Friday, August 21, 2009

Materials development

This is a new area for me, but I have four projects I am starting up to develop teaching materials, all of them addressing needs my students have that I haven't been able to meet by buying commercially available publications. I've been lucky enough to find partners to work with for some of them, and I think that will help a lot.

However, I don't have any experience of creating or publishing. Any advice out there for a budding materials writer?

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Summer camp

We did our first day summer camp with our students last year. We joined a camp run by another school, and went off to a nearby island with them to play on the beach, have a barbecue, and do lots of small English games.

We learned a lot from the experience, not least that it is not particularly difficult to organise 'English' events. I liked a lot of what they did (putting students in mixed-age teams, having low-pressure competition throughout the day, being active, going outside), but found some of it less effective (forcing English onto students, some of the activities).

We organised our own summer day camp this year, and it was a huge success. Students and staff had a good time, it didn't take all that much preparation, and I think it will help our schools' reputation.

I'm going to list some of the things that went well below, in the hopes that it will be useful for other teachers or school owner/operators.

1. We found a company to do most of the work that does outdoor activities for kids' groups like neighbourhood associations, etc. and they were able to provide a morning activity (making zunda mochi), lunch, bus there and back, and a beautiful outdoor location for a very reasonable price (1700 yen per person). This took almost all the pain out of the experience and meant that we just had to organise our students and think of some games to play in the afternoon. If we had had to provide lunch and arrange transport, it would have been much more work.

2. We had students from various classrooms and classes, so mixing them up was a priority. We made mixed age and ability teams, and had two teachers and fourteen students in each. This worked well, and after about ten minutes into the zunda mochi making you couldn't really tell which students were in the same class and which had just met for the first time.

3. We had a lot of staff, mostly parents and university student volunteers. This really helped with logistics (helping the students do things and carrying stuff mostly).

4. We had a mix of structured activity and free time, which meant the students had a chance to play soccer with their friends if they wanted, but didn't really have time to get bored.

5. The emphasis was not really on English (some of the students brought friends who were not studying English) but rather on having fun together and getting to know each other. This removed a lot of the pressure, and resulted in a much more relaxed atmosphere than the camp last year (where there was much more emphasis on English, to the extent of the safety briefing being done in English!).

The best thing about the day was the chance to just hang out with the students and run around outside. I think everyone enjoyed the day and made some new friends.

I am hoping to do more activity days like this, again not based on English so much as having a fun day out with friends. That way we can build our school community further.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Kanji Kentei, the best Japanese test?

The 漢字検定 (kanji kentei), or Japanese Character Proficiency Test, is in my opinion one of the best tests for non-native residents of Japan who want to improve their whole language skills.

Given that the test is designed for native speakers, and focuses on reading and writing Japanese characters, what basis could I have for making that statement?

I am not just being controversial for the sake of it, I honestly believe that, unlike it's best-known competitor, the test is well-made, good value for money, and that studying for it yields benefits that amount to more than a passing score on a test.

The test has the following benefits:

1. it tests kanji and vocabulary in context, as well as on their own
2. in order to pass, you need a good knowledge of the meaning, reading, stroke order, compounds, usage, and antonyms of each character
3. you learn to write, which is an important skill if you live in Japan
4. the study materials are reasonably priced and widely available in book stores and even 100 yen shops (the earlier tests mirror school grades, so you can buy kids' kanji workbooks and use them to practice)
5. the test is held three times a year and is reasonably priced
6. you get your results in a month or so, and they also give you the answers when you finish the test so you can check how you did while it is still fresh in your mind

There is a range of materials you can use to study for the test, but I have found the following the most useful:

1. allows you to drill data sets specifically for the kanji kentei
2. the official range of study guides are excellent
3. the range of Nintendo Wii and DS software

I will be trying for level 6 the next time I take the test, which is the equivalent of 5th grade elementary school.

The kanken is not for everyone, but if you are serious about improving your Japanese and need a structured approach with regular, achievable goals, it can be a useful tool.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Pratham Books (low cost readers from India)

I recently ordered the full range of English language readers from Pratham Books in India to review them for our school. They are an NPO that focuses on literacy in India, and aim to provide low-cost, attractive materials for children. Benefits include very cheap books and the knowledge that by purchasing their materials you are supporting their charitable activities.

Pratham Books currently publish 95 books in English. Purchasing the entire range was very reasonable (40 dollars for the books, and 50 dollars for shipping). Payment is unfortunately limited to bank transfer (no credit cards or paypal), which adds an additional expense. Still, the opportunity to buy books for around 100 yen is very attractive when buying multiple copies for class sets.

My first impressions were as follows:

1. There is a fairly strong Indian flavour to much of the series (character names, objects, illustrations, culture, slang), which is a plus for us as we hope our students will gain a more cosmopolitan outlook through studying English, but could be a drawback for schools looking for American or British English only.

2. Some of the books are pretty advanced and seem designed for native speakers of English, although the simpler ones are decodable, recycle language, and deal with simple concepts (ideal for our EFL students). The simpler ones are also cheaper.

3. The books are not organised into levels or series, so teachers or schools would have to organise them themselves to fit their program.

4. There are a range of topics, from folk stories to science to maths and conservation.

On the whole I like the series and can see myself using the lower end of the scale (the first 30 books or so) for decoding/reading practice for our elementary classes, and the rest as possible extensive reading materials for JHS and above. Despite the advanced English in some of the books, they are designed for children so the topics are not particularly difficult.

I am not sure if I can recommend the books wholeheartedly though. Limitations include a lack of control of vocabulary and grammar, little coherence between books, and occasional difficult or esoteric language. They would work well as supplementary materials for schools that already have a basic foundation of readers (for example, we have the full range of Jelly and Bean and the Oxford Reading Tree already), but not as the sole resource. Finally, ordering is not very convenient as Pratham Books do not accept credit cards or Paypal. Hopefully this capability will be implemented in the future, which will certainly boost their sales overseas (I have been informed that due to strict Indian financial regulation, it may be difficult for businesses in India to accept payment by credit card/Paypal).

However, the prices are excellent, and I can see potential for giving sets of these to students as part of a school welcome pack, for example.

If you are interested in the series, you can see the covers of all the books and get more information at the Pratham Books website.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

SRA Reading Labs

I recently had the opportunity to try out an SRA Reading Lab for a couple of weeks (thank you, David from McGraw-Hill in Tokyo) and was very impressed with the material.

We tried Reading Lab 1a (there are three levels, as well as a developmental level below level one) with elementary, junior high school, senior high school, and adult students.

The kit consists of a teacher's manual, a student record book, a CD-ROM that allows you to do tests and record keeping on a computer, and twelve levels of 'power builders', short reading texts with comprehension questions. There are ten power builders at each level, and the first two levels have pictures and sentences instead of a reading passage.

Each power builder has an answer card so students can check their own, or alternatively they can do the questions on a computer, which has the advantage of recording the student's score for the teacher to check later.

The questions on each power builder consisted of comprehension questions and questions that help students deepen their knowledge of vocabulary and language (for example, at some levels the questions deal with prefixes and suffixes, and their meanings, or ask students to decide which particular meaning of a word is used in the passage). One of our students commented that this was very 'deep' learning, and I thought this was a good way to describe it: it is a far cry from the superficial comprehension questions students are used to.

Students could work on the power builders by themselves, and check their answers using the keys supplied, so it was easy to use the materials in mixed-ability classes: students work at their own pace and teachers only have to answer questions when students run into problems.

Our students all enjoyed the materials and commented favourably on them.

Unfortunately, there were a couple of things that may prevent me from using SRA Reading Labs at our school. The first reservation I had (and this is a minor one) is that at the lower levels some of the vocabulary used is not very frequent, and thus there is almost no chance of EFL learners knowing it. This makes for a considerable mismatch between the skills being practiced (phonics, decoding) and the knowledge necessary to be able to answer the question. Our students were able to decode the words, but had no idea what a 'rod' was, or that 'led' was the past tense of 'lead'. This is not the end of the world, and it could be argued that this provides an opportunity to learn this kind of vocabulary, but it was somewhat frustrating for our elementary school age students.

The real dealbreaker is the cost: 130,000+ yen per set, or over 1.5 million to get all of them. Much as I and my students enjoyed using the materials, I am not sure I can justify the cost. It is a real shame as the SRA Reading Labs were a great match with our current curriculum and aims, and they are very easy to use in class.

It seems from the websites that these materials are mainly used in public schools in the US, thus the relatively high prices, but I would have thought that the economies of scale would result in lower prices. Certainly the product cannot cost all that much to print, no matter how good the design values are (the boxes do look great, and students are attracted to them).

I am interested in whether other teachers are using SRA materials in Japan. I estimate that if the SRA Reading Labs cost half as much, they would sell a lot more than twice as many (although I don't know how many they sell now). We would certainly be interested in purchasing several.

If you are interested, please contact McGraw-Hill Japan and they may be able to provide you with a loan box so you can see for yourself. Alternatively, if you are currently using Reading Labs in Japan, please comment below.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Forcing students to learn

I often hear teachers say 'I can't force the students to learn, all I can do is help them on their way', and in many ways I agree with this sentiment.

However, as a learner of Japanese and, as of April this year, the piano, I disagree. I want my teachers to 'force' me, to establish expectations of what I should be doing between classes, and check to see that I am actually doing it.

If no-one is watching, I find it easy to get distracted by other things.

I am not sure how many of my students feel like I do, but it might be an interesting topic for a survey. Something to come back to once classes start.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Top Five Free Ways to Learn Japanese Online

I know a lot of people who despite living in Japan, just don't get the exposure to comprehensible input that they would need in order to really make significant progress.

This is a list of five free ways you can get started on increasing your input, and the best thing is that you don't even have to be in Japan to use them.

1. (or rikaichan plugin for Firefox)
Rikai is a website or app that allows you to read Japanese online by giving you a small pop-up window with the pronunciation and meaning of individual words. Assuming you have a minimal knowledge of Japanese grammar, this is much better than a translation program because it allows you to choose the most appropriate meaning for each word. A few minutes a day reading sites on topics that interest you is sure to boost your vocabulary and reading fluency.

This is not a radio station, but rather a website that allows you to learn vocabulary in context, using a spaced repetition system to help you transfer the words to your long-term memory (something that takes between 20 and 50 exposures to the word in context). Including text, pictures, audio, and a really fun practice system, this site makes it easy to study for just five or ten minutes a day.

I finally got my hands on an iPhone recently, and one of the best things I have been doing with it is listening to all sorts of podcasts in Japanese. There is a huge range of material available for free at all levels, and listening to podcasts while commuting or exercising is one of the easiest ways to improve your listening comprehension (with the added bonus that listening will also help your speaking ability).

4. LingQ (pronounced 'link', I think)
LingQ is another website featuring a learning system. It is mostly free (you can pay to practice speaking with a tutor online or to have your writing corrected) and offers an easy way to read texts, listen to audio, and learn vocabulary. I always think of it as the grown-up, more serious version of (see above). It takes more time and effort to use, but you will make more progress.

This is a site made by a friend of mine, and it is one of the best I have seen for learning kanji or vocabulary sets, particularly if you are studying for the JLPT or the Kanji Kentei (which I thoroughly recommend, more on that in a future post). The site is free and well worth looking around. It is not as pretty as some of the others, but the mechanics are solid.

I am very lazy, so I haven't used these resources as much as I should have, but for anyone with some self-discipline, they should prove very useful to increase that all-important listening and reading input.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Free language courses from FSI

The US Foreign Services Institute has a whole bunch of language courses on their website. From Amharic to Yoruba (no Japanese unfortunately, but they do have Thai and Mandarin) you can find coursebooks and audio downloads. The courses are a bit dated, but they seem thoroughly put together and you can't beat the price.

Thanks to inZania for the tip, and for a cool iPhone flashcard app that I am using to practice JLPT vocabulary.

Saturday, August 08, 2009

The importance of listening

I think the importance of listening input for students cannot be overemphasised, yet it is severely neglected in Japan, in both public and private teaching settings.

I myself have not really focused on teaching listening so far, for the following reasons:

1. graded listening materials are not as common as graded reading
2. it's hard to categorize listening materials at a glance, like you would with a written text
3. technical issues get in the way: you have to make the materials available to the students, and it's not as easy as just handing them a book or a handout

However, I have decided to have a go at really boosting my students' listening practice. I am going to investigate online delivery, lending CDs, and lending mp3 players pre-loaded with content.

I will post on any challenges and successes with the project. Comments on the subject are also most welcome.

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Learning a foreign language

Learning a foreign language is not difficult, but it takes time and commitment.

Anyone can master a foreign language, and it does not require studying verb tables, memorising vocabulary, or buying a lot of books and resources. In fact, it doesn't really involve any of the things we did at school in our foreign language classes. To be honest, many of those things seem as if they were just busy work, things our teachers assigned to us because they are easy to check and evaluate, and give both students and teachers the feeling that they are actually doing something. This is the good news.

The bad news is that it takes a lot of time to master a language. Let's say you want to be in a position where you can understand pretty much everything people say to you in your daily life, as well as be able to watch TV, read a newspaper, and deal with any paperwork that comes your way. You will need a passive vocabulary of at least 5,000 to 10,000 words, and an active one of around half that.

In order to learn a word so that you know it passively (ie you can understand it when you see it or hear it) you will have to encounter it in text or aural input 20-50 times in context. In order to acquire it so you can use it actively (when speaking or writing), you will have to encounter it even more, as well as start using it yourself.

Doing the math (something I am not good at), you can see that you are going to have to read millions of words, or listen to hundreds or thousands of hours of audio, in order to get the exposure you need to the language.

Before you give up and go and take up a more sensible pursuit, such as counting grains of sand on a beach, however, there is a final piece of good news (I was saving it until the end):

None of this needs to be boring or a chore.

With the proliferation of free content on the internet, it is fairly easy to find interesting audio and text on almost any topic, as well as online translation, vocabulary learning, and grammar explanation websites, without spending a penny. I'll be introducing some over the next few weeks.

Here's the first one:

A wonderful online system for delivering graded content that is mostly free (you can pay for tutors to correct your written work or speak to). The founder, Steve Kaufmann, has a blog that is well worth checking out.

We're back

Right, I'm back after an absence of about three years. In fact, I've been gone so long that blogspot actually lost my blog -had to poke around to find it and get it reassigned to my account.

I have some plans for this blog over the next few months, and I don't want to spoil the surprise, but expect to see:

-more practical content
-more regular updates
-more on education

I am looking forward to welcoming you here more regularly.