Friday, September 19, 2008

Another Thought on English Education in Japan

Three weeks ago, I grew appalled by how my third year students did not understand my English when I spoke the words "noun", "verb", "adjective". Even when I tried using the words "meishi", "doushi" and "keiyoshi", these seniors at an advanced level high school did not know how to identify them within simple sentences written not only i English, but even in simple Japanese.

Luckily, I am given the freedom to create this class' curriculum, thereby immediately changing course from how to argue and make a speech to how to diagram simple sentences.

I began by defining the 5 easiest parts of a sentence to identify: subject, nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs. Next week, I plan to teach them prepositions and prepositional phrases. By separating each of these by colored chalk and writing simple sentences on the board, we've been spending the last couple weeks of repeatedly underlining all the words in simple sentences in different colored chalk.

Loud cries of "eeeeeeeeeee?" could be heard when I informed them that "could have seen" is all one verb form. Same thing when I told them that "a" and "the" are really just adjectives given the special name "articles". I am making them memorize that adjectives only describe nouns, while adverbs can describe other adverbs, adjectives and verbs. As they grasp the distinctions of which words are which, they have become remarkably good at drawing the adjective arrows towards the noun in which they describe, just as how they've now become able to draw the arrows from the adverb to what it describes.

I wish that I would have known earlier that basic grammar such as this is ignored by the typical curriculum made by the Japanese English teachers, as well as ignored in college entrance exams. Now, i can better understand why my students seem to have little confidence in being able to construct their own sentences. Sure, they are masters at vocabulary and memorizing sentence structures, but when it comes down to making their own sentences, they tend to freeze up.

Another topic that I've been focusing on lately during these grammar lessons is learning how to correctly tell the difference between adjectives such as "excited" and "exciting". There are so many of these, which even my English teachers commonly misuse. The distinction that I've decided to make isn't foolproof, but it has helped clarify about eighty percent of the confusion.

For example....students commonly make mistakes in saying "I'm exciting" when they mean to say "I'm excited". In Japanese, the distinction is made between "wakuwaku suru" and "wakuwaku saseru". The difference lying in whether the feeling is being sent out or sent in. These types of adjectives are extremely difficult for them to distinguish.

The explanation that I have begun using goes like this.

Excited-Exciting, Disgusted-Disgusting, Confused-Confusing, Surprised-Surprising

Making a list of these types of adjectives is recommended. After that, separate "ED" and "ING"

I told them that:

-ED is people adjectives
-ING is a thING adjective----notice ING is in the word "thing"

He is excited about the party.---------ED, people----he
The party is exciting for him---------ING, thing---the party

After multiple examples and exercises, they become experts at making the distinction. Of course, this rule isn't fool-proof, as we native English speakers are aware of. "He" can be "exciting" even if "he" isn't a thing.

Nonetheless, once they become used to the rule, I think it becomes okay to explain the exceptions. Hopefully they will learn to distinguish between the two, almost as if naturally.

Lastly, I have been setting up a kind of "office hours" type thing before the midterm and final exam. I compose a very minor section of the listening portion of their test that covers the material they were supposedly to have learned during TT classes. On the last week of team teaching class before a big test, I have announced a special lunch-time review session where I basically go over exactly what I contribute to the big test. It's a bit of a freebie time where I basically tell them what they need to know in order to get a full mark on my small contribution to the test. The review session has only drawn about ten to twenty students, yet it has steadily grown. Besides that, it gains you points in the eyes of your JTEs that you are committed to helping your students become better test takers.

I wish I had learned these things earlier. I may have been a far better teacher had I done so.

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