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Getting Students More Personally Involved: An Alternative to the Yakudoku- and Lecture-Dominated Methods of Teaching Literature and Reading

Robert W. Norris

1994. In Fukuoka Women's Junior College Studies Vol. 48: 25-38


For several years I have often observed Japanese college students, when doing homework for literature and reading classes, engaged in a laborious, time-consuming, and seemingly painful (judging from the looks on their faces) task of word-by-word translation of the text. Whenever I have asked if they enjoyed what they were doing, the students' response has usually been an immediate "no!"

These students have obviously been putting in a lot of time and effort out of which they have reaped little, if any, reward. Throughout their formal English education history stretching from junior high school to college, their exposure to reading and literature has been dominated by lectures in which the teachers dictate their own interpretations of plot, theme, characters, and semantic meaning, and have the students perform, for homework, word-by-word translation exercises to which the teachers are the only judges of correctness.

The whole process seems inefficient and ineffective to me. Surely there must be an alternative. When asked last year to teach a modern American literature course, I jumped at the opportunity. My experiences have proven to me that, with a little imagination and variety on the teacher's part, Japanese college and university students can learn to relax and enjoy the reading process, and to become more personally involved with the texts they read, more independent and motivated, and more efficient and effective readers.

This first paper of a two-part series examines the deficiencies of word-by-word translation and lecture-dominated teaching methods, summarizes current research on ESL/EFL (English as a second or foreign language) reading and how it applies to Japanese students of English, and gives suggestions on how to improve the teaching of English reading and literature at Japanese colleges and universities. The second paper will follow up with a detailed report on the planning, actual teaching, and results obtained in a one-semester literature class I was allowed to teach to second-year English majors at Fukuoka Women's Junior College.

What's Wrong with the Yakudoku Method?

Before answering this question, it is essential to first understand exactly what yakudoku is. Yaku in Japanese means "translation," and doku means reading. Hino (1988: 46) defines yakudoku as:

    ...a technique or a mental process for reading a foreign language in which the target language sentence is first translated word by word, and the resulting translation reordered to match Japanese word order as part of the process of reading comprehension.
The teacher's job when using the Yakudoku Method is explaining the technique, providing a model translation, and correcting the students' translations (Kakita, 1979; Tajima, 1978). From the time Japanese students are introduced to reading English in junior high school to the time they graduate from university or college, the majority of their reading and literature classes are taught by teachers who rely on the Yakudoku Method. Two nation-wide surveys by the Japan Association of College English Teachers have shown that between 70 and 80 percent of Japanese teachers in high schools and universities use the Yakudoku Method (Koike et al., 1983, 1985).

There are numerous disadvantages to the Yakudoku Method. Ueda (1979) says that it results in regressive eye movement and meaning is not understood directly in the target language. Hino (1988: 47) claims it "limits the speed at which the student reads, induces fatigue, and reduces the efficiency with which s/he is able to comprehend."

The Yakudoku Method is also said to have a bad effect on the other language skills of listening, speaking, and writing. Japanese students often have a tendency to use a similar word-by-word strategy when listening to spoken English. Hino (1988: 47) states that students trained in yakudoku reading try to understand speech by translating every word into Japanese, which results in their not understanding unless the speaker speaks slowly. These students, according to Hino (1988: 47), find comprehension a "tiring, imprecise, and ineffective process." In speaking and writing, the yakudoku process is applied in reverse, with a Japanese sentence being translated word-by-word into English and reordered according to English syntax (Matsumoto, 1965).

Even if Japanese students manage to build up a large vocabulary, the habit of reading word by word is still a laboriously ineffective way of reading. Eskey and Grabe (1988: 233-234) point out that this strategy destroys students' chances of comprehending very much of the text.

    Taking in, at each fixation, so little information, and fragmenting sense units, such readers place an intolerable strain on their memory systems (for discussion, see Smith 1982), so that by the time they have made their painful way to the bottom of the page they have long forgotten what the top was about.
Teacher-Dominated Lectures

Willis (1993: 91-92), in recounting his experiences as an exchange student at a Japanese university, describes what might be a typical literature class in Japan.

    I had made the mistake of assuming that literature courses in Japanese universities revolved, as they did in the United States, around discussions of character, motive, and theme. I quickly discovered that it was not the case in Japan. My teacher, reading from his yellowed notes, lectured us: He outlined the plot, described characters, and presented his own interpretations. My classmates scribbled down his every word and took it for granted there was no other way to study fiction.
The problem with this type of teaching is that the student, as reader, has no personal involvement with or insight into the text. He or she is not required to respond to it. This leads to the question of what the goals of teaching English literature to Japanese students should be (a question addressed later in the paper), particularly to lower-level students, but, at the very least, literature, as a part of language, must involve the development of a feeling for language, of responses to texts.

Long (1986: 42) believes in the importance of involving students with the text.

    The teaching of literature is an arid business unless there is a response, and even negative responses can create an interesting classroom situation (as then the learner has to say why he or she dislikes the text). Teaching of literature to non-native speakers should seek to develop responses.
Teachers who rely exclusively on a lecture-style method of teaching risk alienating a large number of their students (Leki, 1986; Long, 1988). Efforts should be made to provide opportunities for students to interact with the teacher, with the text, and with one another. In order to promote student response and interaction, and to plan effective lessons, teachers must have a firm understanding of what student reading processes and comprehension of texts entail. The next section looks at what current research reveals.

Reading Models and Their Implications

Several models of the reading process have been developed over the years to explain how a reader derives meaning from a text. Early research in second language reading (in particular, English as a second language) assumed it was a passive, bottom-up process. Carrell 1988: 2) explains:

    [Second language reading] was viewed primarily as a decoding process of reconstructing the author's intended meaning via recognizing the printed letters and words, and building up a meaning for a text from the smaller textual units at the "bottom" (letters and words) to larger and larger units at the "top" (phrases, clauses, intersentential linkages). Problems of second language reading comprehension were viewed as being essentially decoding problems deriving meaning from print.
In the early 1970s the psycholinguistic model of reading, which had earlier exerted a strong influence on views of first or native language reading, began to also have an influence on views of second language reading. Goodman described reading as a "psycholinguistic guessing game" (1967) in which the "reader reconstructs, as best he can, a message which has been encoded by a writer as a graphic display" (1971: 135). In this model, the reader doesn't need to use all of the textual clues. The better the reader is able to make correct predictions, the less confirming via the text is necessary (Goodman, 1973: 164). The reader uses graphophonic, syntactic, and semantic cues to predict meaning, then confirms those predictions by relating them to his or her past experiences and knowledge of the language (Carrell, 1988: 2-3).

Goodman's psycholinguistic theory saw the reader as an active participant in the reading process. ESL researchers latched on to this view and top-down reading models were the rage of the 1980s. Carrell (1988: 4) explains the top-down view of second language reading:

    Not only is the reader an active participant in the reading process, making predictions and processing information, but everything in the reader's prior experience or background knowledge plays a significant part in the process.
This perspective has led many researchers to believe that providing relevant background knowledge to readers is important. Carrell and Eisterhold (1988) think the immediate goal for EFL/ESL teachers is to minimize reading difficulties and to maximize comprehension by providing culturally relevant information to students before they embark on their reading assignments. Carrell and Eisterhold (1988) propose doing this by manipulating the text and/or the reader.

One way of manipulating the text can be done by confining reading to a single topic or works by a single author. Krashen (1981) calls this "narrow reading." The advantages of narrow reading include:

  1. Students who read either a single topic or author find the text becomes easier to comprehend after the first few pages.
  2. Readers adjust either to the repeated vocabulary of a particular topic or to the particular style of a writer.
  3. Repetitions of vocabulary and structure mean that review is built into the reading.
  4. Schemata (i.e., culture-specific knowledge) are repeatedly accessed and further expanded and refined, resulting in increased comprehension. (Carrell and Eisterhold, 1988: 86)
The contents of this type of class are more beneficial than those of classes in which teachers give short and varied selections from a multitude of topics and authors. The latter classes never allow students to adjust to an author's style, or to develop enough context to facilitate comprehension. Instead, they force students to move from frustration to frustration (Carrell and Eisterhold, 1988: 86).

Manipulating the reader means providing background information and previewing content. Carrell and Eisterhold (1988: 87) say that students should not have to read the material "cold,* and that "asking the students to manipulate both the linguistic and cultural codes is asking too much."

The introduction of a top-down processing perspective into second language reading has had such a profound influence on the field that there has been a tendency to view this perspective as a substitute for the bottom-up, decoding view of reading rather than its complement. Not all researchers, however, have jumped on the top-down bandwagon. Eskey (1988: 95), for example, thinks that "much of the second language reading literature continues to exhibit a strongly top-down bias." By this, Eskey (1988) means that during the past 20 years of the "top-down revolution," researchers have focused almost exclusively on such concerns as the role of culture-specific assumptions or subject-matter schema. This research, in Eskey's (1988) opinion, has resulted in many useful insights, but the lack of attention to decoding problems has produced a slightly distorted picture of the true range of problems second language readers face.

Eskey's (1988) view has particular relevance for Japanese college and university students with their strong grounding in yakudoku, word-by-word translation strategies. Few of these students are able to rely on top-down strategies, and most are still limited to using strictly bottom-up processing skills such as identification of vocabulary and grammatical forms.

Eskey and Grabe (1988: 224) believe a truer model of the reading process should "maintain the strengths of a top-down model and, at the same time, provide a way to address such questions and to what degree literate second language readers employ lower-level processing skills and how those interact with higher-level strategies...."

Eskey and Grabe (1988: 224) call for a model that (a) assumes that skills at all levels are interactively available to process and interpret the text and that (b) subsumes both top-down and bottom-up strategies. This model would incorporate the use of background knowledge, expectations, and context, and, at the same time, the notions of rapid and accurate recognition of linguistic units.

This model implies that for second language readers both top-down and bottom-up skills and strategies must be developed jointly since both contribute directly to the successful comprehension of the text. Eskey and Grabe (1988: 227) recommend doing this in the following two ways:

  1. Some time must be devoted in reading classes to such relatively bottom-up concerns as the rapid and accurate identification of lexical and grammatical forms. Even students who have developed strong top-down skills in their native languages may not be able to transfer these higher-level skills to a second language context until they have developed a stronger bottom-up foundation of basic identification skills.
  2. Some time must also be devoted to such top-down concerns as reading for global meaning (as opposed to mere decoding), developing a willingness to take chances (that is, to make educated guesses at meaning in the absence of absolute certainty), and developing appropriate schemata for the proper interpretation of texts. From the very beginning, successful readers do employ such strategies, even while developing their bottom-up skills. Reading of any text must be treated as real reading, that is, reading for meaning. No student should ever be forced or encouraged to limit him- or herself to mere decoding skills.
Any reading model that is used as a basis for reading programs and practical classroom instruction is limited in the contribution it can make. Other factors such as class size, the age and proficiency of the readers, their educational needs, and the materials and time available all have important roles to play. There are, however, according to Eskey and Grabe (1988: 228), three constants involved in nearly all reading programs:
  1. Quantity of reading: The program must result in students doing enough reading to increase their skills and knowledge significantly.
  2. Appropriate material: What the students read must be relevant to their real needs and interests, and they must be ready, willing and able to read it.
  3. The judgment of the teacher: The teacher must stimulate interest in reading, provide practice in and useful strategies for coping with texts in an unfamiliar language, and provide the students with feedback.
This third constant is so important it cannot be understated. If the teacher wishes to improve students' reading skills, he or she must abandon the use of word-by-word translation, and adopt teaching techniques that involve the students personally, that have the students respond to and interact with the text. This concept is now universally accepted among researchers and professional teachers.

Hino (1988: 53), for example, believes "pedagogy for teaching English in Japan should put its first priority on helping students overcome the yakudoku habit." Rivers (1981: 273) agrees:

    Above all, word-for-word translation must be avoided. Otherwise, students will think this is what reading is all about, and they will then continue to translate word-for-word, thus greatly hampering the transition to direct extraction of meaning.
Eskey and Grabe (1988: 229) say:
    The teacher must...induce students to abandon the word-by-word approach to reading by introducing exercises, like timed readings, which force the students to read faster, and exercises that, for similar reasons, force students to read in meaningful "chunks"....Students must learn to skim for the main idea and to scan for specific kinds of information, and they must also have to learn to read critically, to make informed evaluations of an author's arguments.
What Should Our Goals Be?

Eskey (1990: 24), in reviewing past research on the reading process and current research on reading behavior, suggests that the reading teacher's job lies in motivating students to read and facilitating the reading process for them. Simply stated, this means helping students learn to enjoy reading, and making reading in English easier for them.

If it is agreed that teacher can motivate students by getting them more personally involved with what they are reading, then it follows that teachers should step down from their lecture podiums and begin encouraging students to respond on their own to what they read. Wright (1993: 4) says teachers of literature should "alter our stance so that we infect [students] with a love of literature for its own sake, not as a reservoir of facts to be assimilated, nor as the hackwork of a dry, academic discipline."

Many teachers at Japanese colleges and universities might oppose Wright's (1993) opinion by claiming that Japanese students are not able to interpret literary texts due to linguistic deficiencies and a lack of understanding cultural differences. It is, therefore, the responsibility of teachers to impart this knowledge and do the interpreting. Furthermore, the Japanese teachers may claim the language of literature is too difficult for the students, and that the students need an intermediary.

In response to the first claim, Leki (1986) strongly urges that linguistic deficiencies and cultural differences not lead teachers to interpret the text for students. Leki (1986: 8) says, "Accuracy does not make up for or match what the students get if they have a direct, personal experience of literature, a real personal interaction."

Collie and Slater (1987) also believe students should explore their own responses to literature. According to Collie and Slater (1987: 9), by using group work and tapping the resources of knowledge and experience within the groups, activities and tasks centered on a literary text help students "acquire the confidence to develop, express, and value their own response," as well as "become less dependent on received opinion and therefore interested in and more able to assess other perspectives."

Collie and Slater (1987: 9) also believe that students who engage in such group work may come to be more familiar with the text itself.

    The effort they have brought to it and the personal investment they have made in it will sharpen their own response, making it more likely that they will want to extend their understanding of it by personal reading at home.
In response to the latter claim of literary language being too difficult for students to understand on their own, this is largely a matter of text selection. The importance of material suited to students' lives and interests must be emphasized. Given the limited time frame to which most classes are restricted, it is important (1) to select a text that can be digested in the time available for the course, and (2) to choose, whenever possible, books that do not present formidable linguistic difficulties. There are available in Japan any number of excellent short works where the style is fairly simple and straightforward.

Group Work

Once the teacher has decided to involve the students more personally and to make them more responsible for their own learning, how can the teacher facilitate the process? The obvious answer, particularly in Japan where large classes are the norm, lies, as suggested by Collie and Slater (1987), in group work built around task-based activities.

Group work has many advantages. It gives the students the opportunity to relate their own lives, activities, and interests and concerns to the second language and to what is being read in the second language. The students also have the opportunity to work together and learn from one another. Papalia (1987: 78) explains:

    Group work on a reading task stimulates student participation....Students become inquirers--investigators learning from their peers successful strategies for extracting meaning and interpreting content. In small groups, the students have the opportunity to decode and interpret the script, to include personal findings, refine those in association with others, and inject their own reactions. On the cognitive level, [students] acquire knowledge not only from what they have read, but also through working with other reflective individuals. Through the checks and contributions of others, they learn to relate bodies of knowledge meaningfully, to make cultural observations refined by discussion, and to evolve new and richer interpretations of the material read.
Assigning group work activities also frees the teacher to walk around giving attention to individual problems. Students feel more personally involved because they can no longer hide in the crowd. Teachers can also keep a closer eye on what students are doing and where difficulties lie, while still controlling the activities of the class (Reinelt, 1988).

Collie and Slater (1987) list a variety of ways group work can be used in a literature class. Role-play, improvisation, creative writing, discussions, visuals, and other activities normally used to vary and liven up other classes can serve similar purposes in literature classes. Working with a group lessens the difficulties presented by the number of unknowns on a page of literary text. Shifting attention away from the text itself to shared activity helps create a risk-taking atmosphere in which the individual, with the group's support and control, has greater freedom to explore his or her own reactions and interpretations. Collie and Slater (1987: 9) urge teachers to "exploit as fully as possible the emotional dimension that is a very integral part of literature."

What Specific Activities?

Taking into consideration Japanese college and university students' yakudoku reading habits, their heavy reliance on dictionaries and teachers' explanations, and their general lack of top-down English reading skills, the teacher needs to design activities that give balance to both improving bottom-up skills and introducing top-down skills.

One type of activity that helps students to learn to read in meaningful segments (as opposed to word-by-word translation) and persevere with the text in the expectation that later reading will explicate what has not been understood (as opposed to constant reference to a dictionary) is a timed reading where the students complete a worksheet. The worksheet can be a list of true-false questions, a jumbling of the order of events that must be put in correct order, or a list of multiple-choice questions. The students first do the work individually. At the end of the time limit, they compare and discuss answers with other members of their group, and, under a new time limit, compromise and hand in a group answer sheet to the teacher.

In a similar activity, worksheets with one list of adjectives describing physical features or personality traits and another list of characters' names are handed out. Students must match these features and traits with the characters, as well as find the page and line numbers of the sentences describing the characters. If, for example, there are five characters in the story, groups of five can be formed with each member responsible for a different character. The students discuss and collate their results onto one answer sheet.

A "word search" activity involving the entire class is easily done. In a class for, say, 50 students, the teacher selects 25 key vocabulary items and writes each one on a separate card with a corresponding card containing a simple definition. He mixes up the 50 cards and distributes them among the students, who have to find their matching partner. When a pair matches up, the two students go in search of other pairs, sharing the vocabulary and definitions with each new pair. When all 25 matches are found, the students return to their groups to search the text for sentences containing the vocabulary. They write the sentences on a group paper to be handed in. One option is to have the students create their own sentences with the new vocabulary.

Pre-reading activities are also useful and motivating. In one such activity the teacher determines two or three issues that emerge in the text and prepares a question or two for each issue. The questions should require the students to search through their own lives for similar experiences, but do not need to be elaborate. The purpose is simply to stimulate within each student a set of associations that will make the student receptive to the possibilities that may be explored in the text. This makes a good homework assignment for the first class.

At different points during the reading of the text, handouts with predictions to be made about characters' actions or development in the story can be given to the students. Groups discuss under a time limit, answer the questions, and give the handout back to the teacher. A simple reason should be given for each prediction. For lower-level students it is better to give three or four possibilities to choose from than to give open-ended questions. The handouts can later be returned to the students to see how accurate their predictions were.

Upon completion of the story, students can be asked to discuss in groups alternative endings, write their own, and give them to the teacher. For either pre- or post-reading activities videos or cassette tapes, where available, can be used to provide meaningful support and clarification of what the students are reading. Stempleski (1990: 3) highly recommends the use of video.

    As a change from the usual combination of teacher and textbook, video provides learners with the opportunity to visualize a living context for the language it naturally embodies. In addition to presenting purely linguistic expressions, video also allows for the illustration of such paralinguistic elements as facial expressions and gestures, and cultural elements such as values, customs and clothing. The medium's ability to present a language situation so vividly not only focuses the attention of the learner, but also helps to make the context understandable and the language used memorable.
Listening to a dramatic reading of parts or the whole of a text on cassette tape can be enriching and interesting. Long (1986: 47) says that "where the text is short...the use of a taped recording, of professional standard, can be a considerable stimulus as well as an aid to correct reading, and therefore comprehension." It also helps students create a fantasy response to the text and become involved in it. Tasks such as filling in grids, marking key information, or cloze exercises are useful in focusing students' attention while they are listening.

These are just a few of innumerable exercises that involve the entire class and make reading and the study of literature a more enjoyable and productive process. Many other ideas for activities easily adapted to Japanese college and university classrooms can be found in Collie and Slater (1987) and Papalia (1987).


In recent years, research into reading processes clearly shows that the old Yakudoku Method is outdated and marked by too many deficiencies. It does have a few merits, but they provide too little motivation to too few students.

Hino (1988: 52) admits that "the decoding and deciphering activities involved in the yakudoku process provide the learner with opportunities for mental training." Rivers (1981: 30) says that, for highly intellectual students interested in abstract reasoning, grammar-translation teaching can give some benefits.

    Such students try to understand the logic of the grammar as it is presented; they learn the rules and exceptions and memorize the paradigms and vocabulary lists. They become reasonably adept at taking dictation and translating foreign language texts into the native language. Their translation of the native-language texts into the foreign language may not produce versions which sound natural to a native speaker, but the best of them are accurate and comprehensible, with careful attention to the many rules the students have been taught.
These benefits, however, apply to only a few gifted students. The majority of the less-gifted students are not successful and find their study to be very tedious. Rivers (1981: 31) describes their problems:
    Average students have to work hard at what they consider laborious and monotonous chores--vocabulary learning, translation, and endless written exercises--without much feeling of progress in the mastery of the language and with very little opportunity to express themselves in it. Their role in the classroom is, for the greater part of the time, a passive one--they absorb and then reconstitute what they have absorbed to satisfy the teacher.
A constant diet of teacher lectures is also not very motivating. Students are not invited to invest much of themselves in the material. Lecturing, as opposed to teaching, is, simply, a matter of information transfer. It does little to develop students' investigative and analytical skills (Long, 1986).

All too often students are asked to interpret theme, plot, and character in line with what the teacher has told them. Leki (1986: 8) says that in such teacher-dominated classes if the students' ideas are in opposition to or not in keeping with the teacher's own interpretation, the students "are likely to dismiss the author or text as impenetrable, hermetic, and irrelevant because they tried to understand the work and were told they did not." Leki (1986: 8) believes students should be allowed to personalize the reading experience in order to promote a longer-term goal of encouraging students to read on their own for the pleasure of reading.

    My inclination is to permit the students to interact with the text as individuals, bringing their own personal or cultural perspectives and experiences to bear on their understanding. I do not want to give the students the impression that there is a single, true meaning in the text which is their duty to extract. If that were the case, why not just hand out these meanings on a piece of paper at the beginning of the term and skip the reading?
The implication here is not that teachers should give up their lectures entirely. They should, however, allow time in their classes to engage the students in activities that encourage the students' involvement with the text and language.

The type of teaching outlined in this paper--namely, getting away from translation exercises and a teacher-centered lecture format, using texts that are related to students' lives and concerns and can be completed within a particular time frame, and using group activities that involve the students personally and are aimed at improving bottom-up skills as well as top-down skills--provides a viable alternative to the old-fashioned methods still being used to teach literature and reading in many Japanese colleges and universities. The second paper of this series will detail a class taught in the manner prescribed here and will look at both the successes and failures of that class.


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