[This essay was written in 2006 for FET5601 (Designing Instruction for Flexible Learning) before I studied any principles of second language learning. When I revise it I will surely include concepts from Terrell and Krashen. Also, the referencing has a flaw that I’ll point out: no page/paragraph references. Yikes! All duly noted stuff for now — Don]

Using video cartoons to encourage EFL practice

Introduction

Practice may not always make perfect, but it is probably the best way to develop a skill.  Yet, getting students to work on skills, like speaking a foreign language, can at times be difficult (Doyon, 2003; Jeffery, 2003). Surely there are countless reasons for any lack of enthusiasm. In Thailand, one cause may stem from its traditional teaching approach, which until recently was teacher-centered (Rogers, 2004). With a teacher-centered approach, students usually sit, listen, recite and hopefully learn. By contrast, a more learner-centered approach favors group participation, addresses individual needs, encourages the formulation of individual ideas and, among other things, can be relatively more flexible (Worthington, 2002; Huba and Freed, 2000).

Language instruction in a learner-centered model, as it seems, should be more effective. The Thai government appears to agree and has attempted to adopt such an approach. For example, the government expects instructors to enhance the learning context with content that is stimulating and relevant to learners where “… both learners and teachers may learn together from different types of teaching-learning media and other sources of knowledge” (Section 24, National Education Act of 1999 cited by Rogers, 2004).

This instructional design project (USQ, FET 5601) considers the aim of the mandate as well as aspects of the learner-centered model. The lessons are built on Nick Park’s “Wallace and Gromit” series, which are stop-motion animation films (essentially cartoons) about a man and his dog. Most importantly, as content, they are something for students to talk about and thereby practice speaking English-as-a-foreign language (EFL).

ANALYSIS

Student Learning Culture

Although the interest in learning English is generally high in Thailand, the country recently ranked second-to-last in an English proficiency survey of Southeast Asian nations (“Better English Needed”, 2005). The answer for the low ranking is unclear; however, there are a few possibilities. For one, Thai students generally lack consistent opportunities to practice what they are learning in their regular school lessons. Furthermore, while sets of English grammar rules are competently taught by Thai instructors, these teachers often possess a relatively meager ability to speak the language (“Better English Needed”, 2005). Moreover, day-to-day activities hardly indicate a need to know any language other than Thai. For instance, English language films are usually dubbed in Thai, television programs in English are rare and popular music is overwhelmingly Thai, as are nearly all signs, such as those for transport, businesses, advertisements and food menus. Taken as a whole, if learning English has any importance, Thai daily-life suggests otherwise.

The Teacher

Perhaps this tenuous learning environment explains why some students seek extra-curricular English instruction, a business which has proven to be very lucrative for private language schools and native English speaking tutors (“Teach…”, 2004; “Salary…”,1996 ). Students who choose this sort of assistance can possibly find themselves with unqualified instructors (Avasadanond, 2002). Some watchers in the local press describe the situation as a “slightly dirty business” and go on to point out that “Thailand has become almost a hot-bed for unqualified teachers…” (Leppard, 2005).

Clearly not all extra-curricular lessons involve unqualified instructors, as the term “hot-bed” might suggest. The instructor for this instructional design project is sufficiently qualified. The teacher is an American who has taught EFL in Thailand for more than three years. He holds a CTESOL from Transworld Schools in San Francisco and a BA in Industrial/Organizational psychology from San Jose State University. Prior to Thailand he volunteered for three years with the United States Peace Corps in West Africa and has a professional background as a corporate trainer in California’s Silicon Valley. The teacher maintains a respectful and collaborative relationship with the students and their parents.

Why cartoons?

Not surprisingly, young people like cartoons (Ito, 2002; Ling, n.d.; Talwar, 2005). Hence, it stands to reason that if cartoons could be used in an educational context, an interest in learning might also be created. Canning-Wilson (2000) notes that visuals, including cartoons, “used to help one see an immediate meaning in the language may benefit the learner by helping to clarify the message, provided the visual works in a positive way to enhance or supplement the language point.” With great success, the U.S. television series “Sesame Street” has been doing just that for nearly 40 years.

In the article ‘Children’s learning from television’, Fisch (2005) cites more than 35 international studies which all affirm the learning benefits from Sesame Street. For example, a “re-contact”  study “showed that high school students who had watched educational television – and Sesame Street in particular – as pre-schoolers had significantly higher grades in English, Mathematics, and Science in junior high or high school”  (Anderson et al., 2001, cited by Fisch, 2005). Similarly, Cook (1975, cited by Fisch, 2005) conducted a reanalysis of an earlier study (Ball and Bogatz, 1970 & 1971, respectively) and found that the original conclusion of “greater growth in an assortment of academic skills” was still statistically significant and had held across “age, sex, geographic location, socio-economic status…, native language (English or Spanish), and whether children watched at home or in school”.

The National Teacher Training Institute or NTTI (“Why use video…”, 2004) notes other possible benefits from using video in instruction, including to:

  • reach children with a variety of learning styles, especially visual learners, and students with a variety of information acquisition styles
  • engage students in problem-solving and investigative activities
  • begin to dismantle social stereotypes
  • help students practice media literacy and critical viewing skills
  • provide a common experience for students to discuss

Fisch (2005) concludes his paper by “looking across the research” and pointing out features in some educational television programs that may have aided their usefulness, such as:

  • age-appropriate language
  • humor
  • suspense
  • clarity
  • simple plot
  • reinforced concepts over episodes
  • dynamic visuals rather than static images
  • intelligent and clever characters
  • activities to “carry the learning forward”

Why Wallace and Gromit?

The useful characteristics observed by Fisch are all well represented in the ‘Wallace and Gromit’ titles chosen for this course; those being “The Wrong Trousers”, “A Close Shave” and “A Grand Day Out”, respectively. Having won numerous international awards, these stories have an almost proven appeal (See Nick Park’s Awards at http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0661910/awards).

The episodes follow the incidental adventures of Wallace, a quintessential Englishman and eccentric inventor, and his companion Gromit, who never speaks and happens to be a dog.  Gromit alone has a broad appeal, as his facial expressions and gestures can communicate messages that are not culturally specific. The dialogue is sparse so the stories can be easily followed. The language contains clearly spoken common nouns and verbs (e.g. a cup, a car, cheese, an airplane, the moon, a dog, a train, sleeping, eating, talking, etc.) with obvious visual reinforcements. Thus, these characters, who are clever, funny and easy to understand, in stories that contain elements of suspense and remarkable action, closely mirror what Fisch found from “looking across the research” for clues to the usefulness of video as an instructional tool (Fisch, 2005).

Learning Context

The lessons in this course take place on the weekend at a music school, which also teaches art and dance. The atmosphere is fun and family-oriented. Many students take an assortment of lessons and seem happy to spend the entire day in the school. The groups in this course range in age from pre-teens to early teens and are kept to about ten students. The classroom does not have desks, just a couple of long tables and some stools – students usually choose to sit on the carpet.

All-in-all the context appears in agreement with at least one notion that suggests language learning be a “happy experience” and that instruction with video could be the basis for  “an attractive enjoyable learning environment” (Tomilin, 1991, cited by Gallacher, n.d.). Ostensibly, the cartoon content reinforces this idea and presumably supports a relaxed atmosphere.

Outcome

This course intends to promote conversational practice to a degree that the learner and their parents feel satisfied. There is no intention to score or measure the learners against one another or even themselves in a quantitative sense; such assessments might create a competitive and anxious environment, certainly not reflective of a learner-centered design.

On a conciliatory note, the design includes a worksheet that could be viewed as an objective assessment, though that is not the primary purpose. Since the form is essentially completed as a group, all the results are likely to be similar or even identical. Be that as it may, outcomes (listening comprehension, participation, story retelling and word usage) will be assessed subjectively. As a result, parents can get immediate feedback directly from the teacher regarding their child’s progress in these areas and this information, including parent comments, can then be used to adjust and improve the course for future lessons.

DESIGN

Theoretical Support

In keeping with the spirit of the school, these lessons attempt a relaxed, low-anxiety approach to learning. To achieve some semblance of this, the idea of “Community Language Learning” (CLL) is considered.  The concept strives to reduce speaking anxiety by building a sense of involvement and equality in the hope that students will take more speaking risks (Koba et al., 2000). One technique is called the “human computer” where the teacher mimics a computer (or perhaps a parrot) and speaks a word or phrase with a student as many times as the student desires and only stops when the student feels content (Koba et al., 2000). The teacher does not emphasize corrections, just correct speech. Students in these lessons are trained in the technique and know they have it as a tool if desired. While CLL is interesting and possibly useful, Mergel (2004) offers some other theoretical ideas concerning instructional design:

Behaviorism and cognitivism both support the practice of analyzing a task and breaking it down into manageable chunks, establishing objectives, and measuring performance based on those objectives. Constructivism, on the other hand, promotes a more open-ended learning experience where the methods and results of learning are not easily measured and may not be the same for each learner. Naturally, as a learner-centered scheme, this course reflects a constructionist approach. Particularly apparent is Vygotsky’s “Zone of Proximal Development” or ZDP (1978, cited in Riegeluth, 1999). In a learning context, the ZDP is principally an idea to “support learners and facilitate the construction of meaning and knowledge” (Vygotsky, 1978; Berk & Winsler, 1995; both cited in DelliCarpini, 2006).

The ZPD in this course may be revealed as students, while trying to develop language skills, bring previous knowledge of the general lexis (from their daily studies) to lessons and are then challenged with modest increases in complexity (e.g. face-to-face instruction and guidance with a native English speaker, authentic content and some new vocabulary). The interaction taking place within their present zone of competence. Also represented in the course are Vygotsky’s four strategies of “Reciprocal Teaching”:

  • “Summarizing provides the opportunity to identify and integrate the most important information in the text.” (e.g.  In discussion.)
  • “Question generating reinforces the summarizing strategy and carries the learner one more step along in the comprehension activity.” (e.g.  Through spontaneous questioning by the instructor.)
  • “Clarifying is an activity that is particularly important when working with students who have a history of comprehension difficulty.” (e.g. In general discussion and perhaps using the “human computer” technique (Koba et al., 2000))
  • “Predicting occurs when students hypothesize what the author will discuss next in the text.”  (Palincsar, 1986)

The reciprocal idea here goes beyond what students learn through discussions, the teacher also learns in discussion where course improvements might be made. And while this course uses video, something not yet developed in Vygotsky’s time, a text-based worksheet also plays an essential role. Canning (1998, in Canning-Wilson 2000; “Active Learning Strategies”, 2005) concurs with this strategy by suggesting that the pairing of a worksheet with a video might foster “greater mental effort for active learning” – a thought also supported by the NTTI (“Tips for using…”, 2004), who suggests the following for “media interaction”:

  • engage students’ viewing attention by having them watch or listen for specific information.
  • give students a task to be completed during or after the video segment is shown.
  • check to see if students completed the task successfully.

Along with the Vygotskian ideas, and given the media selected for this course, all of the NTTI suggestions are present in the design.

Media: DVD

The three films are available on a DVD entitled “Wallace and Gromit’s ‘Three Cracking Adventures’ (2003). The films are shown on a laptop computer with external speakers; however, any DVD system would suffice.

Copyright considerations

The use of copyrighted video in an educational setting is allowable under certain conditions. These include the use being clearly connected to an educational purpose and not used recreationally (Wellesley, 2001). These general conditions are satisfied in this course. However, Section 110 (1) of the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976 more specifically allows for:

Performance or display of a work by instructors or pupils in the course of face-to- face teaching activities of a nonprofit educational institution, in a classroom or similar place devoted to instruction… (Wellesley, 2001)

The general EFL course at the school, of which these lessons are a part, is for profit and therefore voids the legal use of the DVD. As a result, each student must purchase an original DVD to prevent any infringement issues. This actually is favorable for several reasons, including that the price is affordable and the discs are readily available online.  Also, individual purchasing is in keeping with the school’s protocol of buying original books and materials. More importantly, the students will each have a DVD to study and share with friends and family. Finally, an incidental benefit from purchasing online is that these issues do not have Thai subtitles or dubbing; thus, avoiding possibly counterproductive viewing options.

Media: Worksheet

Each episode is shown with a worksheet of questions to answer while viewing. The worksheets have questions that pertain to the entire episode. The general lexis on the worksheets is familiar to the students (e.g. similar phrasing from their general lessons) and simply structured (i.e. single clause sentences). All of the wording is in the simple present verb tense. One important aspect of the worksheet is it provides response options (i.e. look and read or reply without referencing the form) for any students who may desire a sort of crutch or script, what Koba et al. (2000) refer to as a “transcript of conversation”; a device to possibly reduce speaking-related anxiety, a serious concern for some language learners.

Worksheet sample questions from ‘The Wrong Trousers’:

1. Gromit is not a smart dog.

True or False

2. The penguin wants _________ .

    • cheese
    • a diamond
    • cookies
    • fish

3. The diamond is in a…

a) bakery

b) school

c) museum

d) bank

4. Why does Gromit not like the penguin?

Content Familiarity and Topical Sequencing

Reigeluth (1999) emphasizes the importance of developing content familiarity to enhance the formation of “stable cognitive schema to which more complex capabilities and understandings can be assimilated”. In these stories, while the plots are quite different, the characters, their dispositions and lifestyle are consistent over each episode. Thus the selection of these particular subjects is intended to support the idea of “stable cognitive schema”. The “more complex” matters are then dealt with on the worksheets and in discussion. The worksheets from lesson #1 to #3 increase in complexity with question forms ranging from true/false to open response. Furthermore, each lesson ends with a homework assignment to convert all applicable verbs to the past tense, thus setting the stage for the review portion in the following lesson and reflective of Reigeluth’s (1999) “topical sequencing” concept, where the instructional design presents information from one lesson to the next, top to bottom, rather than horizontally from various lessons over a larger course. Presumably, it is important to maintain a certain level of self-confidence in language learning, therefore it is probably helpful to progress step-by-step in lessons, as topical sequencing seems to suggest.

Differentiated Instruction

Extra-curricular EFL classes are essentially a service and, as a result, are likely to have some profit incentive. Handy and Aitken (1986, cited by Mangilli-Climpson, 1995)explain:

Contrary to general opinion, schools, and particularly private schools have aims that are comparable to those of business: they provide services and obtain profits. Without a healthy financial base, these schools would quickly be bankrupted, and replaced by more commercially efficient concerns.

Striving for a “healthy financial base” likely means grouping learners with mixed abilities (Mangilli-Climpson, 1995). Admittedly, this observation is confirmed to some degree at the music school; however, the course attempts to compensate by combining students by school grade-level. Still, there are cases where a parent may want siblings grouped together or their personal schedule demands placement in a class either below or above the student’s ability.

To address any issues of mixed learning abilities, this course considers the concept of differentiated instruction (DI). DelliCarpini (2006) explains that DI is “well organized, well planned and addresses not only different ability levels, but also different needs, interests and strengths of the learners.” The content in this course is well-suited for differentiated discussions. For example, some students may just see a story, albeit fun and exciting, about a man and his dog, where others may be more focused on how, for example in ‘The Wrong Trousers’, the penguin is going to steal a diamond from a museum exhibition. Also, in that particular episode, Gromit runs away from home and takes along with him three items: a brush, a bone and an alarm clock, all items known by these students in English. So while his running away is addressed on a worksheet, it can also be used in a differentiated discussion. For example, the teacher could simply ask the students what items he took with him or how the weather was or how Gromit may have felt and why.

Also reflective of DI in this course is the aforementioned “transcript of conversation” (Koba et al., 2000) concept, along with the variety and sequence of question forms on the worksheets. Probably most important for DI, in any course, is an instructor who can be creative, spontaneous and informed enough to generate impromptu discussion questions, expand on existing ones and do so in a manner befitting all learners. To achieve this end, the teacher must thoroughly plan each lesson and have complete subject matter expertise as well as a clear understanding of the students’ abilities; in other words, expectations no different than any proper teaching situation.

Lesson Structure

Each lesson is a 90-minute session:

  • ~15 minute review
  • ~15 minute pre-teach
  • ~30 minutes of viewing time
  • ~15 minutes of post-viewing discussion (i.e. checking the worksheet)
  • ~15 minute activity (e.g. role-play, creating storyboards, sequence scrambles, verb or adjective surveys, clay character play, etc.).

Timing is flexible for the most part. For example, depending on the group, the pre-teaching segment may or may not require much time. The teacher can adjust segments accordingly, as well as devise and develop various activity ideas.

EVALUATION

Formative Fun

It would seem beneficial to the teacher/evaluator to frequently ask the students and parents how they feel about the course. Are they indeed satisfied? In Thailand, however, the answer might not be so clear. Thai culture is by and large Buddhist and espouses its idea of “saving face” or avoiding shame and conflict (Stewart, 2006). To question performance could be seen as a threat to ‘face’. Therefore it is perhaps more appropriate to discuss improvements, without regard to any failings.

A formative evaluation, that is more “learner-centered and humanistic” (Warren, n.d.), appears best suited for this course. Deshler (1984, cited in Warren, n.d.) explains that formative evaluations “occur while the program is running with the purpose of gathering information about what to improve and how to improve the program.” Weston et al. (1995) note “the purpose of formative evaluation is to validate or ensure that the goals of the instruction are being achieved and to improve the instruction…” The goals of this course are conversational practice along with course improvement in the process. Using both the worksheets and responses in discussion should indicate where improvements in the course might be made.

Concept Maps

References

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“Awards for Nick Park” (2006) http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0661910/awards

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