Y.E.S.: An English teaching system that works

by Angela Jeffs

In 1994, Northern-Ireland born Douglas Young was running two small branches of his English conversation school Formula 1 in the pottery town of Kasama, Ibaraki Prefecture. He and his English wife then moved to Hitachi Naka, where Douglas opened a main office and Alison had her first child. The family now numbers six, with daughter Erin nearly 8 and boys of 6, 4 and 2.

More recently they moved to a large house on the outskirts of Mito, with new offices. “We have some 350 clients, mostly children, with two full-time staff. I teach a little and soon Alison is coming back to work part time. I’ve been busy perfecting the Young English System, or Y.E.S., a methodology for teaching English. Essentially it’s visual and perfectly applicable to other languages.”

Douglas’ ideas for teaching English have changed much over the last decade. When he first arrived, he tried everything. “But slowly I realized just how much bullshit there was going on . . . in anyone’s language!”

Realizing that most “Eikaiwa” (English conversation) teaching was just not working, he discarded most of the methods and materials available and became interested in Total Physical Response, as developed by American psychologist James Asher. “It seemed to build up understanding very well.”

In those days the Japanese-U.S.-developed Comet drilling system was booming. That gave him ideas for how to make language learning more visual. He also took intensive training in Neuro-Linguistic programming and Accelerative Learning. “I used to teach intensive courses that used such techniques to release emotional blockages to learning. Now I’m more interested in how to stay in control (while learning).”

His motivation to design a completely new teaching system was the fact that his clients — his students — were still not gaining what he considered to be a sufficient grasp of the language. “I wanted 5- and 6-year-olds to be able to understand concepts in English through predominantly visual aids. I wanted a methodology that could be applied by a good teacher even if they were not vocationally inclined. Even with minimal training and preparation, Y.E.S. works fantastically.”

The amount a child can learn, he says, has never really been calculated. “They would be vacuum cleaners of knowledge given half the chance and approached in the right way.” Certainly he has noticed that the faster he teaches using Y.E.S., the faster a client learns.

He believes learning through play is wrong, because it differentiates between learning and play. “The two should be one and the same. The cartoon Pokemon has some 250 characters, and the average 8- to 9-year-old knows them all and their most intricate relationships. To create card games for teaching I knew a lot of variables were positive and indeed necessary.”

Douglas began by using homemade flash cards. But soon he was able to fast forward when images became easier and cheaper to reproduce through new technology. “The way they are used stimulates the main senses for processing. Now the cards Y.E.S. uses are not single words and images, but buildings blocks to grammar, vocabulary and conversation.”

In two months children can build the phrase “You can write in the bath” and answer the question “Is the cat playing the violin?” with all the humor and crazy logic involved. “Kids love it. Adults would too, if they had any sense!” All the images are visual, but it’s not a visual form of teaching. “Neither the students or the teacher knows the answers to questions; teachers are trained, but not to look.”

There are a number of card sets. Basic flash cards. Grammar flash cards. Three levels of question cards that lead to interactive games and increasingly creative responses. Cards for playing communication games like Trump or Go Fish! which enable students to learn the meaning of pictures. (Olivia Young, an English artist who happens to be Douglas’ sister, did all the artwork.)

If children don’t feel free to be use their cards actively, development is strangled. At the same time, Douglas says, “you don’t want them walking around the room.” The cards are used for a purpose, not for practicing English. “By teaching them through the cards, the students are given their own power. Even the games are full of hidden content, with lots of little challenges.”

Douglas uses Y.E.S. for all Formula 1′s kindergarten, elementary and junior high school students, with four years of courses for all age groups, though not as yet at the highest levels. “A company in Saitama associated with Cambridge Young Learners who saw what we were doing is using our courses, which exactly match CYL’s Young Learners syllabus. They’ve been using them for a year. Four other schools are also using Y.E.S.”

But he wants schools to benefit nationwide. “We need to talk to a marketing company about how best to handle sales — the sale to the school of the 1,500 cards required in the first year, plus student materials, teaching and training materials and the miniservices to both parents and teachers that provide support that go with them. I’m also happy to work something out with small schools and individuals interested in using the system.”

Major companies will most probably not look at Y.E.S. They are too busy making huge and easy profits through established courses and textbooks, whether successful or not. But Douglas believes change is in the air. “Mothers are more demanding. They want to know what their children are going to learn, how, and when by. They want to see progress. ‘Juku’ (cram schools) can’t teach Eikaiwa. Young mums want spoken English.”

Douglas wants to grab parents and say: “Look! What we’re offering here is beyond pride. We’re on to something magical.”