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Tips For Teaching English To Japanese Students

[box size=”large” icon=”none”] This week’s guest blogger: Tim Walker-Taylor
I taught English in Tokyo, Japan for just over 14 years. I came back to the UK last year and now work as a hypnotherapist, but I picked up a lot of useful skills while teaching and would like to share some of them with you. If you you are new to teaching Japanese people then these tips will give you some idea of what to expect and help you get the most out of your students.[/box]

Teaching Beginner Japanese Students

 Tip # 1: Be Prepared For Passivity

Japanese students of English can be quite challenging to teach because in school they are not taught how to speak English, just to read, write and listen to English. Also, from what I have heard, Japanese schools place emphasis on students learning passively, not speaking out in class and asking questions, giving opinions etc, but instead memorising large amounts of information in order to pass exams.

Schools do have assistant language teachers (ALTs) who provide some exposure to native speakers, but as long as the exams themselves don’t change, actually speaking English will always be an afterthought. So don’t be surprised if, at least the first time you teach a student or class, you don’t get a lot of active participation. They’re just nervous and not sure what is expected of them.

[highlight]Key Takeaway: Just be friendly, smile a lot, speak slowly and in short sentences and give lots of positive feedback. [/highlight]

 Tip # 2: Be Prepared For Passivity

One great point about Japanese students is that they are mostly polite and respectful towards teachers. They just need to be told (more explicitly than western students) what you want them to do. If you tell them and they still look hesitant, write whatever you want them to say up on the board: so if it’s a dialogue, write up both parts and get them to read it aloud with you. The board is good because it takes the focus off you and gives you a bit of time to think.

Make sure that they copy everything down in their notebooks. Bring extra paper to anticipate some of them not bringing notebooks (hard to imagine they wouldn’t, but some really don’t) – and insist on them copying it up into a notebook and bringing it to the next lesson. Give them plenty of new words and expressions and test them on it orally at the end of the lesson (this is a great review filler if you have spare time at the end of the lesson and sod all else to talk about, and rounds the lesson off nicely).

Before starting the class check to see how they are sitting. They may well be sitting in a line facing you which is no good at all. Spend as much time as you want rearranging the tables and chairs so that they are facing each other, or at least in manageable pairs, groups of three or maybe four, but no more. You want to take the focus off you as much as possible and get them interacting with each other – the ideal ratio is 80:20 students:teacher (feel free to tell them this). This may not always be possible, but if you have a class that is communicative then it will pretty much teach itself if you set it up right.

Also, get them standing up and changing partners as much as you want to introduce variety and momentum. Unless you have a strict lesson plan to adhere to, if they are happily chatting away in pairs or groups then you are doing your job perfectly: milk it and let it go as long as you want. Don’t feel you have to stick to a lesson plan if you’re getting great mileage out of an activity because you’ll kick yourself if the next one kills it. Or just save the next one for the next class – always good to have a spare activity to use as a review.

[highlight]Key Takeaway: Express clearly what you want them to do, use activities that get them speaking, and utilize pair, small group, and medium sized group activities. [/highlight]


 Tip # 3: Keep The English & The Class Atmosphere Rolling

In a nutshell, with low level Japanese students the number one goal is for them to get as much speaking practice as possible. The chances are that your lesson will be the only time they speak English during the week, so they may as well make the most of it.

I would even state this outright in the first lesson: ask them who uses English in their daily lives. Most of them will say they don’t use it at all, it’s “for the future”, or something abstract like that. Then they will have to agree with you when you tell them that they should be doing most of the speaking in the class, not you. After all, you don’t need to practice your English, and if they want to practice listening then they can just listen to the radio or a CD at home.

If you can establish a good rapport with the class then it makes is so much easier. It’s good to chit-chat with them before and after class, and with some classes you can even get a group conversation going. The downside of this is that you can end up getting shanghaied into going out with them after class (not too bad if they pay, but sometimes they don’t, and even if they do it can feel like you have to “sing for your supper”)

If you ask a question and you get a short answer, use this golden phrase: “That sounds interesting. Tell me more about it.” They won’t use this on each other, but it’s a good way for you to subtly let them know that they should elaborate. If they still don’t give enough, make a gesture like a wheel rolling forwards to get them to keep going. Also, make sure that they reciprocate with questions of their own. Another golden phrase to get them using is: “How about you?”. They need to know that unless they ask questions back other English speakers will quickly lose interest (back to the whole passive learning issue)

Give some correction (accompanied with lots of positive feedback): what you can do is make notes as you go around the class monitoring them while they talk away in their pairs and groups, and then after you tell them to sit down again you can write the mistakes and corrections up on the board while they all take notes. This means that:

a) you don’t interrupt the flow of the interactions
b) and they all pay more attention afterwards, so
c) they all benefit from the corrections.

If you have a student who keeps making the same mistake over and over then you can do on-the-spot correction, and private Japanese students often request this anyway. Getting the balance of correction is up to you: if you don’t give enough then they might feel dissatisfied, but if you give too much then it will erode their confidence.

If it’s a group class I would just make a note of mistakes and refer to them once an activity has finished. You don’t need to point out which person made which mistake (they’ll know who they are anway and they’ll really appreciate you not outing them), plus emphasize that these are great learning opportunities for everyone.

Japanese students are mostly afraid to make mistakes with English and this is a big part of what makes them hesitant, so don’t refer to them as mistakes as such, if it’s on the spot correction say stuff like “Ok, I know what you are trying to say, so well done for communicating it. Here’s another way you can say it”.

[highlight]Key Takeaway: Build individual as well as class confidence through positive reinforcement, minimal correction and subtle conversation flow techniques. [/highlight]


Teaching Intermediate Level Japanese Students

Like with the beginner levels, in a group class you’ll often get a mixed range of Japanese students. To get the focus off you, if one student looks lost then get another one who’s on the ball to explain it to them in English (otherwise they may just switch to Japanese). To save the weaker student feeling embarrassed make it clear that it is very good practice for the other student to explain something, and of course maximises their English-speaking time which is what they (or their company) is paying for. Plus Japanese people tend to know what each other are on about anyway. Everyone’s a winner!

I personally much prefer higher levels to lower levels because you can have more interesting conversations with them (generally speaking). The higher the level the more quickly and the more diverse range of expressions you can use. Check understanding with them e.g.: “Do you know what “scotch bonnet” means?” because they need to be proactive and ask “What does — mean?” (BTW you would be amazed at how many middle and even high level students can’t ask this properly, no matter how many times you drill it in they will say things like “What means —?” or “What does mean —-?”)

[highlight]Key Takeaway: You’ll have more options with Intermediate level Japanese students so get creative with lesson plans and language usage. [/highlight]


Teaching Advanced Level Japanese Students

Best of all: you can talk about pretty much anything. Many are very sharp so it’s good to carefully pre-read the materials (and sometimes even do some background reading) so you can know as much about the topic as possible and even pass yourself off as an authority. You can afford to do a lot more on-the-spot corrections and most will expect it. Challenge them by using some really advanced vocab and idioms – go overboard with casual expressions because they will want to sound as natural as possible (unless you’re doing a formal business class).

[highlight]Key Takeaway: While demanding, advanced Japanese classes are usually the most satisfying classes if you prepare well and keep everyone challenged. [/highlight]

[box type=”tick” size=”large” border=”full” icon=”none”] Bonus Tip:

If you get asked a difficult grammar question or feel a student has blind-sided you with a grammar question (that they may already know the answer to), pull this beauty out of the bag: just say it’s a British English: American English distinction, or something similar.

In Britain (or wherever you are from) we tend to say “abc”; in America they tend to say “xyz”; but a lot of British people use American words anyway, so it’s not black and white. But tell the show-offs that it’s a very good observation and well done for asking. This one hasn’t failed me yet. Or if you can’t use that, say that it’s a really good question, but it would take a while to explain so let’s come back to it a bit later (after the break once you’ve looked it up on your phone). Pampers their ego, doesn’t hold the class up, you’re home free.

You’re bound to get caught out or make a mistake: don’t sweat it. Just make it look like it’s not a big deal at all and move to another activity. They don’t know what you know, so just move to another activity. As long as they’re either talking loads or writing new words in their books or getting postive feedback from you then they’ll feel like they’re making good progress. Believe me, there are some really bad teachers out there, the ones who talk about themselves all the time or who just get the students reading stuff so they can kick back, or who just hit on their students(yep, these guys are out there), so even if you have one class that makes you feel like quitting, it won’t be nearly as bad as some I’ve seen, and these guys still kept their jobs (one was even a supervisor where I worked!). [/box]  

Summary: [unordered_list style=”green-dot”]

  • get them talking – you do this then you’ve pretty much done your job
  • let them know that the lesson is centred on them being interactive with each other, not just the teacher
  • get then standing up and moving around, changing partners
  • write plenty of stuff on the board (vocab, corrections) so that they come away with stuff in their books as proof of what they learned
  • build rapport by just being yourself and keeping the mood light
  • if you prepare enough for a class then you can’t go wrong – I prepared all my classes ad nauseam when I first started, then once you get confident you can just manipulate the materials to make them interactive
  • if you make a mistake, so what? Laugh it off and move on. No-one will care as long as you have another activity lined up.

[/unordered_list] I hope you have found this useful. I know that teaching can be demanding and at times stressful, so if I can help relieving stress at work or in your private life, or managing stress-related habits like smoking, drinking, eating habits and so on, then feel free to contact me through my website Control Stress or just sign up for my Relaxation Techniques Newsletter for great relaxation tips and tricks.

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  1. Lisa on August 7, 2013 at 6:11 pm

    Hi. Very good article and well observed. Lots of your tips will work with any student where they’re taught English as an exam subject and not as a means of communication. My experience is with French students and their problems are very similar. Thank you for sharing.

  2. Mosh on July 14, 2014 at 12:53 pm


    I am planning to teach English in Japan soon. Thanks for all these advise! I think I am prepared!

  3. Patricia McCormick on September 17, 2014 at 6:15 am

    Excellent no-nonsense article. I like your emphasis on helping the students initiate conversation. It is so contrary to their culture to speak in class. Thanks for the tips.

  4. chhiwat on August 26, 2015 at 5:47 pm

    This is great! Thank You For All Tips

  5. Jenny on September 29, 2015 at 9:03 pm

    Such a helpful article, thanks! I start teaching with Aeon this winter and am scraping the internet for useful tips- this is by far the most helpful as of yet. I know it has been a few years since this article was published, but if you ever get the time, it would be great to read more about your Japanese-English teaching experiences/suggestions!
    Thanks again for such a down-to-earth and informative article.

  6. SuperGast on April 21, 2016 at 4:05 pm

    Great article, thanks for sharing!

    I’m going to teach in a few days from now my first class and this really helps!

  7. Dee on June 11, 2016 at 6:14 pm

    Thank you so much for these tips. This is a very good article for new-bee teacher that wants to teach in Japan. Actually, I love to teach in Japan, but I am still studying for a correct and professional grammar here in USA. Is it okay to teach in Japan even though I am still a student aiming for a teaching certificate?

  8. ann on July 13, 2016 at 4:03 am

    Hello. This is a very informative article,especially for me that I’m still beginner for this. I’ll be having my demo next week and hope this tips could help me to be hired as ESL teacher. Thank you and God bless.

  9. rosean on November 14, 2016 at 2:45 am

    What a helpful article! Thank u sooooo much for sharing.

  10. Ma. Luz Condez on February 22, 2017 at 9:44 am

    Thank you so much for these tips. I have learned a lot, at least now I have the idea how will I deal with my future Japanese students, as I have recently applied as an online tutor. I only need to be ready with my teaching demo. Thank you again.

  11. Sue on May 22, 2017 at 5:44 am

    Great read! THANK YOU so much for these tips! I can really use it since professionally I am not a teacher (and I am being belittled as a teacher since I am Asian) and these are all a big help for me. Again thank you.

  12. neeta on June 9, 2017 at 9:16 am

    Very helpful article.Short and precise, everything required has been explained in a nutshell.Thanks

  13. pearl balmonte on October 2, 2017 at 1:53 pm

    Thank you for this! it gives me a lot of ideas 🙂

  14. Lalita Shankar on December 20, 2017 at 5:58 am

    One of the coolest articles I have ever read on how to teach English to Japanese students. You make it sound so easy. Thank you for the useful and practical tips too.

  15. khan Maaz nabe on May 10, 2018 at 5:16 am

    this help me a lot 5 more years then I am going to be English teacher in japan

  16. khan Maaz nabe on May 10, 2018 at 5:17 am

    this help me a lot 5 more years then I am going to be English teacher in japan

    thank you for your tips

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