, customers are a commodity.

Electronic ticket barriers at a Japanese train station

Electronic ticket barriers at a Japanese train station

FaceBook famously sells their customer data on to even political parties. In the hands of a belligerent extremist party, raises serious ethical issues.

Even though NHK assured Japanese people that Suica customer data is divorced of people’s names, they failed to mention that Japanese companies has a bad reputation for data security. Especially in light of Sony and Nintendo data breaches that have risked credit card information (Computer Weekly, Engadget, and Japan Times). Furthermore, the UFJ Bank has had one of its employees sell, for a personal profit, customer credit card information to gangsters (I can’t find the original story, but here’s another, Data Breaches).

In Taiwan and Korea, they say the ‘customer is king’, or that customers are very prized and ought to be treated with equal respect. However, selling customer data breaches this notion, especially when customers are not 1. Forewarned, 2. Have no opt out option, 3. Informed after the fact, 4. Have the option of buying a single trip tickets at least twice a day (often much more) and no other privacy respecting option.

The ABC story cited above shows that Australia has very strict regulation and respect for people. In contrast the US and Japanese companies and politicians view customers as yet another commodity. I hate to think that someone is making money off of my existence and I don’t have the right to monetize it myself, or I don’t have the right to earn royalties, or I don’t have the option of opting out.


FAB4 (First Annual Brain Day), 2013

The First Annual Brain Day Fourth Annual Conference (FAB4) was good. Robert Murphy stated, rekindled, talked on a number of important info that teachers should know about teaching. Teaching, including ELT, involves humans, and humans are incredibly social animals. That is to say, our students are not robots, and “teaching” is not done best when you teach at students, but when you involve them. Humans have brains and bodies that have limitations. So we can’t be sitting students in chairs for 90minutes and expect them to keep still, silent, and ‘record’ information like a tape recorder. The body needs movement, the brain needs interesting stimulation, and humans need interaction. Marc Helgesen’s morning plenary nicely encapsulated how teachers can do these thing to make learning much more efficient.

Leslie Ito explained about the many, myths Japanese parents unfortunately believe in, which can have serious consequences for children. Basically, don’t stress the child, let the child have fun, and enjoy life. Developing bilinguals is not difficult, just get good advice and information.

There were many great presentations, more than what can be reported here. However there’s one more of note, Japanese EFL Students Listening an Reading Vocabulary, presented by Yoko and I. Details on the Listening & Reading Vocabulary page here. In short, students need far more experience and opportunities in listening to English.

Finally this little guy. He was abandoned and discovered by a conference delegate the day before, and is lucky enough to be taken care of, and we were lucky to have him chirping happily during the presentations. It’s great to know that there are people who will take care of even the smallest of us. Although its a little disconcerting that he is being kept in a food try in a cake box.

20130709-104408 AM.jpg

Japan and TOEIC

This post is inspired by this recent tweet:

@tokyo_0: TOEFL scores from 30 Asian countries show Japan ranked 27th, with only Laos, Tajikistan and Cambodia trailing behind. http://t.co/rEcQebIpAa

What is also interesting is that there is no mention that TOEIC is not a good test of communicative ability. Of course there are other pertinent issues raised in the article (please take a look at it), but lets look at this issue. TOEIC is a test of English knowledge, or a persons knowledge about the grammar of this language, not a test of their practical language abilities. Despite this, the test has in the past been largely a grammar test, and only ten years ago added the listening section, and I believe it’s been updated some more.

Japanese senior high schools are in the habit of teaching for university entrance exams. However, Vygotskian Theory says that the best way to learn something is to use it. So, if you want to learn English, don’t waste time learning about it, start using it from the get go (from the beginning). As stated in a previous blog post titled Comprehensible Output Hypothesis, “We learn language while using language” (N. Ellis, 2005).

Comprehensible Output Hypothesis

An important element in language learning today, especially for the Communicative Approach advocates (like me) is the simple notion that,

“We learn language while using language”

(N. Ellis, 2005, cited in Dörneyi, 2009, p19). The idea is not new. Krashen famously said that learners ‘need’ lots of comprehensible input, as a apart of his “Comprehensible Input Hypothesis“. That is to say, for second language (L2) learners to ‘acquire’ language, it needs to be comprehensible to them and meaningful (relating to real-world needs). So, the language a teacher should use should be levelled down to the L2 learners, and the learners need to be able to understand it. This, apparently, drives language acquisition. In essence, a teacher can talk at their class all day long, and believe the learners are learning English, but they are not. Merril Swain (1985) showed that this did not work for Canadian students learning French as an L2. The students sat quiet in the room, while all of the French was produced by their teacher. This teacher-centered approach failed. In contrast, Swain showed that, instead, L2 learners need time to talk in the L2; our English students need practice time speaking and writing in English, as a means to learn English. Thus, the Comprehensible Output Hypothesis was created, probably in opposition to Krashen’s teacher-centered notions. Even though Swain’s work pre-dates Nick Ellis’s work, there is another Educational Psychologist who pre-dates both of these by almost a life time. Lev Vygotsky argued that to learn anything, you need to spend time doing it. So, let your students learn English by using it; give them lots of practice time.

Dr Stephen Krashen who is infamous for the controversial Comprehensible Input Hypothesis.

Dr Stephen Krashen who is infamous for the controversial Comprehensible Input Hypothesis.

Good presentations

Today is the first day that some of my classes begin preparing for their presentations, so I thought I might do a quick blog post on the topic. Many people, unfortunately, make presentations rather boring. I hate sitting through boring presentation after boring presentation. The problem is, no one will remember what you have presented, and so all the hard work you do is forgotten; or hard work done for nothing. So please, please, please, make your presentations interesting. It is not difficult, just briefly, Step 1, avoid bullet points; Step 2, reduce and simplify both the text and content; Step 3, make it very visual. More tips and suggestions can be found on my “How to do good presentations” on Prezi.Com.

While I’m on the topic, here’s an (out-dated) tutorial on “How to add graphs to your prezi”, and one of my favourite prezi’s (not made by me) to serve as an example of what a Prezi can look like, “Playing to Learn”.

How to do good presentations

How to do good presentations

Privacy on the Internet

Ever since The Guardian broke the news leaked by a whistle blower privacy has been the the hot topic. It was revealed that the top American spy agency has direct access to Microsoft, Google, Apple, Yahoo servers, among others (possibly even the server that hosts this website, though I don’t know; The Guardian, Prism). The problem is that all our Internet information is written and can be stored permanently. With time, the things we write become separated from the context, the mood of the time, current knowledge (at time of writing), and the original intended meaning are lost. As a consequence, this permanent written record could be used against us.

There are already complaints that free services like Facebook sell our personal information to marketers (Discovery.Com). But now, could it be used against us in legal situations? (Update, new sentence added): The Guardian describes examples where the police has abused their powers in undercover and spy situations and have put innocent people in prison and harassed a family who were victims of racism (The Guardian).

Worse still, Cloud Computing wants us to store files on remote servers as back ups, for personal web-based access, and for other reasons, but companies seem to intend to make us dependant on them. What if that company goes bankrupt? We lose our files? Or what if that company is politically targeted? Mega Upload was targeted in such a way, and law abiding legitimate users lost their personal files when it was shut down (Wikipedia). And what if the company just wants to use our files as data to sell to advertising agencies? Would you like your boyfriend seeing pregnancy test kits advertised on your web browser or phone?

There are advocates who strongly, vehemently suggest that you store nothing on the cloud, but keep it all local (Guardian). At least you keep total control of your information and files.

A final note, Mashable has a helpful page on how to “De-cloud an avoid tracking”, and The Guardian Teacher Network has some resources.