by Michele Steele

Walking down the hill to the station, I encountered a pack of high school kids, mostly boys, riding their bicycles to school. Their faces were glistening with perspiration from the effort of riding in the early morning heat. They wore blazers and striped ties, the uniforms I have been told are worn by the students who go to low-level high schools. This is a great tragedy of school uniforms – the social hierarchy that is established as a result, the marking at such an early age. These kids are said to be the ones who never studied and who care nothing about responsibility.

I looked into their faces, watched the evident strain as they pumped their legs to propel their bicycles up the slope, saw in their eyes an earnestness, an inextinguishable determination to reach their destination. In that moment they were the greatest winners in the world, and I loved them all.

Michele Steele has been involved with JALT for over fifteen years, almost as long as she has lived in Gunma. She works as a university instructor, primarily at Gunma Women’s Prefectural University.


How Teaching in Japan Redefined My Pedagogical Beliefs

By Stephanie Ortiz

As my teaching assignment in Japan comes to an end, I have been reflecting on how my teaching beliefs have shifted over the course of the last three years. Beliefs about language learning and pedagogy stem from life experiences, self-discovery, workplace experiences, and what “works” in a particular setting (Graves, 2000). The experiences that I have gathered have helped me improve as an educator and have helped me to further develop how I approach language teaching. The following is a basic set of teaching beliefs that have emerged and that offer me new ways to appreciate my journey as a language teacher.

My View of Teaching
I believe in my students. They come with life experiences that are as diverse as the languages of the world. In exchange for a communicative tool, they offer their stories and a part of their lives. I believe that being a good teacher means that I do my best to make information accessible to all my students, considering their varying cultural and economic backgrounds. In serving students, I want to remain passionate, actively pursuing learning opportunities within professional fields to learn current methods and implement these in the classroom. I want to help students to value diversity and ethnic differences by facilitating a community within the classroom.

My View of Learners
Good learners are actively engaged in the learning process and growing a capacity for autonomy is at the core of success in language teaching (McCarthy, 1998). A curriculum that includes training can extend students’ learning beyond the classroom with the knowledge to perform successful strategies and ways of expressing themselves (Brown, 2007). In order to do this, the goals should be discussed with the students in each lesson so that they have an understanding of the relevance of topics. Providing goals helps students focus on their talents and experiences which is a skill that they can carry beyond the classroom (Brown, 2007). Self-awareness creates opportunities for students to accomplish such tasks as generating input and using contextual cues to decipher information that moves the learner out of the comfort zone.

My View of Language Learning
Meaningful Learning expresses that new information is taken in by the learner and is built upon the foundation of existing, learned information (Brown, 2007). Capitalizing on students’ interests, academic goals, and career goals helps learners anchor everything possible to the foundation of existing knowledge and facilitates association and retention.

Motivation is a central variable in the success of acquisition (Brown, 2007). A motivated person can tap into goal-directed behaviour to accomplish tasks. Deci & Deci (1985) have argued that a learner’s motivation should be connected to the course or the teacher for the reward to bear significance (as cited in Kover &Worrell, 2010). Goal-directed behaviour does help in acquisition. Language learning is a tedious process and the ability to self-regulate is instrumental to success.

The Social Context of Language
Language is a dynamic system and a by-product of communication. Proficiency in a language is not measured by memorization of forms and structures but on information exchanges. How proficiency is determined becomes complicated by the native speaker debate; however, the validity of a “native speaker standard” should be questioned. It is not realistic to attempt this status or to compare the ability of an L2 user with a native speaker; this is simply a marker of one’s first language. Instead, the goal should be centred on an L2 user’s success in exchanging ideas, or communicative competence.

Learners are shaped by their social environments and depend on interaction in social spaces to become competent in communicative contexts (Zuengler & Miller, 2006). The sociocultural view of language learning states that language use in meaningful, authentic situations is the most important component of effective learning (Zuengler & Miller, 2006). Therefore, the teacher’s role is that of a facilitator, creating student-centred tasks which give learners genuine ways of using the target language.

I have learned that the students’ goals for language learning may not coincide with communicative goals. Some students need to acquire language for entrance into a university or to take a qualifying exam. In such cases, communication will not be relevant to the students and a structure-based approach to teach grammatical rules and vocabulary may be more appropriate. The teacher should operate in the best interest of the students.

Culture carries the behaviours, attitudes, beliefs, values, and perception of the world that a group filters into language. Social and psychological contact with the culture of the target language community is critical to acculturation. Adoption of the lifestyle and values of the community is not required, but attitude towards the target culture will directly affect success in acquisition. As a learner interacts, a new mode of thinking develops and a new identity emerges (Duff, 2007).

Learners coming from other countries bring with them new perspectives and are teachers themselves. Learners are an opportunity for teachers to re-examine their own perspectives and methods. Students from other cultures can challenge social constructs and provide new perspectives that can lead to important critical reflection (Smith, 2009).

Although these set of beliefs are not exhaustive, I have found it very therapeutic to revisit what informs my pedagogy and to discover how I have grown and what I understand. As I continue to work in the field of TESOL, I look forward to reflecting on my experiences and re-examining what makes the profession so meaningful to me.

Stephanie Ortiz has taught English in Japan since 2012 while simultaneously completing her M.A. in TESOL from Azusa Pacific University in California. She has over ten years of experience teaching in schools to learners of various levels and cultural backgrounds. As she prepares to return home, Stephanie is interested in pursuing a career in administration to assist international students and immigrants to the United States.


Brown, H. D. (2007). Teaching by Principles: An interactive approach to language pedagogy. White Plains, NY; Pearson Education.

Duff, P. (2007). Second language socialization as sociocultural theory: Insights and issues. Language Teaching, 40, 309-319.

Graves, K. (2000). Designing language courses. New York, NY: Heinle & Heinle.

Kover, D. J., & Worrell, F. C. (2010). The influence of instrumentality beliefs on intrinsic motivation: A study of high achieving adolescents. Journal of Advanced Academics, 21(3), 473.

McCarthy, C. P. (1998). Learner training for learner autonomy on summer language courses. The Internet TESOL Journal, IV(7), 1-6.

Smith, D. I. (2009). Learning from the stranger: Christian faith and cultural diversity. Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing.

Zuengler, J., & Miller, E. (2006). Cognitive and sociocultural perspectives: Two parallel SLA worlds? TESOL Quarterly, 40(1), 35-53.

Writing Fluency – A Case of Ten Minutes Timed Writing

By Kayvon Havaei-Ahary

Developing active learners is quite a common target in English language education these days, but it can be quite difficult to define. Most interpretations pertain to a communicative and learner-centred approach, in which students` actively participate in the learning process (Richards and Rodgers 2001).

However, what seems to be overlooked in the process of having students interact and communicate more, is the need for students to generate the conversation and initiate their own learning. From this perspective, I think that questioning skills play an important role in facilitating the development of active learners, and thus opportunity for students to ask and form their own questions needs to be fostered in the classroom.

Student generated questions are quite rare in my own teaching context at a senior high school and seem to be particularly demanding on them. It is easy to see the value in having our student`s ask questions: They aid the learning process (help us know what the student`s want or need to know), develop a more natural and interactive learning environment between teacher and students, develop more autonomous learners, and develop student`s critical thinking (Rothstein & Santana 2011). Given the value of their function in language it`s surprising that in most EFL contexts it gains little attention.

From the basis of the EFL classroom it is quite easy to see why such a paradigm has developed. It predominately fosters an answer dominated pedagogy and promotes the idea that answers are more important than questions. This bias is clearly evident in most language learning textbooks, in which the actual opportunities for students to ask questions (and form their own questions) are very limited. In addition, from my own experience I have been guilty of assuming that when a student understands and answers a question that they can also form the same question type, but as we know this is quite a different skill. This is not necessarily a more difficult skill, but it requires practice in the classroom.

Therefore, I propose the need for employing more question-centred activities in the classroom and more opportunity for students to ask questions, as a means of developing more confident, active, and inquisitive students. For the rest of this paper I will go through a number of question-centered activities that have benefited me, and will hopefully give you some new ideas of how to give your students the opportunity to practice creating questions in the classroom, and thus hopefully motivate them to become more active learners.

1. Dictation

  • Read a sentence from a text to the students.
  • Ask students to write a transcript of the sentence while you read it.
  • If the students do not ask any clarification questions, continue reading the next sentence.

    *When students start to fall behind, it will force them to ask you for help (e.g. learning English is `what`?). If students are unable to ask the questions they want to, provide them with some examples.
    *This activity can be followed by pair or group dictation.

2. Course reporters

  • Put students into pairs or groups.
  • Tell the students to make a list of questions they have about the course or lesson (e.g. what topics will we study? How much homework will we have?).
  • Get students to ask you the questions after preparing them.
  • Students should record the questions asked and the teacher`s answers.

    *This could be developed into a needs analysis in which students rate the information they have collected in a likert-scale of 1-5.

3. Getting to know your classmates ( jigsaw activity)

  • Split your class into equal groups (e.g. 4 groups of 4).
  • Assign each group a topic (e.g. English, hobbies, family, travel // music, sports, movies, food).
  • Tell each group to write 4 questions about their topic using 4 question types, e.g. What, Who, Where, When (you can choose the question types).
  • Each group`s members must write the same 4 questions.
  • After groups have created their questions, assign each group member a number, e.g.: Group 1: student 1, student 2, student 3, student 4 Group 2: student 1, student 2, student 3, student 4 Group 3: student 1, student 2, student 3, student 4 Group 4: student 1, student 2, student 3, student 4
  • Tell all student 1s to form a new group, all student 2s to form a new group, etc.
  • In their new groups students must ask their 4 questions to all of their new members and record all the answers.
  • After all students have asked their questions they must return to their original groups and create a table of all the information.
  • Then each group must present their information to the rest of the class.

4. Memory-tag

  • Get students to write 3 questions they would like to ask their classmates (e.g. what is your favorite food?).
  • Put the students into groups of 4.
  • Have students take turns in asking their questions to all group members.
  • The students need to remember their group members` answers, but they cannot record the answers.
  • Once all group members have asked all of their questions, break the students from their groups.
  • Tell them to try and recall all of the answers to their questions (give them a short time limit of about 2-3 minutes).
  • Tell the students that they will have a chance to check and confirm the information by asking their group members tag-questions (depending on the level of the students this may have to be demonstrated).
    *optional: Give them time to prepare the tag questions they will ask.
  • Re-group the students into their groups and have them ask each other their tag-questions.
  • For each piece of information they recorded correctly they get one point.
  • The student that gets the most points is the winner.


Kayvon Havaei-Ahary comes from England. He has been teaching English for 4 years at a Japanese senior high school on the JET (Japanese Exchange and Teaching) Programme and is currently studying for his masters in TESOL at Nottingham University via distance learning. He is particularly interested in task-based learning and developing creative ways in which language can be taught in the EFL classroom. You can contact him at kayvonhavaeiahary@gmail.com


Richards, J., & Rodgers, T. (2001). Approaches and methods in language teaching (2nd ed.). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Rothstein, D. & Santana, L. (2011). Make Just One Change: Teach Students to Ask Their Own Questions Harvard Education Press.

Listen: New research informing EFL reading comprehension

By Anna Husson Isozaki

All EFL instructors know the difference between English decoded or “deciphered” aloud (Kanatani, 2014) by learners without a sense of the pronunciation expected and the rhythm and stress required, versus fluent communicative oral reading. This difference is one which often shows whether the students understand what they are reading, or not. John Fanselow, professor emeritus of Teacher’s College, Columbia University, comments that he can instantly see if learners understand what they are saying, or reading aloud, by watching their body language; overly-still hands or lack of congruent expressions betray that someone is “reciting” rather than speaking in English (Fanselow, 1992, p. 118, 122; Fanselow, 2014). Similarly, when we listen to reading aloud by our learners, we can usually guess if it is done with or without comprehension (see also Wolf, 2008, p.123).

More reading work is, unsurprisingly, usually the first recommendation to improve reading skills and comprehension, but EFL learners in Japan face particular challenges which sometimes hamper the effectiveness of this approach. Japanese and English are almost as far apart as two human languages can be (Pinker, 1994, p.111) and while many languages’ written forms are easily decodable, English is at the far end of the spectrum of difficulty (Ziegler & Goswami, 2006, p.430). While children from other L1 settings can often easily decode new words in their L1, English L1 readers tend to need more time (Wolf, 2008, p.152). We know also that English is a stress-timed language, and much of what is communicated comes through prosody in its delivery (Whalley & Hansen, 2006). Furthermore, much of that communicative information is not visible in the written form of English (Whalley & Hansen, 2006, p.299).

What can concerned teachers of EFL, with limited class time, do to help students over the hump from decoding toward fluent, comprehending, unimpeded reading? Fortunately, there has been significant progress in research within the last decade. Some the findings are initially surprising.

Catherine Walter’s (2008) research shows decisively that, at least in alphabetical languages, words both heard and read briefly enter working memory in audio form to search for a match, also held in audio form, in long term memory. She writes: “L1 readers of these languages do not mentally see what they have just read: They hear it” (Walter, 2008, p. 458). A match-up, when found, is the “light bulb” moment – comprehension. Misheard, mispronounced or misread words are like wrong numbers punched into a cash machine; unable to connect to the bank (longterm memory), and unable to complete a transaction (reach comprehension). Walter’s suggestions are for bolstering listening skills in EFL students to support the development of their reading, and she lists a number of strategies to consider, including simultaneous listening and reading, as with graded readers with audio (Walter, 2008, p.470).

Consensus among researchers since Goswami and Bryant (1990) has been that phonological skills underpin reading development and the case has been strengthening ever since (Ziegler & Goswami, 2006; see also Wolf, 2008, p.117), with increasing attention to prosodic sensitivity (Magne & Brock, 2012; Whalley & Hansen, 2006). In Japan, Meredith Stephens (2011a, 2011b) has been calling for instructors to put this knowledge into practice: “Exposure to prosody in the form of aural input, before learning to read may help students develop reading comprehension more efficiently” (2011b, p. 71), also suggesting in the ELT Journal:

Simultaneous listening and reading are clearly of benefit to all L2 learners, but this practice may be especially suited to learners whose L1 is distant from English…. Extensive reading materials should thus be used in tandem with audio recordings…. EFL students should be encouraged to listen… before they read and while they are reading. (Stephens, 2011a, pp. 312-313)

In Taiwan, relevant experimental research has been producing valuable evidence for the EFL classroom (Chang, 2009, 2011; Chang & Millett, 2014). In a recent study, university learners tried graded reader stories in three conditions: reading only, listening only, and reading and listening together. The results were clear, with the strongest improvements in listening comprehension and fluency from reading and listening together (Chang & Millett, 2014). This follows on an earlier study which showed dramatic improvements in vocabulary acquisition for high school students who combined listening and reading (Chang, 2011).

While those experiments tested primarily for growth in listening comprehension, parallel experiments could be promising. Mentally, we hear words as we read or write them in our L1, and as we become competent in reading new languages, we listen to an inner voice in those as well. Probably the most prominent proponent of extensive reading, Dr. Rob Waring, recommends an extensive reading library be a collection of loanable books-and-audio sets (Waring, 2003). With more research now to back our developing practice, it would be interesting to see future investigations following Walter’s and Stephens’ suggestions and examining how proactively integrating listening into reading projects may influence, and likely benefit, learners’ reading comprehension and fluency.

Anna Husson Isozaki teaches reading and listening, journalism, and media studies part-time at Gunma Prefectural Women’s University. Her research interests include: L2 literacy acquisition, media, and learner collaboration and critical thinking in the L2 classroom. She can be contacted at anna-isozaki@nifty.com.


Chang, A. C.-S. (2009). Gains to L2 listeners from reading while listening vs. listening only in comprehending short stories. System, (37)4, 652-663. doi:10.1016/j.system.

Chang, A. C.-S. (2011). The effect of reading while listening to audiobooks: Listening fluency and vocabulary gain. Asian Journal of English Language Teaching, 21, 43-64.

Chang, A. C.-S. & Millett, S. (2014). The effect of extensive listening on developing L2 listening fluency: some hard evidence. ELT Journal.68 (1), 31-41. doi:10.1093/elt/cct052

Fanselow, J. (1992). Try the opposite. Tokyo, Japan: Simul Press.

Fanselow, J. (2014, March 14). Rosetta Stone. [Web log post]. Retrieved from http://

Goswami, U. & Bryant, P. (1990). Phonological skills and learning to read. East Sussex, UK: Psychology Press.

Kanatani, K. (2014, March 10).学校英語教育の課題 [The problems in English education in schools]. Speech presented at Gunma Prefectural Women’s University, Tamamura, Japan.

Magne, C. & Brock, M. (2012). Reading acquisition and phonological awareness: beyond the segmental level. American Journal of Neuroscience, 3(1), 10-16.

Pinker, S. (1994). The Language Instinct. New York, NY: William Morrow and Company.

Stephens, M. (2011a). The primacy of extensive listening. ELT Journal, 65(3), 311-313. doi: 10.1093/elt/ccq042

Stephens, M. (2011b). Why exposure to prosody should precede the teaching of reading. The Language Teacher, 35(4), 68–73. Retrieved from http://jalt-publications.org/tlt/articles/

Walter, C. (2008). Phonology in second language reading: Not an optional extra. TESOL Quarterly, 42(3), 455-474.

Waring, R. (2003, Nov. 23). Graded readers for extensive reading AND listening. Presentation to JALT, Shizuoka. Retrieved from http://www.robwaring.org/presentations/JALT/waringr_ER_EL.rtf

Whalley, K., & Hansen, J. (2006). The role of prosodic sensitivity in children’s reading development. Journal of Research in Reading, 29(3), 288 –303. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-9817.2006.00309.x

Wolf, M. A. (2008). Proust and the squid. Cambridge UK: Icon Books.

The Gas-Mask

By John Larson

On my way to school yesterday, I saw that they had decided to demolish the old laundromat near my station. They had one of those demolition machines with the scissor beak attached to the industrial arm. I saw the guy in the sealed control booth had this gas-mask on. And that immediately concerned me because here I was just walking past without any protection, sucking in whatever he was kicking up. However, I later reasoned that he probably had the mask on because he was in that environment constantly, day after day, year after year, and that by just briefly walking by I was in no real danger.

At school, we process boys and girls, round off their sharp edges, make them into people. We take in awkward pieces of humanity and turn out thinking members of society. To accomplish this we encourage, we love, we praise. We also coax, we threaten, we punish.

What happens to those of us who are trapped in this stone tumbler day after day, year after year? Where do all these joys crystallize? How far have all these malignant fibers woven into our subconscious? Who of us knows how to protect ourselves? When have we breathed enough to make any protection useless?

John Larson teaches English at Isesaki High School and is the man who pulls it all together as President of Gunma JALT. As a student, he wrote as a columnist for his high school and college campus newspapers. His love of language inspires him to help students take ownership of language, engaging them in a dynamic literacy study based on self expression.

Critical Thinking Instruction in a Blended Learning Environment

By David Gann

In 2008, I began introducing content into first and second-year conversation and reading classes aimed at fostering the development of critical thinking skills. In this article, I briefly describe how a blended learning approach transformed classrooms into dynamic and fun experiential learning spaces.

Initially, integrating content aimed at teaching general critical thinking skills led to a strain on class time. With only ninety minutes a week, teacher-fronted presentation of content via explicit instruction left insufficient time for students to engage in conversation and complete language learning tasks. Also, students had difficulty with the triple cognitive load of (1) understanding the abstract principles of critical thinking; (2) parsing the meta-language through which those principles were conveyed; and (3) applying critical thinking skills to readings or other media involving social issues. This was predictable in light of Schmidt’s observation that “control processing associated with novice behavior cannot be carried out concurrently with other demanding tasks” (1990: 136). I found myself between two contradictory truisms: first, that what is needed in the classroom is not more but less teacher-talk; and second, that regrettably, critical thinking instruction involves just that: instruction. This was the impetus behind the creation of Critically Minded Podcast: Critical Thinking for Second Language Learners, (http://criticallyminded.com) which Nicholas Bufton and I began co-producing in 2010.

The podcast solved the aforementioned problems in several ways. For our purposes here, it relocated explicit instruction as out-of-class mobile learning and thereby reserved more class time for student-student communication. Podcasting also allowed us to offer carefully expressed quality instruction designed the way we considered appropriate and which we found unavailable in commercial textbooks for English learners. Specifically, we avoided an issues-based approach by teaching critical thinking skills through simple and expressly non-sociopolitical examples. Thus, by controlling the nature and quality of our content as well as the space in which that content was delivered, cognitive load was minimized.

When we introduced the podcast, Bufton and I were very much focused on piloting its implementation and monitoring student response. After smoothing out the technical and logistical wrinkles; however, we were able to step back and see that moving explicit instruction out of the classroom had affected the class holistically. Shifting from a traditional to a blended learning approach has required maintaining students’ sense that the podcasted content is relevant to what occurs in class.

Accordingly, the class is no longer a partitioned space but rather includes a new “third space” (Godwin-Jones 2005: 17) where podcast delivered content overlaps with students’ emergent ability to notice and apply certain lexical devices associated with either written or spoken argumentative form (such as premise indicators, conclusion indicators, major and minor premise indicators, issue indicators etc.). Schmidt explains how “noticing is the necessary and sufficient condition for converting input to intake” (1990: 129). In my revised pedagogy, Schmidt’s noticing is scaffolded through the course of four cumulative stages.

Gann Figure 1

In short, podcast content flows into in-class small-group discussion and notebook presentation at which time the advantages of face-to-face communication can be exploited. In addition to building a sense of classroom community, these discussions in turn prepare students for text reconstruction exercises, which reinforce the noticing of the salient textual features discussed in each podcast. Working from the precept that “task demands are powerful determinants of what is noticed” (Schmidt 1990: 143), these exercises are performed in pairs or triads. Students are tasked to orally mediate a successful completion of the exercises in terms of premises and conclusions. Text reconstruction exercises have been an indispensable method for replicating successes detailed in (Gutierrez 2006) and (Mercer 1996).

In stage four, students begin group project-work relevant to their field of study, for example regional policy, business, or English literature. Depending on the course and the nature of the project, students use a blend of two means of communicating and working on-line. At the Forums of the Critically Minded blog, students can post their work in discussion threads. They can also comment on the work of other students. In addition, if, after posting their work, other students’ work leads them to reconsider their own contribution, they can reenter their post in edit mode and continue working. This format allows some exchange of ideas but is suited more for individual work.

Social constructivist theory, has guided me towards working more with on-line documents such as a Google Doc or Primary Pad. Primary Pad has two features that make it very useful for assessing group work. Like a Google Doc it contains a chat area and students are directed to engage in a/synchronous collaborative communication. Primary Pad users are assigned a text color so any composition in the work area can be attributed to the group member who did that work. Furthermore, Primary Pad features a time slider, so the teacher can view the history of the composition. The immediacy of chat encourages communication that closely approximates face-to-face communication (Thorne 2005: 374). Also, some students who are reticent to speak out during small-group discussion feel less inhibited in a chat context (Warschauer 1997: 473). Asynchronous text communication also has advantages over both face-to-face communication and text chat. It “provides time for reflection” (Garrison et al. 2000: 90) and “is very closely associated with careful and critical thinking” (90).

It is important to note that although the figure above appears to show a linear path, a more complete illustration would show a cyclical pattern. At the same time students begin stage three or four, the next podcast episode introducing new content is assigned. Stage four therefore is not a culmination of the entire term. It is begun during the second month and is revisited successively as students build a community of inquiry (Garrison 2000) and develop individual critical competence.

This blended learning approach has blurred the line between in-class and out-of-class learning. The podcast, which initially resembled an annex, has come to be an integral component of the course. This was accomplished not by an increased emphasis of the podcast itself, but by the development of a four-stage process predicated on the need of holistic balance. The ratio of teacher-fronted instruction time to pair work and small-group discussion time has been dramatically inverted. During my presentation at the Kusatsu Conference this year, I presented examples of students’ application of the aforementioned textual features that demonstrate how effective this pedagogy has been in converting input into intake. As a result of the demands of developing the technical end of this curriculum the second stage of small-group discussion has hitherto received the least attention. In future terms, I plan to develop materials that will activate vocabulary and provide a more guided approach to the discussions in order to provide support for the students who most need it.

David Gann composed this article shortly after co-presenting with with Nicholas Bufton on the morning of August 25th, 2013 at the Gunma JALT 24th Annual Workshop at Kusatsu. David has been teaching in Japan since 1996 and is an Assistant Professor at Tokyo University of Science. He holds a M.A. in English Literature and recently completed a second M.A. in Educational Technologies and TESOL at the University of Manchester. He is the coordinator of the Critical Thinking SIG and the co-producer of Critically Minded Podcast. His main interests include critical thinking instruction, CALL and learner autonomy. You can contact him at david@criticallyminded.com.


Garrison, R. D., Anderson, T., & Archer, W. (2000). Critical inquiry in a text-based environment: Computer conferencing in higher education. The Internet and Higher Education, 2(2-3), 87-105.

Godwin-Jones, B. (2005). Messaging, gaming, peer-to-peer sharing: Language learning & tools for the millennial generation. Language Learning & Technology, 9(1), 17-22.

Gutierrez, G. (2006). Sociocultural theory and its application to CALL: A study of the computer and its relevance as a mediational tool in the process of collaborative activity. ReCall, 18(2), 230-251.

Mercer, N. (1996). The quality of talk in children’s collaborative activity in the classroom. Learning and Instruction, 6(4), 359-377.

Schmidt, R. (1990). The role of consciousness in second language learning. Applied Linguistics, 11(2), 129-158.

Thorne, S. L. & Payne, J. S. (2005). Evolutionary trajectories, internet-mediated expression, and language education. CALICO Journal, 22(3), 371-397.

Warschauer, M. (1997). Computer-mediated collaborative learning: Theory and practice. The Modern Language Journal, 81(4), 470-481.


Clippings of Kanji

by Terry Dassow

In hallways stacked like blocks
Japanese teens
trade wordless half-thoughts beneath the words mo iiyo.

whistles in window cracks
from Akagi and Myogi,
cracking the white noise

A chime.
Youth salute teachers, stand, sit,
open textbooks, break pencil lead
in neat rows of close-quartered desks.

Weightless characters drift upwards.
Chunks of words
get caught in oscillating fans
positioned above pencil cases, name tags,
pericura, clear files, and barrettes.

Clippings of kanji fall from the static.
Someone takes apart a pen.
Students exchange glances.

Letters appear along dark strands of hair.
—three years—
attempts a futile escape to
mountain ranges beyond the glass.

The teacher jerks around.

Beads of salt drag across
foreheads, arms, backs.
Teens crouch over notebooks,
pull silence over themselves,
take apart another pen.

A chime.
Bits of fallen sentences
drift across the floor.
Haruna winds stretch palms
pick up static, split letters, and punctuation
to offer to the children.

Terry Dassow teaches English at Tsukasawa Junior High School in Takasaki. Her poetry has appeared in AJET Connect Magazine and she is a co-founder of Gunma Poets Guild. She recently became the web and design editor of Speakeasy Journal and manages the teaching site ALT+ALT Scene at http://altscene.wordpress.com.

Writing Fluency – A Case of Ten Minutes Timed Writing

By Akiko Fujii


The purpose of this paper is to report on both the process of participation in a Writing fluency project and the results of a study of writing fluency.

The Writing Fluency Project, conducted by Dr. Gregory Shudlt of Kobe University in 2011, was a project in which novice teacher-researchers learned how to conduct a small-scale study and collaborate on working with colleagues through a Moodle site. This author joined the project and conducted a small study in my writing classes in which I researched writing fluency.

Case Study: Bonzo (2009)

The project started with the reading of an open-source book in a small-scale study and an article about writing fluency. The article ‘To Assign a Topic or Not: Observing Fluency and Complexity in Intermediate Foreign Language Writing’ (Bonzo 2009) was selected by Dr. Shudlt.

Bonzo (2009) examined participants’ written texts in a German language class in the U.S. It focused on writing fluency, and compared teacher-assigned topic writing and self-selected topic writing during a timed, in-class writing activity. The result of the study showed that participants wrote more fluently when they selected their own topic. And the participants made more grammatically complex sentences, which were measured with a general complexity score.

In the Writing Fluency Project, we researchers followed Bonzo’s (2009) study and compared the fluency index between teacher-assigned topic writing and self-selected topic writing. The purpose of this study was to allow novice researchers an opportunity to conduct a small-scale study, and allow them to manage the small amount of data that was generated effectively—in addition, it was also a benefit for the researchers to conduct a timed in-class writing activity to determine how many words the participants could write during the activity, since writing fluency was important as well as writing accuracy.


This study was designed as a quasi-experiment and its participants were solely from my writing class. Although one of the project’s main purposes was to make teachers work together, I could not find anyone to collaborate with, since I taught Japanese as a second language while all teachers except me, taught English as a second language in Japan. The project was designed for a small study and my situation made the study smaller. Thirteen students participated in it. They signed an agreement to join in the study.

The participants studied Japanese at a language school in Japan at the time of the
research. Twelve participants were from China and their mother tongue was Chinese. One student was from Peru and her mother tongue was Spanish. Two of them had experience working after having graduated from college in their respective countries. Nine of them had completed bachelor’s degrees before coming to Japan. In addition, two participants had just finished high school before coming to Japan. All of them had studied Japanese for about six months to a year in their respective countries and studied Japanese in Japan for a year. Although they studied in an advanced class at the language school, some of them could not speak Japanese well when they participated in the research.


A timed in-class writing activity, in this case study a ten-minute-writing activity, was utilized from that introduced in Nation (2008). Koprowski (2013) also introduced the activity including how to conduct the activity step-by-step. He suggested that a teacher would select a topic in preparation and give participants time to discuss the topic before writing. However, since my study was to compare fluency index between teacher-assigned topic writing and self-selected topic writing, I conducted a ten-minute-writing activity differently, as shown in Table 1 below.

First, I did not give participants time to discuss any topics before writing. I assigned this activity at the beginning of each lesson, as I did not want to influence their writings. Second, I gave a selected topic in only two of the four writing sessions. Third, I gave participants time to discuss what they wrote after writing in a small group. I also asked participants to answer questionnaires after writing. And finally, after four sessions, I interviewed each participant separately. I recorded all the interviews and transcribed each text.

Fujii Table 1


Some teacher-researchers of the project (e.g. Leblanc and Fujieda, 2013, and Sowter and Parrish, 2013) succeeded in their studies and published their results accordingly. They concluded that writing with self-selected topics gave participants more fluency than teacher-selected topics as Bonzo (2009) reported.

However, the result of my study was not the same. The total number of letters of each text and idea units (IU), in which I divided a sentence with each verb and adjective, were calculated. (e.g. kanojoga dekita’ato/jibunwa on’nanokokorowo hontouni shitteinai/tojikkanshita. In this example, there were three verbs and it was counted three units). There was no statistical difference between writing with self-selected topics and teacher-selected topics. Some participants wrote more when they were given a topic. And some participants even mentioned that they liked to write with teacher-selected topics.

Fujii Table 2

Due to the difference in findings between this research and fellow teacher’s research, I reviewed the collected data again.

Some participants mentioned that they could not write as fast as they expected because they struggled to find suitable words or correct structures. Other participants mentioned that they needed time to think about what to write. They mentioned that there was no difference between writing with self-selected topics and teacher-selected topics, and that they always had a hard time to plan to write even in a ten-minute timed writing task.

I realized that the former were fast writers and the latter were slow writers. As I compared the writings and the discussion data, I found that in a discussion some participants told the whole story which they had planned but they did not finish writing. Even in a ten-minute timed writing task, some participants made a plan what to write, but they could not finish writing.

Fujii Figure 1 and 2

While fast writers were able to write all they planned to write, slow writers were unable to finish writing. Although some slow writers were unable to think about what to write, which probably meant that they were real slow writers, other slow writers knew what to write. They were unable to imagine what they were able to write in ten minutes and they always had too many things to write at once.

The extract which follows is a part of a transcript from a discussion between participant C and F. Participant C had a plan to write about girls around him, though he did not finish writing. And the most important thing was that he could not write anything about Ms.X, whom he thought was the most interesting subject to write about.


Nation (2008) suggests that a teacher should respond to the content of a student’s writing after a ten-minute-writing activity. It is very clear that teachers should not ignore what students write even in a time-limited writing activity. Even if the purpose of the activity is to improve writing fluency, the content should be focused on, because meaningful writing is very important to achieve writing complexity. (E.g. Homstad and Thorson 2000)

Leblanc and Fujieda (2013) quoted a student’s comment from post-questionnaires of time-limited writing activities as saying that they could not write smoothly if they did not have enough vocabulary. Although some participants in my study had a similar problem, they did not complain about their lack of vocabulary, but that they did not have enough time to write.

Fujii Figure 3

As some participants could not finish writing what they planned to write and they felt they wrote slowly, it is suggested that they should be taught how to organize their ideas for such an activity. Because they never finished writing a whole idea in a limited time, they could not feel that they wrote meaningfully. Moreover, those participants planned to take an entrance exam at a university in Japan, and it was a disadvantage for them not to be able to plan to write their ideas in a limited time.

Of course, it was also important to write letters, especially Chinese characters, as fast as possible, but the key to improving their writing fluency was to know how to organize ideas which would be fitted in a short writing task. Furthermore, when they are able to write meaningfully, they will achieve writing complexity.


In this small-scale study, I found that students sometimes struggled to find ideas to fit into a time limited writing task. Although it sounded excellent that a second language learner could write longer, it was not good that they never finished their writing activities in class. Indeed, a learner should consider the purpose of a writing activity, the content, and the structure of writing which would be suitable for the activity in class.

In conclusion, it is important to teach how to plan and write a whole idea in a limited time. Even in a ten minute-writing activity, some learners can find a suitable idea for the activity and write as they planned. While such a learner may feel confidence to write smoothly, I believe that other learners will be able to improve their writing skill and become fluent writers if they are given proper instruction.

Akiko Fuji teaches Japanese as a second language at Tokyo University of Social Welfare as a part-time lecturer. Her interests include discourse analysis and lifelong learning. You can contact her at January10100@gmail.com.


Bonzo, J. D. (2009).To assign a topic or not: Observing fluency and complexity in intermediate foreign language writing. Foreign Language Annals, 41(4), 722-735.

Homstad, T. & Thorson, H. (2000). Quantity versus quality? Using extensive and intensive writing in the FL classroom. In Bräuer, G., (Ed.) Writing across languages (pp. 141-152). Stamford, CT: Ablex Publishing.

Koprowski, M. (2013).Boosting writing speed through timed continuous writing. The Language Teacher, 37(3), 34-35.

Leblanc, C. & Fujieda, M. (2013). Investigating effects of topic control on lexical variation in Japanese university students’ in-class timed-writing. Kwansei Gakuin University humanities review, 17, 241-253.

Nation, I. P. S. (2008).Teaching vocabulary: Strategies and techniques. Boston, Heinle: Cengage Learning.

Sowter, A. & Parrish, M. (2013). Does choice of topic affect writing fluency?:A quantitative study of Japanese university EFL students [Prezi slides]. Retrieved from http://prezi.com/ wuv8s3nd5e6o/arf-collaboration-2013/

Community Voices: What fresh insight did you take from your classroom experience in the 2013-2014 school year?

This volume, we asked our readers and Gunma JALT members to respond to our first ever poll. Responses ranged from the importance of encouragement to uses of formative assessment. Add your voice to our next poll! Join the Gunma JALT Facebook group or get on the mailing list to get linked to next volume’s question. If there is a topic you’d like to see in the next Speakeasy, send us an email GunmaJALT+Speakeasy@gmail.com. Keep up the good work everyone!

“It is obvious that the amount of exposure to English matters a lot for students’ acquisition of English. And Course of Study says English should be taught in English in principle at high school level. JTEs are concerned too much about their ability of English, and as a result, their focus seems to become using English instead of teaching English.”

“This year I updated my tri-annual student survey with some new questions. One of the new questions was “I am a ___ student.” The results were shocking. In April, first- year students identified themselves as Good (50%), Fun (25%), or Interesting (10%) students. In July the same students identified themselves as Horrible (40%), Okay (25%) and Bad (10%). From their behavior in class, I never could have guessed that there was such a huge drop in self-esteem.”

“Even if they are typically quiet during class, I learned that all my students want to do is talk to each other. The act of communication is more important than the language or their skill level. With enthusiastic encouragement or suggested topics, all students can gain confidence in their ability to use English. They also begin to relate to one another as learners because we openly reflect on how no one speaks perfectly, not students with high grades, those who have lived abroad, not even me.”

“I learned that routines are not things to let go. If they are important enough to start, students should see the teacher do everything they can to keep them. The more the teacher makes an effort, the more the students will make an effort to keep these routines.”