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This summer, I managed to get a few videos of a class at my school when they had nearly finished their second semester. It’s a pretty good class in terms of student morale. The read from an extensive reader called The President’s Murderer (OUP Bookworm). As usual for my school, this class meets twice a week for two hours each time, they spent quite a bit of time on phonics and basic grammar drills and had regular homework of an audio-lingual variety. As they progressed, the classes got gradually less intensive and more extensive. Their current level is about the tipping point between the strict, low-level classes and the more relaxed intermediate level classes to come.

First they read from a vocabulary sheet to review words in the book that they haven’t learned yet from the school curriculum:

Then, they take turns reading the chapter the teacher read last week:

After that, the teacher reads another chapter to them, intentionally making a few mistakes they have to correct. He might ask a few comprehension questions, and then it’s on to the next activity. That’s pretty much how all the reading works for the lower level classes. This class had already read Aladdin, Pocahontas and two other readers of the same level as this one, so it wasn’t necessary to interrupt for too many explanations. It would be boring to spend an entire two hours reading, but I think most the kids really look forward to the half hour they spend on it each time.

All in all, I’m pretty happy with this class. Several students quit at the beginning of the semester because their parents thought the basic phonics and grammar we started with was too easy, but those that have continued have done great. That’s including four kids who hadn’t been to an English school before, and who were a bit shaky on the alphabet and struggled with phrases like “sit down”, “stand up” and so on. Everyone has worked hard, and they have all far, far surpassed the starting point of those who thought the class was too easy.

Anki is a free software program designed to help people remember what they have learned.anki-logo It’s a flashcard program, with support for a variety of media, including text, sound files, mathematical equations (using Latex) and even images. My use of it so far has been restricted to foreign language learning. Anki runs on Windows, Mac OSX, and Linux.

The value of spaced repetitions

Anki is a spaced repetition learning system. Unlike traditional flash card systems in which the user decided what to practice and when, spaced repetition systems schedule practice for you. The first time someone learns something, it will be forgotten quickly. The next time, it might stay for a day or two. The time after that, a learner can usually remember an item for over a week. The length of time increases exponentially. If an item is forgotten, though, much of the progress is lost. By scheduling review for each item right before the learner is expected to forget it, Anki makes it possible to learn material well enough to remember it for months or even years in just ten to twenty repetitions.

My own learning experiences have made me a big fan of spaced repetition review. I have been a reasonably hard-working student ever since my last stint in college, but a depressing amount of the work was wasted. I have entire notebooks full of things I’ve painstakingly learned, probably reviewed more often in the early stages and then forgotten because failed to go over them months later. As much as I like the idea of deciding when and what to review, following the algorithm is more effective.

Differences from Supermemo

As far as the algorithm is concerned, Anki is very similar to SM2. When answering correctly, you still get three options (easy, good and hard), but there is only one option for wrong answers. Anything you answer wrong is put back into the stack, to be reviewed after you finish your other cards for the day. One very good change is that wrong answers don’t really affect the card’s “difficulty rating” before you’ve really learned a card well, i.e. to the point at which you have about a month between intervals. In other words, you won’t keep seeing a card too often a year from now just because you hadn’t really learned it before putting it into your deck.

The biggest way Anki is different from Supermemo is the clean interface. It’s a nice, simple program and it’s a joy to use. You can also copy decks to the Anki site for free (up to 10MB), and sync decks after you finish with them so that you can review from other computers. This isn’t a very important feature for me, but it would be if I had a decent cellphone.

Other features

Anki has some specific features for learners of Chinese and even more features for learners of Japanese. There are “deck models” for both languages. Each card has a field for the “question” (the word), the “answer” (the English translation) and a special third field for the reading. Upon entering a Chinese word, Anki fills in the pinyin for you! For example, if I enter the word 嫻靜, Anki fills in xián jìng for me. This is a great time saver. Unfortunately, it’s still necessary to choose the right pronunciation in the case of 破音字. The recognition for Japanese characters is far better. Anki has automatically selected the correct hiragana for the vast majority of the Japanese words and phrases I’ve entered so far. It’s a good thing, too. Otherwise, it would be necessary to choose from half a dozen readings on a regular basis. On other feature for Japanese study is that the program tracks how many of the Jouyou and Jinmeiyou Kanji have appeared in your deck so far. It also tells you what percentage of the kanji for each grade of elementary school you have learned.

Graphs and Statistics

Anki’s charts and statistics are outstanding.ankichart You can see charts of when cards will be up for review, of how much time you’ve studied each day, of how hard your cards are for you, and all kinds of other things. Deck statistics are similarly impressive. Have you ever what percentage of the time you answer correctly on cards you’ve been studying for a long time? Or what percentage you get right in your first review session? Anki can tell you. In fact, the charts and statistics might be a little bit too good. I’ve found myself checking them more than I really want to.

License

Anki is free software. As a proud free culture supporting geek, this makes me very happy. On the practical side, it also leads to cross-platform support and it’s easy to extend Anki. In fact, I’ve taken advantage of this by getting the Traditional Chinese localization of the program started. Damien, the original author and maintainer, was very helpful via email explaining to me how to edit the localization files. I’m sure others, with native Chinese skills, will build upon that work. If enough Chinese students get interested in Anki, I bet it will start keeping Hanzi statistics, too. By virtue of its license Anki is certain to keep improving for as long as it’s popular.

Summary

Anki is great. I’ve been using it daily for most of this month and I’ve even put in some time localizing it so that I could give it to one of my students. He’s been hard working, but continues to struggle to build his vocabulary. I’ve put all the vocabulary from my first semester CDs into Anki decks for him and have high hopes. I wouldn’t be using it myself and I certainly wouldn’t be recommending it to my students if I didn’t think Anki was the best of its breed.

Rating: 4.5/5

Ever since taking a stake in my school, I’ve been very strict about failing students. Experience has taught me how necessary it is to fail the students who should fail.

A long time ago, when I was at a large chain school, I wasn’t allowed to fail students. Due to business reasons that were incomprehensible at the time, I had to just keep giving students re-test after re-test until they passed. After passing them, these students would drag the entire class’s progress to a snail’s pace over the next semester. Invariably, those same students ended up failing the next semester. Letting them continue was not only bad for their classmates, but it hurt their learning too.

Now, I have a better understanding of how my old boss felt. Many parents are simply too proud to accept the idea of their child repeating a semester. Many would take their children to a different school, rather than let them repeat a semester. Their reaction is even stronger than that of parents who can’t accept the results of entrance tests.

I know first hand the business costs of actually failing students. I fail about 15% of the students in each class every semester, and those that fail are more likely to quit our school than those who pass. I’ve probably lost over a dozen students who would have stayed if I hadn’t made them repeat a semester. Especially for a small school without external funding, that hurts.

However, the benefits of failing them are clear– the rest of a class can move more quickly without them, and they can learn more in a class that’s suited to their level. In the long run, the superior quality of education provided does lead to more new students.

Considering my goals of putting education first, I’ve been very, very strict about failing students. Anyone who fails a semester test has to drop down a level, as does anyone who fails a smaller test and two subsequent retests. But this week, I let a student continue after failing two retests of a smaller test.

She told me that she really wanted to stay in her class. She offered to do extra work. Her parents had nothing to do with it. She was motivated to work harder, so that she could keep learning at a faster pace. That was hard to say no to. If she really is self-motivated, she’ll probably do fine. If not, then she’ll fail the next final test and drop down a level then.

I’ve written before about the crazy English names people in Taiwan often go by. This year, though, there’s something entirely new for me.

I’ve had students before who often changed their English name, one of whom even went so far as to take a new one every month. However, I hadn’t ever had a student with an ambiguous name until recently.

He told me his name was Sinbad. But then he wrote Simba on his tape. I updated my records. The next week, he gave me his homework book. It said Sinbad. I changed his name back. Then he wrote Simba on his test book. This was odd enough that I pulled him aside after class and asked him what the heck his name was.

He said he wasn’t that picky. Maybe I should see if he answers to Sinclair.

Last week, I encountered a dilemma of the sort that I’m really not qualified to deal with… and yet I had to. A new virus has been all over the news in Taiwan. To me, it doesn’t seem like much more than a particularly nasty flu, but a few children have already died from it. Some of the more excitable newscasters have even compared it with SARS. While I fully understand the need to effectively quarantine outbreaks, I felt that the media and the populace at large panicked to an undue degree during the SARS outbreak a few years ago.

One of my students’ schools closed her classes down for 10 days. She wasn’t sick herself; it was a precautionary measure. I hadn’t even been aware of this fact, until some of my other students’ parents started suggesting that we not let her come to my classes for a week and a half. I thought this was ridiculous. If they felt the risk was that high, they could keep their own kids at home. Barring any occurrence of conclusive symptoms in her, or a fever at the very least, it seemed unfair to bar her from my class.

Without my knowledge, the secretary called her parents and said something to the effect that all the parents would need to meet before the next class and decide what to do with her. Her parents mistook that to mean that we didn’t want her there, and decided to pull her completely. They were wounded at the idea that everyone thought of their daughter as a “disease carrier” or something to that effect. The speed at which these events happened was pretty shocking. Others seemed likely to pull their own kids if she weren’t kept out of the class. Virtually as soon as I knew anything was wrong at all, parents were taking sides and passions were flaring.

What a mess. In the end, a great deal of talking and smoothing of ruffled feathers (along with a drop in media coverage of this flu) smoothed everything out. We really should have a standard set of procedures to deal with this sort of problem.

One of the great things about teaching EFL is seeing the different responses of each class to the same material. My old Monday/Thursday class finished reading Pocahontas (the 45 page Oxford Bookworms version) a bit back, and they enjoyed it quite a bit. One student had a few difficulties with all the new words, and the Indian names in particular, but even she got into it by the end. The interesting thing with this class, though, was their reaction to the story.

Most classes talk about how they think it was great that Pocahontas lived with in Jamestown and learned English, or how it was exciting that she went to England, or how John Smith should have married her, or how the Indians should have killed the English settlers. Not this class, though. Nope. All they wanted to talk about was how bad John Smith was. And not for how he handled the Algonquin, either. Nope. He was veeeerry bad because he went back to England while nearly dying from an illness and didn’t send a letter to Pocahontas, who was only 14 and didn’t know how to read yet anyway. What an insensitive jerk!

Yesterday was 中秋節, one of the three major Chinese holidays. Just like the other major Chinese holidays, the main focus is eating. This one is particularly good, since you’re supposed to barbecue. It’s kind of like the 4th of July in the US, except that you get to barbecue anytime you want, all weekend!

On Saturday, I had a little “warm-up BBQ”, on Sunday I ate with two of my students and their family (and destroyed them at wii tennis), on Monday I got a surprise invite from Ben to go to his rooftop party, and then yesterday I wussed out and just hit the 2-for-1 Italian special at the Cain. I’m feeling slightly ill from three straight days of drinking like a fish, eating over a pound of barbecued beef, lamb, chicken, octopus, mushrooms, and whatever else came my way… but it’s a very satisfied kind of ill feeling.

Three of my 1st and 2nd graders are ready to move to my evening classes. Here’s one of their spelling drills. They haven’t memorized these words; it’s all based on phonics. I’m not used to having so few students, and the video is a bit sluggish. I’m happy that I was able to get help filming them at all, though. Thanks, Somimi!

They’ve studied English for 6 hours a week for 10.5 months. They’ve covered about 40 spelling patterns, but they occasionally forget some of the less common ones (such as eigh).

voiced and unvoiced

Reading Sandra's shirt

Friendly competition

For a more detailed explanation of how these phonics drills work, see my earlier post on them.

This is insanity. I had eight hours of class yesterday. While that may not sound like so much to some, for a teacher at least, it’s a lot. While I’m in class, I’m basically at the front of the room, pacing back and forth like bull, shouting out directions and whipping my students into a (controlled) frenzy. Phonics drills for beginning level students are especially hard on the voice; I exaggerate and draw out each vowel sound at the top of my lungs.

Normally, a teacher at this kind of school only does four hours a day of class, but I’ve managed to line up twice that on Mondays. Part of it is that unlike many of the Modawei-decended schools, I not only have evening classes for third graders and up, I also have early afternoon classes for first and second graders. For most of the year, that has meant that on Mondays and Thursdays, I have five and a half hours of class. Then came the problem with Kristen.

Kristen is the cutest, most adorable second grader in the world, and she tried to take my evening class. I recommended to her parents that they wait six months and then have her start my class. You know how willing Chinese parents are to put off any sort of schooling for their children… In the end, we gave it a shot. She worked hard, I gave her a few remedial classes, and I kept in touch with her parents. It didn’t work, though. She was too little. She had a hard time remembering the grammar, her writing was too slow, and her homework was taking her way too much time. Over a couple of months, she slowly started disliking English class. She always had a great attitude while she was there, but she complained at home.

The solution was simple- move her into an afternoon class. There was a problem, though. I only had one class for first and second graders, and they had already been studying for 7 months. They’d finished almost all my phonics curriculum. They’d also gone through level five of Up and Away, 20 Up and Away readers, and eight Dr. Seuss books. There was no way she could fit into that class. That class doesn’t end until fall, and by then Kristen will be a third grader and won’t get out of school early enough for my afternoon classes.

Faced with all of these problems, I did something crazy. I pulled her from my evening class, and opened a summer first and second grader class for her. It’s two hours a day on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays from 12:45 to 2:45PM. So far, she’s doing wonderfully, she loves English again, and fortunately for me, five other students have trickled into the class. After eight teaching hours yesterday, I woke up feeling like I’d swapped voices with a 50-year old smoker, though.

Things have been busy again. I’ve been helping Poagao migrate his site to WordPress. It’s been much more difficult helping him migrate than anybody else I’ve helped. Since Google updated Blogger, all the old migration tools are broken. The fact that Poagao’s Journal is six years old, is a Byzantine mix of modern CSS and bronze-age table-based design, and has well over a thousand entries doesn’t help either. My curriculum work is really what’s been keeping me so busy, though.
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