Effortless English Archives

Automatic English For The People

Sunday, February 13, 2005

AN EFFORTLESS ACQUISITION CURRICULUM

by AJ Hoge & Kristin Dodds

WU WEI

The effortless acquisition curriculum attempts to follow the Taoist concept of “wu wei”, which can roughly be translated as “not forcing”, “not strivng”, or “effortless effort”. Wu wei hints at an approach that is akin to going with the grain rather than against it. It is action in accord with nature.

Alan Watts uses the metaphor of piloting a boat to illustrate the difference between wu wei and the standard approach of striving. When piloting a boat, one might choose to row. This is a tried and true means of getting from point A to point B in a boat. It requires a huge expenditure of energy and effort, but eventually it does work. However, the wise pilot will raise a sail instead of rowing. By using the wind, by adjusting his sail to it and tacking when necessary, the sailor goes much farther much faster with much less effort. Without doubt, sailing is a much lazier way of piloting a boat. It is also incredibly more effective and efficient.

The metaphor is equally applicable to language teaching. Yes, it is possible to achieve proficiency in a foreign language through grammar-translation, drills, memorizing vocabulary, and analysis. But this is akin to rowing. It requires a tremendous amount of mental effort. Also, most people find these activities to be boring, difficult, and tedious. Effortless Acquisition is a means of sailing to language proficiency. Without a doubt, it is a much lazier way of studying and teaching a language. It is also incredibly more effective and efficient, as a mountain of research shows. Furthermore, most students (and teachers) find the approach fun, interesting, and enjoyable.


THE APPROACH

The Natural Approach (Krashen, 1985) provides the theoretical underpinnings of the Effortless Acquisition curriculum. The natural approach carries the following theoretical assumptions about language acquisition:

1. Languages are learned through comprehensible (understood) input. The job of a language teacher is to deliver comprehensible input in the target language in an enjoyable anxiety-free learning environment. Their job is NOT to disect the language and analyze it. Rather, teachers should strive to present language in a whole and authentic manner.

2. Comprehensible input is language which is just a little above the students’ current level of proficiency. The metaphoric formula “i+1” expresses this idea (Krashen, 1985). “i” stands for the student’s current level of acquisition, while “+1” indicates that students learn when they receive input just a little above their current level. Practically, this means that students should understand 90-95% of the language used in class. For most teachers, this requires lowering the level of the language they usually use in class.

3. Anxiety has a negative effect on language acquisition. Anxious students acquire language less well than students who are relaxed, engaged, and happy. The metaphor of an “affective filter” expresses this idea (Krashen, 1985). When students experience anxiety, the “filter” goes up and prevents language input from reaching the language acquisition regions of the brain. This idea also points to the general importance of “non-linguistic factors”. Such things as motivation, interest, class environment, social ties, and the like can and do have tremendous impact on a student’s ability to acquire a language. With adult students, these factors may be more important than linguistic factors such as teaching methodology.

4. Speech emerges naturally. Speech is the result of comprehension and will naturally emerge once students have acquired a sufficient amount of the target language. Beginning students, like infants, go through a silent period in which they are comprehending the language but are not speaking (Asher, 2004). A silent period is therefore used in the Effortless Acquisition curriculum in order to imitate the natural processes that children follow when they learn their native language.

As Dr. J Marvin Brown noted, “Krashen underestimated the importance of the silent period- which may account for the fossilization that sometimes occurs with adult learners.... Experience shows that a long silent period will help students avoid the fossilization of inaccurate grammar as well as foreign accent. If you want to become like a native speaker of another language you don’t have to do it as a child but like a child.” (Brown, 1992). Practically, this implies that teachers do not coerce students to speak- but let speaking emerge on its own. At beginning levels, students are never asked to speak other than to respond to yes/no questions. Otherwise, they respond with gestures, drawings, and actions.

Lightbown and Spada (1993) illustrated the power of this “listen first” approach. They studied a “Just Listen” program in the primary schools of New Brunswick, Canada. In this program, students only listen and read in the target language (English) for 30 minutes per day. The study compared students in the program to those in regular ESL programs. They found that the “Just Listen” students were better in both comprehension and speaking. They stated, ‘This comes as something of a surprise since the learners never practice spoken English in their classes’.”

TECHNIQUES

A number of teaching techniques are used in the Effortless Acquisition curriculum. All are compatible with the natural approach. All of them share certain traits: they emphasize comprehension rather than speaking, they deliver natural, authentic language that is easy to understand, they do not explicitly teach grammar, they focus on the meaning of communication rather than on the form of the language, they are fun (low or no anxiety), and they are easy for both teachers and students to use. While other techniques fit these criteria (games, art projects, computer games, certain songs, etc.) the following techniques form the bulk of the Effortless Acquisition curriculum.

Total Physical Response (TPR):
TPR was developed by Dr. James Asher as a means of delivering comprehensible input in a natural and intuitive way. TPR seeks to imitate the natural acquisition processes used by infants. Long before they speak, infants engage in numerous “language-body dialogues” with caretakers. For example, a parent will say “look at me, look at me”. When the child responds by looking, the parent smiles and gets very excited. Communication is not one way, the adult communicates with language and the infant responds physically. The infant, therefore, understands a great deal of language long before they can use it in speech. As the infant grows older, these dialogues get increasingly more complex (Asher, 2004).

Teachers seek to recreate this early dynamic using TPR techniques. Francisco Cabello notes, “You will be uttering directions in the target language and acting with the students for the first part of the lesson so that they instantly understand the meaning of what you are saying... You will be amazed with the ease that your students understand what you are saying in English. This is a heady experience for instructors and often encourages an ambitious attempt to race ahead. Resist the temptation! Relax.... Remember to introduce only three lexical items at a time. Do not proceed with new ones until students are responding with confidence to the previous set of three.” (Cabello, 2003).

TPR follows a four step process. First, the teacher gives new commands and models them while the students watch. For example, the teacher might say “stand” and would stand up to show what the word meant. Then they might say “sit” and would then sit down to model the command. Next, the teacher works the commands together with the whole class. The teacher would say stand again and again would model the command. This time, students would also stand. Once students were responding confidently, the teacher would move on the the next step. This time, one or more students would be given commands but the teacher would not model. This phase tests the students comprehension of the language. The teacher continues to work the commands with different students and groups until all are responding without hesitation. The final phase of the process is the use of what are called “novel commands”. Novel commands are unexpected, funny, or strange commands. The purpose of these commands is to test the creative understanding of the students. Can they understand new combinations of language that they have not encountered? For example, the teacher might give the command “sit on the ceiling”. This is unexpected and requires the student to understand all parts of the phrase. If they make an attempt then the teacher can be confident that they thoroughly understand the language. The teacher then moves on to new commands.

Through this process, students rapidly acquire chunks of vocabulary in the target language, and intuitively internalize grammar structures. “I have demonstrated in laboratory studies that TPR is perhaps the most powerful tool in a teacher’s linguistic tool box. It is powerful for three reasons: First, TPR has the unique feature of being aptitude-free (meaning it works for almost all students of any age). Second, it is high-speed language acquisition (meaning that students comprehend the target language in chunks rather than word by word). Third, study after study demonstrates that the skilful application of TPR results in long term retention lasting weeks, months-- even years” (Asher, 2004).

TPR-Storytelling:
TPR-Storytelling (TPRS) is designed to move students beyond commands into more complex language. TPRS uses storytelling to teach vocabulary and grammar in a way that is intuitive and highly interesting to students. Stories are always acted out physically by students and the teacher. At higher levels, students switch places with the teacher and take the role of storyteller.

“Most of language can be viewed as storytelling, even though some of the stories may be one-liners. We use language to say what happened, what happens normally, what is happening at the moment, what we believe is going to happen, what we would like to happen and what we think might happen. We also use it to say what didn’t happen, what generally doesn’t happen and so forth. And we use it to ask questions about what happened, what might happen, etc. Storytelling is such a flexible vehicle that all of these things are not only possible in it but they regularly occur. It allows for the full range of language structures and vocabulary choice. Stories may stretch across the full continuum from short and simple to long and complex.” (Ray & Seely, 2003).

TPRS, like TPR, is an organized and structured means of teaching language. While stories are used, they are not delivered in a haphazard or random fashion. Rather, the technique uses a seven step process to assure maximum comprehension and acquisition of the target language. TPRS operates on the maxim, “Success motivates students, the teacher guarantees success” (Ray & Seely, 2003).

The first step in the TPRS process is for the teacher to pre-teach key vocabulary that will be used in the story. Usually this is done using TPR. The teacher will introduce the words in commands and follow the steps in TPR. For more advanced classes, the teacher may simply explain the meaning of abstract words. Pictures, props, and drawings are other means of conveying the meaning of new vocabulary items. The second step in TPRS is for the teacher to test comprehension of these item using commands or questions.

Third, the teacher introduces the story for the first time. Ray and Seely recommend using stories that are bizarre, exaggerated, and personalized in order to hold students’ attention. Another option is to draw from real life stories (personal events, the news, movies, books, etc.). During the first telling of the story, the teacher uses volunteer students to demonstrate the action. In this phase, the teacher acts much like the director of a play-- positioning each character, demonstrating the actions they are to perform, etc. The teacher also asks frequent questions as the story is being told, in order to check for comprehension. For students in the silent period, these can be very simple yes/no or one word answers.

After the first telling, the volunteer students sit down and the teacher retells the story. This time the teacher does all of the acting-- assuming the role of all the different characters. The teacher retells the story twice or more in this phase. One key aspect of the retellings is that the teacher asks frequent elaborating questions during this step. The goal is to encourage students to flesh out the details of the story. For example, the original story might start: “There is a dog. He is hungry. He sees a bowl of soup on the table.” During the retellings, the teacher would ask questions such as, “There is a dog,... what is his name?.... what kind of dog is he? how much does he weigh? what color is he?” Students would shout out suggestions and the teacher then incorporates them into the story. For example, “Ahh, there is a big black German Shepherd dog. He weighs 400 pounds and has huge teeth. He is hungry?”

The next phase of TPRS is for a star student to retell the story to the class. This is only done if a) students are not in the silent period and b) a student volunteers. Students are never coerced, cajoled, or pressured to speak. However, if the above conditions are met, a volunteer is asked to tell their own version of the story to the class. Once again, the teacher or other students are encouraged to ask elaborating questions. The storytelling student is also encouraged to modify the story as much or little as they like. Once the volunteer is finished, the teacher breaks the class into pairs. Students then take turns telling their own versions of the story to their partner.

More advanced classes may then move on to the sixth step of TPRS-- teaching perspective. In this phase, the story is told from a different point of view. This may be a change from first person to third person, for example, or may involve a change from the past tense to the present tense. The teacher goes through the story slowly and, if necessary, draws attention to the changes. While the teacher may demonstrate or point out the changes in language, they never use grammar terms and never explain these changes in terms of grammar rules. Rather, grammar is taught through meaning and the changed context of the story.

The final phase is for one or more star students to retell the story from the different perspective. Again, they may elaborate on the story as they like. Once the volunteers are finished, the class is again broken into pairs and each student practices telling the story from the different point of view.

As is obvious from this description, TPRS is a very thorough and structured means of teaching with stories. Each story is retold many times and is always demonstrated with actions and additional aids to comprehension. Students are constantly asked questions and encouraged to participate in the story by suggesting elaborations. They are also involved as actors. The massive repetition produced by this method helps students to acquire the new language forms introduced in the story. Furthermore, they acquire these forms (vocabulary and grammar) in an unconscious and involuntary manner, with no effort and no conscious memorization.

The Focal Skills Movie Technique:
The FS Movie technique uses movies or TV shows to deliver a rich stream of illustrated vocabulary and meaningful language to students. “Since the sound tracks are not very comprehensible to our students, we use narration and paraphrase. These measures allow the students to hear language that is much more comprehensible than the sound track, because the vocabulary refers to visible matters or is drawn from those words that they are likely to know already. The requirements for acquisition are thus satisfied....(Hastings & Murphy, 1997).

The technique works as follows: Teachers show a movie to the class scene by scene. Scenes are first showed at normal speed. Next, the teacher rewinds the scene and plays it a second time. This time, the instructor mutes the sound and narrates the action while pointing to what is happening on the screen. The teacher uses vocabulary that is simpler and more common than that used in the soundtrack. The instructor also asks questions.... pausing often throughout the scene to check comprehension. Research shows that this technique is highly effective at rapidly increasing students’ listening comprehension and general English ability.

“Most Listening Module students make excellent progress in listening comprehension. Not all of this progress should necessarily be attributed to the movie technique, since other means of delivering comprehensible input may also be used. However, the movie technique has usually accounted for most of the class time in the Listening Module. This was the case, for example, in the FOCAL SKILLS program that provided data reported in Hastings 1995 and repeated here. Students in the Listening Module of a FOCAL SKILLS program were compared with similar students in a standard ESL program. The FOCAL SKILLS Listening students out gained their counterparts by a very wide margin, indicating that the movie technique is a powerful means of accelerating the acquisition of listening comprehension” (Hastings & Murphy, 1997).

Interactive Reading:
The Interactive Reading technique is a research proven technique for rapidly improving students’ general reading proficiency, as well as general English ability. The technique uses student-chosen passages. It is a group activity in which the class, guided by the teacher, explores an authentic text together (Hastings, 2004). For example, an intermediate class might use the USA Today newspaper as source material. The teacher would choose a student and ask them to pick an article that interested them. The teacher would then read the article out loud while students read along with him/her. As they read the article, students would note any vocabulary or passages which they did not understand. Next, the teacher would reread the article. This time the teacher pauses after each paragraph to explain and paraphrase its meaning. The teacher also solicits questions from the class and explains any terms or items which they do not understand (using TPR or a simple explanation, for example).

Once this process is completed and the article has been read a second time the teacher moves on to a discussion. The teacher discusses the article with students, this time focusing on the overall meaning and topics. The teacher asks questions and attempts to facilitate a discussion. Once the article has been thoroughly discussed, another volunteer suggests a new article and the process is repeated (Hastings, 2004). The complexity of the authentic text, of course, must be adjusted to the students’ level. Lower level readers might use children’s magazines, for example.

Free Voluntary Reading (FVR):
FVR is simple yet powerful. During class, a set amount of time is scheduled for free reading. This is best done in a library where students have access to a wide variety of books. Students search through the books and find one that interests them and then spend the rest of the period reading silently on their own. Teachers also read during this time in order to act as role models for FVR. But mostly they are present to answer questions that individuals may have about their reading selection. The teacher encourages students to choose material that is a) pleasurable and b) comprehensible. This might include comic books, children’s books, romances, science fiction, simplified literature, magazines, etc.

A wealth of research points to the powerful benefits of FVR. “I will not claim that FVR is the complete answer. What the research tells me is that if children or less literate adults start reading for pleasure, however, good things will happen. Their reading comprehension will improve, and they will find difficult, academic-style texts more comprehensible. Their writing style will improve, and they will be better able to write prose in a style that is acceptable to schools, business, and the scientific community. Their vocabulary will improve and will improve at a better rate than if they took one of the well advertised vocabulary building courses. And their spelling and control of grammar will improve. Although the research in second language reading is not as extensive as in first language reading, it strongly suggests that free reading in a second or foreign language is one of the best things an acquirer can do to bridge the gap from the beginning level to truly advanced levels of second language proficiency (Krashen, 1993).

How would a teacher “teach” a typical one hour FVR session? Most likely they would begin by taking the class to the school’s library. Students would be encouraged to browse the library for interesting books that were at an appropriate complexity level (easy to read without using a dictionary). Many students, of course, would already be working on books that they had started previously. Students and the teacher would then sit quietly and read on their own. As students encounter problems or questions with their reading material, they would approach the teacher and ask for an explanation. Most of the teacher’s time, therefore, is spent coaching and helping individual readers during the session.


The Focused Rewrite Technique:
Effortless Acquisition relies on the Focused Rewrite technique to teach writing. An important point is that writing is not taught until students have demonstrated good listening and reading skills. Students write a short essay on a topic of their choosing. By choosing their own topic, students are able to write about subjects which are important to them. Once finished, students present their essay to the instructor. Then the focused rewrite process begins:

“First Conference: The teacher reads the composition and confers with the student. In this conference, the teacher discusses the information and ideas and seeks clarification of any points that may be obscure. Focus: The teacher chooses a portion of the text for rewriting. Rewrite: The teacher rewrites the selected portion in good English, taking care not to change any of the meaning. Second Conference: The teacher goes over the rewrite with the student, making sure that the intended meaning has been preserved. Read: The student is asked to read the rewrite several times, until he/she is thoroughly familiar with it.” (Hastings & Murphy, 2002).

Optionally, after thoroughly reading the rewrite, the student may edit the remainder of the composition. This technique provides students with written comprehensible input that is correct, clear, and relevant (Hastings, 2004).

MATERIALS

Authentic classroom materials are always preferred in an Effortless Acquisition classroom. Authentic materials are those which are for general use- those which are not artificially designed for language teaching. This can include props (any real life object), drawings, pictures, photographs, story books, comic books, music, simplified novels, romance novels, magazines, newspapers, brochures, menus, advertisements, movies, etc. “Shakespeare In Love” is an authentic material. USA Today is an authentic material (Hastings, 2004).


ADMINISTRATIVE GUIDELINES

CASE STUDY: THE STEPHEN’S HOUSE RESIDENTS’ ASSOCIATION


Gore Associates is a billion dollar company with highly educated and motivated associates. Their network management approach is highly successful. Can this approach, however, work in a small organization with a less educated staff? The case of the Stephen’s House Resident’s Association indicates that it can.

Stephen’s House is a transitional shelter for low income, homeless, HIV infected adults. The house is located in Greenville, South Carolina, USA. In addition to being homeless and HIV positive, over 80% of Stephen’s House residents have a drug or alcohol addiction. In July 2000 I became the Clinical Director of Stephen’s House. It was my job to manage the upkeep of the house, to enforce the rules, to screen and accept new residents, to help residents improve their physical and mental health, to teach them social skills and job skills, and to help them transition to permanent housing and a reliable income.

More to the point, my job was to salvage a deteriorating program. When I began work, the agency was beset by problems. The shelter had a history of residents using drugs in the house. Also, there was a very high failure rate. Most residents were ejected from the program for violating rules such as using drugs, failing to perform maintenance chores, keeping guests in their rooms overnight, or failing to observe the night time curfew. Turnover of both residents and staff were extremely high.

At this time, the house was organized hierarchically. A house manager served as the boss. It was his responsibility to create and enforce rules and to assign chores. He reported to the agency director. The manager was very strict and organized. However, after living on the street for months or years, most residents at Stephen’s House resented and rejected authority. They constantly rebelled against the house manager.

Over the course of a year, I instituted a modified network management approach at the house. First, we formed a Residents’ Association. All residents were members. The association was given full responsibility for maintaining the house, decorating the house, assigning chores, cooking meals, enforcing curfew, and scheduling appointments to the HIV clinic. I, as Clinical Co-ordinator, assumed the role of consultant to the association. My primary task was to create an exciting vision for them-- and to give advice and encouragement when needed.

The results were powerful. Within two months, turnover plummeted. The residents solicited donations from friends and relatives and organized a yard sale. They used the money earned to buy plants and artwork for the house. As they assumed responsibility for the house, they began to feel ownership. Soon, the residents were enforcing the curfew and house rules with severe strictness. They first dealt with these infractions on their own, but referred the matter to me if the case was serious-- or if they could not work out a solution on their own.

In the case of drug use, we decided to institute a drug testing policy in order to help the residents “maintain recovery”. The program was carried out with a constructive, rather than a punitive, approach. Residents also organized an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting at the house. Drug related infractions and expulsions dropped dramatically.

In the case of chores, cooking, and house maintenance, the residents took complete responsibility. The house was kept spotlessly clean. Meals were cooked on time. Needed repairs were reported immediately. The more the residents managed the house, the better it got.

Once the basics of maintenance and infractions were addressed, the association turned its attention to physical, social, and mental health matters. They planned a weekly social gathering at the house which I helped facilitate. I recruited volunteers from the community to join the residents for dinner, games, and outings. Residents prepared dinner for their guests and otherwise served as hosts.

The volunteer and social programs rapidly expanded. Volunteers and residents began to collaborate and decided to create a mentoring program. Interested volunteers were paired with one or more residents. They met with them once per week to discuss problems, take them to medical appointments, or refer them to jobs.

One volunteer, a nutritionist, initiated a weekly nutrition program at the shelter. Each week she gave a talk on nutrition and its importance for those infected with HIV. She then prepared a healthy meal with the residents help. Over time, this program evolved into a weekly general health seminar. Residents requested specific topics or speakers and I scheduled them.

The Stephen’s House Residents’ Association was extremely successful. Although its members were “near the bottom of the socio-economic ladder”, they quickly became champions of self-responsibility, commitment, and innovation when given a vision and the means to realize it. Although not a completely flat organization (I still had veto power), the house did operate according to network management principles.

PEER MEDIATION

Rather than issue edicts and solve problems in a dictatorial manner, why not let teachers and staff solve problems on their onw. All new employees could be trained in a simple peer mediation system, which would be the main mechanism for resolving grievances. This system uses two mediators to help conflicting parties arrive at a resolution. The conflicting parties sit at opposite sides of a square table, and a mediator sits at each of the other sides (thus, two mediators). Each party first tells their side of the story to the mediator assigned to them. They do not address the other party directly. This helps to defuse some of the anger that often surfaces. The other party does not speak, they must listen silently. Once the first person(s) is finished telling their side, the other party tells theirs.

Next, each mediator discusses the case with their assigned party- focusing on what they are willing to do to help resolve the issue (and not on what the other party should do). Gradually, the mediators help the two people come to an agreement. At this stage, mediators draw up a contract that enumerates the commitments made by each side. Both parties, and the mediators, sign the contract.

While this system is simple, it has proved to be highly effective not only with adults, but with children as young as 12 years old. When working as a social worker at The Alcove Youth Shelter, I helped to institute this peer mediation system in a number of local middle and high schools. Schools reported that the peer mediation program worked well and helped to reduce disciplinary actions, suspensions, and expulsions.

All teachers should be trained in this system at orientation, with follow up review trainings periodically throughout the year. After training, each teacher could then serve as a peer mediator at the request of one or more aggrieved parties.

GRIEVANCES

The first step in resolving grievances is for the teacher to approach the person who is responsible directly. If the two cannot work out their dispute, they should submit a peer mediation request. Uninvolved/neutral teachers would then serve as mediators of the dispute. If the first mediation session does not produce a resolution, a second session would be schedule, and a third if necessary. If the matter is still not resolved, the case would be brought to the entire teachers’ committee to discuss and resolve.

CONTEXT: BUILDING AND CLASSROOMS

As noted in the Gore Associates and Stephen’s House case studies, social environment and context can powerfully impact people’s behavior. Most teachers and administrators attribute student success or failure to personal factors. That is, the individual qualities of the student are assumed to be the primary determinant of success.

Yet the environment (social, educational, and physical) can have a powerful effect on performance. The Stephen’s House case, in particular, illustrates the positive influence of context. Formerly uncooperative, angry, drug-addicted residents became energized, passionate, innovative, and “responsible” as a result of changes in their environment. While these initial changes were social and organizational, subsequent physical changes (to the building itself) also had a strong positive effect.

Residents reported that the more they cleaned and decorated the house, the better they felt. The house became brighter and more beautiful and this seemed to have an effect on their motivation. Likewise, they reported that the previously dark, dirty, sterile decor was a contributing factor to past feelings of depression and powerlessness. It turns out that the residents were not inherently depressed and powerless, their situation and context pushed them in that direction.

“The mistake we make in thinking of character as something unified and all-encompassing is very similar to a kind of blind spot in the way we process information. Psychologists call this tendency the Fundamental Attribution Error (FAE), which is a fancy way of saying that when it comes to interpreting other people’s behavior, human beings invariably make the mistake of overestimating the importance of fundamental character traits and underestimating the importance of situation and context. In one experiment, for instance, a group of people are told to watch two sets of similarly talented basketball players, the first of whom are shooting baskets in a well-lighted gym and the second of whom are shooting baskets in a badly lighted gym (and obviously missing a lot of shots). Then they are asked to judge how good the players were. The players in the well-lighted gym were considered superior. You can do this kind of experiment a thousand different ways and the answer almost always comes out the same way. This happens even when you give people a clear and immediate environmental explanation of the behavior they are being asked to evaluate. We do this because we are a lot more attuned to personal cues than contextual cues. (Gladwell, 1994).”

Therefore, it is important to pay close attention to the physical characteristics of the classroom and school. This includes the decor, the color and texture of paint on the walls, the type of seats used, the lighting, the music and ambient sound, the arrangement of seats and tables, etc.

Such an approach can work in a language school. Looking to boost their reputation and enrollment, a school in Osaka, Japan decided to focus their efforts on creating a one of a kind physical space--they designed their building to imitate a country club salon and have achieved dramatic results.


CASE STUDY: THE WISDOM 21 LANGUAGE SCHOOL

Wisdom21 was founded by David Gartrell, an African-American English teacher who was fed up with the rigid curriculum, bland decor, and lack of diversity characteristic of most language and public schools in Japan. Convinced that Japanese students would respond to a more creative model, he founded Wisdom21- a school which emphasizes idioms, slang, and cultural topics in its curriculum. However, its most dramatic innovation is a careful attention to decor and atmosphere.

Their website (Wisdom21, 2004) describes Wisdom21 as “An English school with an authentic country club atmosphere. At each and every one of our locations, you’ll find plush western style salons with imported furniture and decor, where students can escape the pressures of the workaday world in Japan.” The school’s marketing relentlessly hammers home the difference between their artistic atmosphere and that of Japanese public schools and eikaiwas (English conversation schools). Marketing materials stress that their careful attention to atmosphere “sets us apart from the ‘factory’ eikaiwa schools.” Comparing traditional eikaiwas to their own school, they note: “Big Eikaiwa: Like a hospital.... COLD! Wisdom21: Authentic and cozy western atmosphere. Stylish decor and truly international”.

Wisdom21’s careful attention to environment has earned them a great deal of publicity. Several Japanese newspapers have profiled the school-- which helped to generate rapid growth (in terms of students and income). According to the founder, the school gains about 30 new students for every five who discontinue lessons each month. Working off their own revenues , Wisdom21 has established two full time schools and a head office. (Asahi Evening News, 2000).

An article in the Asahi Evening News describes a visit to the school: “The smell of inscence and the sound of black American R&B are likely to be the first things students encounter when they enter a Wisdom21 English language school. Within a few steps more- past new leather couches, a big-screen TV maybe showing a Janet Jackson concert, and photos evoking the Harlem Renaissance- any notion of being in a typical ‘ei-kai-wa’ (English conversation) school will surely have taken a walk. In a nation filled with frustrated students of English, Wisdom21 has created a profitable niche among Japanese anxious to practice English-- by breaking the mold..... ‘I want it to feel like a fantasy world’, say Gattrel.” (Asahi Evening News, 2000).

THE WU WEI ENGLISH CAFE

Building on Wisdom21’s ideas, my own ideal school would not only emulate a salon or cafe, it would be built around one. The core of the school would be a coffee shop and used (English language) bookstore. The coffee shop and bookstore decor would incorporate soft chairs and couches, wooden tables, the work of local artists, incandescent lighting, tapestries, woven rugs, wood trim, etc. Used English books would be bought in India, where they can be purchased very cheaply, and brought to the school for sale at reasonable prices (thanks to Green E books, in Kyoto, for the idea). Books will be chosen with an assortment of topics and language complexity (from kids books to adult novels) in mind.

The idea is to create a community focal point for both native English speaking expats and students interested in acquiring the English language. The English program would run at night, three hours a night, five days a week. The coffee shop & bookstore would be open normal business hours, seven days a week from 10:00 am to 10:00 pm. When intensive English classes were not in session, classrooms would be opened to community groups as free meeting spaces.

Also, a series of elective interest classes would be taught during the afternoons and weekends. Such classes might include topics such as meditation, jewellery making, Thai massage, soap making, yoga, cooking classes, video production, flower arranging, etc. These classes would be advertised in the cafe/bookstore on an announcement board and in local newspapers. All classes would be taught in English (with plenty of demonstrations, props, and other aids to comprehension). Classes would be open to the general public, including native speakers, not only to students in the English program. These classes would charge a minimal fee to cover expenses.

In addition to interest classes, a variety of social activities would be scheduled at the cafe. These would include student formed club meetings (hiking club, running club, film club, etc.), parties, outings, speakers, and workshops. Most of these activities would be free to the public, though some would charge minimal fees to cover expenses. Again, both the expat and the English student populations would be targeted for such activities.

Krashen (2004) and many others have noted the importance of non linguistic factors in determining success in a foreign language. Though he (and others) do mention social, psychological, and sensory factors-- I believe they underestimate the importance of these issues by a wide margin. Students who have ties with native speakers of the target language and a compelling desire (and opportunity) to connect and join with them, have a much higher chance of achieving fluency. The social activities at the cafe, therefore, would target both native speaking expats and students, with the goal of encouraging the two to mix and interact. The school would aim to create a vibrant community and thus provide English language students with ample opportunities to use what they are learning-- in authentic social interactions.

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