Eikaiwa in Every Class

eikaiwa cards, new and improved

eikaiwa cards, new and improved

I’ve updated my eikaiwa cards with new questions and better conversation flow after using the previous cards in classes over the past few weeks. While students do worksheets and test prep in the regular class I run a mini-eikaiwa at the back of the room so that I get a chance to speak with every student in the class. It is genuinely fulfilling work and the benefits to the students are unquestionable. I’ve made it clear to my students that it is not a test and and that saying, “I don’t know” is perfectly fine. After years of teaching in Japan this is one of the greatest projects I have done for myself and my students and I couldn’t recommend it more. I think it is the work that we ALTs ought to be doing.

I used construction paper to make the cards sturdier

I used construction paper to make the cards sturdier

At the end of the year it is the perfect time for you to start a project like this as well. Prep-time is almost zero. All you have to do is print out the cards and find one JTE who is willing and interested. Feel free to download my new eikaiwa cards. I uploaded them in word format so you can customize them for your students. I glued the front and back of each card to a bit of construction paper to make the cards sturdier. How you make them is up to you though.

First 9 Cards (Word Download)

Second 9 Cards (Word Download)

Card Backs (logo) (Word Download)

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The Test Won’t Change, But You Can

The textbook is a byproduct of the examination system and so are ALTs. It’s the reason we are turned into tape recorders and reading comprehension teachers and vocabulary drillers. We become support tools for a broken textbook based on a broken exam. 

We all know that the textbook won’t change until the exam does. But we ALTs can change whenever we want. We have so much flexibility in our job descriptions that we can make our job virtually anything we want it to be. We change it with the materials we bring to the table and the attitude we bring to class.

Why wait for the system to correct itself — if it ever does? We can change things for students today by becoming the communication teachers students really want and need.

Students Can Do So Much More If We Just Let Them

I think it’s easy to pigeonhole students and say they don’t care about English — or that they lack any ability to communicate. But don’t students have the same basic needs as anyone else? The need to connect with people and feel connected; the desire to understand and be understood. The desire to be validated and feel validated? As such, I think that before we go saying what kind of people Japanese students are, we have to remember what kind of people we are asking them to be.

The English classroom and school in general is sometimes a bad nesting ground where students learn to undermine themselves by ignoring their needs to connect and care. Often without even noticing it ourselves, we English teachers tell students to read, repeat and memorize the grammar explanations without acknowledging a single student’s wants or needs. We teach them a pattern of “don’t question”, “don’t engage” and “don’t care” and we skip on to the next chapter or the next test as if there were no consequences. So, is it any wonder we get students who are apathetic or afraid of speaking or have low communication skills…?

We have to realize that there is a whole system of teach-and-test, teach-and-test, which is set-up to churn out graduates as quickly and efficiently as possible. The goal of the system is not necessarily to churn out good communicators, and it can nurture a pattern in students of being unable to care, connect or listen…

The system is huge, so it may seem like it’s impossible to do anything about it. However, I think that reversing this pattern may be as simple as stopping it whenever we can. We can emphasize the change by designing a classroom flow which allows students to speak to their classmates and share their ideas and concerns. It can be as simple as showing ONE student what it feels like to connect with somebody.

I think our students can be so much more if we just let them fulfill their basic needs of feeling connected, validated & understood. So, before we allow ourselves to fall into the old trap of thinking that Japanese students are flawed or incapable of something, why not try listening to them more and see just how connected, caring and fluent they can be?

Communication Teachers are the Future of English Ed in Japan

Test preparation puts a huge burden on students and ALTs to focus on reading comprehension at the expense of learning to communicate. And from my experience, the JTE is fully capable of teaching these reading comprehension classes by themselves. Although the ALT can add something to these classes, I have come to the conclusion that it is a tremendous waste. ALTs have one very special and outstanding skill: that is, the ability to teach students communication skills and how to speak. What do we say when we don’t know what to say? What is the word we’re looking for? How do we communicate an idea simply? These are all skills that ALTs can teach students simply by talking to them.

Okay, so we all know the testing system in Japan isn’t going to change, right? Well, it doesn’t have to if ALTs start changing the way we do our jobs. We have so much flexibility to turn our job into what we want it to be and we can change the system by doing so. Prepare communication activities every chance you get. Visit other classes and speak to students while they work on something in woodshop class. Insist on having quarterly communication tests with all your students. Ask your JTEs to have a conversation corner so that you can talk to each student for a few minutes while they fill out yet another test-prep worksheet in the regular class.

There are more ways than I can even imagine that we can change the nature of our jobs as ALTs. Changing the role of the ALT by the kinds of ideas and materials we bring to the table can redirect the course of English Ed in Japan even without changing the entrance examination method.

Communication is the answer, I believe, and Communication Teachers are the future.