“Did you hear about that boy on the other side of town? No? Apparently, he was walking home from school quite late, it was getting dark, when he saw this woman standing on the corner. She was wearing a mask, you know, like she had a cold. As he walked past she was staring at him.. he felt a bit uncomfortable. Well, she was saying something, in a really small voice, so he leaned in to hear her. She pushed her face up close to his and said “Am I beautiful?”. Actually, what he could see of her, she was. Anyway, it would be rude to say otherwise, wouldn’t it? So he said, “Yes, you are” and she pulls off her mask and says “Even like this?”. Her mouth was slit from ear to ear. Now he’s in hospital, she did the same to him. Don’t walk home on your own, will you?”

I came across the story of the ‘kuchi-sake onna‘ (slit-mouthed woman) when I was looking around for halloween topics for class beyond the usual jack ‘o’ lantern word search. The legend is a fairly modern one, dated to 1978 in Gifu prefecture, which reached its height in 1979. In that year, ‘kuchisake onna’ was named in the list of annual buzzwords, and it has passed into urban folklore. In 2007, it was even made into a pretty crappy looking film (although you REALLY shouldn’t watch this trailer if you scare easily – Japanese horror films don’t mess about!)

On the surface, this is a scary and slightly titillating story to provide a cooling shiver on a hot summer’s night (as is the Japanese custom). But digging a little deeper there are several readings of the basic story. The first is of course sexual – I’ll leave you to figure out what the mouth represents and why young boys should find it frightening – but sex is a general subtext to just about anything, so let’s leave that to one side. Michael Dylan Foster posits three further readings with more direct connections to time and place. The first is the rise of the kyouiku mama, the educationally driven mother pushing her children through cram school, which Foster cites in the oft-reported age of the cut-mouthed woman (in her thirties) and the fact that her usual victims are children coming home from school. Next is the symbolism of the mask itself, particularly in a Japan suffering the environmental and societal effects of rapid-post war growth. The gauze mask, (a daily sight on Japanese public transport since the Spanish influenza pandemic of 1918) serves a dual purpose, protecting the wearer from pollution and disease in others, and covering up sickness from the rest of society. The mask also turned up as a sign of resistance during political action in the 1960’s and 70’s. Is the kuchi-sake onna a revolutionary? Foster’s attention focuses most deeply on our protagonist in relation to beauty and feminism, and believes that she continues to act as a subversive influence to this day.

It strikes me that the urban legend, as modern folklore, is ripe for exploitation in the classroom for critical thinking.

  1. I sometimes feel that students are so bound up in deciphering the language that they take the content for granted. By providing familiar stories, the student has a better chance to manipulate both the language and content.
  2. For many students, teachers and textbooks are unquestionable. Tell a tall story with a straight face and see how many call you out on it. Encourage this attitude vigorously.
  3. There are many, many readings of most legends. Seeking the origins of the story and extrapolating to the wider context which it sprang from is a great research project.
  4. Legends are often either local, or adapted to fit the locality. Use the chance to have the students tell the the teacher, or each other in a multi-cultural class, and take part in an authentic communication experience.
  5. Charting the progress and changes to a legend over time and space gives a thermometer reading of social concerns in context.
  6. Utilise Hammersley and Atkinson’s ethnographic questions about texts – simple to ask but often a bugger to answer. These last are vital questions for anyone (student or teacher) spreading their wings above the vast hinterlands of the internet. Too many “I don’t knows” and you’d better move on to something else.

How are texts written? How are they read? Who writes them? Who reads them? For what purposes? On what occasions? With what outcome? What is recorded? What is omitted? What is taken for granted? What does the writer seem to take for granted about the reader? What do readers need to know in order to make sense of them?

In a neat coda, reports surfaced in 2007 of a coroners report of a woman who had been hit by a car whilst chasing after a small children. Her mouth was slit from ear to ear, perhaps caused by the accident but perhaps….

Now, read through this post again and tell us what may have prompted this latest twist in the tale of the kuchi-sake onna…… happy halloween!

Further Reading

Foster, M.D. (2007) “The Question of the Slit-Mouthed Woman: Contemporary Legend, the Beauty Industry, and Women’s Weekly Magazines in Japan.” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, vol. 32, no. 3 (Spring 2007): 699-726.

Hammersley, M. & Atkinson, P. (1983) Ethnography: Principles in Practice. London: Tavistock.

Snopes.com, the best site on the internet for debunking urban myths and folk ‘wisdom’.

Bad Science, Ben Goldacre’s blog taking down tabloid ‘twitter gives you cancer’ scaremongering.

I didn’t set out to rip off Lindsay Clandfield’s excellent blog gimmick, but it turned out that the number of free online journals I like is six!

First up is elearn magazine, collecting papers on learning with technology (mainly) for educators in tertiary education. The journal has been going for a few years now, and still has a fairly strong focus on multi-media online programmes (what might be called Virtual Learning Environments) rather than individual applications or websites. It also looks at the deeper impact of changing technology on the ways that we learn and teach. Stephen Downes’ article, Elearning 2.0, from 2005, is quite a good place to start.

The National University of Singapore has been publishing the Electronic Journal of Foreign Language Teaching for the last five years, covering language instruction across Asia in a number of different languages. I particularly recommend Nikitina and Furuoka’s article “A Language Teacher is Like…”: Examining Malaysian Students’ Perceptions of Language Teachers through Metaphor Analysis, being a big fan of metaphor in the exploration of beliefs and attitudes.

The Centre for Applied Linguistics at the University of Warwick produces an annual, peer-reviewed journal entitled “English Language Teacher Education and Development” which does what you would expect, very well. This article, written by the editors in the latest edition, gives an excellent overview of the project, its beginnings and where it stands now. I also enjoyed Elham Sadat Mousavi’s article about teacher stress in native and non-native teachers of English. The NNEST / NEST thing is one of those ongoing issues that never loses steam…..

 If you are at all interested in reading, then “Reading in a Foreign Language” should have something for you. It’s co-edited by Richard Day at the University of Hawai’i, a man who knows a thing or two about extensive reading. I like İsmail Hakkı Erten and Salim Razı’s fascinating study into “The effects of cultural familiarity on reading comprehension“, which looks at the impact on fluency of using “nativised” texts – the question is whether we are using texts purely for building skills, or for teaching culture and content. Either way, the study has definite implications for the selection and creation of extensive reading materials.

TESL-EJ covers a broad range of language teaching issues in a quarterly journal, usually with one or two feature articles and a lot of great book reviews. Reinders and Lazaro’s article “Current Approaches to Assessment in Self-Access Language Learning” struck a chord with me; the space at my university has been very successful, but one is always walking the tightrope in trying to encourage students to exercise their autonomy. The minute it becomes a requirement, it dies, right?

Finally, a relative newcomer to serve the growing needs of International Foundation Programme Teachers produced by the University of Reading, InForm. It is not specifically aimed at language teachers, but most international foundations are studying content in a second language (CLIL?). You should go straight to issue four and read the article about learner / teacher development through reflection by a young man with a bright future called Darren Elliott…..

Please comment on any recommended links you have, and I’d also like to know what you think of the articles I have recommended.

(Update – 26/4/2010: Comments disabled due to huge spammage! Please email darrenrelliott@gmail.com if you have any recommendations)

Paul Nation Interview from darren elliott on Vimeo.

Paul Nation is  a researcher, teacher and teacher trainer best known for his research into vocabulary learning and acquisition. This interview was conducted by Darren Elliott for www.livesofteachers.com

He presented twice at the ETJ Chubu Expo on Sunday, and between presentations was kind enough to answer a few questions. As you would expect we discussed vocabulary, and Paul’s answers were thoughtful and optimistic for the directions that language teaching is taking. The book we refer to in the interview is Michael West’s “A General Service List of English Words“, a hand counted and analysed list of high-frequency words, published more than fifty years ago and in many ways not yet bettered.

I also attended the first of Paul’s presentations,  in which he emphasised the importance of a balanced curriculum of four strands. Teachers need to ensure that students participate in meaning focused input and output, in language focused learning (deliberate study) and in fluency development activities in equal measures. Although Paul is primarily a researcher, he is a great communicator of serious ideas with humour and clarity (a point I was trying to make in the interview, but listening back it sounds like I told him he needs to buck up a bit…. sorry!). If you get a chance to see him present, then please do so!


Barbara Hoskins-Sakamoto Interview from darren elliott on Vimeo.

Barbara is an EFL materials writer, teacher and teacher trainer working mainly with children in Japan. This interview was conducted for the lives of teachers website at http://www.livesofteachers.com/

If you have ever taught children, you may well have come across the ‘Let’s Go!‘ series, now on the third edition and a multimedia behemoth! I met with Barbara, one of the authors, today at the ETJ Chubu Expo, and she was kind enough to give this interview. As you can see, she is delightful company and I wish I’d left the camera running because we talked for as long again after I turned it off. She has a lot to say about teaching children and professional development in particular, but we also touched on a few other topics. If you haven’t already, you should check out Barbara’s blog and have a look for her on twitter. Thanks Barbara, I hope to see you again soon!

A vocabulary test in which the students merely have to vomit the words onto the page, and once purged walk away fresh with no memory of the incident, is no good to anyone. How can we ensure our students LEARN words, rather than just REMEMBER them.

  • Learner Autonomy – Are students more likely to learn words if they are relevant, personal and useful?
  • Learner Training – Is it better to teach students how to study vocabulary, rather than teach them vocabulary?
  • Language – What does it actually mean to learn a word? When can you truly say “Yes, I KNOW this word”?

I’ll point you in the direction of two excellent resources, and bear in mind that quite a few academics offer pdf downloads of scholarly articles on their websites these days. Both names will be familiar if you know a little about vocabulary. The first is Norbert Schmitt ‘s staff page at the University of Nottingham, the second is Paul Nation‘s page at the University of Wellington. Both are chock full of reading, but if you wander about halfway down each I’d recommend two particular articles (citations after the jump). Nation suggests self-selection of vocabulary, and Schmitt recommends a system of whole-word study.

I decided to try an experiment with a couple of reading classes I teach. As the students are focussing mainly on their extensive reading, and thus encountering completely different vocabulary, it seemed a good fit. Each student would compile a list of new words encountered in their reading (or anywhere else), and check for synonyms, definitions, antonyms, translations, word family and collocations. I also pointed out that they should check how useful a word is before studying it – most modern dictionaries (certainly the electronic ones my students use) will tell you if a word is amongst the top 1000, 2000 or 3000 words in spoken or written English. I encouraged them to choose words they liked for whatever reason.

Every couple of weeks, I’d take in the list of words and write a code beside each. For example, (C) means collocation, (ES) stands for example sentence and so on. In the second semester, I am dropping in words from their previous lists to recycle. This pdf is the handout I gave to the learners to explain the task

How to learn vocabulary

..and this pdf is the template for the tests

Vocabulary Test Template

Both are specific to Japanese learners, so if you want a word document you can play with, email me ; D

So far, it has been fairly successful. There are a couple of question marks.

  • There is some evidence that antonyms and synonyms cause interference, if BOTH words are new. For example, it may well be wrong to teach left and right together – fix one concept first, then introduce the next.
  • Some students will choose words which are too ‘easy’ or ‘difficult’ for their needs or current language level.

Working on these, but it’s an interesting experiment nonetheless.

Moir, J. and Nation, I.S.P. (2002) Learners’ use of strategies for effective vocabulary learning Prospect 17, 1: 15-35.

Schmitt, N. and Schmitt, D. (1995). Vocabulary notebooks: Theoretical underpinnings and practical suggestions. English Language Teaching Journal, 49, 2: 133-143.

It would be crass and unfair to claim that “We are all racists”. But I do believe that we are all capable of making decisions based on our preconceptions of other peoples ethnicity or cultural background. Isn’t that just the same thing with a few five-dollar words thrown in?

I’m not sure. Is there a difference between shoving a firework through a ‘paki’ family’s letterbox and crossing the road because there is a black man behind you? The result might be markedly different, but they both come from the same place.

I’m working on this topic at the moment with an advanced class, and I’ve been trying to avoid the big, obvious issues such as Apartheid and the U.S. civil rights movement. Of course there are some harrowing and terrible stories to be told, but once you tell them where do you go? It’s like when you watch the news and something awful has happened to some people you have never met in a place you have never been, and you say “Oh dear, that’s a shame”, and you really mean it, but you go back to cooking the dinner. This is the danger of all ‘issues’ classes – reducing complex problems to tired cliches in search of a grammar point.

But this is a guide, so let’s go to the bullet points.

  • If there is one thing students value, it’s fair treatment. We should be consistent and equal in the way we respond to students. All classrooms are diverse, but racial and cultural differences may lead to certain students feeling sidelined.
  • Don’t assume your classroom is racially or culturally homogenous. I teach in Japan, generally thought to be a very homogenous society, yet I frequently have learners of Chinese or Korean ancestry. They are not as immediately visible as the Turkish, Bangladeshi and Brazilian students I’ve also taught here, which means perhaps that it is all the more important to be aware of it. The hidden history of world emigration patterns is more than just Ellis island. Educate yourself about the place you are teaching in (although don’t get carried away and make each student give you a DNA profile. Some people get sensitive about that kind of thing).
  • Don’t stereotype your students. Obvious perhaps, but it is so tempting to do. I’ve taught quite a few students from Arabic-speaking countries and they tend to be more talkative and to have more trouble writing than Japanese students . The danger is that you will pigeonhole a student as soon as you see their face, and get yourself a self-fulfilling prophecy.
  • Don’t use those stereotypes as an excuse. It may be that my class is quiet because they are Japanese…. but maybe I just did a lousy job setting up the task, or the lesson itself is boring.
  • Assess your materials. Whether you are using publishers stuff, authentic media, or something you have put together yourself, try not to be one-dimensional. the Marxist TEFL blog have an excellent post on immigrant squirrels, and the dangers of peddling perceived wisdom which is actually not so wise. Learners take away a lot more than language from a class, and that handout you used to teach the indefinite article might not stand up to critical scrutiny. Of course, the best student is the one who questions EVERYTHING, including the teacher.
  • You do not represent your entire race or country, but to your students you might. Be very wary of starting statements with “Well, in England we…..”, because whatever you follow it with will be untrue.

To finish off, twenty years old and still as powerful and intelligent as ever……

And in troubled times you might want to read through Searchlight, fighting racism for many years.

I’m not sure where I sit in the whole digital native / digital immigrant scheme of things.  I am old enough to remember my parents having a serious discussion about betamax and VHS video. And when the VHS arrived (my father would point to his prescience) it was linked to a ‘remote’ control by an eight foot lead.  I also grew up with a 48k ZX spectrum, later upgraded to the 128k with built in cassette deck (!), and spent many happy hours listening to the high-pitched screech and whine of ‘Jet Set Willy’ loading up.

Does this make me a digital native, or an immigrant? Am I of a strange generation which could go either way? What worries me is not that future generations will be different (it was ever thus), but that I myself am changing. I’m sure I used to be able to concentrate for longer, I used to get more done….

I’ve spent the afternoon re-joining twitter and beggering about with it to get it synched up to various other blogs, feeds and whatever else. Why? I’m not exactly sure. I have a feeling I’m missing out on something but the constant drip-drip-drip of information might not be what I need. So I thought I might jot down a few ideas about unplugging…

Turn off your wireless connection.
I used to type my essays with an electric typewriter. If I hadn’t been such a lousy typist and hadn’t spent so long waiting for tippex to dry, I would have stuck with it. The temptation to play urban dead when I turn on my computer is almost overwhelming. But whelm it I must….

Listen to records.
I didn’t even have to dust off the record player – it’s never been out of service. CD’s started the problem of the twitchy finger, mp3’s made it worse… now I struggle to listen to a whole song. But put on an LP and sit in a comfy chair and listen to the entire album, getting up once to turn it over and you will have time to absorb some of the things you’ve been cramming into your head.

Read books.
The ones made of paper.

Leave your phone behind.
Sometimes it happens by accident, and for the first half an hour it’s terrifying. But then, nothing much. I even know people without a phone, but that’s taking it a bit far.

Get a clockwork alarm clock with brass clappers.
Because using your phone as an alarm clock leads to all kinds of midnight mischief. You wake up in the night and take a quick peek to see what time it is and before you know it you are checking the football results.

Drink more tea.
I know it’s full of caffeine, but it still seems more civilised than coffee. Especially if you sit down and drink it whilst looking out of the window, reading the paper or doing a crossword.

There is more to know now than at any point in history. Tomorrow, there will be even more. Don’t even think about next week. Do we really need to know all of it? I’m sure I’ll be playing with my phone on the train to work tomorrow, checking tweets. I might even learn something useful. But I’m not putting away my record player just yet.

I came across this article recently, about artificially intelligent marking machines. Whilst not as terrifying as the corpse-eating battlebots which have also been in the news, my initial reaction was still one of distaste. But the more I thought about it, the more ambivalent I became.

People like tests. Students like to have a piece of paper which shows how good they are. Employers and schools like to see pieces of paper which demonstrate clearly that the candidate is up to the linguistic reigours demanded of them. But the whole system is an illusion. We have the hugely popular Test of English for International Communication which requires not a peep from the examinee – a multiple choice listening, vocab and grammar test using only native speaker varieties of English. Where is the “international” or the “communication” in that?

 You might favour something from the Cambridge suite then? At least the candidate has to demonstrate a degree of oral proficiency. But if you’ve ever been through the examiners standardisation process, you’ll realise how deadly difficult it is to pick a 3.5 from a 4 in the PET Oral Exam. Those tests are rubric-ed to within an inch of their lives, effectively making the examiners robots.

As assessors of language, we are torn between two urges. We might start marking our stack of writing papers with absolute adherence to our carefully composed marking scheme, but two-thirds of the way down the pile it has all become much more impressionistic. Should we be unfailingly consistant by sucking the life out of our assessment, or mark holistically and let a few students get better or worse grades than they perhaps deserve.

Let’s face it, testing is a bit of a crapshoot. Are the placement tests we have now always accurate? I would doubt that anyone has had a class in which every student had been appropriately placed. So why not let the robots have a crack so we can get on with the teaching?