Another Communication Breakthrough

The 3rd grade students at my school are all taking communication tests as part of the upcoming testing cycle. The test will be administered by me, worth 30 points toward their final grade and scored based on three “communicative” indexes: 1) Friendliness 2) Motivation (e.g. desire to communicate) and 3) Content (e.g. asking questions). It is the first of what will be 3 communication tests scheduled this year.

In just under 6 months we have gone from little if no communication in the classroom to making communication a large basis for the student’s final grade.

And perhaps the best part? This communication test was not my idea. Actually,  the two JTEs that teach the 3rd year students came up with it themselves and presented the idea to me.

And now this project has come full circle: I have gone from me being the one pressing the issue of communication — to communication becoming a part of the regular curriculum (including tests).

How did it happen? Or, more precisely, how can you make it happen at your school?

-Believe in yourself


-Share ideas

-Champion your ideas


-Build your reputation

-Be patient

-Refine your ideas

-Connect with JTEs

-Connect with students

-Connect with other ALTs


-Start small

-Don’t give up

This victory for communication at my school may seem like an impossible breakthrough, but I want so assure you that you are capable of doing the same thing. I don’t have the same old ALT job anymore — and you don’t have to either…

Improve your relationships, follow your instincts, champion an idea, redefine your job and create a communication revolution.

Communication activity Ideas

Since the new year we use more communication in our classes than ever before. The trick is using it in small does and using a range of activities for different classes and different grades.

Here are some of the activities we do by grade.

1st graders

5 minute Sura-Sura Plus worksheets -this worksheet allows students to practice key grammar points from the textbook with a catch: the sentences are organized as a dialogue so that students learn communication skills and word usage as they practice.  (This idea evolved in partnership with a new friend, Ana, and my JTE).

Click here for an example.

2nd graders

“Talk More” Communication classes – These are 50 minute classes that are devoted to teaching students communication skills and giving them chances to communicate. The name, “Talk More”, comes from the observation that the students don’t talk enough (partly because they don’t have a chance and partly because they often don’t know how). This communication class attempts to solve both of those problems.

Click here to view a model worksheet that we use in the class.

I am working on writing up a model lesson plan on this subject. In the meantime, you can view this thread if you’d like to get more information on “Talk More” communication classes.

3rd Graders

5 minute Interview worksheets – similar to Sura-Sura Plus, these worksheets allow students to interview each other for about 5 minutes, using target phrases and expressions. We play music in the background and finish the activity with demonstrations from some pairs. Example coming soon…

5 minute Communication worksheets – interview sheets are good for a while, but eventually students need to have more natural, back-and-forth communication. After all, real conversations don’t have the pressure an uni-direction of interviews. We also play background music and finish the activity with demonstrations. Example coming soon…

All Grades

In general we are trying to make English classes more and more communicative at our school. From teaching communication techniques to giving students practice time to having students correct each others’ work and giving advice on reading. Communication is a revolutionary teaching tool. I hope you can start using some of these ideas at your school.

Emotional Campaign

conversations require emotional investment and so do English classes

This is the graphic and slogan I am using in select classes at my school to encourage students to connect the right emotions to their words.

It goes hand in hand with my “Smile Campaign” where I get students to make eye contact and give a lighthearted smile before they do their class greeting.

Both are working wonders. Don’t believe me? Try it out for yourself.


Steamrollers vs. Cranes

Steamrollers have one job: squashing things (including originality). Photo Source: jasonEscapist via flickr creative commons

Steamrollers flatten things: they get rid of bumps, imperfections and quirks. They put everything on an even level and crush differences. They work wonders on asphalt and cement and dirt. They’re great at construction sites and out in the street. They’re not so great, however, when used in classrooms and schools.

In industrial school systems (like those in America and Japan) there is a tendency to approach teaching like a steamroller does its job. We want everyone to produce the same answers, do well on tests, understand things in the same way and fit in obediently. As for disruptions? Variations? Mistakes? Well, those need to be stamped out – after all, we don’t want bumps or imperfections on the road to learning.

I think teachers (including my self at times) insist on form, perfection and obedience over creativity, originality, quality and passion. The result? In the quest to stamp out mistakes and disruptions we squeeze  the passion, creativity and originality out of our students.

Industrial approaches beget industrial machinery, and this approach to teaching turns our precious teachers into steamrollers. And if we are going to have discussions about inspiring passion in students, we also must have discussions about how we squeeze passion out of them.

I think you’d agree that flattening students out like this is a problem not just for the individual, but for a society and economy that actually needs students that graduate from school with creativity, originality and passion in tact. Crush all the buildings and we have a flat world; crush all the people and we have a flat future.

So is there an alternative?

Cranes build structures that reach for the sky. Photo Source: anroir via flickr creative commons

Yes, there is. As you know, the construction site (which, by the way, is a great metaphor for teaching) has plenty of machinery specialized for different tasks. We don’t drive steamrollers up the walls of buildings and expect to add new stories until the building is finished. No, we use cranes for that.

What’s the difference? Well, cranes don’t flatten things; they build them up. And this is what teachers ought to be doing: finding the strengths in each individual and building on top of that.

Crane work encourages diversity, it’s interactive, it gets input from students, it sees what they are capable of and then attempts to build on that. Instead of lumping students together and using drill and repetition to ensure obedience (flatness), teachers act like high-rise cranes at a construction site, contributing to a base of acquired knowledge and skill with input from students. Rather than squashing students into one, faceless chorus we are providing room to grow. The difference in degree is small but noticeable.

I realize this discussion is abstract in its current state of talking about teaching in terms of construction machinery, but I hope you see my point. Steamrolling is a common shortcut to teaching that gives the appearance of   effectiveness because it silences questions and encourages obedience.

I have some examples of these approaches that I would like to share in the coming weeks. For now please comment and share your reactions.

What Gives Students Passion (a running list)

Followers of this website know that I talk a lot about inspiring passion in students. I think students with passion  will start a communication revolution in Japan. Why? Because students with passion figure out things like how to accomplish learning a foreign language for themselves.

I still don’t have a complete answer for how to inspire passion in every student. But I have discovered  some insights over the last couple months that I would like to share. Here is a running list:

Things that Seem to Inspire Passion in Students:

-More interactivity in the class

-Showing students how to connect emotions with words and phrases in class

-Permitting a diversity of accents (i.e. not over-emphasizing “correct” pronunciation)

-Smiling and being nice (and expecting that from students)

-Calling on students by name (a big task, I know. But why not start with just one class and see what happens?)

-Having students work in pairs and specifically asking them to help each other learn, practice and prepare

Seth Godin says, “People with passion look for ways to make things happen” (Linchpin: Are You Indispensable?). Students with passion will figure out how to learn English so let’s help show them the way. What ideas would you add to this list?