Why my son won’t be going to that language school

The following is an original work of fiction. It is loosely based on a true story.
Further notes and thoughts can be found below.

I was ready to enroll my son in the new hogwon down the street. I’d heard good things about it through the local “ajumma network.” For example, I heard all three owners have PHDs! One of them even went to Yonsei. Since I always try to put my children’s’ education first I was excited about this chance and this new place for them to improve their English. People told me this academy has an innovative and different curriculum and I was eager to send my little angel, Byoungho, there.

From the grapevine I got the impression this school is not just another cowboy outfit set up to simply make profits and then disappear. Other moms told me this place cares about the children, which is of course different from a lot of places. Reputation is very important here in this town and nation.  Word of mouth is the best way to hear about potential educational opportunities for our children. I’d be lying if I didn’t say there is also an element of competition too, we mothers want to do our best for our kids but we also want to make sure we are not being overshadowed and outdone by other moms. Some people might say this is Korean nature but I think it is more like human nature. “Keeping up with the Kims” is always a consideration, so we need to stay constantly alert to trends and keep up with changes in the education field.

Prior to enrollment we had a conference with the directors who also happen to be the owners. I assumed it was just about marketing and was a chance for the owner to meet the parents and give a brief orientation of the school. They seemed nice, knowledgeable and reasonable.  It also seemed like the stories about them truly caring about children were true.

The meeting started off well enough but I was completely surprised by its result. In the end, the directors suggested maybe Byoungho shouldn’t attend classes there. At first they were telling me this and that about storybooks and communication and a positive learning environment and everything was fine. I was half listening because I was already set to enroll my son there. It sounded great. While listening to their talk on something about student-centeredness and individualized attention I suddenly remembered a rumor I’d heard about this particular cram school. Someone told me they hired non-native speakers. Not just non-native teachers but teachers that are not even white. I heard the main teacher there was a Filipina! Can you believe it? Everyone knows America is the center of business and English. Why would we want a teacher from somewhere else?  I asked the directors about this and without apology they confirmed this rumor to be true.

The nasty rumor was true, and what was worse they were not even apologetic about it. They told me that if I had a problem with their teachers maybe I didn’t need to spend my hard-earned money there. They said they were happy to live without my business if I was not happy with how they run it. I was speechless and I didn’t have much to say. Aren’t my 10,000 won notes green? Don’t they want my cash? They were very polite about this situation and they were firm in not taking my money if I was unhappy about the first language or skin color of the teacher. Now I need to find a new school. What if every school were like this?


Notes and thoughts:

As you might guess, I was not trying to make this mom a sympathetic figure or appear to be on her side. I also didn’t want to go too far over the top and make her too ridiculous or too much of a fanatic or caricature. I was just trying to tell what I think is an interesting story from a different perspective. As I said above it is based on a true story I heard recently. I have written a few times about  “native speakers” (yep, sticking with the scare quotes) in Korea (here is one example) and wrote something related to race and hiring here. I have been thinking for a long time that students don’t give a care about the skin color or first language of their teachers. In this case maybe the mom cared and the kid probably missed out on opportunities as a result.

I thought this could be an interesting text to use with English language students in Korea. I think there is something interesting (authentic-ish?) language there. I also think it is clearly focused on the Korean context, which might attract some interest. Aside from the potential (and potentially uncomfortable) conversations that could stem from this) I also thought it might be cool to have students write up the same story from a few different perspectives (one of the directors, the teacher, or Byoungho). I thank you for reading and I welcome any comments on anything. If you happen to use this with students I will gladly buy you a beer or coffee or lemonade or any drink that is not whiskey.



While Editing: Semi-edited Rambles

I wrote the following in spurts over something like ten days. 

This is not a blog post.

I am really swamped with a project at the moment. This project requires me to be at the computer for long hours and it is not anything like a creative endeavor. Why the secrecy? No need, actually. I am editing 100s of pages of translated documents. Literally in original sense of the word. My former students are the translators and the documents from the government and are super dry. Sometimes I feel like writing something here or elsewhere but this cloud of editing hangs over me. I can’t bear to spend time on the computer without catching up on the endless pages that need to be edited. Also, when I am not editing I feel like I need to be as far away from the computer or at least working on the online course I am teaching. Poor me. Anyway, such is life, I suppose. In order to quell my creative impulses I have decided to share some scattered thoughts that occurred to me whilst editing. These thoughts came over a period of a few days and were written quickly in my “breaks” from editing. I hope they are least slightly of interest. Enjoy the ride and thanks for reading. I hope readers will understand if this post is not as tightly edited as it could be.

Sometimes I miss my previous job (well actually I guess it was 2 jobs ago) when I worked in a language school and I met and worked with a wide cross-section of society. I had retirees, cops, students, stay-at-home-moms, government officials, business-people, nuclear engineers, cooks and lots more. It was a nice chance to meet a variety of people and to also connect to Korea and Korean culture in a different way. I love my current job. I also feel nostalgic about working with and knowing people from various industries and walks of life.

One of the cops I taught in the job mentioned above  was part of one of the funniest things I have experienced in class. I brought my brother and his then girlfriend (now wife) to my class. The police officer was a kind, caring and sensitive man. He was quite good at English. He was inexperienced talking to non-Koreans and was largely self-taught. Coming to my class was one of the view times in his life he communicated with foreigners (or even did much communication in English at all) so he was excited to talk to my brother and his future wife. The comedy (and to be fair, uncomfortable feeling for me) came when he asked her, “How do you please your boyfriend?” She couldn’t respond without laughing as she couldn’t figure it was anything but a sexual question. His follow-up question of “How do you make your boyfriend happy?” didn’t sound much different or slow down the laughter. Some further clarification showed he meant something more like “How do you ensure a healthy relationship with your boyfriend?” There were lots of lessons for me as a teacher to learn from that experience and interaction. I can’t remember exactly what they are now, though.

I think I learned a lot in that job. Teaching nearly 30 hours a week with different groups and frequently teaching new courses and new groups was a good opportunity for professional development. The competitive nature of the place where evaluations were so important was silly, of course, but it also provide a baptism (or maybe trial?) by fire that was in some ways good motivation to work hard, even if it didn’t necessarily provide fantastic grounds for innovation and experimentation. Working with a wide variety of people in terms of experience (both life and teaching), knowledge, commitment and perspectives was also a great chance for professional development.

I am reminded of a line in “The Developing Teacher” that sometimes development is something that happens to us and a change in circumstances, context or responsibilities can provide many opportunities for development. Sorry for not digging out the exact quote, I can’t bear to do it with this editing in front of me. Well, if anyone asks politely for the quote in the comments I will gladly find and share it because I will have more time by then.

Even if the management was not always good or less than terrible in that job I was describing there were some great colleagues there and I learned a lot from them. My current thought, which might be controversial, is something like, “There is not much of a correlation between good management and opportunities for professional development.” My two most recent previous jobs (nice phrase!) could only be charitably described as not-very-well-run but I think I gained a lot from these experiences. In fact, I might go so far as to say the shittiness and shoddiness added to the professional development opportunities because I was granted plenty of chances to try stuff out that I might not otherwise have had in other, better run places. I wonder if this jives with the experience of others? I think most of the time as people seeking to develop professionally we seek out the well-run places but I am thinking there might be a lot of chances in poorly run places.Of course all this brings up questions about what I mean by well run. I am not really sure so I won’t even dive into it here.

light and tunnel

Insert your metaphor here. Photo by Blue Collar Photographer John Steele Used under a UCC license from: https://www.facebook.com/JohnSteelePhoto?fref=ts

In what is a completely new train of thought a few days after the previous I am wondering, what if we never taught students the present perfect tense? To my (American?) ears and eyes it seems to be quite overused. Would students, especially at beginner levels, be missing out too much If they just over used the simple past? Or even present simple. “I go to Canada three times in my life” is pretty comprehensible, isn’t it? As is “I went to Canada three times in my life.” Ohh well, these are the sorts of thoughts I have while editing. It is not hard to blame the English Grammar Industrial complex for such things.

I had an interesting chat on social media one day about why we yanks “use present perfect wrong.” While this idea of wrong is the sort of prescriptivist bullshit up with which I will not put I thought it was quite interesting to think about how the history of immigration in the US might have influenced such things as the (non) use of the present perfect while our former colonial overlords would still tend to use it more.

In terms of present perfect usage, two classic examples for me are “The train has arrived at the station!”  and “Goshdarn it I’ve lost my keys.” Now, I can fully see why one might use the present perfect here I think I would be more likely to talk about simple past. “I lost my keys and I will leave it up to you to consider how much this event impacts the current moment, thanks.”

Time for a joke then? OK. The past, the present, and the future walked into a bar. It was tense.

This talk of language somehow reminds me of a long, long, time ago in a country not so far away when I was doing editing on some English education materials. I didn’t always have a high opinion of the materials (read: sometimes I thought they were ridiculous). There were many laughable and saddening things in the material and I was always ready to pick holes in it (though, on balance it probably wasn’t quite as bad as I thought at the time. I remember laughing to myself (and hopefully not aloud) about some bullshit called the “Zero Conditional.” Only later did I realize it was actually a thing. If Mike sees mountains and mountains of nonsense he starts to think everything is nonsense too.

This language talk and the admission of my lack of knowledge of terminology reminds me of something else. What a windy road we are on here in this post. I don’t remember where I heard or read him say it (might have been his talk at IATEFL this year) but I think Hugh Dellar said something about how you never see presentations about language at conferences. That matches my experience very well. I wonder why this is the case. Would ELT folks feel weird learning about language or developing their English skills at a conference? Would presenters be intimidated?  I am not sure if I am talking about just those people known as native speakers or not. I don’t wish to suggest that grammar knowledge is the whole of language knowledge but a while back Alex Walsh wrote a very interesting (not to mention brave) post, “The Confessions of a Grammarphobic ELT” that I think is related.

Another idea from Hugh Dellar about conferences and this field that often finds its way to my mind is how you always find people at conferences at the front of the room telling the audience how telling and lecturing are bad without any apparent sense of irony or internal conflict. There seems to be a very strong belief that telling is bad. I think in many cases it might not be ideal but I think as always we need to make our decisions and not be swayed by thought leaders or group think. I think we should see more interpretive dance, art projects, and music related to the idea that teacher-fronted instruction is bad, for those are the only ways which could thoroughly convince me.

Yet another random thought that occurred to me as I race through this arduous editing task is about feedback. Outside of the editing game, I felt moments of myself wanting to give unsolicited feedback to friends, family and strangers this week. Perhaps I’m being habituated to such actions in a short time, assuming that everyone could benefit from my wisdom as much as those paying for my editing acumen. I need to re-read my post on suggestions. I mostly managed to resist the urges but this desire to give feedback in cases I don’t believe I usually would pushed me to think about what it means, if anything. Assuming it was related to the constant fixing and editing I was doing (which is a moderately sized assumption I think) made me wonder how much of our lives outside the classroom are shaped by our lives in it. I am thinking of a particular guy I know in Korea who strikes me as a nice guy but very much a blowhard. As I tried to be not overly dismissive of this fellow I theorized that he is just used to talking to people and is used to being the expert, or at least English expert in the room. What I found extremely grating might just be an extension of his classroom personality or persona. I dunno. This theory makes it slightly less bothersome but only slightly.

I just edited something that had the word omission and commission in it. The sentence was something about the commission double checking if something was omitted in the reports. Nonetheless it reminded me of this poem (read aloud here by the author).
This round of unwritten things is on me.

Till next time then.

I’ve just sent in the last of the editing. 

Update: I was just asked if I’d be interested in doing some more. Maybe I can find some guidance in this post from Fiona Mauchline

Lazy or typical?

Revamping my Professional Communication course was near the top of my to-do list for the entire summer of 2013. I never quite managed to get to it, figuring I could work things out on the fly as needed and deciding whatever I was doing at the time was much more important and time sensitive. In all honesty, I have no idea what I did instead but I do know I never got around to the revamping. I wasn’t all that bothered by my indolence but I think at this exact time last year I would have been a little less nervous starting up the course in early September 2013. More on this later.

Last Friday I wrote a blog post. It stemmed from a private conversation I’d had with a friend about teachers asking for help on Facebook groups. I wasn’t thrilled with my post, and I was even less thrilled when chatting about it with my friend and realizing there was a lot to the topic and he was making some reasonable and interesting points I’d not mentioned. By this time I had written nearly 1500 words and I wasn’t keen on scrapping them and re-writing the whole piece. I felt attached to what I wrote, even if I didn’t love it and finally posted it. Although I was not so happy with the post, I was very happy with the responses in terms of comments here on the blog and on the Facebook group in question. I was very impressed with the thoughtful replies and the bigger picture and wider issues that emerged in the conversation. I even had a great face-to-face conversation with a friend about it yesterday. In the end, I was very happy I took the time to write the post and I was also happy I hit publish on something I wasn’t super proud of.

Back to last summer’s laziness and last fall’s course, then. Due to a lack of students the Professional Communications course was cancelled. I felt a sense of relief because I was not 100% prepared for the course (though again I think it would have worked out fine and I could have managed well enough). In addition to that sense of relief was a feeling of being pleased to not have “wasted” the labor preparing for the class. I was glad I hadn’t spent hours in the boiling summer toiling over a course that never actually happened. I felt lucky and a bit smug, even thinking I was wise to delay my work until the very last minute.


A smug sloth.

A few years back, when working on a training course, I had an experience where I delayed making a final decision or putting a lot of effort into some component of the course I was not completely sure would happen. I think my co-trainers were uneasy about this but I tried my darndest to convince them to adopt a wait and see attitude. They did, and in the end the thing that was supposed to happen didn’t happen on anything like the scale we’d been told it would. I felt justified in my Predictive Laziness and felt maybe my experience working in Korea was helpful here as things in the Land of the Morning Calm are never sure until they are happening. I even remember thinking being a fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants kind of guy is not part of my original nature and is just a result of working in Korea.

The more I thought about being so freakin’ happy about not performing a moment of work where the results were not used the more disconcerting I found it. Surely there would be some lessons to be gained from revamping a curriculum even if I didn’t’ use it in the three months immediately following this revamping. Of course I could have devoted more time to a decision that would have put my co-trainers at ease even if I wasn’t perfectly convinced things would happen as we were told. Again, there would be some lessons to gain from thinking those decisions through and talking them out. What is so wrong about writing 1500 words and then scrapping them? Nobody would be hurt and, again, maybe some valuable lessons would spring out from it. But, I couldn’t bear to waste the labor.

My pride at skillful avoidance of work that would not be needed immediately turned into something like embarrassment or worry. Instead of being a product of working in Korea was this some sort of personality defect? Did it make me unsuitable for the type of work I like to do and what I’d like to do? With some more thought, I decided these questions were more than a little dramatic.

I wonder if this strong desire to not do work that wouldn’t be used was a common feeling for other teachers (or any workers) or it was stronger in me than others. Maybe this is human nature and not some strange foible of my own. Do these feelings sound familiar to you? I keep thinking it is related to not wanting to admit a sunk cost or something related to loss aversion, except in this case it is about lost time and effort. Maybe I am more fearful of these than I need to be. I know I can waste an hour happily doing other things without any worries. I wrote this post instead of doing some things I need to do, potentially putting them off till the last possible minute. Who knows, perhaps my tasks will be miraculously erased or done by someone else.

As always, potential employers, I am just joking around and if you hire me I will devote myself to any and all tasks I am given and will do them in the first available opportunity.

They dare ask for help

“This is why we can’t have nice things” wrote a friend as he linked to yet another of those Facebook posts. Maybe you know the ones. The type where the author offers a friendly greeting to the English education focused group and states  how she is teaching a new class this term. She mentions having no experience teaching this sort of class and asks the group for help. This type of post is commonplace here in Korea especially in late February and late August just before the start of a new term.

I didn’t take the time to ask my friend what bothers him so about these requests for help but I have a few ideas and guesses. First is the idea of foreign English teaching folks at Korean universities not being qualified to teach the classes they are teaching. (Side note: I am always leery when using this word “qualified” because I never seem to know what it means to different people or even myself. ) It could be about these instructors not being experienced enough in the areas they are teaching. From there I wonder if he is concerned about the negative impact on the students or the the oft-maligned reputation of foreign (particularly English) instructors in Korea. Or maybe both. Or perhaps he thinks uni instructors should be clever, resourceful, talented and with it enough to find their own materials and ideas without relying on such help from such groups. Another thought is about the timing of such requests. Maybe my friend believes instructors should be more prepared and on the ball and tackle these issues as soon as possible instead of waiting till immediately before classes start.

I suppose should just ask my friend what he meant by this.

I sent my friend the above. Let’s see what he says whilst I write the rest of the post and then I can address his points.


welcome aboar


I don’t want to speak for my friend or put words in his mouth but I get the sense he is focusing his disdain thoughts on the teachers but not so much on the admin and those in charge of making such scheduling decisions. I’d also question how it comes to be that these teachers are placed in such situations. I think the administrations need to fall under this scrutiny. On a larger scale I think there is something to consider as related to idea teachers *should know how to teach. I am a bit torn here because I have recently been in situations where I was teaching outside of my comfort zone and area of expertise  stuff I know a bit about. I think this is inevitable if you teach long enough and I even think it is desirable and useful in terms of development.  You got to start somewhere, homes. Also, if admin asks you to teach a course I feel it is usually a good idea to agree to do it, right?

As related to the update above, my friend got back to me immediately and we had an interesting chat on Facebook about this as well as some related issues like the global perception of English teachers in Korea. “Hi, nice to meet you all. I have never kissed anyone before. Any tips on threesomes?” was his quip in reference to his perceptions of the teachers making the kinds of posts we are talking about. My takeaway from this, aside from my loud laughter in a public space, was the idea teachers need to walk before they can run. Yet, I am still thinking teachers need to continually gain new experiences if they want to keep improving.

Adding to my list of issues he has with these type of Facebook posts my friend added, “It’s also about the screening process for job candidates.” I think this is a good point and I think there is a lot to it as well.  Before reading this I was thinking more in terms of what to do with instructors who have already been hired but I think this is a key. If you know potential hirees will be teaching academic writing it might behoove you to hire teachers who can do this.

Sorry, but I can’t help but keep coming back to issues related to race and native speakers. If people are hired mostly based on factors other than teaching skills it probably shouldn’t come as much of a surprise if their teaching is not up to snuff. 

My friend added to the list of his problems with these types of posts by saying “And what about the lack of training and professional development for new hires? The should pay me to come in and talk to them for a few hours.” [Those interested in hiring my friend for a workshop, presentation, or seminar series can send me an email and I will get you in touch! I will even waive my customary 10% finder's fee if you mention this blog post.] He went on to talk about the perceptions of teachers and professionals in this field and country and what goes into hiring them.

I like this idea about training and development and I believe there is more to consider here. I wonder what sort of training and development would be most beneficial to help these teachers in need. My intention in writing this post was to somewhat defend or at least try to understand these instructors but one part of me can’t help but wonder if they are asking the wrong questions and just looking for quick fixes. Asking for materials this time will give materials this time but I am not sure it how helpful it will be next time when another new class is suddenly and inevitably thrown in their direction. I think what I am suggesting is more skills and training in curriculum development could be beneficial across the board in such situations. Or there could be something about knowing exactly what you don’t know and relating this to what you need to know in order to teach as well as possible. 

Thinking more deeply about this I get the sense my friend sees such posts on Facebook groups as symbolizing a lack of professionalism. Maybe as a foreign university instructor in Korea he doesn’t want to lumped in together with people teaching classes they are seemingly not capable of teaching? For whatever reason this connection doesn’t really bug me at all. I don’t feel my professional reputation is at stake when people in the country I happen to live in are asking for help and advice teaching classes they have not taught before. Longtime readers of this blog will know I think about accountants and plumbers a lot. Would an accountant care if a firm across town hired someone not quite ready for the job? Would a plumber be overly concerned with rivals doing jobs they’d not yet performed?  Maybe so, and maybe these comparisons are far from apt as I am really just wondering aloud here.

Regarding this Facebook posting phenomena, there might be more than meets the eye. Perhaps rather than a lack of professionalism these posts show a lack of suitable and helpful networks and communities of practice rather than a lack of professionalism. I mean, I think more experienced teachers might have their go-to people for certain issues and wouldn’t feel the need to publicly seek out help from virtual strangers. Pun intended. Perhaps these posts are examples of teachers just looking for a pat on the back and an empathetic note saying, “I have been there too, you will be fine, I am sure.” Maybe they are looking to make connections with educators in similar (and new to them) contexts. Maybe they feel relatively confident but write the posts in a humble manner so as to garner as many responses as possible. I realize these maybes are not super likely but I also think they, along with other maybes, could be worth considering.

I know as well as anyone that certain things are going to bother each of us and this is something which doesn’t annoy me or even appear on my annoyance radar. For what it is worth, I have enjoyed writing this post and thinking about this topic. Special thanks to my friend for getting this conversation started and for keeping it going throughout the process of writing this post. I will give the last word to my potentially grumpy friend, “I am all for teachers posting and trying to get better, it’s when they post in the hope of becoming adequate that I become grumpy.” Thoughts, rebuttals, agreements, disagreements and requests for help very welcome.

My attendance policy as explained to students

This is the speech I deliver to students in the first week regarding my attendance policies.

Look, I know things happen. Sometimes you have to miss class. Sometimes these reasons are worthwhile and sometimes they are not. I am not the decider of which is which. That’s up to you. Just know if you miss more than three classes you can get a reduction in grades and more than five can mean you’d fail the course.

I don’t really get into the differences of excused absences and unexcused ones. Please don’t email me asking for permission to miss class. I don’t and can’t give it. If you are an adult missing class you are making a choice and I respect that. I hope you will respect my choice not to be the arbiter of acceptable and unacceptable excuses. That’s not my job. I’m your teacher. I am not your father. I am not your mother. I am not your priest. I am here to help you learn, I am not here to help you craft more acceptable excuses for missing class.  You don’t even need to worry about excuses!

As a starting point I think you are here to learn and my belief is if you have to miss class then you must have a good reason. It is as simple as that. I don’t even need to know the reason. Please note if you tell me the reason you are doing this for you and not for me. You really don’t need to. I don’t care.

If makes no difference if your uncle’s neighbor is opening a bakery is Yeosu;  if your hair dresser is in a musical;  if you are feeling tired and need to take a break, if your ice cream machine  is broken and Tuesday is the only day you can you can get it fixed; if your dog is getting married.

Please don’t take all this to mean I don’t care about you or your life (or your dog or piano!), I just mean I don’t need to know your reasons missing class. If you have some bad things going on in life I’d like to think I’d empathize but this is a separate issue from giving permission to miss class.

I don’t give permission to miss class. Even if you ask me for permission I won’t give it. My most common response is something like, “Thanks so much for letting me know. I hope blank goes well for you.” So, please, by all means, tell me you will be missing class and even tell me why if you want to. Just don’t ask me for permission. I think it is good manners to let me know if you are going to miss class. It helps me plan better and also helps stop me from worrying if you are not there. It also helps me look very smart when I know in advance you will not be there. It might even help me save paper.

I hope this makes some sense. I know it might sound a bit strange and unusual or even harsh but I also know it helps me focus on teaching.



attendance sheet

Notes and Truths: 

  • I’m probably 20% less sarcastic when I say it to students. I also hope I’m less long-winded!
  • This was written with extremely high level students in mind so the high level language here is not an issue.
  • Even with lower level students I generally try to have a no permission policy in my classes. It saves me so many headaches.
  • Some of my classes are pass/fail so the letter grade threat is moot, to be honest.
  • Most of my classes are highly motivated so students tend to come to class as often as they can anyway.
  • I have had what felt like success with this policy with less motivated students. I don’t enjoy the position of needing to decide what excuses are acceptable. I find it very tiring and an inefficient use of my time.
  • Severe health problems (for the students or family members)  is an obvious exception.

Comments of any sort very welcome.

Linguistic Landscapish pictures from Taiwan

The end of summer holidays seems to me like an ideal time to share pictures from the winter. While I was in Taiwan this winter I snapped a few pictures that caught my interest as a beginner in caring about and noticing linguistic landscapes. I figured I’d share some of them here for the fun of it and also because I thought some of the pictures were interesting. All pictures were taken on my Samsung Note 1. No filter. Those interested in something more scholarly can check out this ELT Journal article from earlier in the year. Enjoy!



20140116_175619 (1)

Just landscape.



One of these days I will have to share some pictures from Seoul. Speaking of Seoul, I am aiming to set some students on a mini project to grab some interesting photos of linguistic landscapes around Seoul. I will likely share the results here. If you have had any success with similar projects or have any suggested readings please do get in touch.





Interview with Marcos Benevides

I am very happy to share my interview with Marcos Benevides. I have been a fan and a follower of his for a while now and it is an honor and a pleasure to interview him. He is and has been involved with a lot of interesting and cool projects and it was great to get his perspective on things. Please be sure to check out the links below related to what he is up to.


Marcos with an Atama-ii title.

Thanks so much for joining me, Marcos. Can I get you a drink? What are you having?
I’ll have a beer, please: Suntory’s irritatingly named The Premium Malt’s. It’s not only the best major-label beer here in Japan, it’s also a constant reminder that there’s always remedial ELT work to be done!

Haha, ok. Here you are. I have been following you closely ever since I saw Widgets for the first time. I really enjoyed this book and I thought it was a great idea and very well done. I wonder if you could share some thoughts on how this book came to be.
Sure. I had just returned to Japan from Canada after completing my masters, and was teaching part-time at a junior college in Okinawa. The textbook we were assigned to teach from was hopelessly out of date and not appropriate to the mixed-level oral communication course at all. I had students ranging from false beginners to advanced, and no one was happy with the book. So I started filling in with my own tasks, and getting better results.

During my masters, I had been fortunate enough to join a research project using the Canadian Language Benchmarks (similar to the CEFR), which had a very good task-based assessment tool. This gave me an excellent understanding of TBLT principles, particularly how the approach can help in mixed-level situations and with meaningful oral assessment.

So one day I came up with a project task in which the students had to brainstorm and present a new product idea to solve a problem in their lives. This went very well, so I added a follow-up task where the students now had to make a commercial skit to pitch their product. This went even better. I could really see how the students—at all levels—were not only engaged, but were also happily using and recycling the language emergent from the task. They were doing things in English, rather than just repeating the boring textbook dialogues.

So I shared the idea with a colleague at the same school, Chris Valvona, who also became excited by his results. We kept brainstorming with each other over a couple of semesters, and building on this theme that students are working for a fictitious corporation we called Widgets Inc, and eventually we had enough material for a full course. We then approached Pearson, which at the time had a corporate structure which was quite open to innovation and trying new things at the regional level, and they took us on. That was my ‘big break’, I guess you could say.

Pearson did a great job producing Widgets, but unfortunately they didn’t follow through very well on the marketing side. The course still sells well enough in Japan for a niche title, but although it’s technically available internationally, good luck trying to find it outside SE Asia. That’s been a disappointment, and it’s what led me and a different co-author, Adam Gray, to go with a smaller publisher, Abax, for our next book, Whodunit. Ironically, we get better international distribution with them than with the multinational corporation!

Wow, that is interesting. Thanks for the background too. You are also interested Extensive Reading, right? What is the draw to extensive reading in your view?
Yes, I think ER is a very important approach, and should be at least a supplement to any serious reading program. In some successful schools here in Japan, ER is the whole reading program. It really works, but teachers have to bear in mind that it’s a long-term approach; you’re not going to see immediate language improvement with ER. It’s not what you should focus on if your aim is to get higher IELTS scores next month. But over the course of a year or more, yes, it’s definitely the thing to do.

The aims of ER are simple: learners read a massive amount of very easy and self-selected texts, typically graded readers. They don’t ‘study’ them, or even take quizzes in the traditional sense. The priority is to simulate the act of reading for pleasure as much as possible, in order to help them develop good reading habits. When the reader encounters high-frequency words and forms in context multiple times, they naturally internalize them, and this is where the language and fluency gains come from. It’s all about multiple, meaningful exposure in context, just as with first language learning.

It’s important to highlight that, as with task-based learning, language gains in ER tend to be incidental. Both approaches try, you could say, to get students to forget they are supposed to be learning. The main goal is always the task completion; in the case of ER it’s having read the book, not something external like passing a test or giving an oral report. Actually, I tend to think of ER as a natural offshoot of TBLT.

Can you say more about this connection?
Well, okay, maybe “offshoot” isn’t the best word; it’s not like the two approaches were ever explicitly connected, to my knowledge. I mean that both try to simulate a real-world-like use of language, rather than a direct study of its forms.

They do have complementary features and goals. For instance, both are concerned with meaningful tasks; in the case of ER the task is to read a book in a way which simulates how people really read books–for pleasure and for meaning. Both emphasize meaning over form, fluency over accuracy.

Forms are still there, but emergent from the task–so just like a task on filling out an online order form can highlight the proper way to write one’s address (among other things), a book about time travel, say, might incidentally target verb tenses. So if we were to merge the approaches a bit, we might do a post-task focus on verb tenses by asking the reader to write a book report relating the events of the story, that sort of thing.

For a teacher or program that employs TBLT already, I think adding an extensive reading component is a natural fit.

One thing I always wonder about is ER seeming more popular in Asia, and specifically in Japan than in other places. What do you attribute this to?
Interesting question. I suspect that it was mostly a happy coincidence of factors that allowed ER to start blooming here first, rather than elsewhere. First, many of the original proponents of ER have taught or still teach in Japan. Second, they started introducing it at a time—let’s say since about twenty, twenty-five years ago—when the Japanese were becoming a bit more open to try new approaches in ELT. However, unlike other newish approaches of the time, such as communicative language teaching, ER involves tangible materials (books) and concrete data (word counts, reading speed, etc) so it has always been easier to make a case for it institutionally than for, say, unstructured oral communication. Plus, Japanese schools are well-off enough to be able to afford graded reader libraries, which can be a considerable barrier in other countries. I think it was a bit of a perfect storm.

But yes, ER is now a mature, successful and research-validated approach in Japan, there’s no doubt about that anymore. It is sometimes frustrating that it hasn’t caught on in other places yet, but I’m confident that it will. Unfortunately there’s still quite a bit of misunderstanding about ER outside Asia. At recent IATEFL and TESOL conferences, for example, I specifically tried to attend the handful of sessions I could find on ER, and was disappointed that most of them were ER in name only. Mostly they used the term “extensive reading” but were in fact talking about having students read one or two difficult books which were selected by the teachers, and then doing things such as writing essays about the theme. That’s not ER!

Another interesting project of yours is Atama-ii Books. What is this?
Atama-ii Books is a series of multiple-path stories set at a high-beginner level. Like my previous series for McGraw-Hill Asia, which is an adaptation of some of the classic Choose Your Own Adventure titles, these books are also simple adventure stories in the second person. That is, “you” are the hero, and make choices that move the plot along to one of several different endings.

Unlike CYOA graded readers, which are adaptations from native speaker books, these books are specifically designed from the ground up with ELT in mind. This means we were able to include some features that teachers will appreciate. For example, each page is restricted to 100-110 words and the story maps are perfectly symmetrical, so you can do activities such as timed readings, have students finish different paths at about the same pace, and have them pause to discuss the choices more easily. We’ve also avoided essentially random choices such as “do you turn left or do you turn right?” because these are not as rich for predictive tasks.

An interesting side note is that this project was started via a Kickstarter campaign, which I believe was a first for a big ELT project. We successfully raised over ten thousand dollars to get the first titles off the ground. That was in October 2013; now, by November 2014, we’ll have the first six titles out as Kindle ebooks, free YouTube videos, and premium quality print editions. The response has been nothing short of amazing.

If you’re attending JALT in November, you’ll find a free copy of one of the first six titles in your conference bag. Collect all six, and all that, ha ha!

That is fantastic! What advice would you offer to people interested in using crowdfunding for ELT projects?
Hm, that’s a tough question. It really depends on many factors, starting with how much you’re trying to raise. The larger the amount, the more preparation you’ll need to do. Also, how complete is your project already? Can you show drafts or sketches? Sample pages?

If you read through our Kickstarter page, which hasn’t been changed since the campaign ended, you’ll get a sense of how much preparation we did:

I estimate that I spent about two months full-time just to get the campaign ready. The month of the campaign is even busier, as you’re replying to dozens of emails per day, updating and clarifying things, and, frankly, biting your nails about whether you’ll reach your funding goal.

Then the weeks afterwards involve the actual work of putting the books together and fulfilling pledge rewards–I’m still doing this nearly a year later!

Other important considerations include: Do you have a track record? In my case I had already published several books, so my supporters could be reasonably confident that I would follow through with this new project. Also, are you working alone or with a team? It really helped that I had a team of authors already signed up, who could help to promote the campaign on social media. And speaking of social media, do you have a solid online presence? If you’re not on Facebook or Twitter, you’ll really have your work cut out for you.

To be honest, the big upside to crowdfunding, at least in our case, was not really the money, it was the publicity we got out of it. Of course, this can be a double-edged sword too: if we had failed, we’d have been doing so on a very public stage!

In short, it’s not easy. Plan, plan, plan!

Ok. Good advice. I have the impression that you are pretty busy, so thanks again for taking the time to do this interview. What are you working on these days? What is coming up?
It’s certainly a busy summer. Right now I’m simultaneously editing and laying out the Atama-ii print versions, preparing for my September iTDi Advanced Course on developing reading materials, and also drafting my plenary talk for the Literature in Language Learning conference at Aichi University on September 7th.

When these things are done, I’ll be preparing for JALT in November, which is going to be the big Atama-ii launch event. We’ve got some good stuff in mind for that—I already mentioned every attendee gets a free Atama-ii title. We’re also sponsoring Lesley Ito, one of our authors, as Featured Speaker, and will be doing some fun stuff at the booth as well. Conference attendees will not be disappointed.

After November I’ll probably take a little break, as I haven’t had a real vacation in years now. Then it will be back to the editing table, to get another half dozen Atama-ii titles out in 2015.

I will look forward to seeing you at JALT.  I’d like to hear more about the iTDi course. Who is it designed for? What will be covered? Is there anything you’d like to add that isn’t in the link?
The iTDi course is for teachers who are interested in designing or adapting reading materials for their own students or even perhaps for publishing. It will cover the spectrum of reading approaches from ER to “intensive” reading, how to use various tools and tricks to adapt language, particularly vocabulary, and even offer participants a chance to put together a mini-graded reader if they want to. It should be both fun and useful–like reading itself! ;-)

And now we enter the “Lightning Round.” The idea is quick questions and answers. Which do you prefer between soccer and hockey?
I have practically zero interest in sports, but of all the ones I’ve been made to endure, soccer and hockey are both reasonably interesting to watch. At least they feature some continuous action. I’d rather watch paint dry than sit through a baseball or American football game. And basketball is just comical; watching these grotesquely tall guys bouncing—bouncing!—a ball around a tiny court just makes me think of circus clowns. Don’t get me started on golf.

What are your favorite things about living in Tokyo?
It’s surprisingly cheap to eat out here, at least compared to Canada or the US. I often take the whole family out for under 50 bucks—plus there’s no tipping!

What are your least favorite things?
I miss the laid-back lifestyle I had in Okinawa. It’s too easy to succumb to my workaholic tendencies in Tokyo.

Can you cook? What dish is your best?
As a former Brazilian Gaucho, I’m instinctively drawn to barbecues. I have five or six grills and smokers in my backyard. However, I’m probably complimented on most for my soups. They’re nothing fancy at all, but I seem to have a knack for putting together the right flavours and proportions of things.

Good to know! Finally, and related to the previous talk of what is ER, can you define ER in 140 characters or less?
Hm, I don’t have much of a twitterary bent, but here goes:
ER is a fluency-focused approach in which learners read 1) a lot; 2) of self-selected; 3) easy books; 4) that they can enjoy.

Nice work! Thanks so much for taking the time and best of luck with everything and your busy autumn.