3 teaching tips that encourage Japanese students to speak up

In the EFL classroom, it is essential to provide students with opportunities for authentic communication. What is authentic communication? It’s about asking questions that you really want to ask and saying what you really want to say, rather than memorization or role-plays. How can we, in the classroom context, create situations where students naturally feel like saying something or asking questions and enjoy conversing?

One effective way to make this happen is to set students up to exchange their opinions in English. Asserting an opinion is not a drill or a practice, it’s a form of authentic communication. Students need to think over and make judgements before they can express their thoughts at a level that matches the student’s own intellectual abilities, leading to deeper learning. In addition many students enjoy expressing their opinions and finding out what other people think.

Some of you might be thinking, “Isn’t it too challenging for shy Japanese students?” Not at all. With appropriate teaching materials and methodology, even elementary students can experience the joy of exchanging opinions in English. I have heard negative comments about Japanese students: that Japanese young people generally don’t have their own opinions or that they don’t like to differ from the peers. As far as I’m concerned, that’s not true. I know from my extensive experience teaching in Japan that Japanese students do like exchanging opinions, are interested in what other people think, and, this may come as surprise, but they actually don’t hesitate to differ when they don’t agree with others. We just need to deploy the right techniques.

Here are some proven tips that help get your students talking:
  1. Choose topics that are relevant and engaging
  2. Present an unusual viewpoint
  3. Give students tools to help with speaking

1. Choose topics that are relevant and engaging

The most important part is choosing a topic that interests your students. The choice is endless: from fashion, relationships, work, to contemporary issues like aging society, global warming, plastic waste, artificial intelligence, smartphone addiction, but it must be relevant to the specific group of students you are working with. Otherwise, they won’t be able to even have an opinion about it.

To get this right, it’s a good idea to give them a list of topics to choose from. Topics like friends, relationships and marriage tend to be popular regardless of the students’ level of English. I’ve had students pick one that I didn’t expect, which reminded me that teachers’ intuition as to what interests students isn’t always right. We need to maintain some control and make sure that there is a good mix of light and serious topics, depending on level. For example, I always include controversial ones like “capital punishment” in the list of recommended topics for intermediate and higher levels.

2. Present an unusual viewpoint

Giving students an engaging topic isn’t enough to get them talking. We sometimes need to introduce it with an unusual, unexpected viewpoint that the students can’t help commenting on. One typical example is with “learning English”. If you present it with a matter-of-fact viewpoint such as “It’s important for us to learn English,” asking students to say yay or nay, there’s little further discussion. But an unorthodox view like “You don’t need to learn English” may trigger thoughts like “What are you talking about?” “That’s not true!” or “Wait, that might be actually right,” making students want to say something.

Let’s take another example, “marriage.” If you start with a question like “What do you think of marriage?” students wouldn’t know what to say. We need to provide an impactful statement or question that elicits reactions. What if you said, “Marriage is not at all a necessity in life,” and invited students to take a stand? You will immediately get various reactions: “Of course not, it’s your own choice,” “I personally think getting married is an essential part of life,” or “But the less often people get married, the more birth rate will suffer.”

This approach pushes students to recognize their own feelings about the topic or reinforce their own standpoints, then speak up. Also, hearing others’ opinions sets a base from which to agree or disagree, which could even influence their own opinions or feelings afterwards.

In other words, we need to motivate students to produce language output. But for “output” to happen, students need some ingredients because without having the right words or expressions ready to come out of their head, they cannot express what they think. Fear of making mistake also gets in the way of output. What can we do to help them overcome these obstacles?

3. Give students tools to help with speaking

Many Japanese students struggle with fluency, to spontaneously say what they want to say in English. Not being able to find the words that reflect their thoughts is stressful to them and often demotivating. One way to help mitigate this common difficulty is to prepare sample opinions that express different standpoints so that students don’t need to generate their sentences from scratch, making it easier for them to overcome the hurdle of speaking English. Students can start with simply saying they agree or disagree, or pick one that represents their own opinion the most, or combine parts of sample opinions or adding their own words to recreate a complete statement. You might notice that this output activity can serve as an implicit input activity.

If possible, prepare a short dialogue, monologue or article with a unique stance on the topic using simple English. Ideally, the text should contain many phrases and sentences that students can recycle to help express their own opinions. This provides a scaffold that reduces the fear of speaking and enables students to share their thoughts with more ease, focusing on finding out each other’s perspective, making the activity less stressful and more enjoyable.

Also, avoid asking students to volunteer their answers in front of the entire class straightaway. Give them time to work on their own to choose a sample opinion and think for themselves, and then gradually scale up by pairing them up to have a one-to-one conversation before having them share with a bigger group, if appropriate. Reassure them that there are no right or wrong answers and we can all have our own opinions.

Summary

To sum, students will want to say what they think if presented a topic they are interested in with an impactful viewpoint. What you need to do is provide students with tools that make up for the lack of language skills and lower their anxiety so that students can enjoy meaningful communication that matches their intellectual abilities regardless of the level of their English. Topic-based discussions also nurture students’ critical thinking and judgement skills as well as raise their awareness on social issues – so if you haven’t tried this yet, I wholeheartedly recommend you do. With trial and error, you will find your own formula for success and before too long you will have a long list of popular topics.

In my case, the all-time favorite topics are: “Should the man always pay the bill on a date?” “Can men and women be ‘just’ friends?” “Is cosmetic surgery good or bad?” “Should you marry a foreigner or not?” and last semester, they showed great interest in the global issue of plastic waste. What conversation topics will be successful in your classes?


About Junko Yamanaka

Junko Yamanaka is an experienced teacher and co-author of Impact Issues and many other EFL books. She has run numerous workshops and given talks for teachers and learners of English. Her main areas of interest are developing critical thinking skills, teaching debating skills, teaching reading and advocating extensive reading. She currently teaches at Aichi Gakuin University and Chukyo University.

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