Come Come, Really?

NHK’s Come Come Everybody doubles down on hundred years of largely failed English education, looking ahead to another hundred years of the same.

NHK wraps up this week its latest Asadora television drama series, Come Come Everybody. The story follows the lives of three generations of women in one family, starting in 1925, the year radio broadcasts started in Japan, and projecting forward to the present era. The serialized drama weaves together threads of English radio programs, jazz, anko sweet bean paste, baseball, and historical dramas over nearly a century to connect the individual and family experiences of Yasuko, Rui, and Hinata, a grandmother, mother, and daughter.

My wife and daughter have followed the Come Come Everybody series since it started last November, and I am sometimes pulled into watching with them. My wife recently commented that, during the final two or three weeks of the series, she has mostly stopped caring about the story. Too many melodramatic absurdities have made it difficult to stay interested. My wife’s breaking point was a professional jazz trumpet player switching to piano in middle age and becoming equally successful at the new instrument. Could it happen? A person might become proficient picking up a new instrument in his 40s or 50s, but at that professional level? I lack a strong background in music, and so I did not think much about this plot element. For my wife, her own experience with piano made this sudden transformation unbelievable.

For me, I gave up on realism in Come Come Everybody early in the series. Why? The show’s portrayal of English education.

English education myths

Come Come Everbody features the three heroines each learning English through radio programs as children. Each character presents a different relationship with English, but each communicates in English in critical moments during episodes of the drama.

©NHK

The problem with Come Come Everybody‘s portrayal is that it credits radio programs for teaching English, even though the historical success of such programming is spotty at best. Can a child learn English from listening to a radio show? Possibly, a little, in some cases, if the radio program supplements deeper experience with English. Can a child have fun listening to a radio show? Undoubtedly. But learning English primarily or exclusively from a radio program? No. Children mastering English fluently enough from radio shows to communicate in complex situations? Not at all likely.

Come Come Everybody‘s portrayal of learning English through listening and translation taps into stubborn educational myths in Japan. NHK’s drama doubles down on these language myths by glamorizing outmoded and discredited teaching methodologies as if they still have value. Japan consistently sits at the bottom of international rankings for English ability and English education. Japan’s embrace of these harmful myths is a reason why.

Audio-lingualism and grammar-translation

In NHK’s drama, characters rely on a combination of audio-lingualism and grammar-translation to learn English. They listen to recordings of English and copy what they hear to produce language, while also using a dictionary to translate English into Japanese. In some episodes, characters use a modern audio-lingual variant, speech shadowing, in which they simultaneously shadow the recorded English while reading along on a script.

Audio-lingualism has historical roots early in the 20th century. In the early 1900s, new technologies allowed recorded spoken language and mass broadcasting. At the same time, linguists of the era were mounting efforts to record rapidly disappearing oral languages. Technology combined with societal and academic interests, which then filtered through the era’s prevailing behavioralist psychological theories. The resulting language teaching methodology focused heavily on listening to and imitating spoken language. It was, however, a theory rooted in many misconceptions about how the brain processes and learns language. For most people, audio-lingualism was never an effective, efficient, or sufficient method to learn languages.

Speech shadowing is a recent attempt to double down on the outmoded audio-lingualism of a century ago. Speech shadowing has gained some following in East Asian countries, particularly in small circles in Japan. However, the research in favor of speech shadowing for language learning has been decidedly underwhelming.

©NHK

The grammar-translation method is rooted even deeper in history. This methodology was inherited from the 19th century, when Classical Latin and Greek were the two major languages taught in elite European universities. French, German, and English had become the primary languages for politics, science, and business, but Latin and Greek survived as relics of medieval and Renaissance education, despite neither language having any living native speakers. Latin and Greek were preserved in written texts, and so language learning involved reading classical texts and translating them into one’s native language.

For most of the world, grammar-translation faded as audio-lingualism took hold. The rise of structuralism in the mid-20th century then spelled the end for audio-lingualism as a widely accepted methodology. Constructivist theories of language and an emphasis on four-skills communicative language teaching have dominated foreign language teaching methods for decades.

Not for Japan.

Japan has slowly reformed textbooks and classes to timidly accept four-skills and communicative language approaches, but these reforms often feel like superficial efforts built on top of a foundation that is still solidly grammar-translation and audio-lingual. Why Japan has held so tightly to the grammar-translation and audio-lingual myths is curious. Grammar-translation was already losing relevance in the late-1800s, just as Japan opened itself to the world, but Japan’s technocrats and scholars were intent on copying elite European and American educational institutions. Audio-lingualism was the first “new” methodology to come along in the wake of the Meiji era’s aggressive internationalization. The history of English education in Japan can be summed up as embracing those two methods and never letting go.

©NHK

From a historical perspective, Come Come Everybody is accurate in showing Japanese efforts to learn English through listening to dialogues on radio programs. Such programs had a huge effect popularizing English in Japan. That popularity, however, was to the detriment of English ability in Japan. Many people may have listened, formed fan clubs, and tried eikaiwa, but how many developed capable skills in English? NHK’s drama is unrealistic in pretending that such programming successfully produced capable English speakers.

The dramatic success of the characters Yasuko, Rui, and Hinata in learning English from radio programming promotes the myth that Japan’s English education methods can be successful. If a learner experiences setbacks, struggles, and failures, the solution is simply to work harder.

This myth saves face for the Japanese educational system. It saves face for NHK’s own educational programming. However, it flies in the face of everything I know about how language works and how people learn.

Even if a small handful of proactive individuals might improve some English skills from radio or television programming, the myth leads Japan to continue wasting time and resources on fruitless teaching methods. Ultimately, foreign language lessons on radio and television provide far more entertainment value than educational value.

The learning feedback cycle

Our brains construct language out of a need to use language. We learn from situations that require choices involving language and when that language has consequences. A hundred hours of radio programming provide less direct feedback to a learner than a single two-minute, face-to-face exchange.

©NHK

The radio shows featured in Come Come Everybody or NHK’s long-running Eigo de Asobo children’s television show fail on a critical learning point. Such shows may gesture toward giving listeners and viewers interactive feedback, but they don’t. At best, programming offers superficial faux feedback. Feedback is imagined by what producers expect most people will do or say. Anyone whose language response is not what producers anticipated is probably left confused and frustrated. The success or failure of our communication attempts is confirmed by direct feedback from another speaker. The depth and complexity of that feedback are critical to learning.

Those who learn with radio or television programming typically use it no more than as a supplement. They engage and communicate heavily outside of radio or television programming. Effective learners create situations for themselves that produce learning feedback cycles. It’s not the radio or television programming that is successful, but the student.

Breaking tired, old myths for the future?

Sadly, far too many of the English success stories in Japan are about students finding success in spite of the education system. Japan is full of hard-working, dedicated people who want to help, but entrenched methods and myths stymie efforts. I have lost count of the number of public school teachers who have privately admitted to me that they hate the way that they teach and know it doesn’t work, but they feel constrained by the system from doing differently. The number of students who complain is even greater.

NHK’s vision for future English education is the most troubling element of the Come Come Everybody series. What will Japan’s English education look like in the Reiwa era? Come Come Everybody chooses to paint over a hundred years of failed English education. NHK could have written Come Come Everybody to show the struggles and failures of English education in Japan during the Showa and Heisei eras, with a hopeful vision for something better in the Reiwa era. They don’t. In one of the final episodes, Hinata, the youngest of the three heroines, dreams ahead twenty years in her future. Her vision? Producing a modern radio English program that is substantially unchanged from what her grandmother listened to.

In the drama, Hinata’s grandmother passed down a technique for making delicious anko by listening to the red beans and uttering a spell. Unchanged, the technique passed from mother to daughter to granddaughter. Tradition works well for anko. It fails for Japan’s English education. Japan’s education myths were not the product of success passed down over centuries. Japan picked up a broken methodology from the West at a specific moment a century ago without understanding the the tradition or context from which those methods came.

NHK’s Come Come Everybody doubles down on hundred years of largely failed English education, looking ahead to another hundred years of the same. From the perspective of an English educator, what could be more depressing?

Japan’s English education does not have to succumb to the vision that NHK paints at the finale of Come Come Everybody. However, with NHK continuing to program pernicious myths into viewers’ minds, Japan’s educators and learners face an uphill battle.

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Training the Teachers (Who Train Teachers)

Teachers who have been at MY for three, five, ten years or more and teachers who are in their first year at MY have very different training needs. The gap in knowledge and experience is significant, and many of MY’s training efforts are aimed at helping newer teachers close this gap with experienced teachers as quickly as possible.

Experienced teachers become teacher trainers, which offers many new challenges and room to grow. However, experienced teachers need training, too, and usually this training needs to follow a different format from what may best help newer teachers. Planning training sessions to meet the needs of both experienced and new teachers is a challenge.

The most effective way to eliminate the experience gap between new teachers and experienced teachers is to fire all the experienced teachers.

MY’s owner, Ryan, has sometimes joked that the most effective way to eliminate the experience gap between new teachers and experienced teachers is to fire all the experienced teachers. (MY isn’t going to do this.) MY typically adds at least two or three new teachers ever year, and so the experience gap is always with us.

At our August training day, experienced teachers enjoyed an opportunity to step back from training others and focus on our own professional development. What are we doing to develop ourselves professionally? What more can we (or should we) be doing? I invited the teachers to complete this survey of their professional development during the past year.

What stood out to me from our training session is how diverse the experiences of MY’s teachers are. As we discussed what activities we have done in the past year that we think we will still regard as memorable and significant to our professional development five years from now, every teacher listed a different activity.

MY gives so many out-of-classroom opportunities to our teachers that this is not surprising. A teacher involved in developing curriculum grows in different ways from a teacher involved in hiring, software development, leadership, or management. What impressed me from this training session is that there is no one-size-fits-all training for experienced teachers. The more we pursue diverse interests and opportunities, the more diverse our professional development needs to be.

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Fatigue & Recovery

Learners & teachers share the fight against fatigue in language classrooms

Why do some people give up when other people persist?

For a language teacher, this is an important question. The answer to it can help shape how we teach. Teachers need to grow resilient students who struggle through challenges.

For teachers, too, on a personal level, we can burn out. Knowing how to battle teaching fatigue is critical for teachers to remain motivated in our profession.

For a language school, this is also an important question. Students who quit after one or two years severely limit a school’s growth compared to students who continue with lessons six, eight, ten years or more.

From a management perspective, as well, employees who quit because of fatigue hurt the school’s ability to grow a professional, experienced staff. Teacher turnover at language schools tends to be exceptionally high. We want people to leave jobs for the right reasons–when they find new opportunities to grow–not because of work fatigue. If a school can keep teachers an average of even one or two years longer than they otherwise would, the gains in quality and productivity and savings in hiring costs are tremendous.

For language learners, too, why some learners give up is an important question. Most people have started a new task with a great deal of energy, but then burned out and quit after a short time. How can we better regulate our efforts to persist and grow over a long period?

A new study published in Nature Communications from researchers at the Universities of Birmingham and Oxford may help teachers and learners better understand how fatigue affects motivation.

The researchers matched up people’s willingness to persist in a physical task that earned rewards with brain activity on fMRI scans to show how motivation and fatigue fluctuate moment by moment. The researchers observed two states of fatigue occurring in separate parts of the brain. Short-term, recoverable fatigue builds after we exert effort, but it can be reduced with rest. Long-term, unrecoverable fatigue builds gradually with work, and it does not go away with short rests.

How does this help language learners and teachers?

There may be some differences in the fatigue felt from a physical task and the mental tasks of language learning or teaching. However, the stresses of language learning and teaching parallel the tiredness of muscles in many respects. There is a lot for language learners and teachers to glean from and reflect upon in this research:

  • Pacing and setting appropriate challenges is critical. Doing the same activity again and again for very long can leave the body and brain tired. Trying to do too much all at once can produce frustration. We need to pace our students and ourselves with appropriate challenges that spark motivation without building debilitating fatigue.

  • We need variety. Between challenges, we need frequent short rests. This rest might be something as simple as a relatively easy, unrelated distractor task to let the brain reset. We sometimes also need vacations to help prevent long-term fatigue from building up.

  • How we use rewards can make a difference. One aspect of fatigue that the researchers did not explore was loss of interest in the reward. How often were test subjects giving up, not because they physically couldn’t do the task anymore, but because the reward had become boring and insignificant? Receiving the same reward over and over can lead to a loss in motivation. I often see this in games with students–when each success earns exactly one point, students give up on the game quickly. When success earns a chance at a random number of points, students stay much more interested.

  • Meaningful tasks are better motivators than artificial rewards. The researchers did not measure the intrinsic value that participants felt toward the task. Squeezing a dynamometer is, on its own, not especially engaging. If there were no reward, would anyone have found value in gripping the meter tightly? Gripping a dynamometer carries no consequence…compared, say, to gripping a rope with a person’s life hanging in the balance.

People will sometimes invent meaning for themselves. If put into a group, some might motivate themselves by transforming the gripping task into a competition. Once the strongest grip was determined? This motivation would be at an end. Individually, a person desiring more grip strength might persist with the task as exercise, especially if the dynamometer could measure improvement over time. However, for most people, gripping a meter for a few seconds and releasing does not carry the feeling of having accomplished anything important.

Menial tasks that do not grow or build anything, that lack value outside of artificial rewards, are ideal breeding grounds for fatigue. Language taught in meaningful contexts, with fitting risks and rewards for failures and successes, will always sustain motivation better than drills or even than games that rip language out of context.

Students and teachers share a need for meaningful challenges. We share a need for agency. We likewise need supportive environments that create opportunities for us and ensure us time to rest.

Nobody stays motivated for very long with small, repetitive challenges, especially if the task lacks intrinsic value. We can trick our brains with artificial rewards only for so long. To stay motivated, we occasionally need difficult, novel challenges, and we need tasks with meaningful consequences.

A profound sense of accomplishment can grow out of a difficult, worthwhile challenge. Desire for accomplishment can generate persistence far beyond any reward. Desire won’t stave off fatigue, but it can help us cope and overcome fatigue until we reach a well-earned rest.

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Ah-peh-ne!

A mother yesterday asked an advisor at MY an odd question:

My daughter keeps saying, ‘Ah-peh-ne,’ after eating. I think she’s saying something in English. Do you know what she means?

Stumped, the advisor passed the question to me.

The three-year-old girl has recently had exposure to English through our immersion kindergarten, so it would make sense that she is trying to express something in English, but “Ah-peh-ne”?

Ah-peh-ne? Is that even English?

In my head, I started trying to peel back the layers of phonology, morphology, syntax, and context that intersect in early language acquisition.

Ah-peh-ne? Does that sound like any phrase in English? Nothing sprang to mind.

Break down the sounds. Are these separate words? Do they combine into one or more multi-syllable words? Which sounds is the three-year-old pronouncing correctly? Which sounds is she pronouncing incorrectly? Which sounds is she failing to pronounce? Still nothing.

What do kids typically say at the immersion kindergarten when they are done eating lunch? Ah-hah! My daughter also attended the immersion kindergarten some years ago. This context gave me the hint to what was happening with the child’s phonology and morphology. It took thirty seconds of fumbling to find an answer, but the puzzle pieces had fallen into place.

Ah-peh-ne. I’m finished.

That’s what the girl was saying. It’s what the immersion kindergarten kids are taught to say after lunch. The sounds and syllables match up:

Ah…I’m
peh-ne…finished

The girl was missing the “m” sound in “I’m.” The “p” and “f” sounds are distinguished by one small change in lip position. She dropped the final “sh” and “-ed” sounds. But despite the missing and undeveloped sounds, “I’m finished” is undoubtedly what the girl was saying.

All this girl needs is a little mirroring with the correct pronunciation from her mother or other English speakers, and those small pronunciation mistakes will disappear.

This small moment reiterated to me why we use context and phonics as language teaching foundations at MY.

Without the context that this child said “Ah-peh-ne” after eating meals, the linguistic puzzle would have been almost impossible to solve. Speakers can make all manner of mistakes with language, but we can still be understood because context drives meaning.

Phonics is a useful tool because the phonics teaching method mimics how we develop the sounds of a language from a young age. Children under the age of five are still developing the basic sounds of their native languages. They misprounounce a lot. Little-by-little, through trial and error, with the exercise of muscles when speaking, phonology eventually works itself out for native speakers. For language students without a native background and with limited exposure to a foreign language with radically different phonology, they need targeted exposure to the basic phonemes before they can effectively morph those phonemes into intelligible words and phrases.

Thanks to this three-year-old girl and her mother for giving me a refresher course in how we teach!

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(Re)learning to teach

What could you do without, if forced to, when teaching? Could you teach without pencils and paper? Without books? Without a white board or blackboard? Without songs? Without toys? At the current moment, for the language school teachers at MY, it’s a physical classroom.

From this month, in place of a room, we have a screen. Our virtual classrooms reach into students’ homes.

Welcome to teaching in the pandemic outbreak era.

Many language schools and services, especially those that focus on conversational practice, routinely offer online lessons. For MY English School, teaching remote lessons this month was a first. For me personally, teaching remotely has meant relearning much of what I know about teaching.

My first day of remote lessons brought me back viscerally to my first day teaching at MY. I had a lesson plan, but I did not know how the lesson plan would go, was not certain how I was going to execute it, felt unsure how I would adjust if plans did not go well, and could not predict how the students would react. Lessons at MY normally involve a lot of movement in the classroom and a lot of physical interaction with objects and classmates. Our face-to-face communication and engagement, especially in children’s classes, is heavily built around the physical interactions we perform in the classroom space.

Several of the basic tools of my teaching had just gotten removed from my toolbox. How am I now going to teach? Much of what I know about teaching and many of the techniques I frequently use were taken away on short notice. That was scary.

Time to (re)learn my teaching skills and add some new tools to my teaching toolbox.

What’s changed?

The differences stand out. I am alone in the classroom. Students are in their homes. Our classroom language has changed. We have to take turns speaking, and I have to make turns for each student to speak, because it is more difficult to interact with a lot of people speaking at once. I have to call students’ names more frequently. Students have to indicate to me, “I’m finished,” since I cannot often see their progress. Students need to work more closely on pace with each other because the online platform does not easily allow one student to move on while others are finishing the previous task. We are holding cards, books, papers, and objects up close to the camera to show each other. I cannot physically steer a student back into an activity. Many of the games that involve throwing balls, building towers, and running around the room do not work remotely, or at least they cannot work the same. My lesson planning time is taking three, four, or five times longer than normal. I am forced to do a lot of my teaching differently.

Changing my teaching practices has been a good experience for me. After years of teaching, I have fallen into routines. Most of my routines have developed because they are positive. Still, it is sometimes good to reflect on those routines, to consider how to do them differently, and to focus on the underlying goals. I am relearning what it means to teach.

What hasn’t changed?

What’s the same? For one, the staff. We have a fantastic group of teachers and support staff at MY. We anticipated that online lessons would become a necessity, and we made preparations. As soon as online lessons began, teachers put in the extra time and immediately began sharing teaching ideas and resources. Our advisor staff supported us and our students on the technical side and communicated with students and parents about worries. Having a talented, professional staff makes a huge difference when dealing with stressful changes.

Also, the students. We have great students. They are adaptable and resilient. With a few exceptions, they are excited to do lessons via camera and screen, and they are working hard to make the best of the situation.

In terms teaching, after two weeks with remote lessons, I have also been surprised how much feels familiar. One reason for this is the way that we teach at MY. Our curriculum is not a script that teachers read, nor a fixed routine that we follow, nor a set of materials, nor a collection of activities. Because we start with learning goals for various skills and content, we have the flexibility to achieve those goals with many different activities, materials, and routines. Take away the game that I often use, and I will adjust and use a different game to reach the same goals. Take away the cards that I normally use, and I will adapt by drawing pictures, using gestures, or giving verbal hints. Take away our physical classrooms, and we are adapting to meet the same learning goals in a virtual platform.

Student choice remains a central element of my teaching methodology. My students still construct language through the process of using language. Lesson activities still use fun to promote engagement. I still foster student curiosity and expect students to ask questions to find out what they want to know. Skills to adapt and deal with the unknown remain primary goals. A teacher trainer I worked with many years ago repeated the mantra, “Pedagogy before technology.” The basic principles and goals of learning and teaching have not changed. I am merely adapting to a new platform.

This is a scary moment for people around the world. It is a scary moment for businesses and workers. Many language schools have entirely shut down and furloughed their staff on reduced pay. At MY, our students’ education is our priority. We do not want a pandemic to disrupt their learning and growth. We want to keep teaching. I remind myself of an important command: “Fear not.” Fear is a physical response to get us out of immediate danger. Fear tends to paralyze strategic thinking, broad perception, and clear planning. Standing on a firm foundation—knowing what my core teaching values are—is allowing me to reflect on how and why I teach and to adapt to the situation.

The results?

Many students and parents were leery of doing lessons online. I was, too. We have experienced some technical glitches. A few of my lessons have, from my perspective, stunk. Overall, most remote lessons are turning out pretty well. Watching the students is fascinating. Many are excited to interact over a screen. I can see from their eyes that they are engaged for the full 40-minute, 50-minute, or 60-minute lesson. Some of my quietest students are suddenly speaking out in loud, clear voices. Distractions for many students are down, and many are more attentive and responsive to the language. Parents and siblings are often positively and supportively involved in the lessons. There are a few students who are visibly struggling, and I am working on how to support them better. This has been an exhausting two weeks of relearning the fundamentals of teaching. The second week of remote lessons was much better than the first, and the third week will be even better.

Looking ahead, I can’t wait to get back into a regular classroom. My small fear now is that my students and I might eventually miss the remote lessons. If there are some elements of teaching and learning that we manage to accomplish better online, that is going to make me rethink my teaching practices again once we return to the classroom. And that will also be a welcome change.

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The importance of igloos

When we teach phonics, the main goal is to get students reading faster and more independently. Every phonics sound is paired with a keyword as a mnemonic device. Kids remember the sound “i” a lot better because it is paired with “igloo.”

But why “igloo”? In other phonics books, I see a lot of other “i” words – insect, ink, or sometimes iguana. Using “igloo” is not too common outside the Finding Out textbook series. “Igloo” seems like a silly choice of a word because there are not many contexts in which we can talk about igloos meaningfully. “Cats” and “dogs” are much easier to bring into conversation. So why “igloo”?

I was not inside David Paul’s head when he made the keyword choices while writing the Finding Out 1 textbook. This year, however, I stumbled onto a couple hints that make me think “igloo” is a very carefully chosen word.

At our last training day, Ryan, MY’s owner, talked briefly about pronunciation. One of the examples he offered was the difference between the English sound “n” and the Japanese “ん,” which could be pronounced “n,” “m,” or “ng,” depending on the Japanese word. It’s an odd Japanese character in that its pronunciation varies from word to word, and so distinguishing “n,” “m,” and “ng” is especially challenging for Japanese students.

There is no “n” in igloo. But here is the weird thing I noticed this year: Japanese students often mispronounce “igloo” as if it did. Somewhere around a quarter of my first-year elementary students say, even upon an initial correction, “ingloo.” Listen to my first-year student say, “ingloo.” (Jump to the 3:00 mark in the video.) I start to correct her, and she she still says, “ingaloo.” Even when this student finally gets rid of the “ng,” she holds onto a third syllable: “i-ga-loo.” The extra syllable is common for many Japanese students in many words, but “ng” in “igloo”?

Why students hear “igloo” as “ingloo,” introducing the “ng” sound in place of the glottal stop “g,” is curious. Japanese does not have a glottal stop consonant sound. My guess is that Japanese kids often add the “ng” because that is what they hear. There is no “n” in “igloo,” but there is also no glottal “g” in Japanese. Some Japanese students don’t hear the glottal stop, and so their brains substitute a more familiar sound instead. The “g” gets blurred into “ん” for these students. Weird, right?

In the past, I noticed students often mispronouncing “igloo,” but I usually didn’t fight them about pronuciation too much. As long as students are getting the “i” sound, that’s what’s important, right? So what if the rest of the word is a bit off? I’m not so sure anymore, and I am taking extra time this year to correct the “ingloo” mispronuncation with my first-year elementary students. Here is my theory:

When we teach phonics, many spelling problems later on start from pronunciation problems in the earlier stages.

If my theory right, “ingloo” is actually a big warning sign that this student may struggle with spelling and pronunciation for many years after. If I help the student hear the correct English “g” sound now, can I help the student avoid some of these problems in the future? That’s my hope.

So, yes, the “i” sound is the primary phonics target, but the phonics keywords are chosen with other goals in mind, too. Students also need to start hearing English glottal stops. They need to develop correct pronunciation for sounds and words that are easily misheard and mispronounced by Japanese speakers. David Paul’s choices of keywords in Finding Out are not random. They are intentionally chosen to challenge Japanese speakers with sounds they don’t normally encounter in their native language.

“Igloo” is something new I learned this year. “Igloo” is important. What are some of the other “igloos” among the Finding Out vocabulary?

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MY Training Day with Lesley Ito

Teachers talking together about teaching is one of the highest impact practices schools can use to boost student learning.  We become better teachers when we reflect and share ideas.  Since I started at MY, MY has annually set aside a number of days when we close all of our schools and gather for training.  Over the years, we’ve experienced some fantastic, memorable sessions that I’ve learned from immensely and that have changed the way we teach at MY.  But it’s easy to become insular if we’re always talking among ourselves, so, this year, we are branching out and inviting outside speakers to two of our training days.

Our first outside speaker this year, Lesley Ito, visited
MY this past weekend.  Lesley is a school
owner in Nagoya and has been active in publishing and presenting around Japan
for many years.  On Saturday afternoon,
she presented two sessions:  Teaching Grammar to Children and Extensive Reading for Young Children.

I deeply enjoy conference sessions where the speaker is a
couple years ahead of me in identifying and working out a problem.  In the first session, Lesley shared some of
her research into how children learn grammar and react to error
correction.   MY’s students check their
own homework, after which teachers check, which has many good aspects.  However, as we’ve become more and more
structured in this homework check system, I’ve begun noticing, especially this
year, a lot more stress among our youngest elementary students.

Usually students are smiling, energetic, excited to start
class, and having a lot of fun by the end of their first month of lessons.  This year, many are, but I’ve also noticed many
young elementary students crying and showing other signs of stress after they
arrive for lessons, even a month or two into the year, which is abnormal.  Lesley’s explanation of how younger kids
process grammar and error correction may help explain why this is, and it has
me thinking of ways we can do better for our stressed first-graders.

Hearing Lesley talk about kids’ ER didn’t give me a
similar “Aha!” moment, but it was gratifying. 
MY’s extensive reading program is in its third year.  There’s very little researched and written
about kids’ ER (and about kids’ ELT in general).  While there are a few schools that can serve
as models, building a kids’ ER program mostly requires trial and error.

MY still has a lot of work to improve our ER program, but seeing the benefits of ER for kids in Lesley’s presentation was a strong reminder about why we created the class.  We especially need to do more to sell ER to our students and parents—yes, reading for an hour without the teacher choosing the book, checking comprehension, or grading results is an excellent way to improve language!  In the past two years and two months of ER classes, we’ve stumbled on a number of ideas and practices for how to do ER with kids, and it’s nice affirmation when another respected teacher like Lesley has independently arrived at similar conclusions and adopted many similar practices.

I’m already looking forward to our training weekend with Mike Griffin in October!

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