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.

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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 The textbook we were assigned to teach from was hopelessly out of date and not appropriate to the mixed-level oral communication course at all.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:
https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/atama-ii/atama-ii-books-multiple-path-stories-in-easy-engli

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. 

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3 comments

  1. alexcase

    Kirin Ichiban Shibori and Ebisu are clearly better beers than The Premium Malts, but otherwise some interesting points!

    I wonder how common ER is even in Japan. I’d say only 10 or 20% of my Japanese students have even heard of the concept of graded readers when I recommend it to them. My other hope for some of my students is that it teaches them reading for pleasure in general, because many Japanese seem to think of reading as something only done for gain (hence perhaps the use of manga when they do want to relax).

  2. Lieve Hodgetts

    I read only one of his articles and vowed I would never read any of his again – the selfrighteousness was nauseating. His rant about task-based speaking exercises are an excellent way of teaching someone’s communication skills, but not necessarily their language skills. I spent two months in China and had no linguistic means whatsoever to communicate (“Me no Chinese. – “Me no English.”) But through body language (and believe me, no easy task either – they have a similar body, but they do use it differently to communicate) I gradually learnt to bring my messages across and get theirs (though I didn’t always know what exactly I was eating, and I still doubt some rooms I slept in were actual hotel rooms, let alone bedrooms). But I still speak NO Chinese. So I am happy to take Benevides’ stand when I’m evaluating communication as such, but not when I need to evaluate language skills. Not always a clear line, because it hasn’t escaped me that the language is the tool for communication. If they ask me to put a car together, I will. If it will still have to drive on top of that, I’m sure I’ll find a way (eventually). But to make it roadworthy, I might come just a bit short …

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