Language Sensei

A Language Teacher's Journey

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.


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  1. Thank you for this wonderful post, Colleen! You’ve helped me to articulate some things that have been swirling around in my head for months now.

    Every year, I have a handful of first year Japanese students who are ultimately unsuccessful in the course because they do not learn how to read and write hiragana. Some of those students are just “checked out” and do not develop proficiency in any modality. Others, however, are genuinely able to speak and listen; it is their lack of ability to read (and then write) in hiragana that leads to their failing the class, which breaks my heart. I warn first year students over and over again that hiragana is the “gate keeper”: if you learn to read and write hiragana, you will almost certainly pass, and if not, you will almost certainly fail.

    This was the first year that I did not introduce vocabulary at the beginning of the year in romaji, and all of their vocabulary handouts were written in hiragana… BUT we still learned, and tested, the hiragana in discreet groups of ten. And as usual, some students never got on board with that. Fast forward through several months of me worrying about those students, and as we come to the start of the final quarter, I’ve really started paying attention to something that I’ve noticed for a while now: even my best hiragana readers/writers struggle to read brand new words. I’ve always imagined that you either “know” a hiragana character, or you don’t, but I’ll bet it doesn’t work that way for Novice readers. Until the characters are really, really acquired through tons of input, students are relying on seeing familiar strings of characters to help them work through text. Novice students can read words they’re extremely familiar with easily enough in hiragana, but struggle much more with unfamiliar vocab. And you know what? As I think on my own limited experiments with reading Korean, it is the same for me, too. There are some words like “thank you” that I can pick out and read, but I could not tell you the sound of each “letter” if you isolated it and quizzed me on it.

    Next year, I will absolutely stop teaching and testing isolated characters, and focus on getting students to read and write *words we are already familiar with*. Oh, I am really excited about the implications of this!

    We also introduce katakana in our Year 2 course, and while I have always had first years read & write those words in hiragana, it is really no better than having them do it in romaji — they learn the word in that inauthentic form, and then struggle to “switch over” to katakana in Year 2. I had already decided that next year, we would just start reading and writing those words in katakana, and always be allowed to use a chart to do so. I also came to the (frustrating) realization that katakana is not yet the “cognate life raft” for my students that it is for me. In a sense, katakana is a “late acquisition” item for our students, because its very nature means that students only get to deal with it at the word level. It will take a vastly greater amount of time for them to have enough exposure to katakana so that they truly acquire it (as opposed to memorizing/cramming it) — and instead of getting frustrated when my Year 4’s still struggle with katakana sometimes, I need to think about ways I might meaningfully increase their exposure to katakana in context over the course of their time studying with me.

    Kanji, kanji, kanji… I will save that beast for another day. = )

  2. You have articluated the ‘old me’ very well. The struggle of kids to learn isolated characters; the ‘punishment’ of this. And most importantly the struggle they have with “new” words! How many times have I just said “read it” (albeit nicely!). I have been blessed to ‘rethink’ this year with these two courses. The giving of the katakana chart right away has been huge. I continually stress to my Yr1’s that “I will not be marking your katakana spelling” – as I encourage them to use this. What was key was that I checked this approach out with my Yr 2&3’s. They pushed me to give the katakana right away in chart form. I believe in consultation a lot with my students and they provided some key insights about Katakana. It is interesting to note that my peer tutors in my Yr2 class thought we should still test the katakana discreetly with this batch of Yr2’s – perhaps reflecting how I made them learn it! I’m not sure how I’ll go about ‘testing’ katakana in Yr2 – but that’s a thought for later. What I did notice also with my Yr1’s is that the immediate introduction of Katakana also reinforced when it is supposed to be used. Our rule is “if it sounds like English – it’s katakana”.
    I’m curious to see how katakana learning will go next year given our use of it this year. There is always that push/pull of ‘use’ versus ‘correct character writing’ and I don’t want kids to learn incorrect stroke order. That said the chart they get is a ‘stroke order’ chart.
    Testing my Beg11’s in context – 4-6 sentences at a time has been great and the vast majority are bang on with being able to write the sentences. I think I will also do this next year with my 9’s.
    Thanks again for your thoughts – although the example is peculiar to Japanese and the teaching of orthography – the issue of context and appropriate evaluation is universal I believe!
    As always I enjoy our ‘international’ collaboration!

  3. A thought provoking post. I haven’t taught hiragana in alphabetical order since part way through my second year of teaching. The reason is that in my second year of teaching, I was posted to a remote K-10 school as the English and Japanese teacher. By default, I was also the school’s literacy coordinator. It was when I chaired these meetings, that I learnt a LOT about learning to read and write in your first language from the Early Childhood teachers and I realised that the approach I was taking to the teaching and learning of Japanese script was not going to help students to become literate. It radically changed my perspective. Your post has me thinking about my approach. Some activities and approaches work better than others depending on the class. May be this my first proper post for my reflective blog that I keep meaning to begin.

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