Teaching English in Japan: Motivating Students

This is the fourth in a series of posts on classroom techniques and perspectives that served me well as a new English teacher at a Japanese university. If you haven’t read part 1 yet, you can find it here.

The English language course that I taught at university in Kyoto was required for my students, so inevitably some were more motivated than others.  All students expressed a strong desire to pass the class and to receive credit for it, but this was the only goal for some, while others strived to use the time to improve their English, to explore new topics and ways of thinking, and to make new friends among their classmates.

Just as motivation varied with the student, so did English proficiency level. Whereas in my conversation school classes I could move a student to a different class if I thought his level didn’t suit a certain group, this wasn’t an option at university. The challenge was to motivate lower level students to give it their best or at least not disrupt the lessons, while giving the more advanced students a chance to expand their knowledge and thereby keep them engaged.


The power to decide who passes and fails the class is something that I wasn’t used to-I’d never given grades at conversation school. The first thing I did was formulate a grading system, assigning various tasks and giving a clear weight to all of them in relation to the final grade. I gave a sheet with all of this information on it to the students in our first session together, and gave them a chance to ask questions and showed them examples of what I was referring to. I asked them to take it home and sign it to show me that they understood it.

A full 50% of the grade was earned through attendance and participation. In this way, if a lower level student came to class and was active, that effort would go a long way toward successfully completing the class.
I walked around as they spoke with each other, and evaluated them daily on a scale of one to ten in regards to participation. A key aspect of this was something fairly simple on one level, but a strategy that I didn’t anticipate having to use beforehand. As I circulated, helping students when they needed it, I simply carried a notebook in my arms and glanced at it often, and I’d write things in it as I went.

Sometimes I was actually writing a score or note next to a student’s name, but there were times when I was doing nothing more than doodling, in order to give the impression that I was always monitoring and noting things. I quickly saw that in this way, silently without any explicit threats, I could encourage students to keep their focus on the exercise. This allowed me to maintain control without overly exerting it.

Conversely, one response that doesn’t seem to work is expressing anger. This has much to do with Japanese culture, which makes expressing anger in public unacceptable. In the classroom, displaying anger will almost inevitably lead to a loss of respect for the teacher.

The closest I came to expressing outright anger in class was one morning when we’d just gotten together in our circle, and one student who hadn’t done the homework assignment sat with a scowl on his face and refused to do pair work with his partner.  It seemed to me that he was angry at something, and didn’t want to be there. So I announced to the class as a whole in what I considered a calm, matter of fact way that anyone who didn’t want to be there was free to leave.

He promptly got up and walked out!  It solved the matter in a sense, but after he left I could feel that the atmosphere had changed, and had gotten heavier, as students went about their pair work with more hesitation and less flow than usual. It seemed as if they were uncomfortable with what had happened, and it cast a pall over things for a good part of that class.

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I related this incident to a friend who was a teacher at a university, and he simply asked without hesitation, ‘What did you want him to do?’ I realized something at that point. Although I knew there was a chance he’d walk out, I hadn’t thought about what that would accomplish, and what effect it would have on the rest of the students. And I hadn’t thought about what I really wanted to have happen.  Although I hadn’t lost my cool, I realized how anger could cloud my judgement and impair my ability to think things through before acting.

If I’d thought it through more carefully, I might have considered the position I was putting the student in, as well. Others probably noticed his attitude as I had, and realized who I was specifically referring to in that moment. I put him in the position of losing face if he’d stayed there, something that is not taken lightly in Japan. If I had it to do over again, since he wasn’t disrupting the others, I would wait until after class to ask him if he had an issue with me or something else related to class, and I would do it in a concerned way rather than an angry or irritated one.

This experience showed me that it was always preferable to use the least amount of force necessary. In this way, if I were to confront things on any level in the moment again in such a situation, I might well try simple body language. It’s possible that something as subtle as standing next to him and throwing a glance or two his way might have diffused the situation significantly.

I mentioned that in this cultural context, there is a particular aversion to showing anger, and a loss of respect can result if anger is freely expressed. I’m not by nature a disciplinarian, and I find it natural to keep emotions like anger in check. So the bigger challenge for me was to follow through with my standards and penalize students who didn’t follow classroom rules.

The same loss of respect that can come from lashing out can arise from a failure to penalize students who don’t put forward their best effort and/or disrupt the learning of others. This speaks to the issue of fairness. I learned about fairness from another perspective rather unexpectedly, from a student who I occasionally saw on the train ride home after class, and with whom I sometimes chatted about classroom issues.

One day near the end of the term, my ‘train chat informant’ let me know that some students were angry with me over something they considered unfair. Earlier in the semester I had called in sick just an hour before class. The administration put up a notice to let the students know that class would be cancelled that day. I had assumed that students would be more or less glad that class was cancelled, even the ones who especially looked forward to it. They had a heavy course load with lots of homework, and extra time to do that or just unwind with friends couldn’t be a bad thing, I’d thought.

What I hadn’t realized was that many students commuted to campus from a great distance, sometimes upwards of two hours. Ours was their first class of the day, and in some cases, their only class of the day. So instead of feeling a sense of relief, some felt like I had disrespected their time, and had been thoughtless in calling in sick at the last minute, when more advance notice might have saved many of them the early morning train ride to campus.

It seems trite, but I realized then that respect is a two way street. Students needed to feel that I respected them as busy individuals who had responsibilities beyond my class. Things like saving them an unnecessary commute and easing up on homework assignments when they were feeling the combined weight of so many teachers giving so much homework seemed to be an important part of developing a mutual respect and the motivation that can go along with that.


The concepts involved in community building are closely related to motivation in many instances. My overall goal was to help create an atmosphere where my students could see friends and learn with a feeling of joy and ease. I hoped to foster an atmosphere that would be a positive part of the students’ day.

In a broad sense, as well as teaching them specific things, I wanted to instill in them the idea that learning English could be a pleasurable and practical pursuit, something they could use as a tool in not only conversing with different people, but also to think about things in deeper and often new ways.

One thing that was paramount in all this was my choice of a theme for us to work with throughout the class. If mind maps and short dialogues were appetizers, I wanted to also then create a main course, tailored to the tastes of the students. I created a thematic unit in my ‘Four Skills’ class during my second summer at grad school at SIT. It was a revelation to me, in that until that time I hadn’t built any one theme up beyond a few hours worth of instruction time. But developing a thematic unit  gave me the confidence to try it on a larger scale at university. And since there was no required text assigned by the university in this case, I had the freedom to choose my own materials.

The theme that I chose was ‘Love.’ My criteria were the same as the ones I’d used in shaping and completing my assignment at grad school. That is, I wanted to give students a chance to work with something that was at once universal and personal. It was my hope that choosing such a theme would motivate the students by giving them something through which they could explore new ideas as they learned about their classmates, and in this case, in the course of one of their final assignments, about their own parents as well.

I knew that this theme was potentially fraught with pitfalls. I didn’t want to pry sensitive information out of students that they would have rather kept to themselves. I remembered during my ‘Four Skills’ class as a student at grad school that we used the classic film ‘The Graduate’ to work with various ways of presenting something. Given that one of the themes of that movie is the pursuit of love, it brought up a lot of emotions in me about my own recent romances and not all of those memories were welcome ones.

Here, the concept of ‘affect’ comes to mind.  I realized that for the theme of ‘love’ to serve as a motivation and not as a barrier to discussing various experiences and ideas in English, I’d need to give students the space that I was given in my ‘Four Skills’ class to express my feelings in ways that I chose. I also understood that to be inclusive, the theme also had to be broad enough to encompass various kinds of love, not just the romantic variety. I also stressed that there wouldn’t always be set answers, and that a variety of interpretations, emotions and opinions were possible. I wanted my students to approach their work within the framework with a spirit of freedom and a willingness to put their own ideas into play as we started the unit.

I often reminded the students to relax and just try, and I encouraged them to use their imagination and creativity in role-plays, their poster project, etc. In designing the thematic unit, I remembered that I’d been struck by the limitations I’d placed on my own creativity when I was a student at grad school. I saw that themes can be defined broadly, and that one thing having to do with a theme can also branch off into another issue that has nothing directly to do with the main theme.

One example of this was a lesson we had about a boy and girl who were friends. The girl had a bad heart and needed a transplant , and when the boy had a premonition one day that he would die, he told his family to give his heart to his friend if that should happen. The family didn’t pay much attention to him at the time, but remembered his words when he did suddenly die of an aneurysm. The topic was touching to most students, many of whom mentioned it in their feedback papers.

But beyond that, it gave us the chance to explore the issue of organ donation. This was enlightening to me. It was a more serious topic than we usually discussed in that it’s a matter of public policy. I was surprised by how eagerly they talked together about the Japanese government’s stance on the issue, which has changed in recent years. It was encouraging for me to see them talk so earnestly about an issue that didn’t directly affect them at the time, and might never. It also provided a good chance to look at some cultural differences as well as their own feelings about it.

On another day I gave them two short stories. The response from the students was very interesting to me, and also a bit disappointing, in a sense.  They overwhelmingly favored the story with the ‘happy ending’ even though it ended in death. They seemed to take the other story which had a rather flat ending at face value, and so they were unmoved by it. When faced with this, I remembered my own feelings as a grad student in my ‘four skills’ class when I was given a short story that I honestly didn’t grasp the nuance of. I struggled with it, listening to classmates give their interpretations, but none of it seemed to make it more meaningful for me. And all the while, our teacher refrained from adding her impression.

I remember feeling a bit frustrated with myself for not quickly and clearly seeing the writer’s intent, but the process of trying to interpret the story and hearing various classmates give their interpretations was stimulating and prompted me to think about what I’d read even after the class was over.

Recalling these feelings as a learner, I stopped short of interjecting my ideas as I saw my own students reacting to the story on a mostly superficial level. Instead, I posed some questions to get them thinking about alternative interpretations, and finally, offered some that occurred to me while adding that they were just that, my own interpretations.

It was a challenge for me to give them space to form their own opinions, and if and when to chime in with my two cents wasn’t an easy decision, either. But lessons like these made our work together engaging for me as well as the students. And many of them wrote about the stories after in their feedback papers, still ruminating on them as I had at grad school.

Asking them to work with such an emotionally rich topic from a perspective of freedom, inquisitiveness and creativity seemed to serve their learning well. Japanese students are accustomed to learning English for tests, and much of what they learn is forgotten soon after the test is over, since it has already served its main purpose. I wanted to not only motivate the students to communicate, but to increase the chances that they would retain their new skills and be able to use them in the future.

An affective component can do this.  As Earl Stevick wrote in Working with Teaching Methods: What’s at Stake, ‘As I learned during two or three years when I was writing poems from time to time, strong feelings of various kinds can cause the resources within one’s long-term memory to become more fully, more sharply and more readily available.’


Certain types of activities were particularly popular with students, based on what went on in the classroom and on written feedback they gave me. Early in their education, Japanese students are often exposed to an ALT, or Assistant Language Teacher. ALT’s typically don’t control the content, but are used by the Japanese teacher from once a month to once a week to give students a feel for ‘real’ English.

Since students are typically book bound on other days, passively taking in material needed for tests, the ALT is often asked to fill his classroom time with games to provide a diversion from all that. While there is nothing innately wrong with this approach, it can tend to instill in some students the feeling that time spent with a native speaker in the classroom should be game time.

In my teaching, though I played relatively few games, I tried to infuse everything with an objective, a focus, so that there was a game like side to things without necessarily labeling it a ‘game.’

Inevitably, students often asked for activities more typically thought of as games, though. The memory chain we played with recalling classmates’ names was something in this vein. One game that I developed that was a hit was a melding of tongue twisters and running dictation.  Details of this activity are in the appendix.

Another often heard request from students is songs. Japanese students take part in culture festivals at school in their junior and senior high school years, and get used to practicing for hours and then performing together on stage.  Western music is quite popular here, especially among young people, and so there is a special desire to know what the singers of their favorite songs are saying. We worked with one song, as mentioned in the lesson plan in the appendix, and they undoubtedly would have been happy with more.

Students seemed to enjoy the mind maps and short dialogues that I used at the beginning of class. The feedback comments as well as the participation seemed to support this. There was the potential there, however, especially with mind maps, to lose their interest, and that’s why the variations I developed proved so essential.  Otherwise boredom would have crept in, with the repetition of everyday life providing little new stimulus or talking points.

School and part time jobs made up the bulk of their weeks, and so there was little fresh material to draw on.  Besides making a variety of activities and giving a task to complete, I also worked to get them to look more closely at seemingly everyday things and discover the variations, and to look more deeply into things. Concepts that I learned at the School for International Training(SIT) like ‘milking the content’ and ‘doing a lot with a little’ came to mind again here. It was a chance for them to build awareness about themselves and the things that went on around them.

Students also expressed a keen desire to learn about foreign culture. I tried to add this component to some of our lessons, and like songs, if I’d done more of this, it would have only improved morale and motivation. In terms of our theme of love, there were instances when they discovered a different attitude or way of doing things in other countries that resulted in new knowledge about customs surrounding love in other places.

But more than this, it gave them a point of comparison for things that they had long taken for granted. Therefore, learning about other countries became a way to look more closely at themselves, going back to the idea of building awareness that I spoke of with mind maps.

Students wanted to get to know each other, and doing pair work and switching pairs regularly helped serve this.  A student or two mentioned in feedback though that more group work would have been a good way to add variety to this.  And a few students wrote in feedback that they would have liked the chance to speak with me more. Talking with a native speaker one on one was not a chance that came around for them very often, and furthermore, they wanted to know more about me, aside from what I projected to them as a whole group.

As a part-time teacher there I didn’t have an office, so there was little chance for students to talk with me outside of class. Some also told me that they wanted to hear my opinions more. I hesitate to do this in my teaching, out of concern that it will stifle students who have other thoughts, or even keep them from forming those thoughts to begin with. But I can see the potential that all of these things have to make the experience richer for everyone, and if I were to go back to university I’d work on ways to incorporate them more into what I do.


Students needed and wanted me, as their teacher, to take control, as when I tried to get them to spontaneously on their own choose pair work partners from among classmates with whom they didn’t speak very often.  But they also wanted their feelings and opinions to be heard. I tried to address this through written feedback, as I experienced as a student at SIT.

I asked students to write their impressions of the previous class at home every week and submit it in our next session. I collected them and returned them the following week, along with comments. I didn’t look at grammar and spelling and the like, but rather I focused on content, and responded in my comments from the point of view of an interested reader. In doing this I recalled the work I did at SIT my second summer regarding reading for form vs. content, and I was struck by how difficult it was to do both at the same time.

I explained to the students that the point of the feedback was to create a channel for dialogue between them as individuals and myself, to encourage communication, rather than as a grammar or spelling check. Some students expressed their desire to have me check these things, however, and I declined. Besides going against my stated purpose, it would have quite simply taken too much time if I’d had to go through so many papers on that basis.

But this let me know that there was a hunger among students to have their writing evaluated as well, even though our course was focused on speaking and listening. I tried to address this need a bit when I had them write questions to classmates on their mind maps as I mentioned earlier in this paper. At that time I had the chance to walk around and help with mistakes.

Generally, students seemed to like the feedback papers, because they had the chance to candidly tell me how they felt about a lesson, whether it was too difficult, whether my directions were clear or not, or the sequence was smooth.  Or perhaps they would have liked more time to spend on a certain activity, or simply wanted to tell me that they were tired that day from studying for a test and working at their part time job and that those were the reasons behind their sluggishness that day.

When students saw evidence in class that I had not only read their comments but had taken them to heart and changed my way of doing something perhaps because of that, they seemed empowered and encouraged, and noted in subsequent feedback entries that they appreciated my willingness to hear them and respond concretely.  It seemed to me this did a lot to nurture a feeling of mutual respect and of partnership between us all in the classroom.

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More Posts in this Series:

How I Survived Teaching English at a Japanese University Part 1: Expectations

How I Survived Teaching English at a Japanese University Part 2: Classroom Rituals and Activities

How I Survived Teaching English at a Japanese University Part 3: Community Building

Originally posted 2019-05-07 05:13:16.