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The Fragmented and The Fleeting: Sporadic Insights on Current EFL Teaching and Practice

Rather than pummel readers with a Big Thematic Blogpiece today, I’d like to throw out a few EFL nuggets that I’ve been digesting recently and hear what commenters have to say:


Whatever happened to notebooks and notepaper?


Remember when college and university students actually brought notebooks to class? Each year the number of students who actually bring writing materials to class decreases. Often, during a lesson, I tell students to take notes on a specific section or to write something as part of an activity. I’d estimate that more than half of them immediately look to their peers for something to write on, and those peers respond by unwrapping a set of A4 sheets from the vinyl cover and then distribute 1 each to the impoverished. Others will use the margins of a print from the previous physics class in order to carry out their duties. Suffice to say that these notes are easily discarded or become lost soon thereafter. 


I’m guessing the reason for this is the advent of using cellphones for jotting quick notes, but there is the added problem that many students feel uncomfortable using their cellies in class (not to mention that they are also incompatible with active pair work in a progressive activity). I know that notes are huge in jukus and high school, so what gives here? Has anyone else noticed?


Is ELF Legit?


Readers who know me well are probably aware that I am an advocate of promoting ELF (English as a Lingua Franca) — the variety of English that emerges between non-native speakers, systematic forms that are not based on the speakers being at immature or intermediate stages of English language development. 


But recently in Switzerland, I had a chance to talk shop with ELF guru Jennifer Jenkins. I mentioned that while ELF corpora indicated certain patterns of speech that deviated from so-called standard or canonical English, almost NONE of the non-native English speakers at the conference we were attending were using the ELF variety and were, instead, using standardized forms (albeit with accents). Jenkins’ reply surprised me, “Well, these speakers are exceptionally proficient,” she said. 


Whoa -wait a minute! Doesn’t this imply that using standardized forms is thus related to proficiency, and therefore using ELF forms would indicate less proficiency? Doesn’t this upset the whole ELF apple cart? Has anyone else noticed how ‘very proficient’ non-native English speakers actually gravitate more towards standardized forms?


Grounding Grounded Theory in… Personal Bias?


Those of you who conduct ELT/EFL-related research are probably aware of the methodology known as Grounded Theory. Long story short: grounded theory is an approach to research which operates on the assumption that any theory should emerge from the data, as opposed to more established notions of research where a theory or hypothesis is tested to determine its validity. Grounded theory is an inductive approach to understand phenomena and, as such, allows for the researcher’s existing beliefs or assumptions to be a part of the process. There is no fully scientific pretense of detached objectivity.


On the face of it, this is not a bad thing. It certainly rescues much of humanities’ research from the ridiculous confines of trying to ape STEM subjects in order to establish validity. But more and more, I’m seeing/hearing researchers use grounded theory to justify the most ridiculously biased of inferences, such that the ensuing ‘research’ becomes pretty much circular in nature. This is not how it was meant to be used.


This reminds me of many Westerners’ enthusiasm for Buddhism. Given the tighter moral strictures of Christianity and Islam, many claim affinity with Buddhism because, ‘everything you do is ok’ ‘it goes with the flow’ and ‘there is no concept of sin’. In other words, Buddhism seems attractive because it allows for unbridled self-indulgence. Well, the good people of Buddhist-majority nations such as Thailand and Seri Lanka might have something to say about that. Without putting words in their mouths, I might say that Buddhism has been coopted from its intended precepts and moulded to suit the adherents’ own proclivities. Just like Grounded Theory.


English Speaking Society (ESS) Clubs. How???


Several times, for several years I’ve tried to establish an ESP club at my university. It actually exists officially, in some dormant state, but to be honest I’ve never had any success in keeping that child alive and kicking. Why not you ask?


Initial interest is usually very high. Most new students initially maintain hopes of improving their conversational English skills. Therefore, the first meeting usually draws an unwieldy, large crowd. Then, gradually, numbers decreases each week until, occasionally, no one shows up at all. The reasons for this appear to be as follows:


Students prefer to lunch with, or spend free time with, newly-found friends.

Others say/do nothing during this time and seem to be expecting entertainment or a standard lesson. They leave disappointed.

The mix of ages, years, personalities is not right. Students don’t want to associate with this guy or that girl or this group.

If given short preparation assignments or leadership roles, students treat this as an unwanted obligation — added homework.

Although the teacher doesn’t want to dominate, (s)he ends up doing so because of the passive response/reaction time during activities. The power differential never gets expunged from the ESS classroom.

it ranks way down the totem pole of  ‘bukatsu’ (club) activities, so related events are poorly attended.


So, my question to you, dear readers, is — if you have developed a thriving ESS club, how did you do it?






Mike Guest

Mike Guest

Michael (Mike) Guest is Associate Professor of English in the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Miyazaki (Japan). A veteran of 25 years in Japan, he has published over 50 academic papers, 5 books (including two in Japanese), has been a regular columnist in the Japan News/Yomiuri newspaper for 13 years, and has performed presentations and led workshops and seminars in over 20 countries. Besides ranting and raving, his academic interests include medical English, discourse analysis, assessment, teacher training, and presentation skills.
Mike Guest

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2 Responses to The Fragmented and The Fleeting: Sporadic Insights on Current EFL Teaching and Practice

  1. I have never been involved in a club, but I’ve been involved with similar situations. The key is to get them talking to each other. Read and exchange information activities, short passages they dictate to each other, trivia quizzes where they ask each other questions, and simple lists of easy questions work well. As for ELF, yeah it’s seems a bit hypocritical that they use standard forms, but the language emerges ELF contexts, and if they are that proficient…

  2. Thanks for the comment, Jim.

    The biggest problem I’ve encountered with having students talk to each other in ESS is the the heirarchy problem – who is senpai or kohai, what is our relationship, if I really wanted to chat with this person I’d do it in Japanese, so it feels very unnatural to chat in English. Unfettered spontaneous chat in formalized situations in Japan is pulling teeth.

    Mike G.

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