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The Many Roads to Japan
(free online version for ESL/EFL teachers and students)
Robert W. Norris
1993. In Fukuoka Women's Junior College Studies Vol. 45: 71-82
Class size is one of the major problems facing language teachers at Japanese colleges and universities. Although conversation classes may be limited to 20 or 30 students, the typical Japanese university class contains anywhere from 40 to 100 students or more (Hansen, 1985).
Oversized classes create a less than ideal learning environment. Teachers are prone to adopt a teacher-fronted lecture style, which can lead to a lack of student speaking practice time, a lack of personal contact between students and teacher, and a lack of student motivation. Caprio (1989: 39) says the situation at Japanese universities is one in which the odds are greatly stacked against successful language teaching:
Included among the reasons often given for not implementing pair or small group activities are:
False Beginners: Implications for Teaching
Although no formal definition of the false beginner has been agreed upon in the literature, the definition proposed by Richards, et al. (1985: 103) is often quoted:
Dictation: Breathing New Life into an Old Technique
Dictation is one of the oldest techniques known for both the teaching and testing of foreign languages. Stansfield (1985) dates its origins back to the sixteenth century. It has long been associated with the traditional or grammar-translation method. Through the years dictation has fallen in and out of favor as new schools and approaches in linguistics and psychology have alternately rejected and accepted its usage. According to Stansfield (1985), dictation is viewed favorably by the present generation of researchers and teachers, and is widely used in both testing and teaching.
In dictation's traditional form as a teaching technique, a text is either read by the teacher or played on a cassette tape once straight through while the students just listen and try to understand. The text is then broken into a number of short sections with a pause between each section. During that pause the students have to write down what they have heard. This is the only form of dictation many teachers and students have known, and is sometimes perceived as a boring exercise.
Davis and Rinvolucri (1988) claim that by changing the dynamics of dictation--that is, by brainstorming a variety of answers to the questions of who dictates to whom, who chooses the text, how long the text should be, how the dictating voice should sound, how much the listener should write down, and who corrects the dictation--new life can be breathed into an old-fashioned technique. Davis and Rinvolucri (1988: 4-8) also list 10 reasons for using dictation in the foreign language classroom:
Dictation is a good technique for Japanese teachers of English who do not feel confident enough of their own speaking ability to address their students in English. Dictation is something these teachers can prepare fully in advance. The language is both known and controlled, and can be used with greater confidence than can spontaneous speech.
If a few changes are made (e.g., having the students do the dictating, making the dictation competitive, etc.) in its traditional form, dictation readily conforms to Helgesen's (1987) recommendation for using receptive-fluency and productive-accuracy activities to get false beginners started. The next section looks at five such activities and their focal areas.
Five Dictation Lesson Plans1
I. Dialogue Dictation Race
The teacher must first organize the classroom so there is a lot of space in the middle2. For example, in a class of about 50 students the desks and chairs can be arranged in eight groups of six in a U-shape against three walls. Eight desks are placed end to end in a straight line at the front so that all teams are approximately equidistant from their textbooks (see Figure 1 below).
This exercise calls for a review of three dialogues. Each group has two reporters and four writers. The teacher gives the signal to start. The reporters go to their textbooks. Reporter A memorizes the first line (or sentence) of the first dialogue, races back to her group, and dictates the line to the writers. While reporter A is dictating, reporter B memorizes the next line (or sentence) and races back to her group to dictate when reporter A is finished. The two reporters continue to rotate until the entire dialogue is completed. It is a good idea for the reporters to mark in pencil how much of each line has been memorized so the other reporter knows where to start her next line. Also, the reporters should report to the writers each time the speaker in the dialogue changes (as well as the speaker's name as many dialogues have three or more speakers).
When the dialogue is completed, two more reporters are chosen and the first two reporters become writers for the second dialogue. The same is done for the third dialogue. The first team to complete all three dialogues is declared the winner. If there is too much of a time lag between the first and last teams, the teacher should stop the race and tell the remaining student to return to their desk.
The teacher next plays the dialogue tapes. The students check their writing while listening to the tapes. Finally, the teacher has the students open their texts and make any final corrections in spelling or words they didn't catch during the dictations from both the tapes and other students.
This exercise provides a way of reviewing material contained in dialogue-based textbooks. It combines controlled practice of the four skills (speaking, listening, writing, reading), and focuses students' attention on both speed and accuracy. It is easily adapted to a review on non-dialogue-based texts.
II. Numbers Dictation
The teacher reviews pronunciation of numbers up to three digits (e.g., 472), placing particular emphasis on "-teen/-ty" pairs (e.g., 13-30, 14-40, etc.). The teacher demonstrates to the students that they need only be able to count up to three digits in order to deal with large numbers. He then writes the words "thousand," "million," and "billion" on the board and tells the students they should write a comma when they hear these words, which separate number units of up to three digits. He writes numbers on the board--starting first with single-digit numbers before moving up to multiple-digit numbers--and calls on students to read the numbers. If the students have difficulties, he focuses their attention first on the one-, two-, or three-digit number on the left; next on the comma indicating thousand, million, or billion; then on the next group of three digits. The teacher can give a short dictation of 10-15 numbers before moving on to the next step.
Students are put into pairs facing each other (small groups work just as well). A list containing 25-30 lines of numbers (8-10 numbers in each line) is given to each pair. The numbers on these lines should start with single-digit numbers and progress to nine- or 12-digit numbers by the end. Two or three lines should contain only a mixture of "-teen/-ty" numbers. Student A of each pair dictates at normal speaking speed the first five lines, pausing briefly at the end of each line to say "Next line." After all five lines have been dictated, Student B reads back what she has written. Student A checks for mistakes. Student A must not show the list to Student B. All correction should be done verbally.
The list is given to Student B, who dictates the next five lines to Student A. When finished, Student A reads back what she has written and Student B checks for mistakes. The student continue to alternate roles until all lines have been dictated.
Japanese students often have difficulties with large numbers in English. There seems to be a tendency for students to resort to time-consuming, direct-translation strategies when trying to either comprehend or produce these numbers. For example, the number "one hundred fifty thousand" (15 man in Japanese) is often expressed or understood to be "fifteen thousand." This exercise gives practice in producing and recognizing large numbers without having to resort to direct-translation strategies. It is also a useful warm-up for leading into activities that require students to comprehend and calculate numbers, as well as produce sentences containing numerical information.
III. Pronunciation Relay
The teacher demonstrates correct pronunciation of problem phoneme pairs such as /l/ and /r/, voiced or unvoiced "th" and /s/, and /v/ and /b/. Desks and chairs are arranged in groups of six around the room (as in Dialogue Dictation). Each team has two writers, two relay people, and two readers. The writers sit at their "home base," the readers stand at the front of the room, and the relay people stand facing the readers. The readers are given a list of 12-15 nonsense sentences containing many of the problem phonemes. These sentences should contain no more than eight words each. For example:
a. Vinnie rubs the bat and TV.
b. Bennie loves the vat and TB.
c. Springs lanes have a fresh grow.
d. Spring rains help the grain glow.
e. Thick songs are thought to be sad.
f. Sick thongs are sought for Thad.
After the writers have written the sentence, the relay people return to the readers. Reader B dictates the second sentence. After four or five sentences have been completed, team members change roles: readers become writers, writers relay people, and relay people readers. Roles are changed again after four or five sentences. The first team to finish all sentences is declared the winner.
The students next compare the original list with what they have written. They are told not to worry about spelling mistakes. They should count only the number of "l" and "r" ("v" and "b," "th" and "s," etc.) mistakes. The team with the fewest mistakes is then declared the accuracy champion.
The main focus of this exercise is on the pronunciation and recognition of consonant phonemes in word groups. The focus can easily be changed to vowel phonemes. Practice of certain grammatical patterns can also be accomplished by making the readers "information holder" and the writers "question holders." The writers dictate their questions to the relay people, who ask the questions to the "information holders" and report the answers back to the writers.
IV. Building with Rods
The teacher pre-teaches or reviews vocabulary for building. This can range from simple prepositions of location to more complex sentence structures, depending on the overall level of the class. Below is a sample vocabulary list hat has been used with second-year junior college students:
- put/stand (it/them)
- Make a square/rectangle with the ___s on the outside/inside.
- so that + sentence
- is/are parallel/perpendicular to the
- Make a T-shape/H-shape/V-shape/arrow shape/half circle.
- they are touching/not touching
- on the center/edge/end of the
- about one/two centimeter(s) from the
- sticking out from the
- it looks like
- Do the same thing on the other side.
If time permits, new structures can be built and new reporters chosen. As a follow-up activity, team members can build their own structures and collaborate on a written set of instructions. When these are completed, the teacher should first check them for grammar and spelling mistakes before passing them around to the different teams, who then try to build the new structures.
V. Picture Dictations
The teacher reviews the "There is/are" sentence pattern and prepositional phrases such as "in the upper right side," "to the left of," "in the center," etc. The teacher then dictates a picture containing 6-10 objects (e.g., a bird, an egg, a tree, a cat, a table, etc.). The students draw the picture. When finished, the teacher draws the picture on the board so the students can check for mistakes.
The teacher hands out one picture (or card) to each student. Each picture contains the same 6-10 objects, but in different colors (sometimes white, sometimes black) and placed in different parts of the picture. There should be sets of the same picture scattered among the students. For example, sets of five can be used in a class of 50 students. Students move around the room "dictating" their pictures to each other until they have found all the other members of their set.
As a follow-up activity, groups of 2-6 students are formed with an A and B team in each group. A cartoon story (4-8 strips) is copied (enough copies for the number of groups), put into mixed order, and half the strips are given to each group's A team and half to each B team. The cartoon strips should not be overloaded with details, but must contain enough "time" hints (calendars, clocks, the words "later," "that evening," etc.) to give a logical order to the story. Each team dictates its strips to the other team, whose members draw the pictures. When all the strips have been drawn, they are compared against the originals. Students then discuss what the correct order should be. Finally, the students can be assigned to write a story based on the correct order of the cartoon strips.
There are many problems teachers face in managing, motivating, and activating large classes of false beginners, but with a little imagination these problems can be overcome. Dictation exercises that shift responsibility for interaction and correction to the students provide teachers with an effective means for dealing with the problems listed at the beginning of this paper.
In terms of managing large classes, creative dictation exercises help eliminate the problem of too many students either not listening or engaging in private conversations in Japanese. If the students themselves are doing the dictating, the entire class is activated and the teacher is freed to walk around the classroom. Reinelt (1988: 18) lists several advantages that walking around gives the teacher:
a. The teacher is physically nearer the students, and
b. can thus provide individual help, while
c. being disassociated from the authoritarian role of the head of the class.
d. The teacher can follow what students are doing,
e. where difficulties are, and
f. still control the activities of the class.
Dictation exercises also make the results of language study more immediate and tangible, thus improving the chances for maintaining student interest. By having students write or draw something they can compare with an original text, these exercises fulfill the requirements Ur (1981: 13) gives for a successful task:
False beginners cannot be expected to be able to jump immediately into pair or small group work that requires them to express ideas and exchange opinions. They must first be given a chance to gain confidence in using the language through receptive-fluency and productive-accuracy practice. Dictation exercises such as those outlined in this paper provide teachers with a means of helping false beginners become accustomed to interacting in the target language, while at the same time dealing with the problems inherent in managing, motivating, and activating large classes.
1. For each of these exercises, it is essential the students be completely clear in their minds from the start as to what they have to do. It is recommended the teacher first demonstrate each step of the exercise before handing out materials. This can be done using a group of better students as models for the others to observe. Instruction in Japanese can save time as well. All too often the teacher organizes the groups and hands out the materials before explaining the task to be performed. This leads to the students focusing their attention on each other or on the materials. The result is a drop in comprehension of what to do.
2. Reorganizing the classroom is an impossibility when the desks and chairs are bolted to the floor. In this case, groups or pairs can be formed by having some students turn around to face others in their immediate area. For relay dictation activities, students in the first, fourth, and seventh rows can be the readers; students in the second, fifth, and eighth rows can be the relay people; and students in the third, sixth, and ninth rows can be the writers. Readers sit facing the front, memorize their lines, then turn around to dictate to the relay people behind them. Relay people then turn around to dictate to the writers behind them. This type of arrangement prevents students from changing roles and walking around, but it is the best that can be done in the circumstances.
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