Thursday, October 06, 2011

Phonics Mother Frackers! Phonics!


Japanese teachers of English (JTEs) usually get flustered if you, the eager assistant language teacher (ALT), exuberant to extol supreme English knowledge to your non-native speakers of English as a second language (ESL) students does something insane... like... teach them a new word... in English.

Immediately protests are mounted. The teacher complains, "But it's too difficult!"

"What the frack?" thinks the ALT. "All I did was teach them the word *moon*. What's the big deal?"

"That word isn't in their vocabulary list," informs the JTE. "They won't learn it until next year."

English learning suddenly comes to a halt.

You would be surprised at how often this form of protest is levied against the poor ALT who can't understand what their job is supposed to be. After all, here is the ALT thinking they were hired to help assist English learning--by using their native English speaking powers--like a master Language Jedi--to transform their students into masterful English users.

Instead, the ALT is lectured to, usually in front of the class, that English is "just too hard" for the students. It makes one wonder how well this bit of reverse psychology motivates the students to learn English? The students probably only hear, "You all suck at English! Don't even bother."

The average Japanese person, stuck on a small island, where everyone looks the same, it taught to think and behave in the same manner, and where they are constantly told that English is just too difficult for them--they grow up thinking, "Heck, this English is just too hard. It's not for me."

Not exactly a great way to excite Japanese students and ignite their passion for English.


My goal over the past five years has been to explain to Japanese educators why limiting their students to what the textbook contains, i.e. a mere 500 vocabulary words on average and a handful of grammar points, is likely to be one of the reasons their students' English skills suck. It also explains why anything extra is so often considered just too damn "difficult."

Sure, maybe their next textbook will contain the word *moon*, but then again, maybe not. See, here is the problem. The word moon isn't exactly advanced level English, but if it isn't in the book, well, then it might as well not exist.

Attempting to add it onto a pre-existing set of vocabulary words wouldn't seem like such a big deal... except... well... you see, the Japanese don't exactly teach phonics. Which is the likely reason why the teacher is complaining. The students don't know how to read the world--let alone sound it out--so they can't recognize it. Consequently, the JTE (having come out of the same education system which neglects to teach phonics) may not recognize it either, which is why they aren't confident in letting it be taught--they may not know if it's relevant to the lesson. Even if it turns out they can read it, and their English is top notch, they may still feel that it strays from the mandated material they are obligated to teach. In which case, the easiest way to get back on track is to shut down the ALT--with the go to phrase--"It's too difficult." 

But if they'd learn phonics--it wouldn't be. In fact, it wouldn't even be an issue. But any word the Japanese student learns must be memorized. To make matters worse, they typically aren't memorizing words in context. They rarely even read the skits in the books, except when the teacher translates it all into Japanese so they can see the function of the grammar--and even then--they don't usually make time for reinforcing the grammar with a writing exercise. Usually, as it so often is the case, the bell rings before they can consider any examples and they slam their books shut then immediately proceed to forget everything they learned. After all, most of the class was taught in Japanese, the grammar was all written in Japanese, and the ALT was told, in not so many words, to politely shut up.

One of my Japanese Principals once asked me what I thought the problem was with the way the school taught English. He was worried because other schools were out performing his when it came to the scores on standardized tests--like Eiken and entrance exams. What, he wondered, was the problem?

I informed that it was the system at fault. Teaching vocabularies which match the preselected vocabulary sets on entrance exams only teaches students words within the range of what the test dictates. Consequently, the students learn only a select amount of grammar points and words which usually correspond to the national mandate of what will be on the entrance exams and nothing more. This only limits them even further.

To exasperate this problem, because Japanese students typically don't learn phonics, they are at a disadvantage right out of the gate. Trying to have a Japanese student read a word they have never come across before, you quickly find they often get stuck. Their eyes glaze over, and they look at you with a pained expression on their face, as if your English lesson had suddenly become physically unbearable. For example, I threw up a word the other day, "Extraordinary."

Two things happened.

1) The teacher protested. It's too difficult! 2) The students' eyes glazed over.

Frustrated, I pointed out to the teacher that she needed to stop dictating what the students are capable of learning. Shut up and just teach! Well, that was the general message, although I said it much nicer, of course. I also pointed out that they already know the word "extra." Subsequently, "ordinary" was contained in their new vocabulary list for this week's chapter. If she would stop telling them that every other English word was too difficult, and just give them a chance to think about the meaning of the words they already know, they might be able to make a guess.



But the victory was bittersweet. It felt like a big woopty doo. So what, the student learned a word which they'll likely forget the next day. They still can't read any other words--lacking a phonics base--and so the JTE will always have an incentive to state the obvious--"It's too difficult."

So in answering the Principal's question, I told him that phonics was the key. If Japanese learned phonics, they would be capable of reading every English word they would ever come across. Basically their vocabularies would have the potential of being unlimited!

Additionally, I pointed out the problem with teachers hindering the students by limiting what they can learn--by preemptively deciding that it was too difficult for their set level--and thereby limiting to English so basic that even if they memorized the entire textbook--they still wouldn't have enough English to actually use the language to any degree of proficiency.

My Principal nodded, took a mental note, and thanked me for my advice.

Sadly, even if he writes a report detailing the vital importance of starting Japanese ESL students on phonics based programs, nobody will heed the advice. The Government officials are still obsessed with test performance--and so all of Japan's educational goals are focused on the ever short term goal of passing exams.

It's all about test performance--language proficiency never even enters the equation. Which is why the Japanese struggle to learn English--and will continue to do so.

Unless, that is, we somehow convince the Japanese teachers, the boards of education, and the powers that be that the only way to begin to learn English is to learn it the way native speakers do--through phonics.

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