Language Sensei

A Language Teacher's Journey

March 1, 2015
by leesensei

Learning/Evaluating In Context – Not Content: The Journey ….

RENOVATION 3As teachers we are always saying that we are on a ‘journey’. I know for me the transformation of my teaching from ‘teaching the textbook’ to ‘facilitating language acquisition and use’ is an exciting one. It’s also, as we always affirm, about small do-able changes – steps that, when they are taken, will ‘stick’. I have learned – and now seen put into practice – the benefits of teaching in context – and learning that way too. And although my examples of ‘how’ and ‘why’ may seem a bit odd to a teacher who uses the regular a-b-c’s in their teaching it is the lessons on ‘real contextual’ learning that are key for me and perhaps you will see your own journey in them as well.

I am a Japanese teacher and, as a result, my students not only are mastering a 2nd language – but also a 2nd, 3rd and sometimes 4th orthography. We begin in year 1 with hiragana – a script of 46 sounds out of which any ‘native’ Japanese word can be written. Then we start to add in katakana – another 46 character script primarily for words imported into Japanese from other languages (think ‘pizza’ and ‘T shirt’) . As students are learning these we also throw in kanji (Chinese characters) – not all of the required 1900 or so to be fluent but about 300 by the time students are done Yr 4. Whew!

The old “Teach the Content” way – Ah the old days. It would look like this. Start students learning Japanese – they can’t write the characters yet so let’s use ‘romaji’ (Japanese written in English characters) until we have introduced all the written hiragana. Then when we’ve done that – let’s test those characters – discreetly – in batches of 10 – making kids memorize them because if they can’t memorize them like that well then they can’t use them can they? Then let’s finally make them write phrases that they’ve written in romaji the ‘real’ way. Oh and what about those import words? Well we’ll keep writing them in romaji until Yr2 when we introduce katakana (the same way as the first script) and then force them to stop using the english letters and use those. Whew – head awhirl? I suspect my students’ were!

The start of “Teach in Context” way – Speak First! Suddenly it struck me – why use the English letters? Japanese kids don’t. They speak and speak and gradually learn to write the words that they know. So last year my Yr1’s started speaking. Using picture clues we learned, practiced and used key content phrases to interact with classmates. “Where are you from?”, “How old are you?” etc. As the characters were introduced we started reading…BUT…I still taught the characters and tested discreetly. That is I still tested the ‘sounds’ – as, well, sounds. And I still used the ‘romaji’ for foreign words…A start it was but…

The evolution of “Content” way – Give It To Them When They Need It – This year has seen an evolution in my teaching and use of characters. The first has been that I have dropped the ‘romaji’ altogether. In consultation with my Yr 2’s & 3’s (and my new more ‘aware’ self) I decided to introduce the ‘katakana’ foreign-sound orthography as needed. That is the students are not required to know how to write it but they are required to see it and use it. So now they get a chart as part of their key package. They can try using it but they get the katakana chart for all tests/quizzes (and I don’t mark their ‘spelling’ of them). To help them read it I write the hiragana sounds they know over top to help them. They are – shockingly – using it correctly in context. Next year when I want them to be ‘off chart’ I see an easy transition.

Evolution Step 2 – Don’t “Test the Content” – “Evaluate in Context” – This year I also returned to teaching a compressed course called Beginner’s Japanese 11. It is a ‘catch-up’ course that tries to introduce content /structures of Yr 1 & 2 in just 1 semester! (I know!). I haven’t taught it in 8 years and how I’m approaching it reflects my ‘context’ shift. I still taught the individual characters (wait for it) but instead of the dreaded ‘write rows A-O, KA-KO’ tests now we tested in ‘context’. The first quizzes were writing phrases we knew – and students could have the chart if they wanted to. The majority came prepared to write and didn’t use the chart at all. They liked that they were tested on what they knew already rather than random sounds. As for the Chinese characters – I’ll ask that they recognize them and instead of waiting for when the book said to introduce them – they’ll be in there the first time that they see the word.

Next Step To Come…? I’m toying with introducing the characters as we need them. While the ‘context’ in me likes that the ‘content’ part of me realizes that they need all the characters to be able to read short passages that may contain words they have not yet seen. I’m still thinking about this.

Context, real-life use and not the ‘content’ should be what/how we are delivering language to our students…and I’m finally seeing that.


October 20, 2014
by leesensei

Reading & Understanding – The Question Challenge Activity

Girls doing schoolwork.It’s always a challenge to construct activities that engage students – especially about a reading piece. I try a variety of ways to both help/determine if my students understand a piece from  group Q&A to discussion to drawing and more. My Year 2 class is a case in point. After 1 semester of Japanese they hover around the Novice-Mid range but they are eager to ‘talk’. My challenge was to give them a reading and then, get them to discuss it. Enter the student to student “Question Challenge” activity.

Day 1 – SetUp: The students were given a reading constructed by me, with key points that they had been learning embedded in it. They initially read in their pairs using what I call “2 and talk” – each student reading a sentence then stopping to talk about what it means. In this round I offered no ‘comprehension’ questions at all to see how well they had understood it themselves. However for a longer piece I will have a few questions from a section of the reading with their questions to come from another portion.

After students had read and debriefed with their partner they were given the challenge of constructing 8 questions concerning the piece. 3 were to be of the True/False variety – where answers could be found easily in the text. The next 5 were to be “open” questions about the reading – the only stipulation is that the answer could not be “yes” or “no”. This forced them into constructing questions along the line of our ‘follow up’ questions we often use in speaking. “Who did Nonki meet with?” “When on Saturday did they meet?” and so on.

This also required me to provide some key ‘phrasing’ that they had not already learned. For example “Who said…” or “Who is a person like…?”. We also reviewed what to do if someone didn’t understand them and how to say what you ‘specifically’ didn’t understand. I believe  that “I don’t understand.”  and “What does …mean?” are not negative phrases in my classes – but rather an opportunity for the speaker, a responsibility, to help in understanding. We reviewed what to do in this case – generally ‘repeat’, ‘give an example’ and, when appropriate, ‘give a sample answer’.

Day 2 – Question Day:  Students initially practiced asking each other their questions. We stressed eye contact and also had one partner ‘purposely’ not understand to review how to assist. We also reviewed cultural phrases/activities they could use as they ‘stalled’ to think of the answer. Then on to the challenge! The pairs had to challenge 3-4 other pairs to answer their questions. To increase the ‘fun’ we devised a point system. If students got the answer right away (no looking at the text) – 1 point. Giving right away and being wrong -1/2 point. And if they had to go back to the text to find the answer +1/2 point (note that a wrong ‘guess’ plus finding the right answer is 0!). I allotted about 20 minutes for the questioning. They had a ball. Lots of laughing, rephrasing and interaction and, most importantly for me, really good work on asking/answering key questions.

Debrief: I debriefed the activity using my “How Did That Go?” rubric. As usual the students first had to write – completing the phrase “That went ____because……”. Many cited the ability to talk and interact easily with their peers as a reason it went well. Almost all of them said that their groups actually went beyond the questions they had and started thinking up spontaneous questions to get more points! Students also asked for some key phrases that we had not reviewed such as “more slowly please” and “Did you say…?”. My students are very used to this rubric from their first semester with me – but if they weren’t I would have gone over the rubric (and what expectations I have) with them prior to setting them on their task.

I won’t go overboard in using this but I did love to hear the loud voices, laughing and groans (at wrong answers) during the time. Its going to be another tool in my ‘comprehension’ toolbox. What do you do to get kids talking about what they read?




Skip to toolbar