I wrote this at the start of the year and after many chats on twitter (including this one with Mike) I don’t think I would stand by everything written here. particularly the idea of “proving” a method, which is perhaps something we can’t do very easily, if at all. I do think though, that particular sword cuts both ways and so making claims about how effective a method is must be viewed as equally dubious. I really hoped to get this article published somewhere but it wasn’t to be. I still think its important to examine a method which is so widely used. Even if you disagree with what I’ve written, I think the debate itself is important. So here is my (slightly edited) take on GenkiEnglish. This article will introduce and examine Genki English (hereafter GE), a materials supplier, and teaching methodology which is currently being used to teach English to large numbers of children in public schools throughout Asia, including Japan, China and India. Thailand’s government, together with the British Council, has introduced GE into “every primary school in the country” (Graham a). There are now several million students around the world learning from this method.
Genki English is both a materials supplier and method of teaching. The site itself claims to be “a collection of games, songs and ideas for use by teachers of languages to children”(Graham b). It contains teaching materials but it also contains sample lessons, a curriculum and more importantly a specific approach to teaching. This approach might be termed the “Genki Method” and owner and creator Richard Graham can be seen presenting his ideas on teaching on a variety of YouTube videos.
The GE Method
None of the materials or techniques used by GE are particularly new or original. Graham notes “Although I’ve given [GE] a funky name, there’s nothing too new or ground breaking theory wise, it’s just a collection of useful, helpful ideas and resources that work very, very well” (Graham c). Speaking and listening, seem to be the major focus with much of the actual teaching method involving “old fashioned drilling”(Graham d) in the form of songs and games.
The lesson plans are relatively fixed, every lesson following the same pattern and the same timing. The pattern involves students repeating the target language in song form:
Warm up/Review (3-5 minutes)
2. Introduction of new English (15-20 minutes), including teaching of the song. Use this 3 step approach to keep kids interest and energy levels high.
a) introduce new vocab
b) teach song a cappella with the “Mini Lesson”
c) sing together with the music,
3. Practice of new material (15-20 minutes) (Graham e)
There is also a step two, which involves projects, such as students talking about pets or food and contacting foreign students (Graham e) but this is only available to students who have completed the first step of the curriculum.
The GE material is targeted at Japanese elementary school children and as such there is very little material for writing and reading practice, (MEXT prohibited the teaching of reading and writing) though there is a phonics book available. There are also songs and games included as well as cultural events like lessons about Christmas and Halloween all of which follows MEXT guidelines. (MEXT online) The ordering of items is described as purposefully “non-linear”. Some lessons are purely about learning related vocabulary, such as “fruit market” and “colours” while others are largely grammatical such as the three lessons dealing with “where is the…” structure. The language targets are fairly basic and do not tend to develop much beyond the present tense. However, the stated aim of the curriculum is to allow the students to say “anything they want”(e), an ambitious claim and as past tense, future aspect and even plural nouns (among other items) are excluded, a seemingly unlikely one. It is also quite limited for a 6 year language course. If the material can be mixed and matched as the website claims then it seems that students are not expected to move much beyond acquiring a very basic grasp of the language. The example six year plan by Joel Bacha, featured on the site seems to bear this out. Graham notes that while others may see this as a weakness, he sees it as “a Challenge! You can go anywhere you and your kids interests lie and teach things exactly to their level”(Graham g.) This also seems in line with MEXT who suggests “Easy English conversation” as one of the aims of Elementary English (MEXT online)
As a young learner material supplier, comparison with Oxford’s six level “let’s go” series is interesting, as these feature much of the entire GE syllabus in the first book. They also include plural nouns very early on (arguably useful for languages which lack these) and go on to more complex structures in the later books. Let’s goincludes reading and writing, has numerous authors, with a great deal of experience teaching children, such as Ritsuko Nakata, president of the IIEEC. It also has a reader series which complements the textbooks, flashcards and picture dictionaries. Therefore it is apparent that Japan is not lacking resources or experience regarding the teaching of children.
Does GE Work?
Although it is perhaps unfair to criticise what is essentially a publicity website it is unavoidable as there is no other published material relating to GE. There are quite a number of questionable claims made on the site, for example:
First is the rather odd claim that setting a goal is half way to reaching it. Second is the claim that people usually teach three or four answers to questions in a lesson. It is difficult to be entirely sure what this means or if Graham actually has some data pertaining to “number of answers usually taught in English lessons”. Regardless, according to Graham a teacher can now do nearly twice as much!
Simply by deciding to do the song gives you a huge advantage as it sets a goal, something the kids can work towards. A goal properly set is one half reached. It means whereas usually you could teach 3 or 4 answers to a question in one lesson, you can now do 7 or 8 (Graham d).
A further problem with this approach is although Graham admits GE is not original, he seems to be suggesting here that introducing songs into a children’s English class is innovative. With the huge number of children’s English textbooks, games, flash cards and CDs available it seems quite improbable that this really could be the key to GE’s success, or even something that English teachers are not already aware of. Moreover, the GE materials themselves are largely produced by Graham and are arguably less ‘polished’ than most published materials. The songs are also written and performed by Graham whereas the “let’s go” series, for example includes material performed and written by Jazz Chants series author Carolyn Graham. It is of course possible that the rough-and-ready nature of the materials are attractive to young children. I have personally used some of the CDs, with very young children, and they enjoyed them at lot.
The most serious problem though is with claims relating to the effectiveness of the method. Graham claims the materials work “very, very well” (c) but it is not at all clear what “work” means in this sentence. Do they, for example, work in creating an enjoyable learning environment? Or do they work in helping inexperienced teachers navigate the perils of Elementary school classes or do they actually lead to students learning English? It is impossible to know as there is no published material relating to their effectiveness.
Graham does address this issue on his web page noting “Of course we all know Genki English works great because we see it every time on the kids’ faces” (2009). He continues by noting that this level of evidence is not sufficient for some, such as BOEs and head teachers (what misers!). He then claims research has been carried out by the University of Newcastle, into the effectiveness of the approach and that the results appeared positive. Though the research is not available yet and so I can’t comment on it here. More recently the GE web page carries the logo “Researched by Harvard University Graduate School of Education“ though what this is supposed to signify, I’m not entirely sure.
Graham also suggests that “although the ideas on these pages are all fun and exciting they do correlate very well with current practise and language theory” (c) but fails to indicate what language theory and practices these are. There are also no sources of research or theory quoted on the site, an admission he explains by stating “there are three basic reasons why I don’t quote direct sources on the site” (c). These are (1) that there is, according to Graham, little credible research in the field of applied linguistics but that what does exist supports GE (2), that the techniques were “tested on students”, with unsuccessful ideas being abandoned and (3) that:
A lot of the methodology behind Genki English is taken from my own experience and research of many years into various different fields, from science teaching to advertising. Much of this consisted of reading articles and books that I cannot now trace or in discussions with a great many people, most of which were never recorded (Graham c).
As to the third, if current research is not credible it seems unlikely reading it would have helped to inform a theory.Though it seems that perhaps what was read was more eclectic and unfortunately unavailable. Graham also claims that “English stands up to any educational scrutiny”(Graham f) though again it is tempting to wonder, with the supposed paucity of research, what exactly this is supposed to mean. It is also questionable as to whether a claim like this, made by the creator of a method and with no empirical peer reviewed studies to back it up, can be taken seriously.
In a different section Graham claims that speaking and listening are focused on because “There’s no point starting reading or writing till the kids can actually talk in English” and that “I’m sure you’ve all seen what happens when things are done the opposite way round”(Graham e). This is a point made with some conviction and it would be interesting to know how this conclusions was reached and what the dire consequences of starting the wrong way round are. Could a teacher not start all of the skills at the same time? In the same section Graham suggests that speaking is the “biggest challenge” for almost “every country in the world” which again, seems like a rather definitive claim to make in the absence of any supporting evidence. Speaking from personal experience, certainly among Arab students the reverse is quite often true.
The Reason GE Exists
GE can perhaps be seen as a product of poor language policy at the governmental level. Routinely ALTs with no teaching experience have been and continue to be instructed to teach English in Japanese Elementary schools with little guidance as to what to teach and how to teach it. On the GE website Graham notes, in the “what are we supposed to be teaching in Japanese elementary schools” section, that “Nobody has really decided” (Graham g) and adds that the website was originally set up precisely because he had encountered this problem. It should be noted that Graham was not a language specialist tasked with creating a syllabus for the whole of Japan but rather a young ALT with no language teaching experience. It is somewhat depressing to realise that this was over 10 years ago and the situation in Japan has not improved since then.
The lack of a clear syllabus in GE as noted above is reflected in the complete lack of a syllabus in the MEXT guidelines. Therefore any criticism of GE should be seen in the light of this fact. However, despite the usefulness of GE for ALTs who find themselves in the situation described above, the appropriateness of the introduction of this approach into different contexts, such as state run schools in Thailand in conjunction with the British Council has to be wondered about.
The Thai Connection
To his credit, Graham donated materials to the Thai MOE, through the British Council. The British council in Thailand chose to approach him on the basis that there was a “strong positive response from learners and teachers”, not because they had any evidence that these methods worked or were suitable to the particular context (Budsaprapat, T personal communication 13 August 2009 and 27 August 2009).The British Council has gone on to license the use of GE in 15 of its teaching centres worldwide, giving an untested and limited method considerable legitimacy.
There is arguably a gap between what committed EFL professionals would like the EFL world to be like and what it actually is like. It seems counterintuitive that a method, like GE, created by one young teacher trying to survive elementary school English classes, supported by little evidence of efficacy, and employing largely homemade materials should become the choice teaching method of millions of teachers around the world even being adopted by governments and institutions such as the British Council. This is perhaps a reflection on the EFL world as a whole. Is a method that suggests children’s English lessons be energetic and enjoyable really a revolutionary concept for English teachers?
I personally believe that GE is, at its core well intention and enjoyable for teachers and students. However, I would like to think that methods exist and are used because of their merits and not merely because children seem to enjoy doing them. Language education should absolutely be enjoyable for students but that is not enough. Students pay to learn and so should be taught with the best methods and materials available.I congratulate the entrepreneurial spirit of GE but am somewhat alarmed by its growth and acceptance. GE may make children and teachers feel good but is that enough?