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Achievement Profile: Marc Helgesen
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Marc Helgesen is co-author of the English Firsthand textbook series (Longman) which is the market leader in Japan and Korea and popular throughout Asia. He is also an author of Active Listening, from Cambridge University Press. He teaches at Miyagi Gakuin––a women’s university in Sendai, Japan––and also in the Columbia University Teachers College MA TESOL program-Japan. He had led teacher development workshops throughout Asia and has been featured speaker at JALT (Japan Assoc. for Language Teaching), Korea TESOL and Thai TESOL.

Some Marc Helgesen links:

Marc Helgesen's Homepage (www.mgu.ac.jp/~ic/helgesen/Helgesen.front.htm)
English Firsthand Cafe (www.efcafe.com)
"Language Planning" (eltnews.com)
Marc Helgesen's e-mail

An ESL MiniConference Online interview
with Marc Helgesen:

Marc Helgesen

What is your main ESL activity now? What are your principal projects, and what is on the back burner?

One of the main things I am interested, both as a teacher and a writer is LANGUAGE PLANNING. By this, I mean giving the students time, before a speaking activity, to think about what they want to say and how they will say it. I think we too often demand “instant production” which locks students into saying whatever they can come up with right away. That means we don’t let them get to the depth, complexity and fluency that they can achieve. I am using these ideas in my classroom and also in some books that will be coming from Longman.

Another idea I am working/playing with is innervoice––the idea that whenever we have a conversation, we are really having two: one with the person we are talking to and one with ourselves. We all do this in our native language. We can help learners do it in English. Another thing I am working on is physical activity in the classroom. This strikes me as just as important for adults as for kids––I’m thinking here of college students who have to sit all day through lectures and also of company workers who take English classes at night after a long day of work. Physical activity is a great way to increase their energy level. Here are links to Innervoice and physical activity workshop handouts:

Innervoice: http://www.mgu.ac.jp/~ic/helgesen2/paper2.htm
Physical: http://www.mgu.ac.jp/~ic/helgesen/physical/physical_-prehtml.htm

One other project that I am very excited about: In Japan and other countries, it is very common to take university students on English study tours to the USA, UK, Australia, etc. Later this year, I’m taking students on one to Thailand. I’m working with Dave Hopkins (who had an Achievement Profile here last May) on setting it up. The idea is we will have Thai, Japanese and Korean learners all working together on their English. It will be at an adventure camp that Dave runs. The idea of learners from different Asian countries working together on English and sharing their culture is pretty exciting.

How did you start your ESL career? Who influenced your decision? What were some important formative experiences in the early stages of your development?

By accident. I was a reading teacher in a maximum-security prison in southern Illinois. They started sending a large number of Hispanics to my reading class. But it wasn’t just a reading problem: they couldn’t read because they didn’t know English. So I bought a book on teaching ESL and started up a little class. And I enjoyed it, so starting taking courses and eventually got a degree in it.

One important thing––this seems so obvious now but I think a lot of people new to ELT miss out on––is that I got involved in the professional organization––Illinois TESOL/BE in my case––right away. There is so much you can learn by being involved. You are not alone. There are other people who will share the ideas you need. Through TESOL, I got to know a wonderful trainer named Jeff Bright who sort of became my mentor. I also had a chance to learn for some great teachers at conference. One I still remember some 20+ years later is John Fanselow who had a mantra of “figure out what you do and try the opposite just to see what happens.” I still try to live by this. It works.

Anyway, prison wasn’t a place I wanted to spend my whole life (not a totally original thought) so after finishing my M.A., I came to Japan for what I thought would be two years. That was in 1982. I’ve been here ever since. Teaching lead to writing. Writing lead to a university job. I’m still playing and having a great time.

What are the four or five language/culture backgrounds with which you are most familiar as a teacher? Which ones are you familiar with from the perspective of a language learner yourself? What insights have you gained in how to meet the needs of English learners from these cultures and language backgrounds?

As I said, I started off working with Hispanics. I’ve now been in Japan for more than 20 years so that’s the group I know best. And learning nihon-go (Japanese) is a great experience of a very foreign language. Because of my writing, I frequently visit other Asian countries, especially Korea, Taiwan and Thailand. I find it fascinating to note how both how very different the cultures are and the similarities in the challenges learners and teachers face.

One thing that we all share is the historical evolution of education in Asia. Learning grew out of the temple. The result is a very top down system of learning. Just as priests and monks were the first teachers filling their disciples’ heads with knowledge, we continue to have education systems that are organized like that. (In Japan, classrooms usually have a platform at the front of the room for the teacher to stand on. I’ve often wondered how much that is about being seen and how much it is symbolic of the position.)

So, as English teachers, we need to look at ways to make it OK for learners to be more active.

Throughout East and Southeast Asia, we also share the realities like a “the test is everything” orientation (in some countries, TOIEC seems to be a religion) and huge classes. I’ve had conversation classes of over 100. So, of course, you do almost everything in pairs and groups. One insight: Most of us trained in western teaching methodology think of pair/groupwork as about efficiency. It is maximizing practice. It does that but I would suggest that for learners in group cultures (which many Asia cultures are to varying degrees), efficiency has nothing to do with. The purpose of being in a group is to be a group, to work together. It’s an important difference. Think cooperative learning.

If you had to give three pieces of advice to a new ESL teacher, what would they be?

• Give learners time to think through tasks before they are expected to speak. Even a couple minutes just to look over a page can work wonders. Perhaps play background music to let the students and yourself relax.

• Experiment. Figure out how you usually do things and then try something new. If you always start a textbook unit from the beginning, try starting from the end. If you always stand in the front of the room, sit in the back. Try things. See what happens.

• Get involved in the profession. Teachers groups like TESOL or IATEFL, especially if they have local or regional chapters, are great. On-line discussions are another source of help. If you are just starting to teach, keep in mind the real learning–-and fun–-is in front of you, even if you already have a degree or diploma. There are lots of people who will help you.

What do you see as the most important issues facing the ESL/EFL teaching profession today?

Hmmm. There are so many things happening. Here in Asia there is a real boom in interest in Extensive Reading (ER). I find that very exciting. Teachers who are interested in might want to check out the ER pages on the Internet: www.extensivereading.net.

Other things on the Internet are also making a difference. Students making key pals (Internet pen pals) has made English more real and immediate for many. Also, web sites like this one let teachers from all over the world talk to each other. The Internet has allowed the rise of distance education. I think this is useful but sometimes wonder how much is education and how much is just business and marketing. Do the distance educators really know the realities of classrooms in places like Japan, Korea and Thailand?

Also, as international communication in English becomes more important and more common, I worry about the growing gap between rich and poor countries. One thing I do to try to make a difference is collecting my students used textbooks at the end of the school year. I ship them to a school in a country where students don’t have books. This year I am sending them to Tibet. I would encourage other teachers to do the same thing.

Here’s a contact address:

Jim Echelberry c/o
Nationalities Department
Qinghai Education College
Xining 810008
PR China

Interviewed by Robb Scott

2003 ESL MiniConference Online