Over the Wall of Silence

Over the Wall of Silence

2 Over the Wall of Silence



Jack’s bad day ··············································································5 Culture and the speaking classroom············································7 We used to be Jack ······································································8


The pressure of the group ·························································11 The sounds of silence·································································13 The magic of testing···································································16 The Progress Sheet ····································································18 But how can I test speaking during class? ·································20 How often should I test?····························································25 What makes a good test? ··························································26 Where is the fun in all this? ·······················································28



Why trains run so efficiently in Japan········································30 Why language classes usually don’t···········································31 What can be done about it? ······················································33 Strategy 1: Give clear, detailed instructions ······························34 Strategy 2: Maintain a regular class structure ···························35 Strategy 3: Conversations, here and now··································36 Strategy 4: Scaffold, scaffold, scaffold ·······································38


The difference between zero and one······································ 41


Autumn Workshop ····································································42 The Golden Rules ·······································································43 Conversations in Class ·······························································50

4 Over the Wall of Silence

Introduction 5


J ACK ’ S BAD DAY Ready and eager to teach, Jack bounds into his first-year English conversation classroom and begins firing questions off to the class in a booming voice. He wants to start the class on a positive note and get some interaction from the get-go. “Hey everybody! What did you do on the weekend?” Nothing. He tries again, this time a little louder. “Did you go anywhere?” “Anybody?” “Did...did you have a good time?” It’s happening again. Jack is met with a sheer wall of silence. Damn. In the idealised version Jack was imagining on the train on the way to school, he saw half the class shoot up their hands in response to his questions. Some students were even talking over each other to answer him. But here, in the stark light of day, it’s a completely different story. His collar is starting to feel a little sweaty. OK, Jack thinks, relax. You’re a professional. You can’t let it ruffle you. He tries to hide his disappointment as he quickly comes up with a Plan B. He decides to move on to an individual. Scanning the room, Jack finds a face that looks like it may respond to him. He zeroes in on her and asks the same question. “So, what did you do on the weekend?” She smiles. But again, silence. A bird outside the window starts to croak softly.

6 Over the Wall of Silence

In Jack’s mental lesson plan, at least one of the thirty students replies to him, and provides something that he would use to begin the class. But here in reality, not a single student has volunteered to speak. By this point, he is taken aback, and feeling pretty frustrated and confused. These emotions are understandable, though. The students don’t seem to have any real hostility towards him. Some even look vaguely willing to do something in class. But he can’t escape the feeling that there is an invisible wall of silence between the class and him, even after he has given up on getting a response from the group and moved on to individual students. What’s happening here? Where Jack is from in the US, students may sometimes ignore questions from the teacher directed to the whole class, but they would never ignore a question asked of them individually. Refusing to communicate in a situation like this would identify a student as rebellious, or at the very least, lazy and disinterested. Classroom dynamics differ greatly even amongst most cultures in the West, but this is one fundamental thing they have in common. The challenging situation Jack finds himself in stems from cultural differences between Japanese culture and “Western culture”, which are by definition very deep and sometimes hard to grasp. Not getting a reply to your direct question is one of the most shocking things that many teachers remember from their early days

Introduction 7

at a Japanese university. It’s a huge part of their culture shock- something that all teachers experience, most carry with them as a kind of trauma, but few talk about with others. We’re all supposed to be professionals, right? But it does happen, and we all have to deal with it somehow. In this book, we’ll try to explain our view on why things like the wall of silence come about in a classroom, and give some constructive ideas about how to deal with them. C ULTURE AND THE SPEAKING CLASSROOM As we all know, culture is extremely complicated. It could be de scribed as a very powerful river of tradition, socialization and history. And it’s actually quite difficult to recognize, let alone analyze. But don’t worry. We’re not going to bash anyone over the head with theory. When we use the word culture here, we only want to talk about how it affects the here and now, and from a strictly practical angle. We want to look only at how the ways in which people think, behave and communicate can unconsciously affect the foreign lan guage classroom in Japan. However, we will have to use some generalizations which will be, by definition, partly incomplete. So, rather than describing cultural features in exhaustive detail, we will (1) focus on what they mean, in terms of actual, observable behavior, (2) describe strategies to deal with problems that arise from this and (3) explain why those strate gies are effective. Of course, we don’t aim to put labels on people, nor to appear condescending towards Japanese culture. We have both been drawn to Japan, chosen to settle down in this country, and started bicultural families. We love and respect Japanese culture (but of course we are also frustrated by it at times!). You won’t find any judgements here, just a practical concern that comes from direct experience.

8 Over the Wall of Silence

Why do we care so much about the wall of silence? It’s obvious that communication classes must include speaking, and as much of it as possible. It’s only through speaking that students improve their communication skills. With the wall of silence often blocking the way, this is not so easy in Japan. Like Jack, you’ll have to overcome classroom dynamics that are not conducive to speaking out. This is easier said than done. W E USED TO BE J ACK We are both long-time residents of Japan with extensive teaching experience. We came to this country at a time when simply being a native speaker qualified you as a teacher, and the field was not nearly as professional as it is today. Starting out by teaching at language schools (Bruno in French, Stephen in English), our attempts were welcomed patiently by forgiving students. Our first students were studying as a hobby, using their own time and money. They didn’t mind doing something considered difficult or not making any real progress in their speaking ability.

Language schools: no problem!

Introduction 9

Everything changed when we began working at universities and were suddenly thrust in front of classes of 30 to 50 unmotivated, low-level students. Like Jack, we both got huge shocks -Bruno in his beginner French classes, and Stephen in low-intermediate English. There were quite a few years of frustration and slow progress.

Salvation came from outside, in the form of advice from more experienced teachers who had designed an original, powerful way to teach foreign language communication. This became known as the Immediate Method . Rather than a method per se , it is more of a set of coherent guidelines which allowed us, and quite a few others, to start getting actual results in our speaking classes. We started discussing those guidelines, and the very practical techniques that give them flesh, in journal articles, presentations and the annual Autumn Work shop . We developed the materials and textbooks we needed in our everyday teaching. We received a lot of feedback from teachers who were experimenting with the approach in their classrooms. And over University classrooms are a different kettle of fish

10 Over the Wall of Silence

the years, things started becoming clearer as the techniques were re vised and improved and the approach became more balanced. The context we know best, and the one at which we are aiming this book most squarely, is large groups of poorly motivated stu dents at the false beginner level -basically, your standard “Spoken Communication 1” university classes. However, we believe the logic described here is valid for other contexts.

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T HE PRESSURE OF THE GROUP Let’s return to Jack and his sweaty collar and think for a moment. Why aren’t any of his students putting up their hands and volunteer ing answers? His students are on the whole rather bright and do well in their other classes. It’s not like they don’t understand his elemen tary-level questions. Perhaps they don’t see him as a real teacher? The reason his students aren’t jumping out of their chairs to an swer Jack is all around him. It’s the other students in the room . In a Jap anese classroom, the pressure of the group is far stronger than it may appear. It’s not too much of a stretch to say that most students do not want to differentiate themselves from the group and will ac tively try to appear modest. In Japan there’s a famous saying- almost a cliché now- that goes, “the nail that sticks out gets hammered down.” In the foreign lan guage classroom this translates as “don’t show off your language skills unless you want to appear full of yourself.” In other words, a

12 Over the Wall of Silence

student jumping at the chance to answer is in fact taking the risk of stepping outside of the group.

Student about to be hammered down

Japanese society is described as valuing collectivism and humil ity . Inevitably, your Japanese students bring these cultural tenden cies to the classroom. This is even more apparent when the group members don’t know each other well - especially at the beginning of the year and in classes with students from different faculties and majors. On top of this are the attitudes toward language learning and hab its that students have picked up unconsciously over the years of compulsory education, and they’re not always healthy ones for lan guage learning. They might be summarized as follows. (1) Foreign languages are taught with far more emphasis on com prehension over expression . (2) Much of the curriculum from junior high school onward is geared towards university exams, so naturally students have been trained to avoid mistakes.

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T HE SOUNDS OF SILENCE All these factors have the effect of shattering a student’s willing ness to speak in class. Students who look as if they could respond to a teacher’s question will hesitate and wait to be prompted, often sev eral times. And when one person is reluctant to speak, it’s often contagious. Reactions like this will often quickly kill the lively, open atmosphere you want to have in your class. Even during pair work, when the pressure of the group is lessened considerably, some stu dents are hesitant to speak. And beyond hesitation, there is the actual wall, built of utter si lence. It’s as complete as in “I asked that student a question and he won’t even try to reply to me. No sounds are coming out of his mouth.” We call it a wall because it blocks everything. Blocks com munication, blocks learning, blocks your flow as a teacher. Don’t panic, there are ways to get over it. But first we need to look at why it’s there. When a student is sitting in silence, he may react in one of the following ways. (1) The student you just asked a question to directly may turn to his neighbour and ask for help. (2) He might open his textbook and start flipping through it. (3) Or he might just sit there, eyes forward but vacant, seemingly frozen, like the proverbial deer in headlights. But your students are only following their cultural instincts. In the way that small animals sit completely motionless when a larger pred ator approaches, Japanese students often freeze when asked a ques tion with the entire class watching. They hope that the teacher will give up and move onto a new target. You may have noticed this

14 Over the Wall of Silence

when observing a colleague’s class. “Playing dead” is not really ab errant behavior in the classroom in Japan. At this point, it’s alarmingly easy to point fingers and stick stere otypes on people, such as “Japanese students are passive.” But these clichés don’t really help anyone. Let’s try to get more practical. What we want to find is a simple model that explains the situation, and the cultural logic at play, from both perspectives of teacher and stu dent, without falling into the trap of stereotyping.

Frozen student

It might be helpful to think about the situation like this. These reactions are puzzling to a foreign teacher because in the West a student’s basic duty in that situation is to respond promptly . They could say anything they like, or even just make a sound that shows that they are thinking. But if they remain silent they are “keeping the floor.” This means that the classroom is literally placed on pause, and the class cannot move forward. What’s more, the teacher’s au thority is questioned, implicitly but in a very strong way.

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This is not the intention of most Japanese students. Generally speaking, they want very much to please their teacher. But they just don’t realize how much their silence is literally blocking the class (and breaking Jack’s heart at the same time!). Without meaning to overgeneralize, here’s our take on the reason behind this conundrum. In the West, when a student is asked a ques tion, the basic cultural rule is to not remain silent . In contrast, in Japanese culture, a student’s primary duty in that situation is to look for the answer . Of course, there are many other factors that influ ence how you and your students interact in the classroom. But all things being equal, this is what guides behavior on a very deep level. This explains a few of the seemingly bizarre reactions you get from students. They are searching for the answer everywhere they possi bly can -in their textbook, in their classmates’ knowledge, or in their own brain. When asked a question, you are supposed to… In the West say something (don’t remain silent) In Japan look for the answer This is an admittedly rough model of the two cultural systems at play in this situation. But as a teacher, thinking about it in this way can help you feel a little better about your students’ puzzling behav ior. They are not being uncooperative. They are not questioning your authority. And you don’t suck as a teacher (even if that thought has been nagging you and you’ve been considering a job at the okonomiyaki shop down the road!). So, the wall of silence is often created by a cultural mismatch. It’s a mismatch of expectations that each person brings to the classroom.

16 Over the Wall of Silence

You have a certain set of ideas about what is appropriate in this situation, and students have quite different ones. That’s all it really comes down to. Now, the next question is: what can be done about this? How can we all get out of that deadlock? T HE MAGIC OF TESTING This is where the magic of conversation testing comes in. Hold on a minute. Testing, you say? How last century! But just hear us out. The word test is rather taboo in some circles these days, since it often conjures up restrictive, old-fashioned attitudes to teaching. But the fact remains that it is still the strongest motivation for stu dents in any discipline. All students, and especially Japanese students, have been conditioned to respond to the concept of a test, since it has been a basic part of their education since the beginning. As a language teacher, you can harness this power and make it work to your advantage. On top of that, tests can have very powerful, posi tive effects, especially in the context of the Japanese classroom. We believe they are actually liberating . Here is why. When you question a student in front of the class with no reward, you are in fact asking them to take a huge risk. You are basically appealing only to their generosity. You’re sending the message “Let’s work together, please, …. pretty please.” But a stu dent can always turn you down. The eyes of the class are on them, and the invisible pressure of the group weighs on their shoulders. Having grown up in a culture where silence can be a signal to the teacher to “try the next person”, it’s all too easy for a student to sit in silence.

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However, once the interaction takes the form of a test, the mean ing of the situation shifts instantly. The goal is clear to everyone: to take a test and get a score. It’s no longer about trying to please the teacher, or show off your abilities, or blend into the group. Every thing is suddenly much simpler, boiled down to this: you get a mark or don’t. So now, active participation in class and doing your best isn’t a sign of trying to show off, but in fact normal behavior within the new system. The social pressures of the classroom group fade into insignificance. This is why we call testing “liberating.” But how can you manage to bring the motivating effect of testing to your class, on a practical level? You just need a few basic ingredi ents: (1) the simple act of giving the label “test” to a situation which was previously unnamed . When trying to model linguistic content (typically questions and answers) with students in front of the whole class, you go from asking questions of students to testing . It’s amazing the power of a four-letter word. (2) A simple reward system that allows you to record points to students after each interaction. This system should be efficient enough that you don’t waste any class time. We’re talking, like, sec onds here. (3) Ideally the test interaction should also act as a broadcasting system , in that it says to everyone, “Look, this student just got a point.” When the others witness an example of a student being re warded and how simple it was to do, motivation naturally rises. The good news is, there is a simple tool that will help you achieve all of this. We call it a Progress Sheet.

18 Over the Wall of Silence

T HE P ROGRESS S HEET The secret weapon that you can use to help run these instant tests is nothing more than a piece of paper or cardboard of around A4 size. A form is photocopied and given to each student as an official record of their attendance and test scores for the entire course. The sheet has spaces for the student’s name, faculty and year level, along with a table showing the date of the class, and columns for teacher to record attendance and test scores. This is done preferably with an official stamp or hanko, which gives the Progress Sheet the feel of a ‘passport’ to the class. Stamps and forms have a particular importance in Japanese society, and in the case of the Progress Sheet, give some serious weight to the pro cess. If you don’t have a hanko or stamp, you can always quickly sign your name. But stamps are quicker -and you can find them at the 100-yen shop. We find that self-inking stamps of the teacher’s name are most effective, but these need to be ordered and are a little more expensive. For any teacher in Japan though, we believe a good hanko is a worthwhile investment. Having a document like this in front of each student may seem like a minor detail, but it has an enormous effect on the flow of the class. It makes it possible for the teacher to give a test ‘on the fly’. Moving around the room, the teacher can choose, test and grade a student in a matter of moments. “Kentaro, what did you do on the weekend?” “I worked on Saturday and I went to the movies on Sun day.” Bang. Test done. Sheet stamped. You move on to the next student. Rinse and repeat. In this way, you and your students will soon find a rhythm, and there is very little wasted time and effort.

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Example of a Progress Sheet (French)

20 Over the Wall of Silence

Without a Progress Sheet, the teacher must choose a student and match their face with a name on the class list, or vice versa. This can waste precious class time, and often breaks the rhythm of the class. Progress Sheets allow the teacher to wander the room and interact with students on the spot . The fact that any student could be tested at any time creates the perfect level of suspense. Students are kept on their toes, but not over-intimidated, because they can see the point of the exercise and know that they can succeed. You have probably already discovered this in your teaching, but when students receive a grade which is recorded in front of them, it has a huge psychological effect. After experiencing this once, they see how easy it is to do well in the class, so motivation naturally rises. Students really do appreciate clarity and fairness. A quick word about the name. “Progress Sheet” doesn’t do justice to the role of this simple piece of paper. They are used to track a student’s progress, but that’s not all. Just having one in front of a student makes them “open for business” at literally any mo ment. The teacher can also use Progress Sheets for class manage ment: collect them from all students, shuffle them and assign pairs or create groups. It’s remarkable how much quicker students move into pair work when they are assigned a partner with a random draw ing of Sheets than when they are told to “find a partner.” B UT HOW CAN I TEST SPEAKING DURING CLASS ? Tests can take a wide range of forms, and are done for a variety of reasons. They can be used to rank students, evaluate their pro gress or motivate them. In this book, we are most interested in the last -the ways in which tests can motivate students and direct their

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efforts. We’re not really concerned here with paper “exam-type” tests that check students’ comprehension. Of course, on-the-spot speaking tests do give an indication of a student’s performance and progress, but they do more than just that. They push all students to participate in the class and practice what they are supposed to be practicing, all towards a clear goal. Obviously, as busy, tired teachers, we are also invested in the lo gistics of testing: can it be done quickly and easily? Can it be done during class time? Won’t it be physically and mentally exhausting for the teacher? After years of trial and error, we have found that certain styles of test stand out as the most effective. Here are a few ways you can test during your weekly class, each with a different approach and format but all very achievable. T YPE 1: I NSTANT TESTING IN FRONT OF THE CLASS On page 18 we described a very standard form of teacher-student interaction: the teacher asks a question, the student replies. The stu dent is given a grade based on their response. But the object of the test can really be anything- pronunciation, having them ask ques tions to you or another student, or any other linguistic point you choose. The point is that you announce to the entire class that a test will take place in the very near future (in the next five minutes!) at the same time as you give them detailed instructions on how to do this practice. The word “test” works its magic, and soon they’ll be on task. In this way, the test is actually guiding their learning. In this format, there are various ways to give students who “fail” a second chance, and in practice, students who are put on the spot usually get their stamp or point. So, in that sense, it’s probably more

22 Over the Wall of Silence

accurate to call this a formalized reward system than a test, but remember, the terminology itself carries a lot of weight. Mention the word test in class and watch your students’ ears prick up. It’s important to note the psychology at work behind this. You are testing your students, but the stamp that some of them receive is not actually a grade per se , it simply represents bonus points. Are bonus points that important to students? In most cases, not really. But they play an important role in the process of motivating and guiding the class, in two key ways. First, they officialize the act of testing, and so bring about the “liberating” effect we described ear lier. Secondly, they are a way of compensating students for putting them on the spot. It’s a way of saying, “Sorry pal, I’m putting you under a bit of pressure, so here’s a little something for you...” More carrot, less stick. T YPE 2: R EAL - TIME CONVERSATIONS AWAY FROM THE GROUP Instant testing is a wonderfully effective way to keep motivation high at intervals throughout the class, but these are not the end goals of our teaching. In conversation classes, we also want our students to practice having conversations made up of a series of these back and-forth interactions. In order to help them focus on practicing for that specific task, we want to test them… on, well, that specific task. Longer interactions between teacher and student are not really possible in front of the class; you can’t have a real-time conversation for a few minutes with one or two students while the whole group is watching. Having an unscripted conversation in a foreign language is not easy for students to begin with, but it’s even harder when everyone is gawking at them. So, it’s obviously far better to do that

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kind of testing away from the group, while other students are doing something else. But is it even possible to do that in class time? We’re here to say that, yes, it’s very possible -up to a point. All you need is a system that is efficient (at least half the class tested in thirty minutes) but light (wasting no time on organizing seating charts) and a little bit of math on the side. OK, let’s talk numbers. In a standard university class you have 90 minutes to work with, but of course you don’t want to devote most of the class time to testing. How about thirty minutes? Would you be willing to use that time to ensure increased motivation and par ticipation? Here’s how it works. Let’s imagine you have 32 students in your class. You call two random students, and they come and sit with you in a corner of the classroom. They have a conversation with each other and you for around three minutes (based on what they have learnt over the last few weeks). You give them each a grade on the spot, based on a rubric you have decided upon and communicated to the class beforehand. They go back to their seat and the next pair comes up. In this way, you manage to test half of your class one week, and the other half the next. This process takes you 32 minutes (8 pairs x 3 minutes each) + (1 minute of changeover time between each pair). This might sound like a lot. After all, it is a third of the class time. But once you see the motivating effect this has on the students, it will seem like a bargain. If you’ve ever sat down with students for conversation away from the rest of the class, you’ll know that this is worthwhile. Meanwhile, one hundred percent of your students are doing meaningful conversation practice! And students truly enjoy

24 Over the Wall of Silence

having this time to speak with the teacher in semi-privacy. You might be surprised by how much they speak when the eyes of the class are off them. T YPE 3: P REPARE AND PERFORM A CONVERSATION To mix it up a little, you could sometimes have your students spend around 15 to 20 minutes writing a conversation with a partner. After that, they perform their conversation in front of you while the rest of the class is busy doing something else, usually preparing or practicing their own conversations. You give them a grade on their Progress Sheet and move on to the next pair. Goodbye, thanks for coming. Again, with this format you manage to test half of your class per week but this time it’s faster: it takes you only 12 minutes (8 pairs x 1 minute each) + (only 30 seconds of changeover time between each pair, as it’s the teacher who moves to the students). Now, some people might argue that this is not an actual conver sation because it’s written and it’s rehearsed. It’s true that it’s not a real-time conversation. But it’s a good stepping stone activity to more spontaneous speaking, and it has a number of merits: (1) Students enjoy the writing part, because it’s creative and coop erative, and they’re producing language at their own pace. (2) The conversations students produce are quite rich and nu anced. They have the chance to make longer phrases and sentences, show better turn-taking, and sometimes even humor. The slower pace of writing allows students to try and integrate pragmatic com munication skills such as the three “Golden Rules” of conversation, which we will introduce later.

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(3) Before performing their conversations, students usually prac tice it quite seriously and end up internalizing a lot of quality linguis tic content. H OW OFTEN SHOULD I TEST ? It’s true that many speaking courses do include testing, but by and large these tests are conducted only once, at the completion of the course. These tests, or rather exams , are designed to assess compe tence of the language learned over an entire semester. This is not the kind of testing we will discuss here, as it has very little impact on week-to-week motivation and participation. We are talking about testing every single week . That’s right. As regularly as possible, and from as early in the course as possible. If you wait too long to start testing, you’re missing the opportunity to have students vault the wall of silence and form positive habits. You might get a shocked reaction from students when you explain they will be having regular tests from the first or second week of the course. But they will come around. Students will soon see that (1) the tests are very doable (2) they can make some progress (3) they can actually enjoy it. These are all huge discoveries for the student, so they won’t all be grasped straight away. That’s why it’s best to start testing early and give students time to attune to the system. You can simultaneously give focus to the class, lay down the law, and show students their potential. From the very first class, students need to get started, get speaking, get the satisfaction of realizing they are starting to progress. This isn’t easy, because you are asking them to spend their energy on ac tivities that don’t mean anything to them at the outset. As we all know, students who have been taught to approach language learning

26 Over the Wall of Silence

as rote memorization and comprehension take time to adjust to learning based on producing language. It’s a new style of learning for them, and so we should give them time to adjust. W HAT MAKES A GOOD TEST ? Our friend Jerry Talandis Jr has written a thorough yet approach able book called How to Test Speaking Skills in Japan , published by Alma Publishing in this series. In it, he outlines the four criteria of a good test: Ÿ Validity: Does the test fit with what you are trying to do with the class? Ÿ Reliability: Is it fair to all students? Ÿ Practicality: Is the result worth the effort? Can this be sus tained? Ÿ Washback effect: Does it help your students to learn? Although we don’t want to get too technical in this book, this is a helpful framework to keep in mind as you bring testing to the fore in your classes. You’ll find yourself focusing on various aspects, de pending on where you are on the journey of developing your ap proach. It’s vital to experiment, and find what works best in your context and with your own teaching style. In all honestly, we have changed the ways in which we teach and test quite radically over the years, but the basic framework has stayed constant: test, and test regularly.

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We describe this, the biggest discovery of this approach, as the zero to one effect . As obvious as it sounds, the difference between actually doing a test and not doing a test is enormous. The main thing is to actually put testing into practice (rather than not do any thing). Once it’s in place you can improve. The difference between doing a test and not doing a test is far bigger than the difference between a good test and a so-so test, provided that the test is valid, that is, in alignment with the goals of the class.

Nothing to lose, everything to gain: a well-designed and well-executed testing system will only add, not subtract.

With a big heavy word like test flying around, it’s easy to get sucked down the path toward complexity and perfectionism. But this is the opposite of what we want you to take away from this book. What we want to stress above anything else is simplicity and gradual progress . Usually when we talk about tests, we don’t think enough about practicality . A lot of theory of language testing talks about the ide alized test, while ignoring the everyday realities of the classroom. Students have their limits -in ability, motivation, and the restrictions imposed by their culture- and we teachers have our limits too -time,

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energy and motivation. Anything new we try to bring to the class room must be reconciled with this fact. So again, short, simple tests done regularly have much more effect on motivation and participa tion than long, complex ones done rarely. Another feature of a good test is giving direct feedback. Directly after a test is the perfect moment to give a short comment such as “That response was very natural,” or “Be careful with plurals,” ei ther verbally or written on a Progress Sheet. At this time test-takers can feel what went right and what didn’t, and feedback is most effec tive. It’s important to find your balance between tests conducted in front of the whole class with considerable pressure (which are nec essary to model certain things for the group and establish your au thority), and tests conducted away from the group with less pressure. WHERE IS THE FUN IN ALL THIS ? Up until now, with talk of testing, Progress Sheets and cultural differences, some of you might be wondering where the enjoyment in class will come from. Of course, we believe everyone should work at creating a positive, open atmosphere in the classroom. But as Jack discovered, it is not enough to just present yourself as friendly and approachable, to explain that mistakes are OK, and to smile often and widely. Those efforts, however well-intentioned, can often fall flat. Even the friendliest, most active teacher can be ignored, and when students are not on task, even the brightest of them will sleep. The vicious cycle continues when teachers lose their motivation in a classroom where no student responds to them, and many veg out or sleep (even a tiny fraction of the students in class sleeping is

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enough to rattle a teacher from a Western background). It is difficult to recover from a trying experience like that. But if you have a solid approach and everyone is on board, the class will naturally take on a positive atmosphere. Once students are speaking freely, doing well, and achieving results, the smiles will come. Teachers who manage to create an open classroom atmosphere in which no student is afraid to do their best are those who can create a shared understanding that doing one’s best does not mean that you are putting yourself above the group , but in fact you are contributing to the group’s learning . In the context of Japanese culture, this is extremely difficult to pull off by somehow persuading the class. We’re not saying it’s im possible, especially if you’ve got a bright, mature group and you pos sess the right skills, but this is by no means an easy feat. What we are suggesting is that regular, in-class testing is a sure-fire way to get rid of silences and hesitations, that will work instantly, in any con text. In short, tests don’t negate efforts at creating a “positive, friendly atmosphere” in the classroom. They actually make those ef forts more efficient. But there are certain conditions. A good class dynamic soon emerges if testing is started from the beginning of the course and conducted regularly.

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Chapter 2


W HY TRAINS RUN SO EFFICIENTLY IN J APAN Japanese passenger trains, which are world-renowned for their punctuality and efficiency, are a good analogy of the way this society functions. Consider a local train in a major city. You are waiting at the terminal station; this is the last stop for the train coming from one direction and about to go back on the same line. Passengers have to wait in front of the triangle or the circle signs. After all the passengers have exited the arriving train, its doors close and the rail way staff quickly walk through all the cars on a general check, wak

ing up the odd sleeping person and flipping the seats to face the opposite direction. The train moves two meters down the platform

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so that the queues of waiting passengers align with the doors. Hun dreds of people board it. Four minutes later, the train leaves the sta tion as the second hand of the driver’s watch hits twelve. During all these preparations, somebody has been giving instruc tions over the loudspeaker - usually live, and at quite a volume. Eve rything to do with the train’s departure, journey and destination has been explained in great detail and repeated twice. The longer you live in Japan and the better your comprehension of Japanese becomes, the more you realize how the entire society works this way. Detailed guidelines govern all group activities, from a neighborhood association meeting to a company meeting to even a casual gathering of university students whose sole purpose is to get drunk together and meet potential romantic partners. These guidelines are usually spoken but even also distributed in written form. Detailed guidelines mean that everyone knows what will happen, when it will happen, and their role in the process. W HY LANGUAGE CLASSES DON ’ T Now, as a foreign language teacher you have probably had the reverse of this situation happen to you. You asked your students to do something as simple as “pass these handouts around” and you were shocked when you realized that a number of students did not receive it. Meanwhile, a stack of handouts has ended up on a table somewhere in the class. Or maybe you instructed them to “practice a short conversation with their neighbor” and nothing happened. What? “How hard can that be?” you think, shaking your head in disbelief.

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We had that experience too. When we look back on it, we now realize how instructions that we thought were crystal-clear were ac tually leaving our students in the dark. Simply put, we didn’t give them enough information so they didn’t perform well. In fact, it’s not only a question of instructions and how they are phrased, it’s a question of making the whole class situation well-defined and within students’ comfort levels.

Social scientists have noted that the trait known as uncertainty avoid ance is particularly high in Japanese culture. This means that, in gen eral, people actively avoid what is unclear. When they are unable to avoid it, uncertainty has a paralyzing effect on them. In the class room, even small hesitations and blocks have a strong negative ef fect when they accumulate to a huge waste of time and energy. As a result, valuable class time is lost, learning is poorer than it ought to be and teachers are far more frustrated than they should be. To put it more positively: at least in the first crucial lessons of a semester, Japanese language learners are much more relaxed and ac tive when they know what is coming and what will be expected of them. Japanese students like, no, need peace of mind. So for that rea son, it might be said that reducing uncertainty in your classroom is vital.

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This idea might sound controversial to some. Many foreign teach ers might think that it is their duty as an educator to train their stu dents to be able to react even in the face of uncertainty. They think that university students “ should be able to adapt, or should be able to take responsibility.” It’s the “Just throw them in the pool and they’ll learn to swim” approach. This feels natural to us as Westerners who have been educated in a certain way. We have been exposed to a mix of values and habits which are all now second nature to us, and it’s inevitable that we bring these into our classroom unconsciously. It’s vital to understand this about ourselves, and that our Japanese stu dents do not share this reality. WHAT CAN BE DONE ABOUT IT ? Our basic suggestion is this: instead of fighting against Japanese culture (in this case, the tendency to run away from uncertainty) we should tap into it. However much we want to bring our foreign cul ture into the classroom, we must first understand our students’ cul ture. Then we can think of ways to work with it , not against it . Making the choice to carefully control the learning environment at the outset doesn’t mean that we have to sacrifice our students’ adaptability. Our goal is for our students to become able to have real-time conversations in a foreign language, even when they are going to interact with foreigners “in the wild”. This skill requires improvisation, autonomy, and creativity, all of which need to be practiced. But at the beginning of the process, the most efficient way to get students going on the path to autonomy is to remove as much uncertainty from their learning as you possibly can. You can then guide them step by step towards flexibility, without leaving anyone behind.

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So, how does this play out in a practical sense? Here are a few strategies that work well for us, based on what we’ve just been talk ing about. S TRATEGY 1: G IVE CLEAR , DETAILED INSTRUCTIONS C LARIFY EVERY INSTRUCTION It’s always a good idea to explain in more detail than your instincts tell you to, even if this takes a little time. If you take a few minutes to think about it, you’ll see there are many implicit assumptions in the way you direct students. For example, instead of simply saying “Now practice with your partner,” you could say for example “Now, with your partner you will practice asking questions and answering them. You will focus on questions we studied in this lesson but you can incorporate ques tions from the last two lessons if they connect well (the idea of two turns “connecting well” could actually be explained). Take turns ask Written instructions are a beacon of light for low-level or uncer tain students. Writing on the board is the most obvious way, but if you have a computer in your classroom you can project instructions on a screen or print them out and distribute them. A significant ben efit of this is that you can reuse them and improve them over time. T HE QUESTION OF LANGUAGE Using the students’ first language when giving instructions and explanations helps remove ambiguity. However, some institutions explicitly forbid the use of Japanese in the classroom. At the same ing questions. This activity will last five minutes. Go”. W RITE DOWN INSTRUCTIONS WHENEVER POSSIBLE

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time, there are teachers against it, because they believe that it’s best for students to hear only English and get used to constructing mean ing even when they don’t understand 100% of what is being said. It’s rather controversial. Our take on this is that it depends on your students’ level. If their level is too low, they will be lost and nothing worthwhile will happen for far too long. In this situation, using Japanese to direct the class helps save time and ensure that speaking practice activities run smoothly, and therefore maximizes the students’ speaking time . Here’s another practical suggestion. Even if you decide to speak only English in class, you could ensure that crucial instructions are written down in Japanese and circulated to students. The written and the spoken directions will complement each other. S TRATEGY 2: M AINTAIN A REGULAR CLASS STRUCTURE When students don’t react to our teaching, we might think that they are bored with the style of the class and need some variation in the way they are learning. This may sometimes be the case. However, more often than not, bringing a wide range of activities that need to be explained and understood before they can be done only works to heighten students’ uncertainty. Of course, we agree that variety is the spice of life, but also that this spice should be added gradually, as students become more com fortable with the class dynamics. Western teachers are sometimes surprised at how Japanese students prefer regularity to adventure. It may be counter-intuitive, but in the Japanese context having a steady basic structure upon which we can vary content is a springboard for creativity.

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S TRATEGY 3: C ONVERSATIONS , HERE AND NOW Let’s hone in on a specific type of learner for a moment. Students that might be classified as “low intermediate” make up the vast ma jority of first and second year university students. For our purposes, “low intermediate” means those students who have studied English for a number of years (at least six years of junior high and high school) but have never actually had a real-time conversation. They have (supposedly) memorized a lot of grammar and vocabulary, but are quite poor at expressing themselves, even in writing. In a real time verbal interaction, they are almost completely helpless. The primary goal for a communication teacher should be to “un block” these students. They have to learn to use their linguistic knowledge to express thoughts -not just comprehend written text- and do this in an interactive way. This is a huge and frightening step for students. How do we make this happen, given their aversion to risk and uncertainty? We recom mend choosing conversations on topics of the students’ daily lives as the sole focus of the class. The goal of the class is a simple task: “Have a two-way conversa tion with your partner about your real lives. This conversation is happening here and now.” Once this goal is set, all ambiguity is re moved. There are no wrong answers to real-life questions. Students know if they have a dog or not, the transport they use to come to university, or whether they like baseball. If they are asked a question on a topic, all they need to focus on is expressing that reality in the target language. In contrast, if they are given a role play in which they are supposed to be, say, a lawyer in New York, a whole range of questions marks

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start popping up. Even if they are given basic biographical infor mation such as age and marital status, they have no idea what a New York lawyer would say in a given situation. Even if they can imagine or guess, they usually aren’t 100% sure. And when two Japanese stu dents aren’t sure at the same time, the likely result is paralysis. We are not saying that role plays have no place in the classroom. They can be very beneficial once students have become comfortable with having real-time conversations. But this takes a lot of time. Role play activities can relieve a certain monotony that comes about from continually speaking about one’s own life. However, it is advisable to avoid role plays at the beginning of a course. And when you do use them, we’d recommend first using real identities to practice the conversation topic that will be the focus of the role play. If you decide to focus your whole class on conversations about daily life, there are a few things you should be careful of. Ÿ Keep in mind that some topics, for example family members, are sensitive. As we all know, family situations can be compli cated or tragic. Instead of “Describe the members of your fam ily,” you can ask students to, for example, “Describe a member of your family”. Ÿ Some students may be uncomfortable talking about their per sonal lives, for various reasons. Of course, they should not be forced to. It’s OK to “lie”. But you’ll find that 98% of students are in fact quite happy to talk about their daily lives. Ÿ It is also important to research the topics thoroughly in advance and make sure everyone will have something meaningful to say. Most students won’t make the jump from talking about one topic to another, tangential subject. So if you choose, for exam ple, the topic of part-time work or arubaito (a topic which is very

38 Over the Wall of Silence

close to the heart of the average university student), you should plan for two possible directions: either a student has a part-time job or they don’t. In the latter case, where can the conversation go? You need to also prepare and present content that allows them to express jobs they would like or wouldn’t like to have, or the reasons they don’t have a part-time job. S TRATEGY 4: S CAFFOLD , SCAFFOLD , SCAFFOLD In this section, we are going to assume that you are teaching con versation about real life topics. This is the approach we have been practicing for most of our teaching careers. Here’s our advice. P ROVIDE ALL THE BASIC ELEMENTS OF CONVERSATION The basic elements of any conversation are questions, answers and reactions. To save time and energy, it is tempting to provide a few starter questions and to just “let students figure out the rest,” but in our experience, thoroughly covering the basic, most obvious examples of each component will help your class run smoothly. Let’s return to the classic topic of part-time jobs as an example. The basic questions you might ask include “Do you have a part-time job?”, “Would you like to have a part-time job?”, or “Where do you work?” There are typical answers to these questions: “I work in a convenience store / in a bakery / at a cram school” or “I don’t work”. And then there are typical reactions such as “Oh, that must be interesting / difficult / tiring”. Introducing all these basic elements before moving to speaking practice provides a safe base for lower-level students. They will def initely have something to say, and they know that their practice part ners also do.

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