Nearly 15 years ago, in the heyday of the American
branch-campus trend in Japan, I began working as an
ESL instructor at Southern Illinois University-Carbondale's
Niigata campus in Nakajo. About 20 of us served as an
advance team for a full-fledged satellite SIU campus which
still operates today. Our job was to deliver English-language
instruction to students who planned to study at SIU's branch
campus in Nakajo once it opened for business the following
At that stage in my ESL career, I had three years of overseas
experience in Ecuador, where I had run a small language
school, done teacher-training and taught ESL at Academic
Cotopaxi, an American international school in Quito. I had
also returned to my alma mater, the University of Kansas,
for a year to study discourse analysis and update myself
on current ESL theory. I was excited about trying out some
of my new ideas for how to motivate ESL learners and help
them make more rapid progress. I was particularly interested
in integrating some of Stephen Krashen's "natural approach"
and "comprehensible input" with the principles of reading
instruction as presented by Francoise Grellet.
Nakajo, Japan, is a beautiful fishing village about 20 minutes
by bicycle from the coast of the Sea of Japan. To get to Nakajo,
we flew into Tokyo and rode a bullet train to Niigata, before
riding a bus or local train for an hour to finish the trip. Nakajo
has roads which wind and curve gently past hallowed shrines
and traditional homes. I rode a bicycle back and forth to school
every day, enjoying watching rice fields waving in the breeze.
Whenever I encountered someone along the way, we would
bow our heads to each other as a friendly gesture.
The thinking I had was that by using familiar objects, places
and experiences from a local context which I shared with the
students (Nakajo was new to many of them, too), I could help
them enjoy more frequent "wow, I understand that" events
while challenging them every day to push to comprehend
Krashen's "i + 1" and, as per Grellet, make and check their
own hypotheses or guesses about what was coming up next
in a developing storyline.
For, example, here is a first episode of a story we developed
together, "The Magic Bonsai Tree" (One of the first things
you'll notice is that I knew absolutely nothing about Japanese
culture or even simple things like the fact bonsai trees are
forced miniatures. This ignorance lent a somewhat fun-loving,
not-afraid-to-make-mistakes tone to these lessons.)
Every day, as Hitachi walked to SIU-C at Nakajo
with his classmates, they talked about a gigantic bonsai
tree in the cemetery near their path. None of them had
ever seen the tree up close, but they knew that it was
supposed to be magic. The people of Nakajo said that
if you ate the leaves of this magic tree the river monsters
would creep into your home at night and raid your
refrigerator. Hitachi proudly boasted to his friends,
"That story does not scare me."
First, I read that passage out loud to a group of 20 students
and asked them to simply draw a picture, nothing fancy, on
their papers in response. My goal was to tap their unconscious
understanding of the context, the story, the developing plot.
I figured that anything a student drew after hearing that day's
episode for the first time would establish an individualized
starting point for the rest of the lesson. I gave students just
a minute or two to draw, so that those who understood the
least were not asked to remain idle for long.
Second, I read the day's episode to the students again. This
time, I asked them to write two or three questions of their
own about the characters or action of the story. At first,
it was necessary to give students one or two examples,
and as the days went by we learned more and more possible
patterns for asking questions.
The third step in our daily 15-20 minute storyline exercise
was for the students, after hearing the day's episode for
a third and final time, to write their own versions of what
the next episode would be, what would happen next in the
story. Again, this is based on Grellet's description of the
reading process as continual hypothesis-building, checking
and recasting of new hypotheses.
I took the papers up each day and marked them, with positive
comments about all the pictures, corrections of question-asking
grammar and corrections as well as comments about the
"What happens next" sections. Then, after marking all the
papers for the day, I would compose the next day's episode,
drawing as much as possible from the suggestions the students
themselves had come up with.
We started the story exercise each day with me handing back
their papers from the day before and addressing any concerns
they had before unveiling the next episode. I would also try
to get to class early enough to write the previous day's episode
on the board for anyone who wanted to to copy.
I remember a really great Spanish class I had in high school.
It was my second year of Spanish and I was a sophomore at
Great Bend Senior High in Great Bend, Kansas. Mrs. Duncan
was our teacher. She was bright, friendly, encouraging and
ran a very lively class.
Several classmates were seniors just taking another elective
to finish their requirements. One of those seniors was Dan
Oliver. I'm sure he's doing something very creative and of
very high quality today. In addition to our regular class lesson,
all of us were involved in Dan's personal enrichment activity.
He arrived about 20 minutes early to our first-hour class
every day, with a new episode of a story he was writing
in Spanish. Mrs. Duncan would come in, see the board
filled with Dan's latest episode about Lorenzo's misadventures,
and proceed to mark, correct and discuss any errors or
I think those stories in Mrs. Duncan's Spanish class years
ago, and, hopefully, the stories I developed with my Japanese
students in Nakajo were experiences which sparked our
imaginations and allowed us to enjoy episodes of connecting
and understanding at a faster rate than we otherwise would
have done. I strongly encourage ESL teachers to find ways
to incorporate storyline mini-lessons into their overall teaching
By Robb Scott
2002 ESL MiniConference Online