“What do you like food?”

As language teachers we have to tread softly when it comes to students making mistakes. If we don’t point out errors, we run the risk of making them permanent. Over-correct and we can stamp out our students’ confidence in speaking.

So, when you hear common mistakes like these, what is your protocol? How and when do you chose to correct mistakes?

Please share your ideas and experiences in the comments section.

What a difference a Challenge makes

I noticed my students falling asleep when we were learning new vocabulary from flash cards. I thought, “I know this can be boring, but come on! is it really that boring?”

So I started experimenting with different methods. Here’s what I found.

  • Reading the words slowly at first and checking pronunciation is good for students to catch “how to say the words”. However, it is a pet peeve to many students when teachers harp on the pronunciation (e.g. checking the pronunciation of one word like 10 times or having them repeat each word 3 times and running through the cards twice. Just to give you a sense of what that really means, 10 words at 3 times a piece, going through the cards twice, means the students are repeating what you say 60 times!!! Yawn.)
  • Many students like the challenge of trying to say the words quickly, so after running through the pronunciation, I like to run through the cards fast, getting the students to repeat each word about once at a quick speed.
  • After that I like to tell the students, “Quiz time!” and I ask them to read the words themselves. Again, I run through the cards rather quickly, keeping a steady pace.
  • Then it is fun to do a little “sneak peak” of the card and ask students to guess what they saw. You can quickly flash the card and ask them to guess, or you can pull out the card slowly and try to get the students to guess the words based on just a small fragment of the word (e.g. just the “h” from the word “host” or just the “and” from the word “understand”. As far as I know, it works wonders for all levels of JHS. However, it does also depend on the mood of the class.
  • When you go down the lines, and ask each student to read one word, that can also be boring, since the challenge is so minimal. It is good to up the ante from time to time. For example, have the first line of students read one word each. But then the next line has to read 2 words each. For the final student you can ask the students how many cards the last student should read. If it is a high level student, encourage them to do all the words.
  • I am also a fan of kinetic learning, so for each of these steps, I like to change my position in the room. Usually it looks like this: Step 1 (pronunciation) front left hand side of the room; Step 2 (speed drills) front right hand side; Step 3 (quiz time) middle of the room, behind the teacher’s desk.

In conclusion, a fast pace and a little challenge can wake your students up and get them to learn more. If you see many sleepy students during your vocabulary drills, you might want to reflect about your pace and how much of a challenge you are presenting the students.

This method only reflects the procedure for teaching the English side of flash cards. I usually leave it to the JTE to run through the Japanese. I wonder, what techniques do you use for flash cards?

Give Students a Survey. Now. Don’t miss this Great Chance!!!

I made this video yesterday after work. Please enjoy and give me your comments. It tells you why and how to give a survey to your students as a great end-of-the-year project for you.

Here are the surveys I spoke of in the video (with Japanese and English translations). Of course, these are just examples. Feel free to create your own surveys or modify these however you please:

Survey for Regular English Classes (Word document download)

This survey is to get feedback from classes that haven’t had communication lessons yet.

Survey for Communication Classes (Word document download)

This survey gets feedback from students that have had communication classes.


How do you get your JTEs to allow you to survey the students? Ask and see if it’s okay. It only takes 5-10 minutes to fill out because it is in Japanese. The results can be a big eye-opener that you can use to set policy at your school. Nothing like some hard data to back up your ideas.


For those of you that don’t have time to watch the full video. Let me outline my key points quickly:

  • Surveys are a powerful tool.
  • You can get valuable feedback from students about their feelings towards your English classes.
  • You can use them to set teaching policy at your school.
  • It is the end of the year, so now is the time to do it.
  • Surveying a communication class, you can get positive feedback, which you can use to validate your ideas and communication program. You can make a small report of the results and give it to the other English teachers as evidence that it is successful and that the students want and need it
  • Surveying a regular English class, you can get some results that may open everyone’s eyes to the feelings and needs of the students. You may be able to use those results to make the case for communication classes.

Please comment and give me your feedback. All this work and no response is a waste!


Children learn attitudes quicker than vocabulary…

This is an editorial from the Japan Times taken from April of last year. It has some important ideas for any English teacher going in to introduce English language to elementary school students. Please read and share your comments and reactions. Bold and italics are mine.
The Japan Times: Sunday, April 10, 2011

Ready for English?

Fifth- and sixth-grade teachers will have one new worry starting this month — teaching English. All elementary schools must introduce compulsory foreign language lessons. Despite the difficulties of implementing this national strategy for English education, it is high time Japan took its English level more seriously. Only North Korea scores lower than Japan on the TOEFL exam in the Asian region.

The biggest hurdle may be the teachers’ worries about teaching a new subject. Critics complain that few elementary teachers are specialists in English and that some have not even had training in the recommended curriculum. Yet, the same problem exists in other countries. Students from Taiwan, China, Turkey and Spain, among many other countries, have been learning English from younger ages for over a decade, and for more than the one hour per week now mandated in Japanese elementary schools.

By starting early, a better system for learning English can be gradually implemented over longer years of study. Age-appropriate activities can circumvent social feelings of embarrassment and the tendency toward perfectionism. Doing that in fifth and sixth grade will reduce Japan’s notorious English phobia before the panic of entrance exams sets in.

To better accomplish that, English classes should not focus on impeccably correct grammar. Instead, they should establish positive attitudes and helpful learning habits. Few people achieve a functional level of language only through gaman (patience, perseverance) or pressure; they get it through passion. Starting English early is one way to acquire that passion.

Rather than obsessing over flawless grammar, teachers need to keep in mind the physicians’ first principle, “At least do no harm.” Helping stimulate interest in other languages and other cultures should be a top priority. As experienced teachers know, confidence inspires confidence. Young students are quicker to pick up attitudes than vocabulary words. With the right attitude, students will always learn more in their future English classes.

The consequences will be a new way of thinking and new approaches to communication. Those teachers starting to teach English for the first time this year will have a heavy burden, but by introducing students to the world of English, they will be building a solid base for Japan’s future functioning in international society and commerce.

How to Start a Communication Class as a JTE

By Takayuki Watanabe, JTE, Yamagata City

I started communication classes 2 months ago at my school with my ALT. Now I feel my students’ skills to speak English is getting better and better!  I also enjoy the class every time.

These sentences below are the ideas or tips about how I started communication classes at my school and how I should make the class better.

 1.  Keep your Style

Communication is important.  But getting knowledge is also important.  So we don’t have to deny our teaching style.  I believe the Japanese teaching style is good for Japanese people because it’s easy for us to understand, and many “senpai” teachers have established such a good style.  What we should do is simply add a little to improve it.

Let’s make evolutions daily for English revolutions!

 2.  Understand How…

The topics of my communication class are like, “Do you know…?” or “Did you enjoy the weekend?”  You might say, “What?  Aren’t they for 1st graders?  Are the students interested in such simple questions?”  But when I asked my students this kind of question in my first communication class, they were upset and had a long pause, or they finished talking with just one answer, “Yes”.

Why don’t you ask your students a simple question to understand how they are good at talking or not.  If they can’t do it well, I think it’s worth doing a communication class.

3.  Communication – Verbal and Non-Verbal –

We sometimes do a “Social Group Encounter” in our homeroom classes.  The aim of this class is to communicate well with other people.  I have thought this idea is also important in English class since I started communication classes.  When my students are doing “high-fives” that were taught by my ALT, students looked really happy.  I think communication is not only about words, but also about showing other people who we are.  I always want my students to enjoy talking with their friends with big smiles, big reactions and high-tension in English class.

4.  Give responsibility to ALT

I think saying to ALTs, “Can you make a procedure of the next lesson?” is good for us and them.  If the procedure is good, we can learn good ideas we can’t learn about as Japanese people.  Even if the procedure is not good enough, it’s a good opportunity to exchange and share ideas.  This is what we usually do to make a lesson plan with Japanese teachers at school.  So why not extend this idea to ALTs? We both are teachers.


Talk more and be good friends with your ALT!


Click this link to read more advice for ALTs about starting a communication revolution.



Teachers and Artists

In talking about the new economy, the one based on talented thinkers who challenge ideas and ways of doing things and work to create a better world, Seth Godin writes in his new manifesto, Stop Stealing Dreams,

“An artist is someone who brings new thinking and generosity to his work, who does human work that changes another for the better. An artist invents a new kind of insurance policy, diagnoses a disease that someone else might have missed, or envisions a future that’s not here yet.”

You might say that teachers are artists, too. After all, watching a really great teacher at work is like watching a master craftsman at work. If we English teachers are artists, then, shouldn’t we be inventing a new way to teach English – a new system that figures out how to get Japanese students to learn and enjoy speaking English??

Artists were meant to break the rules, and never before has it been so important for English teachers to do just that — and change the whole game and make things happen.

Guess What?

By John Hatanaka, ALT, Yamagata City

"Guess what?!"This is the poster I printed off for my kids and put around the school.

I’ve had a breakthrough with my students recently. When I see my kids in the morning, they no longer say “Good morning!” to me. Now, instead of just, “Good morning!”, they usually ask me a second question. “Guess what?!”, they say. I ask them, “What?”. And then they have to tell me about something from their day.

Instead of a teacher, I become a listener, and a conversation starts as I reply with follow-up questions. It’s kind of like physics, I think. “Guess what?” is an easy English phrase that all students can say. And it gets the ball rolling. An object in motion stays in motion. And if you can find a clever way like this to get the conversation rolling, you are already off to a good start.

I like the English passport idea. Maybe I’ll start to offer a “Guess what?” stamp if my students use a “Guess what?” question. Passports are Great!