Teaching English to Japanese Students: Activities

When I started teaching at university in Japan, I made an effort to understand the students’ expectations and to take into account various demands on their time. And I adjusted my own expectations accordingly, as I noted in part 1 of this series about teaching English to Japanese students.

As the university term went on, I found myself developing rituals. These were activities that students grew familiar with and became used to doing, so that there was efficiency in them. The initial time spent demonstrating and explaining them resulted in less set up time overall relative to the time that students spent engaged in them.

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The two main rituals were mind maps and short dialogues, and they were used at the beginning of class. They often accounted for the first 30 minutes or so of class time.

I had various reasons for structuring my classes this way.  For one thing, I wanted to give the students a chance to ‘warm up’ their English using familiar activities at the beginning of class, keeping in mind that aside from our 90 minutes together, many of them didn’t speak any English.

I chose a theme to work on throughout the course.  I felt that no matter how much variety I infused it with, working with that theme and that theme only would be potentially stifling, for all of us.

The students had lots to express that fell outside my theme, and I too wanted to teach some things that I had trouble incorporating into it.  And because our classes were longer than an hour, it afforded us ample time to include these activities.


As a learner, making a circle was part of my graduate school experience from start to finish, and I suppose that whenever I think of that time, I’ll think of the circles we made and how it facilitated communication.

In my small group conversation classes, I taught in a cozy room that was at one time someone’s bedroom, in a traditional style Japanese house. There was a large dining table that people sat around, making a cozy circle.

At university though, I was confronted with a large room, often larger than needed, with chairs in rows facing the board, each chair with its own desk in front of it. From the first day, I asked students to move the desks away to an unused part of the room and to make a circle with their chairs.
I asked them to rearrange the room this way as they entered before each class, so that we would be ready to start when it was time to begin class.

This was a new format for some, and took a little getting used to. They inevitably had to be reminded to do this at times, and so I made a habit of popping into the room five minutes before the lesson and if there were students there seated in the usual way in rows, I wordlessly made a circle motion with my finger and walked out. This was enough to get things in motion and in place by class time.


As I mentioned in connection with identifying student expectations for the course, the chance to make new friends was a significant aim for most. One student told me that students tend to make friends and join informal and more organized social circles in the first year, and that those relationships form the bulk of their social lives throughout university.

It was therefore a rare chance to be able to make new friends after that, and he mentioned that that opportunity was one of the things he most appreciated about my class. The fact that the students came from different majors and would have otherwise had little or no contact with each other made this even more valuable to many of them.

Mind maps became a key way to facilitate this interaction. Before I went to grad school I’d heard about mind maps, and seen examples of what a friend’s students had created.  A mind map is a way to arrange ideas and their interconnections visually. Starting from the center of the page, a focus is identified.  In my university classes, the focus was ‘My Week.’ Various ‘bubbles’ connected by lines emanate from the center, giving more detailed information.

Mind maps can be used in various contexts to organize and present thoughts graphically, help clarify thinking, and also importantly for this exercise, are easy to read over.

In my conversation school classes, I would routinely set aside the first 5-10 minutes of class for students in lower level classes to talk in pairs about a topic of interest to them, which usually was something they’d done in the past week. The students there were all very familiar with this format, and also with the importance of keeping the conversations going by asking follow up questions and giving additional information.

During this time, I didn’t correct, but I listened and helped with a word if needed, to keep the flow going. At this beginning level, there were often words or grammar forms that came up that we’d been working on or that were ‘ripe’ for them to be exposed to. I often noted these things after the exercise, and sometimes expanded on them to give additional practice.

I wanted to give university students a chance to use their English in this way to freely talk about whatever they chose with each other.

I knew that due to the emphasis on written testing in Japan in all things including language learning, most university students have a storehouse of vocabulary and grammatical knowledge that has rarely been put to use in actual, spontaneous conversation, and I wanted to provide a forum for practicing accessing this knowledge so that it could be used in speaking and listening, which are the two skill areas that are least taught throughout compulsory school years.

They also happen to be the areas that students most often want to study and become more proficient at.

I knew though, that I’d need to make adjustments to suit the university classes. I couldn’t monitor all the conversations as well as I would have liked to, since an average of 24 students meant 12 pairs talking at the same time. So it would have been easy for students to begin to feel that it was ‘free conversation’ and nothing more, more akin to chat than a learning experience.

I obviously couldn’t monitor everyone closely enough to identify all of the significant chances for learning that flowed from their mistakes. In this way, the potential for students to see it as a ‘time killer’ and an unfocused free for all and even as a chance to speak Japanese was there.

There was also added challenge because of the varying levels of motivation and language ability that existed within a single class. I needed to add some structure to the exercise to help lower level students and to keep the less motivated ones focused by making the task more concrete, and to add an element of accountability to it.

This is where mind maps came in. I had never used them before with students, so I found myself developing new ways to work with them as I went along in response to the feedback I was getting from students.

I began by presenting a mind map of my week on the board, and asking students to predict with partners what I’d done.  After sharing these ideas together, I told them what had actually happened. This gave them the basic idea.

Then I asked them all to stand and for each person to ask me one question to get more information. Things like ‘how was dinner?’ ‘What time did you meet your friend?’ etc. I used this technique a few times during the course as a way to get shy or reluctant students to ask questions.

It was also a very effective way to suddenly change a quiet classroom into a boisterous one, with usually reserved students often the ones who were most eager to be noticed and called on to ask a question, so they could sit down and not have to worry about their question being asked first by another student, which would have meant having to come up with another!

Once the importance of follow up questions was established and they had a feel for how to transform their experiences into mind maps, I asked them to make one of their own to share with a classmate in the next class.

The mind maps were a new concept for almost all the students, so their novelty lent a fresh angle to the idea of chatting together in English. In the opening weeks of class, students brought in a mind map every week and exchanged it with a classmate and then each partner looked at the other’s map, predicting what had happened before listening to their partner tell of the week’s events.

This gave students a chance to talk with different classmates, about one one of everyone’s favorite subjects, themselves. Students who didn’t bring a mind map or scratched one out halfheartedly just before class were at a disadvantage and their partner had less to work with, which gave them some impetus to prepare one in advance and to put some thought into it.

But as the newness wore off, I could sense that fresh elements had to be added to keep it engaging. I began to collect the mind maps at the beginning of class, and then randomly redistributed them. My only concern was that a pair was indeed working with two mind maps other than either of theirs. They worked together trying to make sense and sentences out of the words and fragments on the maps. Topics such as part time jobs and fun with friends were typical, but there were always surprises.

The second stage of this exercise was to individually write at least three questions they had for the person whose mind map they were holding. This was a rare chance to write in a class that emphasized speaking and listening, and it often provided me a chance to quickly point out mistakes as I circulated, making for another learning chance. These were often ‘simple’ mistakes that the students could self correct.

This done, they all stood up and went over to the mind map’s owner and asked the questions.  This inevitably turned into a mini conversation in its own right. There was often a short wait when the mind map’s owner was engaged in another conversation, but it was minimal and the vast majority of students seemed to be doing something at a given moment. Waiting time was also a chance to listen to a conversation between others.

The energy of a classroom of students standing at once and immediately setting out to find a certain classmate and having an animated chat before changing partners was an invigorating way to start class.

In this way, mind mapping grew to incorporate the four skills of language learning(listening, speaking, reading and writing), offered a chance for students to get to break the ice with all of their classmates at least once over the school term, and gave them a chance to creatively use language that they’d learned over the years, as well as picking up select new vocabulary on an as needed basis.

Because they had an immediate need to put these new words into service to express themselves to classmates in the moment, they were more likely to retain them.  They often discovered these words when they were writing their mind maps, and just as often, conversations in class surrounding them prompted them to ask me for a word or check a dictionary.  My intermediate level Japanese came in handy, as I was often able to quickly give a word without disrupting the flow.


I was the first native English teacher that many of my university students had had. Because Japanese English teachers usually don’t know many of the expressions and colloquialisms that are part of everyday conversation, and perhaps more importantly, because tests focus on more formalized speech, my students had a real hunger and enthusiasm for learning such things.

I incorporated these elements into the theme that we worked with, but wanted to give students a more focused, regular chance to not only pick up new words and expressions, but also to get a feel for the rhythm and intonation that native speakers typically use.  This is where short dialogues came in. After mind map exchanges, I presented a dialogue that I’d written on the board. I created these dialogues earlier that same day to reflect something topical, like the day’s weather or plans for an upcoming school break, etc. The following is an example:

A Hey, you’re soaked!

B Yeah, it’s pouring outside.

A Don’t you have an umbrella?

B No, according to the weather report, it was supposed to be sunny today.

A Well, don’t believe everything you hear!

Students worked briefly in pairs to try and guess the meanings of new expressions and vocabulary with the help of known words. In the above example, The word ‘umbrella’ could function as a clue to the meaning of words like ‘soaked’ and ‘pouring.’ In this stage of the exercise, I encouraged students to have fun guessing together and to use their imaginations, stressing the mindset of being a language detective and making inferences. Dictionaries were not used during this process; Japanese students are often quick to look something up and are inevitably as quick to forget the word as soon as knowing its meaning has served their immediate purpose. The ubiquity of smartphones has only made it easier to fall into this trap.

Exploration and discovery are not concepts that are compatible in a system where according to one survey, 70 percent of students can’t keep up with the massive amounts of information that they’re told to memorize. Therefore, although this notion is a bit intimidating to some students at first and they hesitate to ‘take a stab’ at an answer even in pairs where the spotlight isn’t on them, there’s a novelty and freshness to it that seemed to appeal to most and they brainstormed more freely with each other as the weeks went on.

I then gave them a chance to come up with the answers as a whole group, and inevitably at least one or two were on the mark for each phrase in question. The next step was to act out the dialogues on their own. Knowing the meaning was a good start, and I asked them to try and convey that understanding in acting it out. This sometimes involved body language that was often as foreign to them as some of the text, and intonation and emotion that they weren’t used to using when speaking English.

As I tried to prepare students for these tasks, I remembered my ‘Four Skills’ class during my second summer as a grad student at the School for International Training(SIT) in Vermont. I recalled listening to my teacher as she read a passage from a short story to us, and I was struck by how neutral the reading was, with nary a nod to what the characters might be feeling as they uttered the lines.

I reflected at that time on my own teaching and how I often infused my reading with with my own interpretation of what was happening. I did this to help students to understand the meaning and also to entertain them, to keep their attention as a storyteller would. But I realized from this experience as a learner that being ‘spoon fed’ an interpretation can rob the listener of the chance to conjure up their own image of what’s going on, and can raise their dependence on the speaker for cues to the material’s meaning. Of course there can be multiple interpretations, all equally plausible, So, I had to consciously walk a line in the university classroom, modeling something on one hand, to provide some sense of possibilities, but not short-circuiting their own creative process or visions.

Another element that went into working with the dialogues was working with blending words as native speakers might. Invariably, students pronounce words in English as distinct, separate entities, just as they typically appear on a page, or are spoken by many Japanese English teachers. In fact, many native English teachers do this as well, whether consciously or not, to facilitate understanding. The contrast between this and a blended version can be seen in the following:

What are you going to do tomorrow?

Wada ya gonna do damorrow?

As an illustration of how ubiquitous blending is, songs like the Beatles’ ‘I Wanna Hold Your Hand’ can be presented. Since most students express an interest in learning English to understand foreign movies and music, calling this to their attention and giving them some basic rules about how native speakers blend words and a chance to practice can be both meaningful and fun. It was familiar enough in a vague way through exposure to movies and music for my students to get a handle on, the motivation to learn it was high, and its novelty brought an energy to the lessons.

If a native speaker were to utter the example sentence above, it would probably be split into two intonation groups, as in:

Wada ya gonna/do damorrow?

The existence of intonation groups, of the tendency of native speakers of various languages to group words in a sentence according to the sound, is usually another new concept for students.  But like blending, it can take on a familiar quality quickly in that it involves calling attention to something that’s been there all the time, maybe something that they have even unconsciously used themselves at times.

The phenomenon of intonation groups was something that my students could quickly master once they were introduced to it. To illustrate it, I asked them to take a pencil or pen and hold it in their hand as if they were a conductor about to lead an orchestra. Then, I moved my pencil back and forth like a windshield wiper, two times in the case of the example sentence. For contrast, I then mimicked the way some learners approach sounds in English, by keeping them separate and keeping it monotone, as in:


This invariably prompted laughs of recognition, as most seemed to relate to this ‘metronome’ approach. When students started moving their pencils back and forth and playing with dialogues in this way, it brought kinesthetic learning into the equation, which provided another opportunity to connect with and visualize the material, in a way that had an element of play to it.

Another exciting part for students was that once they noticed intonation groups, they could in very short order intuitively grasp and use this concept. If there was a case where the grouping wasn’t clear to someone and they asked me, we often went through the process of experimentation and discovery together with our pencil ‘wands’, and the answer wasn’t always clear, making the process itself as important as the result.

In working with a short dialogue in so many ways, I recalled the notion of ‘doing a lot with a little’ that I found so intriguing in my studies at SIT. Another phrase a teacher used then, ‘milking the content’ also came to mind. Before looking at this, I had the somewhat typical tendency to go through material more quickly, which made my job as a teacher harder because I had to constantly search for new lessons. Once I put the principle into practice though, I could use my energy to creatively mine lessons in various ways, which made teaching much more fun and rewarding for me.

Hopefully, this has had an effect on the students’ reactions as well. Working this way can also foster the feeling among students that the amount of material covered isn’t what’s important; it’s the learning that is. I was fortunate at the university where I taught to be able to prepare my own syllabus and I had no prescribed amount of material to plow through, so this was admittedly a great help. Teachers who have less control over the content and pace of their lessons will need to consider ways to work within those confines.

Working with dialogues gives a teacher a lot of choices, even on a basic level. There’s whole group practice, pairs practicing simultaneously, and pairs performing in front of their classmates.  Since the dialogues were short, they could quickly be memorized so that students didn’t need to rely on what I’d written on the board, and they could be paraphrased or altered. I used all of these variations at one time or another. I also occasionally had a pair present a dialogue in front of the class without actually vocalizing the words! It was up to them to mouth the dialogue with expressions and gestures that they considered fitting, as the rest of the class in chorus said the words. This allowed the ‘audience’ to actually participate and required their attention to what was being played out in front of them.

Whatever rituals a teacher chooses to incorporate into lessons, it would serve them to keep in mind that there will be a learning curve, and maybe even some resistance or hesitation on the part of students if they aren’t used to doing something.  Explaining and/or demonstrating the activities can, along with time, address this. I found that if I allowed for such reactions at the beginning, dealt with them in this way, and was committed to what I was doing, things fell into place well and these rituals became useful tools in serving my students’ learning.

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Originally posted 2019-04-26 23:32:02.


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