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First AR Cycle: Methodology
Strategies for Success
I have been teaching EFL in the L2 context of Japan for 16 years. As I am sure is the case with most serious instructors that have worked in this country, I have often been concerned about exactly how to maintain my students’ interest and motivation in attaining communicative competence in EFL. This focus on interesting lessons that capture student attention is also very important for my livelihood in a very competitive market. Before I came to Asia, I received a teaching certificate in ESL in Canada (1995). I began to work in Japan in 1996. That T.E.S.L. certificate was largely based on the communicative approach to teaching.
The communicative approach incorporates a specific method for maintaining students’ interests, which can be referred to by the acronym B.I.G. (background, interests and goals). However, sometimes there is a tendency to not relate things to the student as not all things have to do with them (e.g. the political situation in Africa, aid workers in East Timor, etc.). This occurrence produces less attention and decreased levels of motivation in students. This is especially the case in situations where one concentrates exclusively on texts, without relating them to the student and when discussing or practising structures or issues which are unfamiliar or difficult for the learner. Comments of ‘difficult’ and negative attitutude towards learning are evidenced. The end result is that my lack of a concerted use of B.I.G. entailed in the communicative approach negatively impacts the motivational level of some of my students from time to time.
This research was primarily influenced by my need to motivate one of my corporate students; Mr. T. Mr. T is a very genuine fellow who I had a good relationship with. He was poorly motivated due to the lack of opportunities to use the language coupled with the fact that he had almost no extra time to devote to studying EFL due to the demanding nature of his work. (Akbar, 2004)
For myself, as an instructor working for an agency, placed at a particular company, I was involved in a very top down working relationship, with said agency. Being at the bottom of the food chain, I was rarely if ever consulted or informed concerning descisions concerning my professional life. In fact, many of the students I taught seemed to know more about what would happen with my contract before I did. This situation produced a lot of stress in me, made it difficult and reduced my confidence and motivation to improve the quality of my teaching. I found the situation to be disrespectful, discourteous and inconsiderate. In the end, the contract ended and so did my relationship with that particular agency. This situation has proven to me that to be effective as a teacher, one must maintain one’s focus. To do that, a supportive, healthy well balanced professional and personal life is necessary.
First AR Cycle: Methodology
The participants were students of mine, either privately or working in a business environment, studying either Business English or conversation. There were 17 participants. Three-quarters of them were men. All participants were over 25 years of age. The setting for the businessmen was a meeting room at their place of business. The private students were taught either at their homes or in a public hall or café. All lessons were one-to-one. Students ranged in level from beginner to advanced. All students utilized texts conforming to their needs.
In order to maintain/increase student interest and motivation qualitative action research was undertaken. Three approaches were applied. These approaches all included the partial or total application of B.I.G. First, little attention was paid to students B.I.G.. The focus was primarily on the text. Second, more application of students’ B.I.G. was applied. And, third, all topics and grammar exercises utilized students’ B.I.G. as the main subject or example. Research was conducted over a two month period. Each approach was utilized in separate classes a total of 3 times with the same participant. Students were observed. All lessons were taped, with the students’ knowledge. Notes were also taken after each class.
In order to increase my motivation primary and secondary qualitative action research was undertaken. Other teachers were asked questions concerning what motivated them to continue teaching and improve their professional practice. Available literature was also examined. This research examined the experiences of teachers who had and who were working in the L2 context of Japan in order to discern what factors would contribute towards maintaining a positive outlook to teaching within this specific context.
The communicative approach is composed of key features, among the most important are: B.I.G. (background, interests and goals); student centered; flexibility; selfexpression; mistakes are normal; positive feedback; positive reinforcement; realistic materials (e.g., films, video, tapes, texts, dialogue, signs, magazines, newspapers, maps, pictures, models, etc.); and realistic activities (e.g., comparing sets of pictures, noting similarities and differences, discovering features on a map, solving problems from clues, discussion, debates, role playing, etc.) (Akbar 2016, 1-4)
As English is important in the areas of trade, travel, tourism, medicine, science and the internet, listening to “real life” situations is an excellent way to expose students to different ways things can be said which serves students in their attempts to express themselves. Whenever possible, props and literature from the “real world” should be used. (Lessard-Clouston, 1997) (Struc, 2002) Students naturally find these real world contacts much more interesting and stimulating than edited and controlled “student world” exposure. (Lile, 2002) The use of newspapers, magazines, pamphlets, movies, radio, TV, etc. are easy ways to bring the real world into the classroom to increase interest. They also provide a chance to expose students to the cultural aspects of the L1 which further help to make the language more real. (Offner, 1997) Teachers should be creative and flexible. A corollary to this is that it is also important to teach basic “moral and spiritual principles, not only dull and lifeless grammar points or rote vocabulary”, with a “focus on what’s important for life, not just for language.” (Long, 1999) A positive attitude is very important for a successful learning atmosphere. Interesting materials and activities go a long way to engendering a positive attitude in students.
In addition, positive feedback and reinforcement for student efforts is very effective, even when the student is wrong. Letting students know that you are glad they tried and that being wrong is not a big problem, helps students not to be reluctant the next time they are called on to participate. (Offner, 1997) Positive feedback affirms a belief in students’ ability and develops a comfortable atmosphere. If no feedback is given to the student then most students’ intrinsic motivation begin to decrease. (Lile, 2002) (Doyon, 2003) Interestingly enough this lack of feedback in the L2 context of Japan is a major complaint of instructors (Nov. 5, 2004). Teachers also need to know whether or not what they are doing is effective and how to improve. Students should also learn from their mistakes by identifying weaknesses and correcting them.
However, focussing on students’ B.I.G. (background, interests, and goals) appears to be the most effective way to maintain student interest and motivation. Since part of learning a language means taking that language and internalizing it, making it your own, it is important that learners choose topics that are relevant to them. Students will find learning more enjoyable and, as a result, easier if they focus on things that relate to their personal experiences and interests. (Lessard-Clouston, 1997) Rote memorization is often ineffective as students cannot relate to the phrases and dialogs in textbooks. To make it real for themselves, students should work toward making a connection with the points to be learned in the text to their own personal experiences thus making it easier to recall. (Offner, 1997) Students should also be encouraged to explore their interests and needs through L2 use outside the instruction environment. (Savignon, 2002) I believe that a teacher’s main responsibility in the L2 context of Japan should be to maintain focus on students’ B.I.G. Texts should only be used as a guide. Other student shortcomings are secondary and will naturally improve once students are properly motivated. Perhaps, particularly in respect to Japan, the focus on B.I.G is so important due to the type of society that exists in Japan; it is a society that focuses on the group rather than the individual. B.I.G. allows the student to play centre stage.
Regarding instructors, influences on teacher performance include: task autonomy and discretion, and support systems for teachers. For many EFL teachers these key influences are absent as teachers are far away from family and friends, and often are not in teaching institutions that will allow them a great deal of task autonomy because of institutional rules. Language difficulties or the unwillingness to communicate often provide another barrier to obtaining support from Japanese colleagues. Common influences tend to be a lack of mobility, change, isolation, and not being happy or secure about teaching. (Long 1999)
I would definitely agree that in the L2 context of Japan, support systems from family, friends and Japanese colleagues are missing and teachers do not have a lot of freedom to be creative and often no specific guidelines are given as to what is actually desired even when solicited. I have experienced this myself. When I asked what the school was looking for, the head teacher merely responded by saying, anything that would make the classes more fun. Naturally, it is not impossible to imagine that this situation would produce a great deal of stress and frustration among instructors.
Change is another interesting issue, as an instructor that I talked to pointed out (Nov. 5, 2004), resistance was often encountered to attempts to implement a more communicative approach, citing that that was not the way that it was done previously. Obviously, implying that the way it was done before was the way that it should be done. This was from an instructor working at a hospitial teaching nursing personnel. The comments came from the students themselves. They refused to cooperate with him and generally the classroom atmosphere was a negative one. The students appeared to favour reciting dialogue, verbatim, from the text.
Isolation can also be a demotivating factor, as many teachers, including myself, work alone. This situation also decreases opportunities for improvement through peer observation and support. Job security concerning teaching is also an issue. As Long (1999) points out, teachers must decide whether or not their school or institution is giving them the support they need to grow professionally. I found that in my last teaching assignment, this was definitely not the case. Also, it is very rare to get any kind of constructive criticism from the institutions you work for in Japan. Frequently, shortcomings on the part of instructors result in termination, which could have been ameliorated by simple, honest and direct comments. However, constructive criticism (i.e., confrontation) is also not a tenet of Japanese culture. As is the case with new recruits to Japanese companies, instructors are expected to pick up what is acceptable and what is not, through observation. However, this is difficult to do when one works alone.
Therefore, for those serious about remaining to teach in the L2 context of Japan, organizational membership in journals, newsletters, seminars, and conventions; help teachers to become more secure, more motivated and to make better long-term decisions regarding their life and career. Long (1999) suggests that learning Japanese and being patient as well as polite is fundamental in being more secure in Japan, and for teaching, learning how to use the group process was equally important. It is also important to realize that one’s value system, concerning education, may differ greatly from that of your students. The purpose of Japanese education is ultimately for inclusion of the individual in the group culture of Japan.
In the end, successful instructors in the L2 context of Japan realize that they are going to be changed more by Japan and the Japanese than they are going to change Japanese culture. They realize that simply transplanting techniques, values, or ideas is not going to work in most cases, that instead they have to adapt or simply reject theories or methods that are too incongruent to the Japanese context. Pedagogically, successful teachers are very flexible, and attuned to the needs of their students. Finally, instructors that had spent approximately 10 years or more in Japan, learned the importance of emphasizing the good in Japanese culture and their teaching situations instead of dwelling on what they disliked. (Long, 1999) I believe that the above is excellent advice for instructors presently in Japan and those hoping to start a teaching career here.
I believe my approach to improving and maintaining my students’ motivational levels was responsive to the EFL setting of Japan. However, it must be stressed that this approach is based on my 20 years of experience as a teacher (16 of which have been spent teaching EFL in Japan), the nature of the agency-teacher-company relationship, the group oriented corporate culture of Japan, the particular conditions some of the participants worked under and on myself as an individual. Following on these criteria, therefore, it would be difficult, but not impossible, to replicate this study. This is primarily why action research was chosen as a research alternative. Though I do believe that the use of the communicative approach, in general, and B.I.G., in particular, are useful in helping students maintain motivational levels in their quest for communicative competence in any EFL setting. Therefore, to a certain degree, this study is generalizable.
Also, my selection of focus on the communicative approach was, no doubt, biased. Having been educated in this approach and finding that it allows for student empowerment and identity formation in English, I naturally chose to more closely examine my use of it. My motivation in this instance was to see if everything was in good working order in my objective use of the approach. It was not until I had completed specific research on methods/approaches to improve my students’ language skills (e.g., grammar, vocabulary, etc.) that I began to consider exactly how my lessons were delivered. Having taught using the communicative approach for so long, I just took its’ use for granted. It appears that I needed a tune-up, if you will forgive the analogy. Consequently, I began to consider how my subjective experience in Japan was affecting me personally and professionally. This report is the result of that examination.
This report has assumed that what I viewed as a lack of motivation on the part of my students from time to time was due to my wandering away from the focussed use of B.I.G. in my classes. However, there may be any number of other possible explanations for the behaviour of my students. But, as I had been working with most of the participants of this study for over a year, and within this particular EFL context for quite some time, I have learned that a great deal of these alternative explanations are ‘normal’ for this setting. Of vital significance is the fact that the ability of instructors to affect change of any kind in relation to these possible alternative explanations is severely limited.
Alternative explanations for low student motivational levels include stress, fatigue, depression, anxiety (due to overwork); the compulsory nature of L2 study, the lack of any clear long-term organizational goal (for company employees L2 acquisition); and the amount and type of exposure to the L2; personal and/or family problems; learning style/strategy fit or misfit with my teaching style (LING 462, Topic 5 Language Learner
Factors, Topic 6 Language Teachers in SLA, 2004).
Of the above factors, in my experience teaching at corporations and privately in Japan, students are often faced with many demands on their time, which does produce stress, fatigue, depression and anxiety in students. The evidence is fairly easy to see when they arrive in the learning environment. However, this situation appears to be worsening as companies demand more from their workers due to the continuing economic slowdown that Japan has been facing over the last 10 years. This situation does negatively impact student motivation, though a concerted application of B.I.G. did improve motivation within the duration of the class.
Regarding the compulsory nature of L2 study, the lack of any clear long-term organizational goal (for company employee’s L2 acquisition); and the amount and type of exposure to the L2, adult L2 learners in Japan are often required to participate in activities that are compulsory, such as company drinking parties, retreats, training, travel, etc. Some students find these activities enjoyable, others not. Often no explanation or reason is given the employee concerning why they are required to engage in the activity. This is a normal aspect of Japanese adult working life. Also normal are the long working hours put in by the average worker. My students worked anywhere between 10 and 14 hours a day. Such a schedule leaves little room for anything else, much less time for additional L2 study. The use of B.I.G. kept students focused within class time.
Discerning whether or not this pressure had caused personal and/or family problems was a little more difficult to discern. Since I had good working relationships with my students, I was usually able to ascertain if anything was affecting them personally by asking them directly. As I did with Mr. T. (Akbar, 2004) However, I tend to be more reserved with students older than myself due to the Japanese cultural norms concerning relationships between older and younger people. Therefore, it is difficult for me to determine whether personal/family problems are affecting my older students. Though the lack of attention paid to personal health and family due to long working hours is not difficult to imagine.
Concerning a misfit between my teaching style and the learning style/strategies of my students, since the communicative approach is student centred there is little risk of this eventuality. Interviews, level checks and a careful comparison of activities were carried out in order to determine which styles and activities each individual student found most motivating. This examination was based on the concept of B.I.G..
Strategies for Success
I have improved my students’ language skills based on available literature regarding pedagogy, my personal experience and the experiences of other instructors. Students’ grammar has been improved using patterns that involve collocation, articles, prepositions, phrasal verbs, and error correction exercises. For improving student vocabulary, exercises that feature synonyms, antonyms, roots, affixes (prefixes, suffixes), slang and idioms have been used. Lastly, regarding improving listening skills, using more ‘real life’ taped conversations and video, if possible, has proven effective. Both sets of equipment should have variable speed functions. And, each exercise and method of delivery should be adjusted to student language level and assessed for effectiveness.
This study has demonstrated that one of the main features of the communicative approach, B.I.G. (background, interests and goals) is highly useful in maintaining and increasing the motivational levels of L2 learners in EFL context of Japan. Primarily because it is student centered. Other features of this approach such as positive feedback, positive reinforcement, realistic materials and activities, are also used and chosen with the concept of the students’ B.I.G. in mind.
In relation to instructors, isolation coupled with a lack of professional support frequently causes dissatisfaction and insecurity about teaching. In order to increase teacher motivation, the importance of organizational membership is stressed. Learning Japanese, an awareness of cultural values and norms, the exercise of patience, and an emphasis on the positive, are also strongly recommended for increasing instructor satisfaction.
Lastly, I primarily chose to examine my use of the motivational aspects of the communicative approach because I was educated in it. This tendency indicates that educational background produces bias in the consideration of teaching methodologies.
Teachers naturally seem to favour the approaches in which they have been matriculated. However, as far as I am aware and based on the available literature, the communicative approach and the use of B.I.G., still remains the most useful pedagogical tool for maintaining and increasing the motivational levels of L2 learners in any EFL context.
Akbar, Ian, 2004, A Case Study of Factors Affecting L2 Acquisition in the EFL Context of Japan. University of New England, Armidale, NSW. pp. 1 – 13.
Akbar, Ian, 2016, The Communicative Approach to L2 Instruction. Tokyo, Japan. pp. 1 – 4.
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- Quote paper
- Ian Akbar (Author), 2016, Maintaining and Increasing Student and Teacher Motivation in the L2 context of Japan, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/343238