Archive for category Opinions

New typeface recommendation: Cambridge

lowercase l and uppercase I in Arial.

lowercase l and uppercase I in Arial.

Those of you who have seen me speak, or gone through one of my presentations on this site, know that I am very interested in typefaces (fonts), especially how L2 learners cope with different typefaces and I have recommended a number of typefaces in the past. These recommendations are based on a number of criteria, specifically a number of difficult letter combinations/contrasts that L2 learners struggle with, for example, the lower case l and the uppercase I. I strongly argue that only typefaces with good legibility, that is to say letter shapes that are sufficiently different, should be used. Because of this all of my recommendations have been for serif typefaces, like New Century Schoolbook or Bembo Infant. I have yet to come across a good sans-serif typeface that had the legibility required for L2 learners, until today.

Taking a step back for a moment, my recommendation, for supplemental materials that is based on a number of studies which report that the typeface easiest for readers is the typeface they are most familiar with (see Felici, 2003: 67-8 for example), is to use the typeface found in the textbook you are using in class. For me this year, that has been Myriad Pro, the typeface used in the English Firsthand series (Smiley, 2012). It’s a very nice typeface and as an L1 reader I enjoy it a lot, but I have been quite frustrated with it for my students. It has a number of the problems that I have identified for L2 users: indistinguishable I l, insufficient contrast between dbpq, double-story minuscule a, etc. I have been thinking for the better part of the year, that I would like to find something different and for whatever reason, this morning I decided to have a look.

Ladies and Gentlemen, I am happy to recommend Cambridge, by Nicholas Garner of Aviation Partners as a sans-serif typeface for teaching materials for second language learners.

If you take a look at the glyphs page on myfonts.com you can see that

  1. The uppercase I is actually serifed, and the lowercase l has a slight bend to the right
  2. The lowercase d, b, q and p are unique letter shapes, not just mirror images turned around or flipped over.
  3. The lowercase i and j have sufficient contrast.
  4. The lowercase f and t have sufficient contrast.
  5. The lowercase c and o have sufficient contrast.
  6. Both the lowercase a and g are single-story.

Cambridge Glyphs

In other words, it’s the perfect sans-serif typeface for L2 learners. And it should be because it was designed to be used in educational materials. Here’s the blurb from Aviation Partners website:

Cambridge

I am happy to recommend it. Now I just have to get some funding together from my university so I can buy it.

References

Felici, J. (2003). The Complete Manual of Typography. Berkley, CA: Peachpit Press.

Smiley, J. (2012). The Anatomy of a Page in a Single Typeface. Between the Keys, 20 (1) 31-35.

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TESOL 2013 App Mini Review

I just downloaded the TESOL 2013 App for my iPad and have been playing around with it for the last half hour or so. Overall, I am impressed and I think that it is a step in the right direction that all major conferences in the world need to think about.

Overview

The app is free and I downloaded the iPad version, as this made sense to have an app at that size. The app is made by eShow who I believe also handles their online registration, etc.

The app has several main features: users can look at an overview of the conference schedule; they have several ways to look at presentations (by session time or presenter); users can also look up exhibitors, see a timeline of people tweeting with the official hashtag (#TESOL13) and an interactive map.

The Good

It’s an app! I love the fact that there is an app for the conference. I will be carrying around my iPad anyway, and I’d love to be able to leave my conference handbook in the hotel.

I love the fact that I can read a session description and flag it (by touching the star in the corner) and the app creates my own personalized schedule. Very handy!

The Bad

The app can only be used in the portrait orientation. I suppose that if you are using it on your phone this makes sense, but I would like to be able to turn my iPad in any direction.

The interactive map feature only shows the floor plan of the exhibitor area. It doesn’t show the rooms where the individual presentations are being held. If TESOL were a trade show, with a huge exhibitor area and limited presentations, that might be useful, but the opposite is true. TESOL has a relatively small exhibitor area and lots of presentations.

There is no search feature!

The Annoying

When looking at the entry of an individual speaker, after you are finished and hit the ‘back’ button, it takes you back to the top of the list and then you have to remember where you were and scroll down. If you are looking to see who is at the conference and what they are talking about it’s quite annoying to have to go back to the top.

There is no search feature!

What I wish it did

First and foremost, this app needs a search feature. I should be able to input a few key words, names, times, etc. and find exactly what I am looking for. I can’t believe that such a basic feature is missing.

Second, the presentations are only listed by time, which is fine, I definitely read conference handbooks by time to see what’s on when, but I also browse by theme or “session track” as it’s called in this app. I want to be able to see all of the presentations on individual topics in one place. This is very important for a big, diverse conference like TESOL.

Third, there is a lack of inter-connectivity in the app. For example, if I am looking at a session description, I would like to be able to touch on anyone of the category fields and be taken to other sessions with that same label. For example, if I touch the session type field, I’d like to be able to see all of the sessions of the same type. Or, more importantly, when I touch the room field, I’d like to be taken to the map to see where the presentation is being held.

Forth, I love the Twitter timeline, but I wish that I could tweet right from the app. In other words, I wish that I could see what everyone else is saying and be able to reply or add my own thoughts, after all, Twitter is about interaction, not just one-way communication.

Conclusion

The lack of a complete map of the conference center means that I will still have to carry the handbook. Also, because the app doesn’t list the sessions by interest section, I will still have to spend some time on the first day of the conference reading through the handbook to make sure that I haven’t missed anything. I envision myself using both the handbook and this app side by side.

Overall, I think it is a step in the right direction, I think that all conferences need an app, but because it lacks some critical features, I won’t be able to skip the conference handbook just yet.

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Five reasons to go to JALT

I was walking down the street yesterday in Umeda and I ran into a former co-worker of mine from ten years ago. (This happens a lot and I always say the Osaka is the biggest little town I’ve every lived in, but that’s another story). We were both in a hurry and had places to be, but pledged to get together and ‘catch-up’ sometime. I asked him if he was going to be at the JALT conference next weekend and his response was, “JALT? Why would I go to that?” His reaction got me thinking. I know that JALT has a bit of a PR problem, and I have some ideas about how to fix that, but I’ll leave that for another post. Instead, I want to list some reasons that I think people should go to the JALT National Conference in Hamamatsu this coming weekend.

It’s an international event

Although often referred to as the ‘national conference’ it is in fact an international conference attracting speakers and participants from all over the world. This year all five of the plenary speakers are from abroad and it will be a great opportunity to see how Japan fits in with the rest of the world in the language teaching arena.

Networking

There are typically between 1500 – 2000 people at the conference, so whatever your interests in language education are, you will be able to find like-minded people. Are you thinking about doing a research project? You can find people doing similar work. Are you looking for a job? There are people at JALT who are looking to hire someone. I’ve personally gotten a job from someone I met at the conference before, so yes, it does happen.

Publishers

All of the major ELT publishers in Japan are at the conference. Like it or not, publishers are a major part of our industry and a big part of any teachers job. The conference is a very convenient place to be able to meet with all of them and in my experience, they are more likely to give away samples, teachers guides, and other materials to people at JALT than at smaller events like the ETJ Expos.

You’ll learn something

One of my favorite things to do is to drop in on a presentation on a topic that I’m unfamiliar with. I’d like to think that I’m fairly well read in my areas of expertise, but there are lots of things in language education that I know nothing about. I find it can be quite stimulating to learn about an area of language education that I’ve never thought about.

It’s fun

There are lots of social events and other things besides presentations going on. It’s possible to stay completely busy by only going to parties. Additionally, one of the most interesting things for me is to see part of Japan that I’ve never seen before. Let’s be honest, Hamamatsu is probably not a place that is high on most people’s ‘places to visit’ list. I’ve been there before (in 1998) and I’m curious to see how much things have changed, or not as the case may be.

 

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Another round of testing…

So this weekend is the “Center Exam” in Japan — the largest university entrance exam. This of course has me wondering about what my students are going to be like year and thinking about the state of education in Japanese universities in general.

The Japan Times published a pretty good overview of the problems facing Japanese universities this week. It is well worth the read. A couple of quotes jumped out at me.

“The decline [in academic abilities] is not because Japanese are studying less, but because universities — amid the falling birthrate and greater competition to keep enrollment up- are increasingly accepting youths whose academic levels would have been too low”

This is absolutely true. I’ve seen it firsthand in the last eight years that I’ve been teaching at universities here. My first year teaching one of my biggest concerns was making sure that I was using materials that weren’t too difficult. Now, it’s convincing the students to buy the textbook and to bring it to class.

“Keeping the door open to people who want to go to college is not a bad thing, but universities must make students hit the books harder and make it more difficult to graduate”

I totally agree. I have no problem with so-called open university enrollment — I went to an open enrollment undergraduate university — but the flip side of open enrollment is not only that students actually have to prove themselves, but also that not everyone gets to graduate. I’ve worked at five different tertiary educational institutions here and at every single one of them, I have been pressured to pass students who didn’t deserve it.

Of course changing things is easier said than done. Education is such a complex problem and it is so hard to know where to begin to fix it. If universities were to start kicking students out after their first or second year, than in order to stay financially solvent, they would have to start admitting more and more first year students. Which would mean more faculty, specifically more adjunct faculty. But not just instructors, they would need more administrators. Universities would also need more classrooms, bigger campuses, more facilities. It’s not a simple problem.

“Accepting more foreign students with strong skills and knowledge will improve the overall academic achievement statistics.”

In my experience this usually doesn’t work. Two things generally happen with the international students. First (and this is the most common) international students become just as lazy as the Japanese students. This is human nature. Why should these students study any harder than anyone else? There is no reason to; so they don’t. Second, if they are truly motivated and want to learn, they leave.

It is such a complex problem and one that is way above my pay-grade to fix. I just hope that next year my students are decent kids who approach studying English, and the university experience in general, with an open mind. I hope that they are willing to trust me and are willing to try. But they probably won’t be.

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Personal social media accounts for teachers

Just a quick thought today…

An article arrived in my inbox this morning from the Los Angeles Daily News about teachers and students using social media to communicate with each other. Most of the article is pretty generic, not offering anything new to the issue (of course their audience isn’t educators, but the general public). However, one quote jumped out at me:

An L.A. school district spokesman suggested, a teacher can have two Facebook pages — one for academics and another for personal information. Students would have access to the academic page and not be “friended” on the personal one.

I completely agree with that. Along with most of my colleagues, I only meet with students in my office, not in my home. I don’t give students my home phone number, only my office number. I have a special e-mail account for communicating with students; I don’t use my personal one. So it makes perfect sense to do the same with social media, but I’m often shocked at how many of my colleagues don’t apply this same thinking. I’m surprised at how many of my colleagues ‘friend’ their students on Facebook.

I’m happy to engage my students via social media, but not with my personal accounts. And while I believe in humanizing education and engaging my students on a “person to person” level, at the end of the day, I am their teacher, not their friend.

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Are exams the point of universtiy?

Over at cracked.com they have an interesting post about typical university student behaviors around examination time. Being that it is cracked.com it is juvenile and full of dirty jokes, so be fair warned before click in this LINK. However, there is quite a bit of truth to what they are facetiously saying. I especially liked they way they ended the article.

Your professors are actually trying to teach you the subject. Exams aren’t the point of education. They’re the flaccid little appendix we still sort of need to test if people have been turning up. Exams used to be walking into a room with all the smart people and just talking to them until they decided whether you were a dumbass or not. We suspect most students don’t want to go back to that.

Now that higher education isn’t just for nobility we can’t do it that way. Hundreds of thousands of people get into higher education. This is progress. But it’s not going to be a perfect system.

You’re in college to learn how to think and do things. Exams are an extremely small part of that. If you treat the only minor obstacles in four years of opportunity unmatched in the entire history of human civilization as a huge hassle to be avoided, you’re right when you say the educational system isn’t working for you. But it’s not the educational system’s fault.

There is nothing else to say. That last paragraph is completely true, and in my experience, something that most students don’t get.

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What’s your name?

There is an interesting post over on Japan Probe from a couple of days ago talking about a TV report on how textbooks used in jr. high schools are now teaching students to introduce themselves putting their family name first followed by their given name. For example, the current prime minister should introduce himself as Kan Naoto not Naoto Kan.  (On a side note, if you look at the prime minister’s English website, they put his name as given then family.)

I saw that TV show and at the time I didn’t really think much of it. I personally think that it doesn’t really matter. Japan Probe quotes a secondary school teacher posting on BigDiakon as Lifer saying, “People are free to introduce themselves any way they like, but are also responsible for any confusion that results.” I completely agree with that, but again I don’t think it really matters because any resulting confusion will be minor.

He goes on to say, “so, if a Japanese person rocks up to a hotel in gaijinland and says, ‘hi, I have a reservation, my name is Tanaka Hiroshi’, he shouldn’t be surprised if the clerk comes back with “sorry, we don’t have a reservation for you, Mr. Hiroshi’.”

I understand the point he is trying to make, but the world doesn’t really work like this anymore. I’ve stayed at a half a dozen hotels already this year and every single time I’ve checked in with a reservation/confirmation number, not my name. I doubt that someone will be turned away from a hotel because the clerk confused their first and last names. Something similar with airlines, they don’t ask for your name, they ask to see your ID. Thinking about it, I can’t think of a single ‘mission-critical’ situation where someone will ask for your name without requiring some sort of secondary proof/confirmation/evidence, etc. Only in social situations do people ask for names without also asking for proof.

What concerns me about this issue, is not the order of names, but the inability of many Japanese to introduce themselves at all. I teach at a mid to low-level private university and I have tons of students who can’t tell me their name. A very typical conversation that I have had time and time again during the first week of the semester goes something like this:

Me:   Can I have your name please?
Student:   Eh? [huh?]
Me:   (speaking even more slowly) What’s your name?
Student:   Eh? [huh?]
Me:   Name. What – is – your – name?
Student:   (turning to the student sitting next to them) Wakarahen. [I don’t understand.]
Student 2:   Ore mo. [me neither.]

This sounds ridiculous, but I would guess that it happens about a third of the time. I have university students with six years of secondary English education who can’t tell me their name. I think that is more of a problem than western vs. eastern name order.

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