REaChing for the stars
Empowering English Language Learners
While my colleagues agree with me that English-only in the classroom is an ultimate goal, it seems to be something we say, but never actually follow through with. Why not? Well, it could be that students expect if one English teacher allows them to use Japanese, than that's the general rule. Or, they may feel that they're not capable of speaking English-only. In a foreign language context where all students speak the same language, it is certainly a challenge to turn off the native language chit chat and turn on the English-only concentration. As my own Japanese has improved over the years, I have also noted that students speaking Japanese doesn't necessarily mean they are off task or disinterested in learning English. They often use it to understand what's going on in class or to confirm assumptions with each other.
At the beginning of my second year skills classes, I always emphasize classroom language, and give students time to familiarize themselves with key phrases they need to communicate when they do not understand or to ask for help. I encourage the use of this language throughout the year.
In addition, this year, I had a English-only contest. I challenged each of my second year class students' to see which class was able to speak in English-only the longest. I said they could talk on any subject, so long as no one group stayed silent for more than ten seconds. I placed myself centrally in the room, started a stop watch, and let them give it a go. We did it over the course of two weeks so that they had chances to improve and fully grasp the rules. The winners got ice cream. Two classes managed to fill up an entire class period with English chit chat, whilst the runners' up made it half-way through a class, and were disqualified due to silence, not for speaking Japanese.
I realize it is a jump from "whatever you want to talk about" chit chat, to normal classroom communication, understanding activities and tasks, and doing partner and group work in English-only, but I certainly felt my students were capable.
I began reading some of Lee Sheldon's The Multiplayer Classroom: Designing Coursework as a Game and discovered a great section that focused on a U.S. biology teachers' use of "biology bucks" in her classroom, in addition to normal points, to motivate students to complete science quests in their classroom. Students are able to use their biology bucks to purchase real things, such as school supplies, paper and books.
I decided to implement a similar system using English Cash (not as catchy a name, I know.) After summer vacation seemed a fine time to do so; students' returned to school and my classroom faced with the sign:
THIS IS AN ENGLISH ONLY ZONE
You may use classroom language to communicate when you aren't sure what to do or don't understand.
I had each student read the sign, and upon their acceptance of the new rule, I handed over five free dollars. Students also got a wallet to store their new cash in. Once everyone was settled down, I pulled out my coins and penalty slips and explained the system. If I hear Japanese, I throw down a yellow slip in front of the student who spoke it. I also tell them to repeat whatever they said in English, or direct them to the classroom language reference on the wall and in their textbooks. If they receive three yellow slips within one class period, they must give me a dollar. However, if students go out of their way to respond to questions in class, ask follow-up questions, use classroom language, then they immediately receive a red coin (bingo chips). Five of these equals one dollar, and one coin cancels out one yellow slip. Students were thrilled about this free money. I told them once a month I would open a classroom store (I purchase the merchandise,) where they could spend their English cash. I also offered cold tea (it's been so hot) for a dollar.
So far, students have been very excited about this. They are even saving their money and declare some products too expensive, but I made lots of money back at my first classroom store opening. Each activity I've had students complete since I started this system has had not only a point value, but also a dollar value, and full dollars can only be collected if work is completed fully and above 90 percent. This gives students motivation to pay attention and get the job done well. I've had to collect very few dollars for penalties.
I know that in a sense this falls under the external rewards system that we're meant to avoid as teachers, so that students' can focus on the internal rewards of learning a foreign language, but the reality is that students suddenly see themselves capable of fifty minutes of English three times a week, and there has to be internal satisfaction there! What before they said in Japanese, they are now struggling to say in English, and hearing their classmates model new and recycle known language must have a positive effect on their learning. How can it not?
In a higher level course, with New Zealand study abroad student returnees, a co-teacher and myself have implemented the same system with similarly great results. Since the subject matter of the course is more difficult and it's a project-based curriculum, with students mainly communicating and planning with each other, we offered up 20 minutes Japanese for $3, so each group of three can decide they need Japanese to accomplish project goals and are allowed to buy that time, but, only one group has done so! The class store wasn't appealing to them at all (they didn't buy anything,) yet they still save dollars and speak in English only. Did they just need a push to remind themselves that if they could do it, they should do it?