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.


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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5 speaking activities perfect for your first day with a new primary class

The new school year is about to start, and for many of us that means new classes with new students. The first day will set the tone for the year ahead and it is essential to start off on the right foot. Your first lesson is a chance for you to get to know your students and show them what you expect of them. The speaking activities below will help you find out about your students’ interests, level of English, and they also allow students to get to know each other – fostering positive relationships that will get the year off to a good start.

1. Ball games

A ball game offers a good opportunity to ease students back into English, while enabling them to relax as they enjoy the game. A physical activity helps take the pressure off as students are not only focusing on language.
  • Before the lesson, prepare a set of questions that you would like students to answer. If students do not know each other, choose questions to find out about their likes, dislikes, hobbies, etc. If your students were together last year, another option is to prepare questions about their summer vacation.
  • Have students sit on the floor in a circle. Students are going to throw or roll the ball to each other and ask and answer the questions you prepared.
  • Display the questions and make sure all students can see them. Ask a question, throw the ball to a student and have them respond.
  • Then tell students to continue to throw the ball and ask and answer questions until each student has answered at least one question. If you have a large class, play the game in smaller groups.
Tip: Instead of displaying the questions, give each group a spinner with the questions on. Nominate someone to spin the spinner each time the ball is passed. Alternatively, write a question on each section of a colored beach ball and have students choose a color.

2. Do you prefer pizza or pasta?

This is a simple variation of the popular party game Would you rather…?,where the teacher asks a question with two answer options and students decide on their preference.
  • To play the game, have students stand in a line in the middle of the classroom. If you have a large class, this may be best played in the corridor.
  • Call out a question, e.g. Do you prefer pizza or pasta? and point to the left or right for each option as you do so. Give students a few seconds to think about their decision. Students then step to the left or right according to their choice.
  • Tell students to turn to the person standing behind them and explain their decision. The last student in the line can form a group of three. With younger students you can just have them state their choice, e.g. I like pizza.
Tip: After every question, have the student at the front of the line go to the back, so students are talking to a new partner each time.

3. Find a friend bingo

This activity is a variation of Find someone who…  which can be easily adapted for different levels.
  • Prepare a handout with a 3 x 3 grid of squares. In each square, write a phrase that is likely to apply to at least one of the students, e.g. has a birthday in March, went on vacation to the U.S., loves the “Star Wars” movies.
  • Give a copy of the handout to each student. Tell them to ask questions and find a friend who answers yes to one square in the grid, crossing out the square when they find someone. They should then move on to a different friend.
  • The winner is the first person to cross out all the squares.
Tip: For higher levels, make the grid larger. Alternatively, ask students to write their own ideas in the grid. For lower levels, use pictures instead of words and stick to Do you like …? questions. Download a sample bingo grid here.

4. Are we the same or different?

Students do this speaking and writing activity in pairs. They are going to ask each other questions to find out what they have in common and what is different about them.
  • Before the lesson, prepare a handout with a large Venn diagram (see below) for each pair of students. Alternatively, you could have students draw their own diagrams in their notebooks.
  • Have students ask and answer questions in pairs. A typical exchange might be:
    Student A: Do you have a pet? Student B: I have a dog. Student A: I have a cat. That’s different.
  • Students then write this information in their diagram using words or short phrases. Give students five to ten minutes to complete their charts.
  • Put students in groups of four to share the information they discovered, e.g. My birthday is in May but Luisa’s birthday is in August.

5. New personas

Some students may feel uncomfortable sharing personal information with other children they don’t know. They may be shy or insecure, and worried about what their new classmates will think of them, especially as they reach pre-adolescence. One way of dealing with this is to have students do ice-breaker activities in character.
  • Have students create a new persona and think up everything about him or her including their name, age, nationality, family, hobbies and interests, personality, etc.
  • Bring in some photos to inspire students, or they could choose a cartoon character or use their imaginations to invent their own persona.
  • Once they’ve created their new persona, they are now going to take on this role.
  • Tell students that they are going to a party and they are going to meet lots of interesting people. Play some music in the background, and have students walk around the classroom introducing themselves to other characters. They can ask each other questions, make small talk, and try to find out as much as they can about each other.
Tip: Make this even more fun by bringing in (or ask students to bring in) props and accessories such as hats, glasses, and wigs for students to dress up as their new character.

About Joanna Wiseman

Joanna Wiseman is the Primary Marketing Manager at Pearson English

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Starting with a Big Question

How can we inspire students from the word go? This is a question that teachers everywhere ask themselves when introducing a new topic or project to their classes. And, as you might have guessed from the title, it’s all about asking questions.
Perhaps your own social interactions have taught you this already: questions nearly always generate more conversation and inspiration than statements do. Let’s explore this idea for a moment. Look at the following approaches and select the responses below: A) This week we will be learning about space exploration. B) Do you think it is important to explore space? Students…
  • can agree or disagree with the statement/question. A or B
  • can start to discuss the topic, using their prior knowledge. A or B
  • will feel that their opinion is valuable. A or B
  • will feel that they can contribute to the topic. A or B
  • will feel that the topic is led by you. A or B
It’s clear that the question is more engaging than the statement. It encourages students to use their imaginations, respond to you, and explore their own thoughts. However, not all questions are made equal. Some will generate lots of thought and discussion. Others, however, will simply encourage yes or no answers and fall rather flat. By asking BIG questions about BIG issues, we can carry on the conversation and the learning for as long as we wish.

But wait, what are Big Questions?

Big Questions do not have one correct answer; they are a springboard for ideas and opinions. They also give the students the correct impression that in our lessons we will explore the topic and provide new information and share our knowledge. Which of these would you consider Big Questions? Which do you think would generate most interest in your students?
  • Do you use electricity in your home?
  • What powers our lives?
  • What makes someone a hero?
  • What is your favorite superhero called?
  • Why do we go to school?
  • Do you like your school?
  • Do you live in a village or a city?
  • Why do people live in cities?

What should we do once we have introduced the topic with a Big Question?

We need to ensure that our students who are more outgoing and willing to speak have a chance to shine, but do not dominate the class. It’s therefore a good idea to provide opportunities for different ways of responding. For example, you can ask students to:
  • Make notes
  • Draw sketches
  • Work in groups or pairs
  • Respond individually to the whole class
It’s also a good idea to use a bulletin board – by pinning your Big Questions to it you can encourage students to add their sketches, notes and ideas. Since none of the Big Questions can be answered completely and easily, make sure that the students know their ideas and thoughts can be changed and added to at any point. Feeling free to change our minds, to experiment with ideas, to throw things out for discussion in a thoughtful but random way is vital for mental growth. We don’t have to get everything right first time and it is important to convey this to our students. It’s okay to get things wrong and say something which you later reassess and reconsider. Think of the Big Question in the same way as you might a craft or nature table; let your students contribute as they wish with ideas big and small.

How can we build up our ideas and knowledge?

Of course, for Big Questions to become answerable, we need to provide stimuli, information, facts and ideas and help increase our students’ knowledge and awareness. We can do this in lots of ways. For example, if we look at the Big Question ‘What powers our lives?’ we might want to provide information about the sun, about wind and water energy, about how electricity is created, how fossil fuels are found and why they are difficult to renew. This could lead us on to thinking about our own usage of different sources of power, if we could become more ecologically aware, and how this might be achieved. It’s important to do this type of activity in stages. If we take the sun as our first subtopic, we could break it down like this:
  • What is the sun? What is it composed of?
  • What effect does it have on our planet? How is sunlight utilized?
  • How do we harness the energy of the sun to power our homes and industries?
  • Is the sun a renewable source? What other energy sources are renewed by nature?
  • Why is it good/ necessary to use renewable energy sources?
Now let’s look at a Big Question which we might use with younger children: ‘Why do we go to school?’ We can break this down like this:
  • What lessons do you do at school?
  • Which lessons are your favorite?
  • Why do you think we learn math?
  • Do you use math outside of school? When and where and how?
  • What about other lessons? How are they useful outside school?
  • Apart from lessons, what else do you do at school?
  • Do you like being with your classmates? Do you sometimes like to work alone?
  • Do you think you could do everything you do at school if you stayed at home all day?
  • Can you think of something which you don’t do at school now but would like to?

Take your time

As well as the reading, writing and speaking which the Big Questions will involve, you will also be introducing new vocabulary and grammar structures. So, take your time; it’s always best to do a little less and leave time for the students to absorb everything they are learning. So use your textbooks, but don’t feel rushed by them. Really delving into any subject is more rewarding than skimming over it and, most importantly, our lessons become more enjoyable and memorable.

About Jeanne Perrett

Jeanne Perrett has been working in the language teaching sector for over thirty-five years as a teacher, school owner, publisher and writer and is the author of many acclaimed pre-primary and primary EFL series. She has trained teachers all over the world and frequently presented at professional conferences. Jeanne graduated from Sussex University with a degree in English Literature and has lived in Greece since 1981. Apart from her professional experience, she draws a lot on the practical knowledge she has gained as the mother of four children and now as the grandmother of five.

Jeanne is one of the authors of the Now I Know! series for Primary.

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