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.

Throwing out the Flat Carboard-Cutout Characters

Something that bugs me about the kinds of characters who appear in language textbooks, almost wherever one goes, is that all of the characters are always the same flat, smiling, sorry excuses for cardboard cut-outs who are completely interchangeable and completely forgettable. It’s no wonder students forget their names and teachers constantly have to ask, “Who is this?” “And who is this?” “And this?” The only difference between Ichiro and Kevin from New Horizon, is that Ichiro’s hair is black and Kevin’s hair is red. Otherwise they are the same person.

This was the inspiration behind the Zombie English cards. I wanted to create characters for students that were memorable and who they could connect with. So I created back-stories for each of the Zombies.

the depth of a character can be demonstrated by the types of adjectives we use to describe them. The adjectives we can use to describe their character, the better. The more adjectives we use to describe their clothes, their hair, and so on, the flatter.

the depth of a character can be demonstrated by the types of adjectives we use to describe them. The adjectives we can use to describe their character, the better. The more adjectives we use to describe their clothes, their hair, and so on, the flatter.

“Frankie” likes cheese and fine wine. “Lazlo” is a would-be sports star who lost his chance to play in the NFL because he was bitten. “Harold” is a sloth and a glutton. He’s chasing after a sandwich he was never able to eat before he was bitten.

After the class where I introduced the cards, I started telling students more about each of the characters. Although I had trouble telling 1st grade students more about these characters, the 3rd graders were really intrigued. They could understand the stories better and they were genuinely happy to hear more about them. Some students even wanted to change their cards after hearing the back-story. They connected with a classroom character possibly for the first time and wanted to have that character with them.

To learn more about the character back-stories of “Frankie,” “Lazlo” and “Harold”, please check out the PDF below. But please feel free to make up your own names and back-stories for these zombies if you wish.

Zombie English” Character Back-stories (PDF download)

As for the other characters from the textbook. I see nothing wrong with inventing back-stories for them as well. These guys are paper thin in terms of character depth, so anything we can add to their story is going to be an improvement. Your students will be grateful and they will probably learn more.

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Clever Way to Practice Using “Can you~?”

It’s easy. Simply adapt the game of “go fish” and replace the question, “Do you have~?” with “Can you~?” Students will reply with a “Yes” or a “Yes, I can” if they have the card in question and vice versa. Same rules of “Go Fish” apply, unless you want to make up your own set of rules!

go fish card

example of one of the cards in the “can you~?” go fish game card deck

“Go Fish” has been a huge part of my curriculum this year especially because I have been able to play it in small groups of students were I can direct the game for students and encourage the use of “table talk” English as the game progresses. Never has it been easier to teach students important phrases like, “oh man!” or “Too bad!” or “That’s lucky!” There are a lot of other benefits that I will leave to you to discover. Now’s a great chance for you to start because first grade JHS students have either just learned or are about to learn about this important grammar point.

example card 2

the deck has 52 cards, 13 4-set pairs and uses 4 verbs: cook, play, eat and sing

I’m trying out the new set of cards using “Can” now because of this success. You can download a pdf of the cards template I made and start using them at your school. You’ll need to make 6 sets for a whole class (30 students in groups of 5-6) or you can just make one deck to play with kids during lunch break. Gluing the cards to a piece of construction paper is a good idea.

Get the free “Can you~?” Go Fish cards now (PDF version)

This pdf is 6 pages and one printing will give you the complete set of cards. You can also download the Hoyle card backs below to make your cards seem more realistic.

Hoyle Card Backs (PDF version)

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Teaching “Taller, Larger, Longer” to 2nd Graders

Right about now, students are learning how to use comparatives using “er” at my school. This is a powerpoint I created with a co-worker that always has an impact with students. It shows students how to make comparisons by attaching “er” to adjectives (e.g. bigger, taller, faster, etc.).

Time: about 15 or 20 minutes

Level: 2nd grade JHS

Which is stronger, Godzilla or King Kong?

DOWNLOAD: Let’s Compare! – Powerpoint

Key Points about this powerpoint

  • It compares international landmarks, raising student awareness about the rest of the world.
  • It is presented in a quiz-show style so students can enjoy the thrill of guessing and discovery.
  • There is a section at the end where students can personalize the learning point by choosing between two things (e.g. math and English) and using the grammar to tell others about their preferences.


  • The PowerPoint uses Japanese translations for all the sentences — something which may be helpful to students. I have a feeling, though, that given the right class, it could be done without it.