The content of an English class involves a fair share of abstraction. Students are transported from the real world of everyday life speaking Japanese with their close friends, to a fantastical world of wild symbolism and imaginary conversations with people that don’t exist. I almost make it sound appealing, but there are also wolves in this story. Students swim through the Seas of Monotony, apprehended by grammar explanations shaped like daggers. They reach an impenetrable Vocabulary Fortress and throw up their hands in despair when, before they know it, at last they meet the monster running around in the thickets of their imagination all along: a Jabberwocky of gargantuan proportions – the high school entrance exam – stirring up trouble everywhere it goes.
The fact is most students don’t learn English like an ALT living abroad and studying Japanese as Japanese goes. Our “catch as catch can” approach, where we have immediate cause to use almost anything new we learn, doesn’t bear any resemblance to how Japanese students often experience English.
Students report to me periodically that they have nowhere to use English while I’m standing right in front of them. Why? I haven’t yet shown them how to escape from that imaginary English world described above, with the free-reigning Jabberwocky running about, making a mess, and new additions being added to the already massive Vocabulary Fortress as we speak. They’ve added six new wings already!
Because the English classroom is so abstract, I think ALTs need to help bridge more connections between classroom English and practical English. In so doing, we can dissolve that imaginary world and help slay the Jabberwocky. I have a feeling that when we show students how English is real they’ll start treating it that way.
I have a few ideas for how to accomplish this.
1) Make myself more available to students and give them a better chance to encounter English. It’s easy to stay in the teacher’s room. But out in the hallway, free and available, is where the students really need me.
2) Encourage students to speak to each other in English. I can’t be there all the time, so if they can learn to speak to each other, they can use English practically when I’m away.
3) Teach students how to say “cool” Japanese words and phrases in English. If it is a great word, Japanese students will be able to use it easily and spontaneously.
These are just a few thoughts. What are your ideas for how to make English studies more practical? How can we make English real for students?