Brainstorming … in action.

How old are you? (Don’t answer. I don’t expect you to tell me how old.) Have you felt any generation gaps? For younger generations, when their grandfathers start to talk about what life was like 50 years ago, they just lose interest and leave for somewhere else. Politicians, most of whom are just as old as their grandfathers, seem to be a bit too arrogant, too demanding, and too strict, while their language is almost impenetrable.

It is also true the other way around.

Older generations, me included, find it hard to sympathize with high school students who complain about the tough and competitive entrance exams to their first choice university. Elderly citizens would say, “Look what I did! I was put in an even tougher , or more fatal condition when I was transferred to the Philippines during WWII…” (High school students would say to themselves, “WTF…” I was this kind of high school student whose grandfather was sent to the Philippines (I’m not sure, but it’s just that he thought that was the Philippines.) So this communication gap seems to be seen all the time with a younger generation taking the place of the older generation. 30 years ago, I was a high school student who was pissed off at my grandfather’s incomprehensible language, and now I may be the one who uses the same thinking process as my grandfather’s.

Why I am writing about this generation gap is that I will be writing a sample essay about this communication gap in a minute. I am just brainstorming myself.

When I write a response to the TOEFL writing prompt, the first thing that I do is search my memory for a relevant experience that I can use in the response. When I finally remember it, I exaggerate it a bit to make the entire essay effective and relevant to the prompt. Oh, what was the question? Here it is: “People lived a very different life 50 years ago, so there is no advice our grandparents can give to their grandchildren.”

Do you agree or disagree with this statement?




Some people can see what you cannot see.

Some students make complaints about their slow progress or virtually no improvement in their TOEFL scores.  Teachers would just assume students talk to themselves and turn blind eyes (ears?) to their complaints.  Which side is to blame, students or teachers? Here is one consideration to determine yourself which is to blame.

Some students follow one teacher’s writing strategy. First, write this, and then introduce three reasons … a very common type of writing. They have learned how to do it and do nothing but to follow the format as if they were copying it (probably worse than plagiarizing).

OK, if you follow this one strategy, and you get 30 (out of 30) in the writing section, and if this were true, the average score of the Japanese test-takers’ scores would be 30. But in reality, it is way too lower. But most of them (I would say more than 90% of them) know this basic idea of a well written essay. How come?

The thing is that their structure may serve as a positive contributor to a better score, but what about other factors to a good essay? They may not have followed prescriptive grammar. Their word choice is terrible because their vocabulary is too small to contain a good word in the first place. They do not show enough examples to substantiate what they believe to be true.  Well, since only one example, if convincing, is enough, they do not show one single example to validate their opinion. How about this case: most of the sentences they write just do not make sense.

In general, what matters lies not so much in what the teachers emphasize as what the teachers do not point out. When in class, it would be easy if the teacher emphasizes the entire structure as something to be paid attention to. On the other hand, they cannot always point out all the grammar points, appropriate word choices, or convincing evidence that are necessary to make a good essay. The problem is that the students, not knowing that what the teacher does not say is more important, stick to what is articulated in class, only ending up feeling disappointed to receive a not-up-to-par score.

Updates from graduates

Recently, I have heard from two of my long time graduates on their updates.

They are doing what I would not have ever considered doing when I was their age. Much respect should be paid to them.

Just in case you don’t know why I do this business…My profile shows part of the reason I keep teaching the TOEFL for the younger generations. I am not too excited to hear that students are admitted to their first choice universities. I sort of take it for granted. Their TOEFL scores are higher than required; they’ve got great letters of recommendation from great people; their application essays are a product of cooperation between the students themselves and their counselors. There is little reason they are rejected.

Instead, I feel exhilarated when I see them graduate and start their new lives. We cannot correctly estimate how much contribution they will make to society. Whatever they do, with all the skills and expertise, as well as determination and patience, it will change our society in a better direction, I’m sure.

And these two graduates will be great assets for us. One is a jazz musician, and the other is a cabin attendant.

Obviously, I wouldn’t have thought of either of them as my future career when I was in university.


Can you draw a picture? By a picture, I do not mean a bus or a fish, but a person whose girlfriend had a car accident and is hurrying to the hospital where she is on the operating table. I could not imagine myself drawing such a complicated facial expression on the blackboard while I give my students a circumstance in which the man was placed.

But wouldn’t it be wonderful if language teachers could draw pictures to express complicated situations or abstract ideas?

Ever since I started to teach English conversation more than 20 years ago, I have been dreaming of this dream. (Too bad I haven’t even started to practice drawing! I know I do not have a strong will power.)

In Japan, the government, together with intelligent business people and professors, has been discussing teaching high school students English in English. I understand that many teachers feel overwhelmed to think that they will be required to teach a reading material on “carbon dating” in English. So probably, the new policy of teaching English in English will be reduced to choosing to teach in English whenever possible. That is, at the moment, where people concerned will be able to compromise, which means that there will be little improvement.

But what if teachers could all draw pictures? I would say that the situation would be totally different. With the help of visual aids, students will be able to see that the teacher is talking about a fossil, and that carbon14 can be used to measure how old this fossil is, and depending on the element, its half-life differs, and that this specific feature is of great help in determining the fossil’s age.

These abstract ideas will be expressed on the blackboard in a very concrete manner. Together with the verbal explanation made by the teacher, the students can understand what’s going on in class.

This is just an optimistic assumption or a day dream. It’s just that I would personally like to learn how to draw, and use that skill in class.

By the way, that is the response that I usually make to the speaking question: What skill would you like to have?

How does that sound?

Right or Left?

Have you heard of the terms the “right brain” and the “left brain”? It has been a widely accepted notion that the right brain has a lot to do with artistic expressions and the spatial ability while the left brain controls one’s logical thinking and verbal expressions. It is also well-known that the right brain is connected to the left eye and the left hand while the left brain to the right eye and the right hand. So there are quite a few left-handed artists. That makes sense.

Now what about learning a foreign language?

Again I will show you a well accepted idea. When you are still a child, the area that involves learning language extends from left to right. So children can make the most of their right brain by enjoying singing songs or playing jazz chants. However, by the time you reach puberty (around 11~14), the right part of the area will have moved to the left. This phenomenon is called lateralization. This is the culprit that stops us adult learners from learning through sound and feelings: rather adult learners have little choice but to resort to their logical thinking –  grammar that is.

The above “lateralization” is substantiated by a car accident. When a child got hit on the left side of his head in the accident, he will not have a hard time speaking because of this phenomenon. In other words, the left side of the language area has been damaged, but the right side will move to the left to function fully. This is not the case with an adult, whose language area has already moved to the left. He will, as the worst-case scenario goes, end up having difficulty in speaking.

OK, why am I writing this boring textbook explanation of the brain? I was kind of surprised to read this article, which informs us that there may be no such difference between the right brain and the left brain! Come to think of it, the above knowledge … I learned all that more than 20 years ago. Well, since science never stops advancing, and with all the technological breakthroughs, I think that latest findings should be closer to the truth.

I personally find it interesting, because whether there is such a difference or not, it doesn’t seem to me that it affects one’s acquisition of the English language, as far as the TOEFL test is concerned. No matter where you are, no matter what brain you were born with, or no matter what learning strategies you adopt, it takes persistent effort to reach the required score of the TOEFL.

Looks like this new finding does not affect my profession.

Offshore outsourcing!

In today’s speaking class, we discussed four questions (out of six), one of which was an academic topic. As a teacher who teaches students ranging from high schooler to business executives, I found this academic topic very interesting.

That was on “offshore outsourcing.”

The reading passage provides a general idea…a definition of offshore outsourcing, which is followed by the lecture which introduces both advantages and disadvantages of this way of operation.

When a businessman hears the phrase “offshore outsourcing” s/he will suddenly become confident of what s/he is doing. By the time the lecture ends, the response will be ready and is just about to burst out.

Which was not the case with today’s class. Everyone was high school students. When they read the definition in the reading passage, it took more than 60 seconds (it was supposed be done in 45 seconds), and yet everyone looked like “WTF?”

OK, this is what I always emphasize. The more you know about academic topics, the better understanding will follow. The better you understand the passage, the better summary you can make. The better summary you can make, the better score you will see on your score report. Did I talk about “the English ability” here in this discussion? No, I didn’t, because so long as you know the topic, language doesn’t matter much, does it? (Of course most people can read and listen a bit.)

Cramming vocabulary may be important to get a passing score of the TOEFL, but learning about topics is just as important. That is what the TOEFL is all about and I like it a lot.

A bit weird, but very real.

My job entails making an educational video (for the TOEFL test, of course), where I teach one particular section. One that I taped recently was the basic writing. It introduces how to write one sentence first, and then how to put multiple sentences into a paragraph, and finally how to integrate several paragraphs into one complete essay. It…oh I don’t remember correctly…has about 20 lessons in one course.

Since this video caters to novice learners of the TOEFL, it is used by the most learners of all the video courses of mine. That makes it natural that I am spoken to by the viewers quite often. Today I was in the elevator to move up to the fifth floor where my classroom was. There was another young man who looked quite robust standing next to me. He was smiling and I gradually realized this guy might be one of my viewers by the time we came to the second floor. When we came onto the third floor, the young man was about to get off when his words burst out. “Are you teaching in the video writing course? I’ve been learning in that course. I’m glad to meet the real one in person!” He left.

I didn’t know anything about him, but he knows quite a lot about me. Very weird, but real.

Who knows? Maybe I will appear in front of you tomorrow. If you realize that the person standing in front of you is the person whose blog you have read, just say hi and I am more than happy to have a chat over a cup of coffee (if my class doesn’t start any time soon).