What is the best way to reach your Students with English?

By John Hatanaka, Yamagata City

There are some fun, new ways to share English outside of the classroom. Behind door number one we have the handy dandy English Passort, which some of you are probably familiar with, and behind door number two we have the new “CC Card” program. Now, my question for you is, which one do you like and why?

I see both ideas have their advantages, but as with any competition both have their disadvantages as well. (Better yet, do you have a new idea? Perhaps an idea that would send both games running for the forest like Ron’s Hooting Tooting Flying Enchanted Car in Harry Potter.) Anyway, I will lay out the apparent advantages of both excellent strategies below and then give you the mic. Shall we start??

Number One: The Around The World PassPort

Kids get out of class and the last thing they want is a giant foreigner batting off hard-to-understand English questions at them. A time then came for the English Passport to take the lead. It has allowed the student to choose the time and the place and utilized Skinners Psychology Experiment to make mice chase after cheese. The simple philosophy is that people like prizes — otherwise PlayStations would be for watching movies and Mario would still be stuck in Italy (Japan?). The Passport gives students the chance to use English to get “World Country Stamps” and in turn receive prizes if they get 5 or six stamps. This is much like sushi restaurants offer stamps if you visit their headquarters — except for the fact that we are marketing English of course and not sushi. Below I’ll list the advantages first and then the disadvantages, and then let’s debate!


1. Everybody likes a sparkling passport. It gives them confidence, makes them feel like an ambassador, sorta like how you feel like at the airport. Ok maybe it’s only me…

2. Everybody likes prizes. Especially vacations in Hawaii…. let the students dream.


1. Keeping track of passports is a chore. Who got a stamp? Who can forge stamps? Who ate their passport? These questions come up…

2. It’s harder to make Passports so as a result not as many students can be ambassadors and the students have to keep track of their booklets. I’m always petrified of losing mine at the airport.. talk about a travelers disaster!!!

Number 2: The CC Program

1. Instead of giving the students a Passport, you are instead giving them your business card. Steve Woerner, an ALT from Tottori Prefecture, came up with the idea to give out cards to students for speaking English. Students deposit their cards into a “class box”, and at the end of the month the cards are counted and the student with the most cards wins a big prize and all other participants receive a prize for trying. This idea solves some problems, but also poses some problems as well.


1. Business cards are easier to keep track of…

2. The student doesn’t have to keep track of the their own passport.


1. Keeping a ready supply of cards will require lots of printing and cutting or Daiso trips.

2. Passports are cooler

3. Forging cards could be easy and the classroom boxes that you made could be tampered with if someone were motivated to do so.

In Conclusion:

So, what method do you like better and why? In other news there is a brand new app for JETS on on the Iphone App Store. It’s called “Iconnect” and you should download it. It has instructions for Steve Woerner’s CC card game and also loads of good resources for teachers for making your life day that much better. Can you come up with a better idea to use English outside the classroom? Please Comment!!

Thank You,

John Hatanaka

Passion is the key to Unleashing the English Virus in Students

I’m sure we all have some Japanese friends who speak fairly fluent English. At the very least, we know our JTEs who have dedicated their lives to learning and teaching the subject.

What got them there?

As with any long endeavor, patience was indeed a factor.

What separates them from the rest of the Japanese English learners, though? How did they succeed where their fellow classmates on the 6 year stretch of English ed. from middle school to high school apparently failed?


Pure and simple, it is the one thing they have that the others lack.

And if you’re passionate, who needs patience?

Patience is reliable and it is easy to pass on. All we have to do is administer a lot of tests and threaten people with failure. People tend to suck it up and take it.

But patience doesn’t get us the same thing that passion does.

Patience gets us “competency”. Passion gets us fluency.

So, if we know what students need, how do we start giving it to them? How do we get students passionate about English?

English Teachers are Salespeople

My JTE told me something enlightening today after I explained a project idea to him.

He said, “Japanese students are busy, so if you make everything about ‘if you have time…’ or ‘if you’re free…’ they are just going to say to themselves, “I’m too busy for that…” or “No thanks…”

I often think of my students as kids and don’t appreciate that their lives consist of tons of deadlines and activities (as if they were grown-ups working at a real job).

I hate to admit it, but yeah, they are pretty busy, huh?

That means two things:

One, when I introduce new activities I have to realize that students are thinking, “Oh no! It’s another new pattern that I have to learn…” No matter how good the idea is, the sale for students is going to be in how easy it is to explain and the immediate gratification it satisfies.

Two, I gotta stop presenting ideas in the “if you have time…” passion. No, of course they don’t have time, so I shouldn’t even start down this line of thinking. Instead, I (and we) ought to be more creative in our sales pitch so that the new idea is presented as satisfying a need or want or presenting an opportunity.

I think the pattern is fairly similar to how marketers present messages to sell their products. In that way, English teachers are pretty much salesmen, marketing in ideas and activities rather than commodities and services.

I think the more we study some of the effective ways of presenting ideas, and the better marketers we become, the more successful our messages and ideas to students will become.

So, I recommend two books,

Seth Godin, Free Prize Inside

and Dan and Chip Heath’s, Made to Stick: Why some ideas survive and others die.

Both of these books discuss at length how to make messages that are effective and that move people to action.

Teaching Empathy

At times, the concept of empathy — of thinking about how other people are impacted and live — seems to be more prevalent in Japanese culture than some I’ve seen, including my own. Let me tell you about three examples that come to mind:

First, every month at my school they have a day called “Inochinohi”, where the purpose of the day is to think about how people live and feel. It might as well be called “Walk a mile in their shoes day” because that’s what it is about: stepping outside oneself and thinking of others. For one of these classes, a teacher last year actually had me write an essay for students about hardships and stresses living in a foreign country.

Second, a large part of Japanese communication is centered on interpreting how other people feel and trying to avoid imposing your will on others. That’s were we get the “vagueness” in Japanese that some bemoan or revel in. It’s the essence of Japanese “Ishindenshin” or “heart to heart communication” where feelings and thoughts are communicated without words to another person. It is sometimes said that this type of communication is the ideal of Japanese language. In other words, knowing and empathizing with someone so well that Japanese isn’t required is held up as a grand emotional achievement.

Third, even on variety TV shows where they are looking at all the wild things and people happening around the world, there seems to be a focus on understanding and empathizing with other people’s suffering. I have seen so many of these types of shows that it seems that Japanese people tune in daily to programming that actually raises their hearts and minds to thinking about how other people are living, thus broadening their appreciation for other human beings.

Why is it important? Why am I writing about this? Well, two things.

One, for all those people who complain about stories like “Freddie the Leaf” or “A Mother’s Lullaby”, I think this cultural affinity for empathy is where they might come from.

Two, how might we be able to bring this tendency to empathize and engage in empathy building exercises benefit the English classroom? Speaking to another person in any language requires a lot of this type of imagination — from patiently listening to someone who’s having a hard time speaking to anticipating how our words and gestures and reactions will impact other people.

I have begun developing some materials for this subject. When I make more progress on them, I’ll try to present them to you all.

In the meantime, what are your thoughts?


Warm up your Voice and your body to become a better teacher

If you do some vocal exercises to prepare for your job, you might find that your singing abilities improve as well.

Maybe you’ve never considered it, but lately I have started my days with stretching and warming up my voice. Actually I was doing the exercise for other unrelated projects in my life, but I immediately discovered positive benefits in my job as a teacher. If you don’t already, I’d recommend:

1) Starting your day with stretching

Stretching is all around good. It releases endorphins, which help your body and mind relax. Plus it gets you ready for all kinds of jerky movements.

Stretch your arms, legs, back and neck muscles. And for all those computer fiends out there — make sure to stretch your fingers and wrists as well!

To go further, you can massage your neck and jaw muscles and give your hands a wrists a good go-over, too.

2) Warming up your vocal chords

Singers do it, so why not teachers, too? After all, we are using our voice constantly throughout the day. Speaking with a warmed up voice not only feels incredible, but it also makes the act of speaking less stressful on the body.

How to do it? Well, here are some common exercise techniques that everyone can do:

  • Humming — as soon as I wake up in the morning I start to hum. Slowly at first, with perhaps just a, “Hmmm…” (like we do when we’re thinking) or an “Uh-huh” (like we do when we agree with something). Gradually I start to hum little tunes, but I find that I can always go back to the basics and just hum little sounds. The trick is to include some high and low notes, but to always keep it relaxed and smooth. Like stretching any muscle, the point is warming up, not hurting yourself. More and more I find myself repeating this exercise throughout my day. You can hum with and open or closed mouth. Just switch it up and get in tune with your vocal chords slowly and steadily.
  • Drinking and gargling water — your vocal chords need water to work properly, but most people don’t get enough of it. Speaking on a dry throat not only hurts, but it does more damage to your vocal chords. Stay energetic and stay hydrated with a bunch of water!
  • Yawning — Scientists still don’t quite understand why we do it, but that doesn’t concern us. Yawns are stretches for the neck muscles and vocal chords. Yawn with full yawning sounds (“Ahhhhhhhhhh…waawawawa…”) for maximum effectiveness.
  • Eating healthy — of course the foods we eat have an effect on our weight and energy levels, but they also effect our mood and our vocal chords. I’ve noticed that sweet drinks and coffee, for example, tend to dry out my throat. I still sometimes drink them, but if I do, I try to make sure to chase them with lots of water to re-hydrate my vocal chords.
Well, that’s it for this post. I seriously recommend finding a type of warm-up routine that works for you.  Work is work and warming up will keep you healthier and allow you to do a better job. If you do some vocal exercises to prepare for your job, you might find that your singing abilities improve as well!
To go further on the topic of vocal warm-ups, some search terms I recommend are: “Lip Rolls”, “Tongue Trills”, and “Vocal Fry”. Check Youtube or the internet at large for more information.

Make Connections to Change the System

Are you unhappy with the way English is taught at your school(s) or how little your Japanese students seem to be able to speak and use English?

Well, you can change it. After all, you have wonderful ideas and you are powerful. You have the ability to create revolutionary materials and ideas.

But do you know how to put them into action? How do you get from the drawing board to having your ideas adopted by your school?

Connections. Pure and simple.

Make friends with the teachers in your staff room, your vice principal and principal. Teaching, after all, is built on trust, and bonding with your colleagues will give you ground to launch and share new ideas.

Plus, people who feel connected to you will listen and spread your ideas faster than those who have no relationship with you.

But don’t stop there.

Go to the students as well. Make connections with the people you teach so when it comes time to launching a new idea you have a receptive audience who will give you the benefit of the doubt and try out your new ideas.

I’m sure you have lots of ideas, but maybe you are feeling stuck. I do, too, sometimes. But have you worked on building and repairing any bridges lately?

Having a “Why” and a “Passion to Know”

I believe that Japanese people can learn English.

Just look at the resources available:

  • Free classes from elementary school through high school
  • Native English speakers flown in from all over the world at every school
  • Free textbooks, television and radio broadcasts
  • Electronic dictionaries, i-Pods, and cell phones up to ying-yang
  • The Internet, social media, Google translate, hundreds of free language learning websites
  • Hundreds of billions of dollars worth of English movies, books, games, magazines — with new releases almost every day.
  • and so on…

But everyone admits that many Japanese students are failing to learn to speak and use English. What’s lacking then? How to solve the speaking deficit in Japan, which has students graduate from a 6+ year education in English without the ability to speak?

I suppose they could throw more money at the problem…

But then I’m already reminded of the list of English learning assets I just wrote above. You see, we’ve built a luxurious, gold-plated sitting-on-the-King’s-thrown of a river bank, but students just aren’t drinking the English water.

Perhaps we can drill and do more grammar and take more tests…

On the other hand, this lever is like a broken axle: there comes a point where we’re just grinding metal. Students go into a “happy place” where their mouths are moving but they have emotionally disconnected from everything happening to them. Too much drilling and we get automatons.

So, why does the horse you lead not drink from the water? Well, when something’s compulsory (like English ed. in Japan) there is usually just one thing motivating action: fear. Fear of failing, fear of punishment, fear of mistakes, and so on. When’s the last conversation you started in any language where fear was your primary motivation?

I don’t think that fear is going to go away any time soon. But we ALTs can help students by doing two things.

1) Teaching them the “Why”

How much time have you ever devoted to telling your students why a person learns a foreign language? Not just the whole, “You’ll get a good job someday…” window dressing, but I mean telling them about the material benefits of learning a foreign language? Better memory recall, higher ability to learn new information faster, the ability to question ideas and rules, the chance to learn more about your native language, improving scores in other subjects, like math and science, and so on.

If we keep telling students that the “why” of English is because “it’s on the test,” we’re probably not going to change any lives or knock down any barriers for the foreseeable future.

2) Teaching them the “Passion to Know”

Passionate isn’t a word that describes most English lessons. But passion is something that describes a lot of conversation. Just look at even a simple conversation between two of your students during any passing period. They’re all acting out parts in a grand and majestic dance of words — and language is in the driver’s seat. (It just happens to be Japanese language in this case).

Passion is what gets us to ask questions and seek out more resources, more information, more stimulation, more ideas. Moreover, Passion is what drives people to master skills.

I think it’s possible to teach this to students by sharing experiences with them about our own language journeys. I think we can also design activities in and out of classes that generate curiosity and “passion to know” in students. We can do it because we have passion.

In Conclusion

I admit that I haven’t done much of this myself because these ideas just occurred to me. But the fact is, students aren’t availing themselves of English in large numbers. Why? Because they don’t understand the “why” and they don’t have the “passion to know” — yet. ALTs can change the whole game if we find ways to teach them that in class and in our daily interactions with them.