Hello colleagues, In this third installment of the series on 21st century skills, William F. O’Connor, an expert both in English language teaching and gemology, shares a unique way of nurturing children’s linguistic and 21st century skills through a gem-themed program.
On June 20, 2017, The Japan Times published an article on the results of a survey conducted by Benesse Holdings Inc. that found that approximately “half of junior high school students have called the English skills they acquired in elementary schools ‘useless’ [emphasis added].” As for junior high schools, Benesse concluded that their “grammar-oriented programs…were likely discouraging [emphasis added] students” (Osumi, 2017). If words like useless and discouraging were employed to describe the perceived utility and desirability of a car or a computer by a publication like Consumer Reports, let alone by the end users of the product, which is the case here, it is clear that those particular models would be withdrawn from the marketplace with great alacrity. It is not as if Japanese students have an aversion to English per se or view proficiency in the language as undesirable, though. The same article reveals that 82.6% of the sixth-graders who were surveyed “were convinced of the benefits of English education.” The percentage changes significantly when junior high school students are queried. Benesse found that 53.9% were convinced of the benefits of English-language education. Identifying all of the potential culprits here is beyond the purview of this article, but this writer believes that most of his readers would agree that grammar-oriented approaches, exam-prep preoccupations, and a dearth of qualified teachers have to varying degrees contributed to the appalling state of affairs vis-à-vis English-language education in Japan.
It is clear that changes must be made, and indeed, there is a major one on the horizon: the new English-language curriculum that will be implemented in 2020. Details are still nebulous, at least for this writer, but this new start—if optimism is justified here—can be exploited to make the learning of English a more meaningful experience for students who will be exposed to it in the third grade and compelled to take it when they enter fifth grade.
Challenges and opportunities abound. The pitfalls are many, but they are not insurmountable. Aside from the necessity of establishing a student-teacher ratio designed to facilitate optimal interaction, many of the potential obstacles are related to the difficulty of facilitating L2 acquisition among children living in an EFL environment. To overcome them and exploit the opportunities, it is necessary to encourage teachers to familiarize themselves with the significantly different pedagogical orientation demanded of those teaching young learners—English for Young Learners (EYL)—and to produce materials that will engage those learners in meaningful L2 communication that is enjoyable and educational. This article will focus on the latter.
Studies have shown that successful EYL classrooms and materials have the following characteristics:
- are content-based (in other words, students learn something through the medium of English);
- are task-based (in other words, students are engaged in experiential learning);
- make appropriate use of technology; and
- are fun.
Finding appropriate content for young children with limited or no English-language proficiency is difficult. Hence, many books aimed at that market focus on topics connected to daily life, such as mealtime or playtime activities. Of course, such themes are appropriate but unnecessarily circumscribed. Publishers produce books for this market that are thematically very similar. It is reasonable to assume that demand for EYL materials and language-school classes aimed at supplementing public-school instruction will increase when the new curriculum is implemented and that greater thematic diversity will benefit learners, teachers, publishers, and prove especially appealing to parents. One particular theme that has not been pursued in this educational context is gems.
Gems as the primary focus of a content-task-based EYL textbook may appear to be wildly inappropriate. After all, aren’t gems mainly of interest to adults, as either consumers or producers and retailers? Will children really be interested in learning about emeralds, rubies, sapphires, and so on? Can Task-Based Language Teaching (TBLT), as defined by Mike Long (2015), be realized when such delimited content is employed? Will this facilitate the acquisition of 21st-century skills? The answer is yes, for the following reasons:
- Gems and their respective stories are glittery and should be of interest to most young learners.
- Basic information about gemstones can be conveyed in simplified, yet natural, English, using high-frequency vocabulary and grammatical structures (e.g., vocabulary dealing with colors, shapes, sizes, prices; present and present continuous tenses).
- Increasingly deeper explorations of the content can be realized as learners advance to higher L2 proficiency levels and as they develop cognitively.
- Primary content can easily be linked to secondary content (e.g., Q: Where do emeralds come from? A: They come from Colombia.). In the example given, the teaching of geography can be realized through the teaching of gemstones. This can readily be expanded to include a tertiary area of exploration—the cultures of the respective countries that are the sources of the gems. These expansions will, under the right conditions, facilitate the acquisition of global competence, a subject area that will be included in the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) in 2018.
- Tasks can be created to promote communication and collaboration for all dimensions of content—primary, secondary, and tertiary. Teachers adopting such a book could be provided with the following: the textbook, access to the publisher’s webpage containing materials and activities designed to supplement the contents of the textbook and further stimulate student interest, and a packet of imitation gemstones (plastic or glass). Any number of activities can be created with these “gems,” of course, but only one will be described here, an adaptation from Long’s (2015, p. 260) “building-block” collection of tasks, in other words, those which are appropriate for beginners. Example: A big chart featuring a variety of gemstones of varying sizes and shapes arranged in two horizontal strips—A and B—is displayed. Each gem is numbered. Those in strip A and those in strip B are identical, the only difference being their locations on the strips; for example, in strip A a square-cut emerald may be on the far left, but in strip B the stone occupying that position may be a round ruby. The teacher employs “elaborated input—plenty of complete and partial repetition, segmentation…and intensive listening practice” (Long, 2015, p. 261) without resorting to explicit teaching of grammatical structures. During the presentation stage of the lesson it is, of course, preferable that the teacher focus on the receptive skills. The information imparted may be conveyed as follows, rendered here in the linguistic equivalent of time-lapse photography: “A ruby…a ruby over a sapphire…there’s a round sapphire…there’s a round sapphire under an oval ruby….” When the students have had sufficient exposure to the input, they are paired and divided by a partition. One student receives a small card that is nearly identical to the chart displayed by the teacher, the only difference being that the arrangement of the gems in strips A and B has been altered. The other student receives a packet of fake gemstones. The student with the “gems” must arrange them according to the input from the student with the card.
Many publishers may be reluctant to invest in a book or series of books with such an unorthodox theme, but the company that decides to seize the day is likely to be greatly rewarded. First, learners and their parents will eventually tire of books that are monothematic, just as Japanese tourists now seek out more exotic destinations than Hawaii and California for their vacations. Second, though the primary market would be elementary, middle, and language schools in Japan, a secondary, and perhaps sizable, market could readily be exploited overseas, if distribution channels can be arranged. The textbook, at least, would contain very little Japanese, which could easily be replaced with, for instance, Chinese, Korean, Thai, French, Spanish, etc. Third, if the initial book proves successful, a series could easily be created, with upper-level books focusing on tasks involving the selling of different gems and their stories.
This writer is firmly convinced of the viability of using the study of gems as a vehicle to L2 proficiency among YLs. Visual, tactile, and, with the inclusion of lots of listening activities, auditory experiences can be incorporated into lessons frequently and naturally, bringing into play three of the five senses. Gems and gemology may become even more attractive to children as the stones, mounted and worn as jewelry, move from the static to the dynamic. Yes, you read that correctly, kinetic jewelry! MIT’s Media Lab’s Project Kino is doing just that. Hsin-Liu Kao et al. (2017) introduce their readers to the aesthetic and practical world of “shape-changing jewelry.” What begins the day as a brooch securing a scarf to a dress might end the day as a necklace!
All that glitters can be told in learner-appropriate language, attractively packaged in a cognitively-appropriate box, and perhaps, someday soon, gift-wrapped with a Project Kino doodad that changes color and position based on the recipient’s emotional state at the time.
Kao, H., Ajilo, D., Anilionyte, O., Dementyevl, A., Chio, I., Follmer, S., & Schmandt, C. (2017). Exploring interactions and perceptions of kinetic wearables. Retrieved from https://dam-prod.media.mit.edu/x/2017/07/08/
Long, M. (2015). Second language acquisition and task-based language teaching. West Sussex, England: Wiley Blackwell.
Osami, M. (2017, June 20). Junior high students rip elementary English as ‘useless’: survey. Japan Times. Retrieved from https://japantimes.co.jp/news/2017/06/21/national/junior-high-students-r...
William F. O’Connor, Ed.D., AJP, is a professor in the Department of Business Administration at Asia University. In addition to his academic degrees, he holds Applied Jewelry Professional certification from the Gemological Institute of America and a certificate in Teaching English to Young Learners, conferred by Oxford University. He is the author/coauthor of numerous EFL textbooks. He can be reached at email@example.com.