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.

Make Speaking to your Students Easier with Eikaiwa Cards

Eikaiwa cards logo

Communication skills are needed now more than ever. Help your students build them with these easy to use cards.

I carry a pack of these eikaiwa cards with me everywhere. They are perfect for striking up conversations with students and getting them to learn communication skills.

On each card there are 5 questions related to a theme, like “comics,” “sports,” and so on. I have a student select a card and then I proceed to ask them the questions on the list, making variations as needed for skill level or coherence. When I’m finished, I can either give the card to the student as a collector’s item, or let the student ask me some questions.

There are three question packs with about 36 cards. Please download them today and start using them with your students.

Question Pack 1 (PDF)

Question Packs 2 (PDF)

Question Packs 3 (PDF)

Logo and Description (PDF) – Fixed

Preview: each card has a theme and 5 related questions. Ask the questions one-by-one or use them as a guide. Give the card to students when they are done.

Preview: each card has a theme and 5 related questions. Ask the questions one-by-one or use them as a guide. Give the card to students when they are done.

Using these cards gives students a chance to learn more English and practice speaking in more natural ways.

This sheet can be handed out to students trying Eikaiwa cards for the first time, or you can print them on the back of every card for quick reference.

This sheet can be handed out to students trying Eikaiwa cards for the first time, or you can print them on the back of every card for quick reference.

The quick description on this card, lets students know what Eikwaiwa Cards are all about and what to do when they don’t understand a question.

Make Games and Programs for your Students with iSpring

I wanted to introduce you to a fantastic piece of software I have been using over the past year. The software is called, iSpring. It allows you to create presentations in PowerPoint and then convert those presentations into flash and HTML animations, which can be used in class — or uploaded online for students at home.  It is my goal to deliver greater chances for students to interact with English and learn better communication skills. I belive language-learning software can successfully accomplish this. Normally creating software on this level would take years of schooling in computer programming and game development. But with this software, I am able to bring my ideas to life and directly to my students.

Here are two examples of the kind of games and software I have been able to create, using iSpring.

 1) Talk More! English: language software for students 


click on the image to try a demo

This software uses high-quality audio, pictures and animations which are brought to life with iSpring. I am able to take whatever target sentences I want and transform them into living conversations for students to access and review at home.

2) Zombie Ping-Pong

zombie English
click on the image to try a demo

This game uses ping-pong as a metaphor for communication, giving questions the power to drive the ball back and forth. Incorrect responses are signified by “dropping the ball” in the game.

The benefits of this software and these games to my students have been incredible. My students go home and practice English at home and come to me the next day telling me they used my software to teach their younger brother or sister English — or that they finally learned how to say something that just didn’t register for them with the textbook. The link between the work I do and the impact on students has been quite immediate. Using this software has given me the opportunity to make a difference with students and their exposure to English in ways never before imagined.

iSpring is really great for a lot of reasons but the top three reasons for me are as follows.

1)      High-quality audio and image conversions. The same crystal-clear integrity of audio and images I create in PowerPoint is preserved in the flash animations iSpring creates.

2)      Ease of use. The button for converting a presentation is streamlined into Microsoft PowerPoint so I can easily create flash whenever I’m ready. Once the file is finished converting, I can immediately upload it on a website or use it on my computer for class.

3)      Simplification and access to powerful tools. In the past, it would take hundreds of hours of studying computer programming and game design to create the kind of software I’m able to build in PowerPoint. This software opens the world of computer programming to people who otherwise wouldn’t be able to.

I hope that seeing this post will give you some inspiration for creating some software of your own. If you have any questions or you would like to contribute to this project please post your comments below.

Help Improve Your Students’ Grammar (Free Download)

tip stubs

What better way to help your students improve their English than to give them a friendly reminder?  These raffle-ticket-sized stubs come in 3 colors and give students a quick reference for how to answer “Do you~”, “Are you~” and “Can you~” type of questions.

The intricate font and light colors were specially chosen to make these stubs collectible and amiable — because the only thing worse than making a mistake is being harshly corrected for it.

Hand them out in your classes when covering these grammar points. Or use them in the hallway when you encounter a student who is struggling with their do’s am’s and can’s.

Download Now in PDF or Word!

PDF download

WORD download

Got an idea for how to use these “Tip For You” stubs? Post your comment now!

Bring Communication to Your 1st Graders (JHS)

How would you feel if your sibling asked you to wash these dishes?

How would you feel if your brother or sister asked you to wash these dishes?

Interesting conversation involves two things: emotion and a little negotiation. And what topic is more emotionally charged for teenagers than dividing up the house chores when their parents are gone on vacation? That’s what we found out, using this quick communication activity in which students work in pairs to negotiate about which chores they will do while their parents are away for the week. Please read below to find out more about this activity and to download a free copy of the worksheet that goes along with this idea.

Activity Quick Stats:

Click here to: Download the free worksheet

Level: First Grade Junior High School

Time: 15-20 minutes (depending on how many pairs students make)

Grammar Point: Making requests using “Can you ______?” (e.g. “Can you do the laundry?”)

Set-up: Explain to students that their parents are going on vacation for the week and they need to decide who will do the house chores such as washing the dishes, shoveling the snow and so on. Using the grammar “Can you _____?” students will negotiate about who will do which chore. Obviously some chores on the list are more undesirable than others (e.g. “Can you clean the toilet), so students have a greater incentive to participate actively in negotiations and connect some emotion to the language they are using. After all, “Okay, I can clean the toilet…” has a different ring to it than “Okay, I will make breakfast…”

How to play: After practicing how to say each chore, students will play rock paper scissors  to decide who makes the first request. Following the model dialogue at the end of the worksheet, the winner will request that their “sibling” do one of the chores.  Students can say “No, I can’t” to any item on the list, however, to be fair, they have to say, “Yes, I can.” to at least one chore per turn. The student making a request each time someone has agreed to do a chore. The negotiations finish when all the chores have been agreed to. With 5 chores to divide up, one student will finish with 3 chores to do and another with 2 chores to do. Students should make a memo about which chores they agree on.

An example  dialogue will look like this:

Student 1: Can you clean the toilet?

Student 2: No, I can’t.

Student 1: Okay, can you wash the dishes?

Student 2: Okay, I can wash the dishes.

(Students make a memo and SWITCH)

Student 2: Can you make breakfast?

Student 1: Okay, I can make breakfast.

(Students make a memo and SWITCH)

…and so on…

Click here to: Download the free worksheet

This activity worked really great with all our 1st graders because there was a consequence to the decisions they made (albeit imaginary). We increased the level of engagement from the students by switching partners 3 times, checking who agreed to do each chore after each round, and giving students a chance to think of their own “chore” for the last round.

Let me know if you have any questions. eliotc[at]gmail[dot]com