The Good Lord Willing and the Creek Don't Rise: Pentimento Memories of Mom and Me
(can be viewed online by clicking on titles)
The Many Roads to Japan
(free online version for ESL/EFL teachers and students)
Robert W. Norris
1995. In Fukuoka Women's Junior College Studies Vol. 49: 35-48
The first paper (Norris, 1994) of this two-part series examined the deficiencies of word-by-word translation and lecture-dominated teaching methods, summarized current research on ESL/EFL (English as a second/foreign language) reading and how it applies to Japanese students of English, and gave suggestions on how to improve the teaching of English reading and literature at Japanese colleges and universities. These suggestions were based on three main tenets: (1) getting away from translation exercises and a teacher-centered format, (2) using texts that are related to students' own lives and concerns and can be completed within a particular time frame, and (3) using group activities that involve the students personally and are aimed at improving bottom-up skills as well as introducing top-down skills1.
This second paper takes a detailed
look at the planning rationale, the actual
teaching, and the results obtained in a
one-semester literature class (comprised of 54
second-year English majors at Fukuoka Women's
Junior College) taught in the manner prescribed in
the first paper (Norris, 1994). First, the
rationale behind the planning of the class is
divided into three parts: (1) the selection of the
text, (2) the aims of the class and the types of
activities to be used, and (3) the approach to be
taken in implementing the activities and in
grading the students. Next, the weekly performance
of the class is described, followed by an
evaluation of the successes and failures of the
class. The paper concludes by restating the
importance of sharpening students' own responses
to and involvement with the books they read.
Perhaps the most crucial decision for the teacher to make during the planning stage of a literature course is the selection of the text. One preliminary factor to consider is whether the text is able to stimulate personal involvement by arousing student interest and provoking strong, thoughtful reactions. Collie and Slater (1987: 6) say:
With those factors in mind, Lillian Hellman's (1973) Julia was chosen as the text. The story was about the lifelong friendship of two strong female characters and the different directions their lives took. I believed the suspenseful story line and strong characterizations would provoke the students' interest.
Also, Hellman's writing style was
not overly complicated. Although a basic
understanding of the historical background of the
story was important, the style itself would not be
inaccessible to the students. The length of the
story (51 pages) was such that it could easily be
completed within the allotted time of 13 or 14
weeks. There was also the added bonus of the story
having been made into an academy-award-winning
film in 1976. The video could be shown at the end
of the semester to help clarify what had not been
understood during the reading process.
Aims and Activities
Following the principles established in the first paper (Norris, 1994), I chose the following goals for the class:
Collie and Slater (1987) say that it is worth spending extra time on pre-reading and warm-up exercises. In these sessions, possible lexical difficulties can be incorporated and pre-taught. Main themes can be explored in order to elicit the students' own thoughts and feelings on the issues. When the themes are encountered later within the text, the preceding activity can act as a familiar landmark. Leki (1986) believes such pre-reading exercises provide "some of the most fruitful time a literature teacher can spend in class."
Once the students have been introduced to the text and its author, Collie and Slater (1987) suggest using a combination of home and class work to maintain momentum. The teacher should section the reading and activities into manageable chunks, taking into account the following four aspects:
As the students progress through the text and momentum is being sustained by home-reading and in-class worksheets, the teacher can set up activities that exploit the highlights of the text. These activities should encourage the students to explore and express their own responses to the text. Collie and Slater (1987: 37-78) list several activities designed to integrate writing, reading, listening, and oral skills.
In coming to the end of a literary
work, ideas similar to those for exploiting
highlights can be used to involve the students in
sharing views and reactions. It is important to
design activities that keep the students' sense of
the text as a whole alive.
With the prior criteria in mind, I decided on the following class format. Permanent study groups of up to six members would be created. Group members would be expected to complete homework worksheets individually at home, but would pool their answers at the beginning of each class onto a group worksheet with the same questions. This would give the groups a chance to review the material read, to discuss and compromise, and, as Leki (1986: 7) says, "to remind themselves of the characters' names and to resituate their consciousnesses within the setting of the text." Since the students were considered at a lower level of speaking ability, discussion in Japanese would be permitted. All written assignments and answers, however, would have to be done in English.
Strict time limits would be enforced to encourage skimming and scanning practice. All group worksheets would be signed by the members and handed in to me. During the course of the semester, the groups would also work together on different in-class assignments. Students would be told in advance when a homework assignment was to be handed in individually.
The text would be divided into eight sections. For most of the homework and in-class worksheets, I decided to use a variety of true-false, multiple-choice, jumbled-order-of-events, and matching exercises designed to help with comprehension of the reading passages, vocabulary, and characterization. At key points in the text, the groups would be asked to make predictions based on what they had inferred about the characters and developments in the story.
As the goals for the class were focused on helping the students learn to enjoy reading in English, I believed it was important to base their final grades more on their active participation throughout the semester than on a single final test. Attendance and contribution to the group activities were key elements in the class, so I decided to base a portion of the grades on group scores. All the members of each group would receive the same amount of points accumulated on the group's worksheets. This would comprise 25% of the final grade. The other 75% would be divided equally among each student's attendance rate, individual essay assignments, and final test score. The final test would consist of 15 true-false questions, 10 multiple-choice questions, and five character descriptions. All the questions would be taken from the different worksheets.
The first class would be used to explain the class format, the criteria for grading, and the recommended reading process. It would also be used to introduce the students to the author and historical background of the story. The first homework assignment, an essay asking the students to consider a major theme in the story from a personal point of view, would be given. Most of the following classes would be used to carry out student-centered activities based on the eight different sections of the story. Two classes would be used for showing the video and making comparisons with the text. The final class would be a review period for clearing up any unanswered questions, as well as for a brief explanation of how to prepare for the final test.
Class Performance and Reactions
I explained about the class format, the criteria for grading, and how I expected the students to try to read. After that, I gave a 30-minute lecture in English on the author's life and historical background of the story. Each student was given a handout in English on which to follow the lecture. I placed certain key vocabulary items and their definitions on the board.
At the end of the class I told the students to write a one-page answer to the question "What would you do if (a) your best friend was in trouble and asked you to raise her baby, and (b) this best friend suddenly died and the baby could not be found?"
During the lecture segment, many
students seemed to have difficulty in following my
explanations in English. Either my speaking speed
was too fast or the vocabulary I used was too
difficult. Others seemed not to be paying close
attention. This portion of the class might have
been more effective if I had made a cloze exercise
on the handout in order to give the students a
specific reason to listen.
Study groups were organized. Pictures of the author, taken from different periods of her life, were passed around for the students to look at and comment upon. The groups were asked to write five adjectives describing their impressions of the author.
A review of the historical background of the story and the author's life took about 30 minutes. The first eight pages of the story were assigned for home reading. A worksheet with one list of 16 adjectives and another list of the names of five characters who appeared in the first section was handed out. The students were told to match the adjectives with the names (they could use the same adjective for more than one character), and to find the page and line numbers that showed where the characters were described.
The students were particularly
interested in the pictures of the author. They
also used a large number of adjectives in decrbing
their impressions. Many of the homework papers
showed the students had thought carefully and
seriously about the essay topic.
The students were given 30 minutes to collate their homework answers onto the group worksheets. There was much concentrated effort in finding the page and line numbers, as well as much animated discussion (in Japanese) among the groups as to which adjectives pertained to which characters.
I took another twenty minutes to explain what I thought were the best answers and what sentences described the characters. I stressed that these were my own opinions and open to debate.
An in-class worksheet was given to the groups asking them to make three predictions about the next section and to provide a reason for each prediction. In order to prevent the students from jumping ahead, they had to close their books. I explained that there were no right or wrong answers, and that they were merely being asked to make guesses based on the information they had gained about the characters.
For homework, the students were asked to read the next four pages and answer five information questions about key developments in the plot. This assignment was based on Nuttall's (1982: 132) advice that questions of literal comprehension "are essential preliminaries to serious work on a text, because until you are sure that the plain meaning of the text has been grasped, there is no point in attempting more sophisticated exercises."
This class was the first in which
the class as a whole seemed to be motivated and
settling into a rhythm. The time limit imposed at
the beginning of the class prompted the students
to practice scanning and skimming skills. There
was little time for consulting dictionaries. The
predictions and reasons given in the second
exercise were well thought out. In several cases
the groups connected their predictions with the
descriptions they had of the character'
This class followed the same procedure as the previous class. After the initial group worksheets were completed, another set of three predictions was given for in-class discussion.
Extra time was needed at the end of the class to explain that from page 12 to 33 the story would be interrupted by flashbacks to the two main characters' earlier years. The reading assignment (page 12 to 18) would cover the childhood and teenage years. The homework assignment was to find further examples of characterization.
A relaxed atmosphere in which the
students were beginning to express personal
reactions seemed to have been established. As I
walked around from group to group, there were
several questions concerning vocabulary items and
alternative answers to the worksheet questions.
A thirty-minute time limit was given to complete the group worksheets. A "word search" activity was then set up. As there were 54 students in the class, 27 key vocabulary items on cards were handed out, as well as the corresponding definitions on another 27 cards. Each student was told to find her "matching partner" by using a model English conversation written on the board. Once a pair matched up, the students were to go in search of other pairs until they had collected all the vocabulary and definitions.
The students were very active and seemed to enjoy getting out of their seats, moving around the classroom, and mingling with the other students. About ten minutes into the activity I erased the model conversations. By then, the students had memorized them. The students continued asking and answering one another in English. They were able to complete about half of the word search.
The home-reading assignment was to
read from page 19 to 25. The worksheets consisted
of eight true-false questions.
After completing the initial group worksheets, the students took about 20 minutes to finish the word search. They were then told to find sentences in the text that contained examples of the word-search vocabulary.
The home-reading assignment was
from page 25 to 33. The worksheet contained a
jumbled list of events to be put in correct order.
The students who had not completed the second part
of the word search also had to finish it as part
of their homework.
Thirty minutes were given at the beginning to complete the group worksheets. The in-class assignment was to discuss and come to an interpretation of what the question was one main character wanted to ask one of the other characters and why. The question itself was not stated directly in the text, but implied. The students had to base their answers on what they knew about the two characters, their relationship, and what developments had taken place in the story up to that point.
This was the first time to ask the
students to read between the lines and try to
answer an inferential question. Some groups
finished rather quickly, while other groups took
more time to discuss possible answers. All the
groups gave good answers and reasons for their
inferences. The groups that finished earlier were
told to start on the homework assignment, which
was to read from page 33 to 38 and make two lists
detailing types of behavior that showed how some
of the characters reacted in a stressful situation
that developed in that section.
Although there were several examples of different behavior that could have been listed in the homework assignment, the students managed to list only the most obvious ones. I had expected too much from them. The assignment had been too difficult.
The in-class activity was to discuss and make three predictions about the next reading section, in which the two main characters would meet for the first time in three years. The groups took a lot of time, but did a better job on this assignment.
The homework assignment was to
answer nine multiple-choice questions concerning
events that took place from page 39 to 46.
A 15-minute time limit was given to complete the group worksheets. The in-class activity was a quiz. The groups had to discuss and write down what they knew about the 12 characters who had appeared in the story, what they had done, and what their relationships were to one another. The groups were not allowed to open their texts, but could send representatives to other groups for help if they were stumped on what to write about a particular character. This proved to be a stimulating activity that actively engaged the entire class. One paper was collected from each group near the end of the class.
The home-reading assignment was to
read the final five pages of the story and answer
three literal comprehension questions and two
The class was given 30 minutes to collate homework answers while I put the best answers from the previous week's quiz on the board. All the answers were taken from the group papers that had been handed in. This seemed to stimulate the students' interest more than if I had given my own answers.
The next homework assignment was to
be done individually or in pairs. The students
were told to imagine they were editors for this
story and were dissatisfied with the ending
because it was too inconclusive. They were to
rewrite the ending in one or two pages starting
from a point on the next-to-last page of the text.
They were free to end the story in any manner they
Eleventh and Twelfth Classes
The movie was shown in these two
classes. The students were told to take any notes
they wanted to in preparation for an essay to be
finished by the end of the final class. The essay
would be a two-page paper about which character
they identified with most in the story and why.
The students could replace the words "identify
with" with "admire," "sympathize with," "respect,"
or any similar verb of their choice.
The students completed their final drafts in this class. They were also told what would be expected of them on the final test.
Successes and Failures
Overall, in terms of achieving the four goals listed earlier, the successes of the class far outweighed the failures. By breaking up the text into manageable chunks and giving group tasks to aid in comprehension of those chunks, the format of the class allowed the students to work well together and become actively engaged throughout the entire semester. In particular, using strict time limits in the first part of each class when the students reviewed and collated their answers for the home-reading worksheets gave the students valuable practice in skimming and scanning for information.
The students showed a keen interest in the group format and a more active approach to their own learning. By the fourth week, they were working mostly independently of me. My role became twofold: sideline monitor and provider of activities. I was free to move from group to group, giving more individual help to the weaker students and prodding the stronger students into examining the text from different viewpoints.
The student-centered group activities also helped establish a relaxed atmosphere. By the middle of the semester, the students had become confident enough to assert their own interpretations of key events. They seemed to be making the transition from passive learners to active learners responsible for their own learning.
The progression of question types on the reading tasks, from literal comprehension questions and inferential questions in the earlier stages to questions of personal response at the end, was effective in guiding the students in the reading process and involving them personally in the story. In the majority of the essays there were numerous comments (see Appendix) that showed the students had responded deeply to the characters' actions and personalities. Some students wrote about how the two main characters were symbolic of the type of women the students either wanted to be or did not want to be in the future.
The students showed much creativity and involvement in the story when they were given the chance to rewrite the ending. Some wrote in the first person (as did the author), some in the third person, and several made up sections of dialogue. There was a wide range of endings--from happy, romantic endings to dramatic, violent endings.
The video portion was effective in clarifying nuances in characterization and background that were not clear to the students. The students became absorbed in the suspense and drama depicted in the video. Several of the students used scenes from the film to give examples and explanations for their opinions in the final essay.
Most rewarding were the comments given by the students who said they would continue to read even after the semester was over. The comments they wrote (e.g., "I enjoyed the group work. It was hard to have homework every time, but I could read all of Julia. I always stop reading English books before this class. Thank you." and "I was very interested in this story. I will read another Hellman story.") were close to the heart of the teaching philosophy outlined in this and the previous paper (Norris, 1994): that is, to make the reading process easier for students and to help them enjoy it.
There were four main areas that needed improvement. First, the initial lecture given before the study groups were established was not presented well. The students were restless and not focused. A listening task should have been assigned to focus their attention. This poor beginning risked losing the students' interest from the outset. I was fortunate the students responded as well as they did to the initial homework essay.
Second, the one homework assignment of interpreting characters' actions and listing them as examples of the characters' personalities and motives was too difficult because it was too open-ended. For a short time after that, a few of the students seemed to lose confidence in handling the text. It would have been better to use a multiple-choice or true-false question format.
Third, the text contained several flashback scenes that interrupted the flow of the main story. In their comments on the final test, many students expressed confusion about this section of the text. More time should have been taken to explain the usage of flashbacks as a literary technique.
Fourth, there were too few ongoing snowball activities. This failure no doubt contributed to the students' difficulty with the flashback scenes. More attention should have been given to visual and graphic prompts to serve as reminders about the different elements in the book. The one quiz and three prediction exercises were effective to a certain degree, but the students wasted considerable time in backtracking through the text in order to come up with their answers. Wall charts, montages, or grids detailing developments in the plot, the characters, and the settings where the action took place would have made it easier for the students to maintain an overview of the story.
The experience of teaching this class has proven to me there is a viable alternative to the word-by-word translation and lecture-dominated methods of teaching English reading and literature in Japanese colleges and universities. Even lower-level students, when given proper guidance in the reading process, are capable of making sense of and responding to a literary text.
The teacher's responsibility lies in choosing appropriate texts suited to student interests and concerns, providing student-centered tasks that help the students in their struggle with the reading process and comprehension of the text, and creating an atmosphere that allows for personal response to and interpretation of what has been read. As Short and Candlin (1986: 90) say, "If literature is worth teaching [as] literature, then it seems axiomatic that it is the response to literature itself that is important."
To that end, teachers of English reading and literature in Japan should step aside from their lecture podiums, rein in the instinct to spell out what they think are the vital details and interpretation of the text, and spend more time sharpening the students' own responses to and involvement with the text. In doing so, they will increase the possibility that students will continue to read on their own in the future and enjoy it.
1. Miyano (1993) describes the bottom-up model of reading as "the idea that readers identify and decode the text starting with the smallest unit (letters) and working up to larger units (sentences, etc.). As they decode these units, they put together the meaning of the text....In this model, meaning is contained within the text itself and the reader must extract it by decoding the symbols." Miyano (1993) describes the top-down model of reading as "the process as a set of predictions made by the reader based on his/her view of the world and perception of selected visual clues from the text. This...model assumes that there will be interaction between visual information (the text) and non-visual information (the reader's prior knowledge)." Bottom-up reading skills refer to identification skills in decoding the text. Top-down reading skills refer to interpretive skills in reconstructing the text.
Sample Comments from Student Essays
1. "I think I am similar to Lillian. She aspired to Julia and I am aspiring to everybody. She couldn't refuse a request from Julia. She couldn't have enough courage nevertheless she got on the train with money. If I am relied on by someone I will not able to say 'No'."
2. "I respected Julia. Her action was brave. It was difficult for me to understand her action. That is to say, I can't do that. If I were in Julia's place I would only look. I thought Julia was like a soldier."
3. "I think Julia's a man of conviction, so she wanted to relieve many people from the Nazi's. If I were her, I could not imitate her....Though she was killed, I feel sorry for her and I thought that I don't must make war."
4. "Julia and Lillian were close friends. We envy them. Julia was rich, smart and promising, but she lost her life because she became a socialist. We think Julia led satisfactory life and she was happy. We want to lead satisfactory life but we won't be able to do as Julia."
5. "We think Julia was living a terrible life. She spent a lot of her times helping people. She was a socialist, but she didn't fear to die. She must have held on to the last. Maybe she would be satisfied with her work, but she must have regretted that she couldn't bring up her baby....We want to be like Julia. We look up to Julia."
6. "Julia died for people who is Socialist. She fight for justice. We respect for her action. The courage is fantastic! Their made a strong impression on us."
7. "Finishing reading this story, I couldn't help reminding myself of a sentence, 'Be the best friend for him always, and he'll become the best friend of you."
8. "I prefer Julia's life to Lillian's. She saved a lot of people, she lived significant life. Her life made me moved."
9. "We become identified with John Von Zimmer. His character is a riddle to us. He didn't appear very much, but he was Anne-Marie's husband and Julia's child's father. His existence is very big, and he has something to do with many things. He seems to support Julia in secret, so we feel that he is reliable, and we are interested in him. He shrouded in mystery to the last."
10. "I admire Julia, because she was independent and educated since her childhood....I like her thought that all people are equal. I could understand Julia if she had had the above thought when she was an adult. However, Julia had the above thought since her childhood. Now that we are adults, but we don't have such a thought. I really identify with her for a woman."
11. "I think Lillian general woman so I know her action and feel. If you have a best friend, you will do like Lillian. I can't understand Julia. Maybe she was too strong and too different to me. I don't like her but I look up to her. She had everything that I didn't have. In this book, I am near Lillian but I am charmed Julia."
12. "If anything, I think I have a look of Julia. Lillian is nervous and indecisive, but Lillian has a sense of righteousness the same as Julia. When Julia asked Lillian to important thing, Lillian was at a loss. At last she decided to carry out....I admire her friendship. I want to have a special friend like a Julia. This story is interesting, one side very sad. It is very good for me to read this book."
Brumfit, C. J. & Carter, R. A. 1986. Literature and Language Teaching. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Collie, J. & Slater, S. 1987. Literature in the Language Classroom. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Hellman, L. 1973. "Julia." (Also released in 1979 as Julia/Turtle by Sansyusya Publishing; Japanese notes by M. A. Koike) In Pentimento. New York: Little, Brown.
Leki, V. 1986. Teaching literature of the United States to nonnative speakers. English Teaching Forum 24(1): 2-8.
Miyano, T. 1993. Background knowledge and reading comprehension in ESL. Hikaku Bunka Kenkyuu 22: 100-110.
Norris, R. W. 1994. Getting students more personally involved: An alternative to the yakudoku- and lecture-dominated methods of teaching literature and reading. Fukuoka Women's Junior College Studies 48: 25-38.
Nuttall, C. 1982. Teaching Reading Skills in a Foreign Language. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Short, M. H. & Candlin, C. N. 1986. Teaching study skills for English literature. In C. J. Brumfit & R. A. Carter (Eds.), Literature and Language Teaching (pp. 89-109). Oxford: Oxford University Press.