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@The History of the Genki English Methodology
Part 1

NOTE: This article was originally written to show how I produced the Genki English methodology. However in more recent years academic research has been done on the effectiveness of Genki English by the University of Newcastle in the UK and on our work in Africa by Schlemmer at Harvard University. I would recommend these sources for those of you looking for a more academic research based evaluation of Genki English.

Or if you'd like to read how Genki English came about, do enjoy the article below!


As Genki English becomes more and more popular many people are asking about the linguistic theory behind what I do. To start off with I would like to assure everyone that although the ideas on these pages are all fun and exciting they do correlate very well with current practise and language theory. Although I've given it a funky name (check out here for the meaning) 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!

So why not quote some theory references on these pages?

There are three basic reasons why I don't quote direct sources on the site:

1) There isn't that much solid research out there.
With the current state of language theory there is a great lack of solidly researched data. One reason for this is the time, i.e. to assess the impact of a language technique on a child's language ability in 10 years time, takes at least 10 years to produce! Hence it is so difficult to find definitive sources. Also most of the data that is out there refers to mother tongue language acquisition or adult learners. However what there is out there (try a google search to find info on the net) does fit in very well with the Genki English ideas. I am seriously thinking of doing a full scale research project using Genki English at primary schools as a Phd thesis. If you could offer any assistance with this I'd very much like to discuss it! For the time being though I think my time is better spent producing materials for teachers to use.

2) Most of the techniques here were perfected in the field in real classrooms with real kids first and then the theory was double checked and any dodgy ideas thrown out.

3) 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.


If you do want to check out some more theoretical stuff, check out this great page on English Raven.


But maybe a bit of history about how I got to where I am now and how I developed my teaching style may help people understand where I'm coming from with Genki English....

Kids only learn if they want to learn

I first started teaching when I was 16. I was the first student in the UK to take the Advanced Level examination (the exams English students take at 18) in Music with my instrument as being the synthesiser. I found it very difficult to find a teacher who could actually teach me to play it to this level. There were many piano teachers out there, but this was a synth I was supposed to play. A similar analogy maybe that piano teaching is like the traditional grammar based methods of language learning, whereas synth playing is like the funky new communicative types.

Anyway I had to teach myself how to play and being an enterprising 16 year old I figured that loads of kids were wanting to play synths instead of the "boring" (ok, it depends on your point of view!) piano. So if there were no other teachers out there then why not start teaching it myself! At that time my high school was a very old fashioned private grammar school, built in 1612, and to be honest I didn't like it very much at all, basically because it seemed like the teaching methods (and even some of the teachers) seemed like they had been around since 1612 as well. So what I did was to take close looks at my school lessons, closely studying the lessons I liked, did well at or enjoyed and also at lessons I hated, did badly at or didn't enjoy. I took all the good bits I saw from my good teachers and swore I would never teach like any of my bad teachers.

The key factor that I found was interest and motivation. If people are interested they want to learn, if they are not they don't. So at that time in the UK music teaching revolved around perfecting scales and arpeggios and once you had done that you could move onto "real music". Needless to say many people were very bored by this. So instead I started teaching songs that my students wanted to learn. Teaching a 10 year old scales did nothing to motivate them and a week later it was obvious they had never even practised one note. But teach them the theme tune to Star Wars and bang, a week later it was perfected. The reason? According to the parents it was because the kids were spending all their free time everyday practising and pratising, not because their teacher had told them to, but because they saw it as something they wanted to do!


So my job as a teacher became finding motivating pieces to play (i.e. that the kids wanted to learn) and arrange them in ways that gradually increased the players skill. And then to correct any mistakes during the next session, after all practise doesn't make perfect, in the music world only perfect practise makes perfect!

An off shoot of this was that I managed to develop a way of teaching music where I could teach anyone to play any song within an hour! Not the full arrangement nor necessarily in the original key, but enough to make the student feel very happy and give them a strong sense of achievement!


Learning Language at AS level and no writing!

From 16 to 18 I also took an AS level in French. Although I said I didn't really like school that much, I did have an amazing French teacher, James O'Dwyer. In the UK students usually choose 3 A levels to study, however at my school we were also allowed to do an additional "AS" level. In most subjects an AS level is the same level as A level but only includes half the content. However with languages, and this is the stroke of genius, the AS level was at the same level as A -Level but included no writing element, it was all talking, listening and reading.

Before doing this AS level I didn't like French and quite often got told off for sleeping in class. However the AS level was completely different. One reason was a smaller class size, instead of 30 in a class, we were only a dozen. It is well documented that smaller class sizes are more effective, of course in practice economics takes preference and usual classes are very large.

However the other reason the lessons were so interesting was one of the intrinsic advantages of teaching languages, that they are not content, but purely a means of communication. For example in teaching science you have to teach the science and there is no way around that. However in language learning you use the language to talk about something else. So in our lessons we discussed topics like the death penalty, nuclear weapons, trade and unemployment or anything current and in the news. James O'Dwyer would prepare an A4 sheet with a load of relevant phrases and words and video tape a short news segment from satellite TV. We'd then run through the vocab, watch the news programme a couple of times, then have a discussion in the class in French. No grammar and no writing drills. With all the different backgrounds of people in the class the debates sometimes got very heated and we all wanted to get our point across so really tried hard to get cool ways of saying things and to make sure we knew all the words. Then our homework was to watch a French movie, listen to some language tapes or read a couple of magazine articles - of course about subjects we were interested in.

I think I learnt more about social studies in this French class than at any other time in my life and the thing was that it was so cool to say "Yeah, today we were talking about Weapons of Mass Destruction. In French!". It sounded cool so we wanted to do more! It felt like fun but I ended up being motivated enough to go to university in France and do a year of my Physics degree in French!

There are only 2 disadvantages to this, one is that most of us who did this course and then went on to study at uni found writing our final reports rather difficult and needed lots of proof reading. However the opportunities for using written French were very few and far between and the students who had studied writing were not much more advanced than us. I very strongly personally believe that it is not necessary to teach writing to students. However as I don't have enough quantitative research to back this up I haven't incorporated this into the "official" Genki English policy, but I really believe speaking and listening first, then reading and then maybe (only maybe) writing later on.

The other disadvantage was that the material had to be fresh and brand new. Yesterday's news wouldn't cut it, we wanted today's news. This was hard on our teacher as although it meant it he didn't have to prepare things too far in advance (how was he to know tomorrow's news?), it meant he had to work hard to find stuff we were all interested in, video the TV and prepare handouts very quickly. And worst of all the material would only be used then and couldn't be recycled too much.

But our teacher believed in what he was doing and the key thing is that at the end of the day he produced many, many alumni who really appreciated the work he did, they went on to study in France, to work in France, and simply loved the language and became fluent. As a language teacher, isn't that your dream result?



A revolution in University Science Teaching

So then at 18 I went on to study Physics at the University of Leeds with my third year at the Universite Joseph Fourier in France. Why not study a language? Because what's the point of studying a language at university when you can spend a year studying a different subject in a foreign language. That way you get two skills for the price of one. A controversial view point maybe, but one that I feel very strongly about. : )

So as 2 years earlier the UK's A-Level Music curriculum was undergoing a change from traditional (and boring) to more modern and interesting, when I entered university at Leeds they too were undergoing the same transition. The whole method of teaching was changing to reflect the buzz words of the time; modularisation, student centered and a huge influence of student feedback. I joined the staff student committees and really got into how they were trying to update the image of physics from 19th century stuffy male-centeredness to the 21st century of lasers, quantum mechanics and time travel.

The idea was again that motivation was the key and to get students motivated by showing them the cool side of things. For example the traditional approach was to first teach Newtonian mechanics (i.e. balls rolling down slopes) as it was traditionally believed that students first had to study this before moving onto more advanced subjects such as Quantum Mechanics. However the effect, as with traditional language teaching, was that many students slept through the first parts as they were so boring and very few went on to be able to understand the higher level "fun" stuff. In fact many students in many universities simply left university early as they felt balls rolling down slopes wasn't what they signed on to learn! So at Leeds they changed the curriculum so that the very first course that new students took was "Modern Physics". This was cool,
we learnt about relativity, neutrinos, wave particle dualities and all the really funky stuff. And we could understand it and really get a grip of what was happening. The thing here is that as we were all first years we didn't know the maths to describe what was going on, so they took it out of the course. The analogy of this is taking the grammar study out of language. Of course in Quantum Mechanics you do later have to study the maths, but with the traditional approach of doing the maths (or grammar) first, people lose interest and very few continued on to be proficient. However by doing the cool stuff first of course some people dropped out , but they were a dropping out with a better understanding of the science than the traditional way and more students were encouraged to move on to the more difficult maths sections later.

I also learnt about presentation skills here, for example the teachers were forced to listen to students feedback, there was no lecturing on with nobody listening or understanding. And my full respect to the staff as many of them had been teaching for many, many years but were open minded enough to listen to what we had to say and did indeed change their methods.


21st Century Education

I was also really interested in media and technology. Like with music education, where students like synths because it could sound just like their favourite records, I fully realised that media and technology is the way my generation learns. As the new generation of kids now have grown up with the internet, I grew up with video games and TV. For me seeing a black and white diagram in a 2D textbook did very little to let me understand what was being discussed. Of course one hundred years ago this was cutting edge technology, but for a child of the 20th century I wanted to see the effect in animation, in 3D and I wanted to play around with it, to change the parameters and see it backwards, forwards and from every angle. This effect could be seen on the class as a whole. A white on green chalk drawing on the board gave a clue as to what was going on, but a 3D animation on a video monitor realised a "aha" sound from most of the students as they quickly grasped the situation.
I was at one point consider doing this as my phd, producing high school multi media materials to teach science. As you'll find out later I actually came to Japan but in a funny way I guess with Genki English I'm actually doing this now!



Into the Business World

Unlike the Education field, in the Business World people don't mess around. In many ways education is yet to mature, people make mistakes or don't do the best they can and nothing changes. In the business world the market decides and is a lot more ruthless.

At the end of my first year of uni I realised by the time I graduated I wouldn't have any business qualifications. I looked at many courses but just like with learning scales in music, grammar rules in language or Newtonian Mechanics I found they were very theoretical, weren't very motivating and didn't produce results in the real World. So I decided the best way to learn would be by doing it. I did enroll in an intensive business course and learnt all the basic things like tax and accounting, and also learnt that marketing is the key. And for marketing it's just like teaching kids cool French or Relativity, it's all about motivation. However one very important aspect is that unlike languages or science, it isn't about me and what I can learn, it's about you and what you want to learn. First you listen to what the client wants and then present the best option to them, all the time listening for more information that may affect the choice of product.

For example, if you're buying a computer, you don't want to know how the memory works or if it has the latest bells and gadgets, you want to know how it will help you, you want to learn how it can make your life easier or more fun and above all you want to feel happy about making the purchase. If the sales person is boring or theoretical or talking about something the client isn't interested in they'll simply walk away. As a customer I'm sure you've had that experience. But as an ethical salesman you also have to make sure that you don't sell the product you want to sell, you have to sell the product that is best for the customer. As one of my trainers said "I would never sell something to someone if i didn't truly believe they needed it". This doesn't necessarily mean the customer always knows what they want, it's maybe that they don't know - yet! There are cowboys out there, but the best sales people are the ones that follow this rule.

This is where I learnt another lesson, teaching is just like selling. You have to make the presentation relevant, exciting and make the student happy with continuing on. Re-read the last paragraph, but replace all the references to "selling" with "teaching".

So anyway I set up my company, did quite well in a year ( I stopped it when I went to France) made a lot of mistakes but learnt a heck of a lot from them! You have to make mistakes, "The only people who don't make mistakes are the people who don't try hard enough", but you also have to learn from them, never make the same mistake 3 times! That paid for my 2nd year of uni (music teaching and performance paid for my 1st)


Doing Presentations to make people smile and remember

One of the other great aspects of the changing of the uni system in Leeds was the huge emphasis on student presentations. Previously, many students were graduating with great ideas but were unable to communicate them. So we had regular full on presentations to do. We had courses in how to do it and here again I learnt a lot that would directly effect my teaching style. But again the thing that shone through was making it fun, interesting and relevant. Of course all the science had to be solid and correct (otherwise no credit for the course) but the difference between a boring speech and a lively interactive presentation was huge for two reasons 1) It was possible to communicate a lot more in the same amount of time and 2) people left the room smiling (very important). Graphics (at that time computer printed colour OHPs were the cutting edge!) made a huge difference, but of course everything had to be there for a reason. Just as with Genki English every game has to have a reason, a game for a game's sake, or a graphic in a presentation that doesn't serve a purpose is no good. The science ( or language) point first, then presented in a delicious way.

Admittedly it is possible to use flashy graphics or presentation to fool people. My 2nd year project was with Dunlop Slazenger looking at golf ball design and I did smudge a few points with some flashy graphics because I couldn't quite figure it out, but you always get found out in the end!

Eddie Izzard is fond of quoting a famous statistic. He says that when you talk to people what they remember is not what you talk about. What sticks with people is 70% is how you look, 20% is how you say it and only 10% is what you actually say.

This does actually mean that if you look good and you are a good presenter then you can actually make many people believe anything you say. And some people do criticise Genki English for being all style and no substance, but it's because the substance is in the foundation, the inside, the backbone. What you see on the outside, is all the fun and excitement. But without all the solid educational aims beneath it wouldn't be Genki English!


I won many prizes for my presentations including ones from the British Institute of Physics (they paid for me to go to Germany to hang out with all the living physics Nobel Prize Winners for a week) and accountancy firm Arthur Andersen (they only gave me a bottle of champagne). Jokes and humour work great, as does moving around, dramatic pauses and variation of tone all make the words you say and the things you do stick in people's minds. In Japan inexperienced people sometimes mock my style of presentation saying "it's only good for teaching kids". But no, that style was born from learning in very high brow worlds of science and accounting, and watching the best people in the field. Whether it's a 6 year old or a 66 year old, you change the content but the rules are the same. Even talking to university professors or accountants you've got to know your stuff, but you have to make it fun.


The EU and Intensive Language Courses

One fantastic advantage of being part of the EU is that whatever their area of study may be, most EU students now have the chance to spend one year studying in a foreign country. In places like Denmark the courses are in English, but the vast majority of people go to places like France or Germany where they are taught in the French or German. And of course we have to be brought up to being able to study at university level in that language. The most popular form of preparation is to take language courses throughout our 1st and 2nd years along with two intensive courses in the summer before we start the year abroad. Of course we are still studying something else full time so this language training has to be as effective and intense as possible because the results will be tested very soon.

So what types of methods do they use? Yep, making it interesting, and taking out all the writing and grammar study. It's simple; the aim is to make us proficient in the language, and they do it.


Well that's it for now, I'll pass on what I learned in France, and then Japan, in the next installment...

To be continued....




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