Friday, October 22, 2010

Goodbye blogspot

After many years together, I am leaving blogspot. I have set up house with WordPress at, and we hope to be very happy together. Please come and see us!

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

Student self-introductions

I've been teaching in Japan for more than ten years now, so I have become very sensitive towards my students' feelings. I try not to put them on the spot or under pressure to speak spontaneously, at least until they have had a chance to get used to me and the class.

However, last month I had the chance to visit leading universities in Korea and Hong Kong, and see what they were doing in English classes and departments. It may not be a fair comparison (many things, from the environment to class sizes to university expectations, are different) but I was surprised and impressed by how much the teachers there pushed the students. This made me change my attitude towards my own classes. After all, Japanese students will be sitting in meetings with their Chinese and Korean counterparts in ten years time, and at that point no-one is going to care about the special conditions in Japan with regards to English education. They are just going to be looking at the results: can you communicate effectively and get your point across?

Classes started at my university last week, and I tried something new in a presentation class on Friday: after explaining the syllabus and course guidelines, I had the students come up to the front of the class in groups of four and introduce themselves spontaneously.

It worked incredibly well. Because the students were in groups of four, we got through all twenty-nine of them quickly, and they surpasses my expectations completely with their short introductory speeches.

Many of them were funny, interesting, and engaging. I was able to get their names and make brief notes on each student in an interactive and informative way, and made all the other students take notes too. I suspect the fact that they all went through this together will make for a friendlier and more relaxed class, too.

This new (very old) activity is going to become part of more of my classes, I suspect. Does anyone else use this?

Monday, October 04, 2010

Tohoku ETJ Expo

The Tohoku ETJ Expo was held yesterday in Sendai. We had just under 100 people come out to see 19 workshops and presentations.

It was great to see and talk to everyone, and thanks are due to the team that put it together: committee members of Sendai ETJ and Sendai JALT chapters.

This was just the first of the ETJ Expos, so if you have the chance to see one in your area please check it out:

I'll be presenting again at the Tokyo Expo on November 6th and 7th, so hope to see some of you there.

Friday, October 01, 2010

Amazon Kindle 3

About two years ago, I couldn't understand how people would want to read e-books. I had actually made it through a couple on my computer, but it was slow and annoying. My eyes hurt from the screen, my neck hurt from the angle I was holding my head at to read the screen, and my fingers hurt from scrolling down. Give me a nice paperback any day.

Then last year I got an iPhone, and more importantly the Kindle app. Suddenly reading e-books was doable. Not only that, but it was really handy having a book (or twenty) with me all the time. It made reading in lines, while waiting for a student, while grabbing a sandwich easy. In fact, it made it easier than reading a book, because an iPhone is a lot lighter and only takes one hand to operate. I think I may actually be reading faster, as turning the pages is quicker...

The circle was complete earlier in the year when the new Kindle was announced. Being incredibly curious about what all the fuss was about, and able to afford it for the first time, I pre-ordered one in August.

It came in September, and I have been taking it on trips with me. Instead of three or four paperbacks, I just have one slim device. The battery lasts longer than I need it to, it can hold stupid amounts of books in it, and it is almost as easy to read as my iPhone (and more comfortable). I even got used to the annoying flicker as it turns a page so that I don't notice it any more).

I find I no longer want to buy books. My collection, built up over years, is now something that I want out of the house (dusty and bulky as it now seems to me). I suspect the same thing will happen with comics, books, and magazines once I get an iPad or similar device.

Looking at the prices and adoption rates of e-readers and tablets, etc. I reckon paper-based reading materials only have about a decade left before they become specialty, expensive rarities.

It only took two years to convert me completely.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

I love Japan

So far during my ten years in Japan I have tended to focus on things that annoy me about my life here. Some of them are universal, and some more specific to Japan or Sendai. I'm sure everyone has their own list.

However, recently I have found myself appreciating my life here. I really do feel at home, and enjoy almost everything I do.

Keeping that in mind makes the small annoying things much less important.

I just wanted this on the record in case people had the wrong impression from the amount of moaning I do on and other websites.

(I took this photo myself earlier this summer, by the way)

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Google translate

This video explains how Google translate works. Something for all the corpus linguists out there?

Conference season

I just received the following list of conferences from a JALT newsletter:

PAC 2010 / Korea Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages (KOTESOL)   

October 16-17, 2010   
Seoul, South Korea

English Teaching Association of the Republic of China (ETA-ROC)   
November 12-14, 2010   
Taipei, Taiwan

Thailand TESOL (ThaiTESOL)
January 21-22, 2011
Chiang Mai, Thailand

CamTESOL Conference (Cambodia)  
February 26-27, 2011  
Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL)  
March 16-19, 2011  
New Orleans, Louisiana, USA

International Association of Teachers of English as a Foreign Language
April 15-19, 2011
Brighton, UK

I have never been to a conference outside of Japan, so I'm really interested in heading to KoTESOL or Thai TESOL (I can't make the others as I have other plans). IATEFL or TESOL would also be nice, but might be outside of my budget for this year ;)

Does anyone have any advice as to which of these would be most interesting?

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Japanese in the English classroom

I am going to be doing a presentation at the ETJ Tohoku Expo with Steve Williams about using Japanese in the English classroom (use of L1 in L2 classes).

This seems to be a topic where the research (and publications) seem to be completely out of whack with actual practice. Many ALTs and eikaiwa teachers have restrictions on how much Japanese they are allowed to use in the classroom, and there seems to be a general expectation that native speakers will operate exclusively in their L1 while teaching. However, almost all the academics that write on the topic accept that the students' L1 can be an extremely useful tool in the hands of an experienced teacher.

Steve and I agree that this is something worth talking about with working teachers, so we're going to be presenting about when and how to use Japanese to make classes more effective. We only have 45 minutes, so the biggest problem is going to be fitting all the research Steve has done into such a short timeframe!

Please feel free to comment, especially if you oppose the use of Japanese in English classes in Japan, and if you can come along on the day (October 3rd, in Sendai) we'd love to see you.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010


I have finally bitten the bullet and activated my Twitter account (I bagged the name last year but hadn't started using it). I am not convinced it is going to be anything but a waste of time, but I will give it a shot ;)

I am @sendaiben by the way.

Sunday, August 22, 2010


I just spent a week in Hiroshima on a one-week residential course for my MA. I am doing the distance Birmingham MA TEFL, and the course is an optional part of it.

Aside from the actual content of the sessions, I was struck by how much I got out of spending time with the tutors and the other students. Being able to bounce ideas off people, both in and outside of class, was invigorating.

It really made me realise how important it is to have a peer group. I'll be doing more to stay in touch with mine from now on!

Sunday, March 21, 2010

What is more important, the teacher or the system?

I have spent the last six years helping to set up, run, and teach at a small private language school. Most of my energy has been spent on trying to find the right materials, the right activities, and the right curriculum to best help my students.

However, recently there have been a lot of articles and news stories about how the most important factor in whether children learn is not the educational framework but rather the teacher. One example is this article:

"Building a Better Teacher" (NYT Magazine, March 2010)

So, have I been wasting my time in trying to design a good system? I don't think so.

I hope that having great materials and a clear, logical curriculum will make it easier for teachers to do their jobs. It is not a substitute for a good teacher, but rather a complement to one.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Japanese learning tools online

Learning Japanese can be frustrating, mainly because the writing system makes it difficult to read for language acquisition. Here are my top five online learning resources. A few minutes of these every day will really help.

Very slick site with reading, listening, example sentences, and some typing. It's basically an online SRS (spaced repetition system) that someone else has made for you. People with more time/discipline can make their own with Anki.

Learn kanji by typing in the readings. This site has the best system for showing progress I have ever seen, using a kanji chart that slowly changes colour as you progress.

This site is amazing, because it lets you practice handwriting kanji, keeps track of progress, and rates your stroke order and appearance. Amazing.

This site is great for studying for the JLPT or Kanji Kentei tests. Again, the site organises what you need to know, and keeps track of your progress.

5. iTunes
A bit of a cheat, this last one. Combined with an ipod, podcasts (audio and video) are probably the best way to get listening input and practice.

Hope that helps! Would love to hear about any other good sites in the comments below.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Google instant translation of paper text

This is just a prototype now, but I reckon we'll see fully functional apps for iphone and android within the year. Amazing stuff.

Google Translate Blog

Basically you take a photo of some text with your mobile phone, then it gets uploaded to the web and translated almost instantly. Good for menus, signs, instructions, etc.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010


How do you say this year? Is it two thousand and ten or twenty ten?

I was asked by a student, and given that I had been thinking about this topic, gave them more of an answer than they were probably looking for.

Personally I prefer twenty ten, because:

1. It's shorter and easier to say.
2. It is more consistent (like nineteen seventy).

Both are currently valid, and there are still some lingering two thousand and somes out there, but I am confident that twenty some will win out in the end. What do you think? Do you have a preference?