Tagged: ESL

Download Songs for ESL Children

Once a week, I throw my Pooh bag over my shoulder and haul my collection of flash cards and toys to my local kindergarten. With a fresh bunch of children starting their English lessons in a couple of weeks, I’ve taken to revamping the curriculum I’ve been using, and injecting some energy into it with some very genki songs.

The problem with classic children songs

For years, I’ve made do with classic children’s ditties such as Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes, the Wheels On the Bus, a bit of Hokey Pokey and some If You’re Happy and You Know It. While these are all well and good, they’re not suited particularly well to ESL classes. The lyrics are hard enough for teachers to remember, let alone 4 and 5 year old Japanese kids.

Over 75 fun songs for children learning ESL

For this school year, I’ve splashed out on the Genki English Teacher’s Download Pack, a whopping collection of over 75 songs and other goodies to brighten up my classes and most importantly, give the children something they can actually sing to! Here’s a great example of Genki English in action:

Ha! I bet you’ve got that song stuck in your head now! I know I have! :-P

Energize your ESL lessons!

I’m looking forward to using these songs to teach some energetic lessons this year. If you teach kids, and are in need of a curriculum or supplementary materials, check out the teacher pack page for a complete list of its contents.

Get ESL Tips from Chris’ English School

Chris' English SchoolOne of the more recent blogs I’ve subscribed to is that of ESL teacher, Chris Ballard. Born in Hawaii, but now residing in Yanai city in Yamaguchi, Chris runs his own English school out of his own home.

Another disgruntled English teacher? NO!

What makes this blog so unique is that instead of criticising the ESL industry, or even writing articles on “how to teach English”, Chris shows us exactly what he is doing with his students through a diary-type blog that includes photos of their work, and reasons for the activities he chooses.

Examples from Chris’ English School

Recent posts on Chris’ English School include Girls Up which has some great photos of his students studying hard, a look at using a Nintendo DS as a study tool, a selection of photos of his students’ diaries, showing just how much English they are getting through, and motivating posts such as January 2008′s Top 10 students.

A must-read for wannabe school owners

As an ESL teacher myself, what I find most compelling about Chris’ blog is the passion he has for his chosen profession. Very few people care enough about their work to want to blog about it everyday. I’d recommend it to any ESL teacher, but especially to those who are hoping to set up their own school in the future. Having the freedom to teach from home and decide your own curriculum is the dream of most Eikaiwa teachers in Japan, at least those who plan to stay for a while. Subscribe to Chris’ blog and watch how he does it.

I don’t have the energy to teach!

I often feel that way, and it turns out I’m not the only one. It seems teachers across the nation rely on some form of energy drink. My sugar-rush of choice is Ripobitan D (third in this list). Chris swears by the new make-me-happy Garlic Power. How about you? Do you load yourself up on these liquid energizers? If so, which ones?

What will Rikuto Be?

Rikuto - 9th September 2007I was teaching the future tense using “will” to three Junior High school students today, and since we had some time left at the end of the lesson, I showed them a picture of Rikuto and asked them to write answers to four questions about his future.

Here they are for your own amusement!

1. What will Rikuto be in the future?

Student 1: He will be an English teacher.
Student 2: He will be an English teacher.
Student 3: Maybe he will be an English teacher.

2. Where will he live?

Student 1: He will live in Japan.
Student 2: He will live in Japan.
Student 3: Maybe he will live in Japan near the school.

3. What will he eat?

Student 1: He will eat sushi.
Student 2: He will eat eggs lemons.
Student 3: Maybe he will eat rice.

4. Why will he eat (answer to question 3)?

Student 1: Because he will live in Japan.
Student 2: Because he loves eggs lemons.
Student 3: Because he will be Japanese.

While I was hoping for a little more creativity in their answers, it seems they’re all thinking along the same lines. Rikuto will be bilingual and his dad’s an English teacher so it only follows that he will be an English teacher, too. He will grow up in Japan so it’s only natural that he will like Japanese food, i.e. sushi, rice and …erm… lemons. Finally, since he will live in Japan and like Japanese food, it’s only logical to assume he will be Japanese! Even if he could pass as Swedish!

Note: I have a personal disgust for eggs, so Student 2 was encouraged to change his answer to something more delicious. Why he chose lemons is beyond me.

Business English for Professionals

Since coming to Japan, I’ve worked in almost every English teaching situation you can imagine. I’ve worked in English Conversation chain schools, I’ve been an ALT in Junior high schools, taught at kindergartens and elementary schools. I’ve done “baby” classes, private lessons in coffee shops, English by email, and even dabbled in video conferencing. The most rewarding form of English teaching for me though, would be Business English.

Mitsubishi, Toyota, Sony, Pfizer and Japan Steel are just a few of the companies I’ve had the privilege of teaching at. The single most important factor that makes Business English classes different from any other is that the students really want to learn. Actually, more than that, they have to learn. For these students, promotion and pay rises depend on them learning English, and we all know money is a terrific motivator.

Unlike a typical English course, Business English focuses on language needed in a business environment. This could simply be faxing, emailing, or answering the telephone in English, or it could involve more challenging tasks such as making a presentation, negotiating or chairing a meeting. More often than not, the individual’s needs will be quite unique and may require one-to-one tailored tuition.

Executive Language Training, ELT, is a company offering English classes for executives and professionals with basic, intermediate or advanced level Business English skills. They are the industry leader in providing Business English and foreign language training to fortune 500 companies and executives around the world. They offer a full range of communication skills including business and technical writing, oral communication in Business English, accent reduction, Business English vocabulary and presentation skills.

The content of a course is fully tailored to the students, and is determined by conducting a needs analysis. A teacher qualified to at least an MA degree level is assigned and progress is monitored regularly. The length of the course and number of class hours are custom designed to accommodate busy schedules, and lessons can be taken at the office, workplace, or at Executive Language Training facilities.

I remember taking on a small group of businessmen from Fujitsu. They each had to make a presentation based on their field of work, and it was my job to help them accomplish that. We covered everything from planning and writing the speeches to gestures, pronunciation, intonation and working with 3D models and Powerpoint sildes. With a dedicated teacher and motivated, hard-working students, you can accomplish anything. I’m sure the staff at Executive Language Training take as much pride in their work as I do, and like my students from Fujitsu, I’ve no doubt that their students accomplish their goals.

This post is sponsored by Executive Language Training.

Disney English System for Japanese

I just learned from my wife that she has sent off a request for a free Disney English System sample DVD. It’s widely accepted that if you want your child to be proficient in a foreign language, then you should start their learning from a young age.

Disney English System websiteThe last decade has seen Japan’s “English conversation” schools fall over themselves trying to recruit students at a younger and younger age. For example, when I started working at ECC in 1998 their Kids English World program was really taking off, with classes for kids as young as four. The next year, selected teachers were picked and given “special” training for their new course for three year olds. NOVA stepped up and offered classes for toddlers and every other school followed.

The youngest kids I have taught are one and a half year olds, and while fun to watch, you don’t really get much out of them. The argument is however, that because they are listening to native English, they will “absorb it like a sponge”, especially picking up on rhythm and intonation.

So, it’s not really a surprise that Disney is pushing this philosophy hard, offering two programs – one for pregnant mothers, and the other for 0-4 year olds.

I’ll reserve judgement until I see the sample, but my initial reaction is I don’t want my son, little Riku, sounding like Mickey Mouse… or even worse… Donald Duck!

Double without you

One of the biggest difficulties in teaching English to adults in Japan is you are constantly battling against what they have previously learned. Most Japanese have studied English in some capacity for at least six years, most of which, if not all, were at the hands of a Japanese English teacher, and in some cases the teacher wasn’t even an English teacher, just a homeroom teacher reading from an English book!

What this means is that their pronunciation is awful, and their listening ability is equally dreadful. There’s a world of difference between listening to a Japanese speak English and then an Australian. They sound completely different!

It wouldn’t be so bad if English were isolated to situations requiring just English, but unfortunately, a bastardized version of English has been absorbed into Japan’s own national language. There are literally thousands of examples, many of which are abbreviations of English words that, along with different pronunciation, make them unrecognizable to native English speakers, and likewise few Japanese understand the original English versions. Here are some examples:

  • aircon (air conditioner)
  • super (supermarket)
  • basket (basketball)
  • volley (volleyball, confusingly pronounced like “ballet”)
  • pato-car (police car / patrol car)
  • televi (television)
  • radicasse (radio-cassette player)
  • potato (fried potato, used when meaning French fries)
  • note (notebook)
  • persocon (personal computer)

You get the idea. The problem is, most Japanese actually think these are English words, which means you have to un-teach the “English” they know, and start again. This includes going right back to basic ABCs, because…

In Japan, the letter “W” is pronounced “double”, without a “you”. They don’t seem to realize that “W” looks like it does because it’s a double “U”. This leads to the letter “W” being used to mean “double”. Here are some pictures to prove it:

A cheeseburger with W beef!

A cheesburger with W beef!

Some mints with W grapefruit!

Some mints with W grapefruit!

A can of insecticide with “W jet” !

Insecticide with W jet! (???)

I’ll wrap up this post with a little poem I’ve written. I hope you like it.

Double With You

I thought I’d be without you for a while,

You left me and I thought I’d be okay,

I’d come back stronger, last a bit longer,

Feel double without you each day.

When you were gone I lost my will to smile,

By myself, things didn’t go my way,

Together we are stronger, last even longer,

Double me, double you, always.

Politically correct ESL

Jack and JillI used to use some old textbooks called Jack and Jill, in which the words ‘ugly’ and ‘pretty’ were represented by pictures of an ugly girl and a pretty girl. Jack and Jill was published back in the ’70s, but not much has changed in the book I’m using now, Hip Hip Hooray, in which pictures of pretty and ugly mice are used to teach the same words.

Hip Hip HoorayThere have however been some more significant changes in Hip Hip Hooray. Take the story of Jack and the Beanstalk for example. The original book had Jack hiding in a bread oven, stealing bags of gold, magic hens and golden harps, and finally killing the giant. The politically correct version has Jack hiding behind a stove, taking back the gold originally stolen from his father, and the giant suffers nothing more than a bruised bottom as he falls from the beanstalk.

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer is another. In the original story, Injun Joe kills the doctor with a knife, but in the modern day version, Tom and Huck witness some men stealing a box of money.

In the politically correct world of mail carriers, firefighters, police officers and flight attendants, I find it increasingly confusing when teaching non-native speakers. For the most part, my adult students learned postman, fireman, policeman and stewardess when they were in junior high school. Now it’s my job to ‘correct’ them, using words I rarely use myself.

When I first came to Japan, the word ‘homemaker’ was prominent in the books I was given. Embarrassingly, I had to call Head Office to find out it meant ‘housewife’, and since there are so many housewives (edit: homemakers) in Japan, I had to start learning this new lingo pretty quickly.

Hangman or Spiderman?To be honest, I’m quite reluctant to teach language I don’t use myself, and I do have limits. When it comes to games, I’ll still play hangman instead of spiderman because I think avoiding the noose is far more motivating than seeing a spider grow legs.

I’d like to hear other people’s opinions on politically correct ESL, so please leave a comment!

Walk the dinosaur

When I was a kid, thirteen to be exact, Was (Not Was) released a song called ‘Walk the Dinosaur’, which was a huge hit in 1988. It’s one of those songs you don’t forget, and I tend to sing it to myself every time one of my elementary school students chooses the ‘dinosaur’ from a bunch of stamps I use for homework and rewarding the kids at the end of each lesson.

Today, in my 4th-6th grade class, without prompting, the kids all started singing the song along with me, and after the first time, they all wanted the ‘dinosaur’ stamp, and we kept singing the song! I found it hysterically funny that a group of Japanese kids, who weren’t even born when Walk the Dinosaur was released, would not only find it funny, but actually make a conscious effort to remember the words and sing it aloud with dinosaur gestures!

If there’s a lesson to be learned from this, it would be that children do pick up on teacher ‘chatter’, that is the things an ESL teacher says to him or herself during a lesson which the kids aren’t expected to understand. I often talk or sing to myself when I teach…”Now where did I put my pencil?”, “Wow, he actually did his homework this week.”, “Rolling, rolling, rolling, keep them wagons rolling… Rawhide!”

When you say the same things repeatedly every lesson, directly or indirectly, children remember. So, today’s tip is to be aware of what you’re saying, make sure you say it every week, and in a few months your kids will be saying it, too!

Kancho – A Japanese pastime

“Kancho is the ancient art of clasping your hands together, and playfully poking your friend or enemy,…in the rear. It is also called “The Friendly Enema”, and is practiced by children in schoolyards and classrooms around the world. Kancho.org is dedicated to spreading the good news about Kancho.” Source: www.kancho.org

When Japanese kids first started shoving their fingers up my bum about ten years ago, I was more confused than shocked. I mean, why would they want to? I still don’t know, but it’s clear that they take great pleasure in doing so. While I’m still learning to avoid it, Az of www.gaijinsmash.net, and surely the king of kancho has mastered the art of kancho evasion. If you’re thinking of coming to Japan, this is his response:

As I said before, it’s a good experience. You learn a lot about yourself, Japan, and your own country (just by being away from it and seeing how others perceive it – not just Japanese, but all the people from different countries I’ve met while here). I’m definitely glad I came. Whether you want to come or not is up to you, but don’t let a few possible fingers up the ass deter you. Lighten up, and see the humor in it. And now that you know, you can do as I did, climbing Mt. Fuji and fine-tuning my Kancho Sense™ to a precise science. And then maybe you too can make a website about kids trying to grab your dick.

If you think everyone is making too much fuss about kancho, watch these videos from YouTube and think again.

If you can’t view the videos, go to YouTube: First Vid | Second Vid

Boong-Ga Boong-Ga Kancho gameIt seems kancho-ing someone in public is not as acceptable as perhaps it used to be, so they’ve made a video arcade game called Boong-Ga Boong-Ga so people can kancho all they like. I don’t know about you, but I’m worried my kindergarten kids will start training on this thing, and as one commenter said on TokyoMango, “I wonder if they’re ever gonna make a Nintendo Wii version of this game?” Now that is a scary thought! Read more about Boong-Ga Boong-Ga at Seanbaby.com.

Think you can teach Japanese kindy?

I’ve been teaching at Japanese kindergartens for years now, and I always have a lot of fun. The key to success in teaching these classes is to be fun and energetic. While some “proper” teachers complain that they came to Japan to “teach”, and not dance around like clowns, I believe that if your style of teaching is entertaining then your students are going to learn a whole lot more from you… or at least have a blast trying!

Kindy kids are full of energy and really enjoy their English classes if you make them fun. So, with that in mind, I give you Supa Gaijin!

If you can’t view the video, you can see it here at youtube.com. Thanks to Japan Probe for bringing this video to my attention.

‘Macho’ Joe and ‘Gorgeous’ Rod have a few videos up on www.youtube.com if you search for “supa gaijin”. You’ll see they’re a right pair of nutters, maybe having too much fun in Japan, but they’ve inspired me to try out some new tricks next time at kindy… if I can get hold of that music somewhere!

Try www.supagaijin.com for more on Joe and Rod. The link doesn’t work for me but hopefully that’s just temporary.

Laughing at the guy who can’t speak English.

I had intended to write about something completely different but I came across this video which I just had to post here. It’s a Japanese game show in which if you laugh, you get the cane. What do they laugh at? Well, although they try their best to keep quiet, it’s hard not to crack up when watching this guy try to speak English…

If you can’t view the video, you can see it here at youtube.com.

Back to School: Rule Reminders

Since I’m back to school tomorrow, I’ve been thinking again about my ESL lessons, and remembered an interesting moment from last term. I was getting frustrated with one of my kindergarten classes so right at the start of the lesson I told the children that if they crawl under the tables they will lose all their points.

I usually give my kindy kids four points at the start of the lesson next to their names on the board. Each point represents a stamp that they get on their ‘stamp card’ at the end of class. When they finish their stamp cards they get a nice present. With the older kids, I start them on two points which encourages them to earn more points as well as be in a position to lose the ones they already have if they misbehave, but the kindy kids seem to respond better to losing points and then earning them back.

Anyway, I was in quite a friendly mood when I gave this ‘lose all your points’ warning and since it was the start of class, some of the kids hadn’t arrived yet. So, I was amazed to see the children pass on my warning to those late comers as they came into the classroom. Needless to say, not one kid went under the tables.

The next week however, while singing the ‘Hello Song’, H-kun snuck away from the group and started for the tables. I quickly stopped the song, and asked him if he remembered last week’s warning. Suddenly, one of the girls said “Eh? You mean we can’t go under the tables this week either?”

The moral of this little story is that young children need to be reminded constantly of the rules. This doesn’t mean disciplining them after they do something wrong, but rather reviewing the class rules before they have a chance to.

If you aren’t already doing this, give it a try! You’ll probably have a trouble free and enjoyable lesson!

Spare me my life!

I was just looking around at the Japanese videos on youtube.com, and came across the following ‘English lesson’. I know we talk about using role-play to teach English, and how chants are a good way to remember phrases, but come on! This is just silly! I must confess that I’ve never seen anything quite like this on Japanese TV, but I guess it must exist. Maybe I’m not up early enough to join in the morning TV English aerobics sessions.

If you can’t view the video, you can see it here at youtube.com.

Bonding with my ESL Kids

During the last couple of weeks, I’ve broken the golden rule of teaching English to children by speaking Japanese! Heaven help me! I’ve started each lesson with a few minutes of chit-chat with the kids and I’m really enjoying it!

I just ask them what they’ve been doing lately and they are really forthcoming in telling me their news. I learned that one of them has just had a baby sister, another got a unicycle from her grandmother as an early birthday present, and another just had an American teacher stay at his house for the weekend as part of an international language exchange.

I find this little bit of banter relaxes the kids and helps me connect with them more. I also find it very refreshing as children generally have positive things to say all the time. We talk about birthdays and presents, friends, school, TV, video games, all sorts really.

Today, Sumo-boy pulled me close and whispered in my ear that the frogs were having babies. He said there was frog spawn all around his house and he couldn’t wait to see them ‘hatch’. I asked him if liked frogs and he pulled away with the most digusted look on his face and hollered the Japanese equivalent of “Ergh! Yuck! Blubber! Spit! Whoaaah! They freak me out!”

Recently, my first grade elementary kids have been losing their teeth. Before class, M-chan was running around the waiting room showing everyone her wobbly tooth. The next thing I know, her mum grabs it and yanks it out! I yelped ‘Ouch!’ and asked her if it hurt and she smiled with a mouthful of blood and told me it didn’t. Later in class, I asked them if they have the Tooth Fairy in Japan. After my poor explanation I think they imagined Santa Claus with wings stealing children’s teeth while they sleep. But anyway, it seems in Japan, if one of your top teeth falls out, you are supposed to throw it on the roof. If it’s one of your bottom teeth, you… just chuck it on the ground. Well, I think that’s what they meant!

So while it’s considered wrong to speak anything but English in an ESL class, I do feel that this little experiment has helped me bond with the kids, and they seem to enjoy the classes more, too!

English lessons on Japanese trains

Imagine you have to commute home every night by train. The train is packed so you can’t sit down and you’ve already read the day’s newspaper. You forgot to bring a book and the batteries are dead in your walkman. It’s dark outside so you can’t stare out the windows and you’ve read the same advertising board a thousand times. What are you going to do? Study English, that’s what!

Welcome to modern Japanese transportation, where you can learn the English language by train! Today’s lesson is the difference between ‘service’ and ‘free’, with the delightful Katie Sensei…

If you can’t view the video, you can see it here at youtube.com.

ESL-Kids.com update

Earlier this year I started on ESL-Kids.com, a website that offers printable flashcards and worksheets for teachers like me – ESL teachers on the front lines everyday, faced with an army of children and only a few ABC cards to defend ourselves with.

It was a slow start, but recently I’ve given ESL Kids a facelift, added a lot of new flashcard sets and made a worksheet generator. Just today in fact, I uploaded alphabet and body part cards.

I have a great team of artists who are busy drawing new flashcards, and more and more people are visiting the site for the first time. I’m even starting to get emails from various countries requesting new songs, pictures and what not.

There’s nothing more rewarding than positive feedback, and I’ve had plenty of that for my other websites. For example:

Wow! These are great! Thanks for making it easier to get math worksheets for my 2nd and 5th grade children.

I am a sister in high school making worksheets for my sister in elementary school … I really think that this website is a good way to help her learn! I would reccomend this website to every teacher and every parent I know!

I would just like to say thank you for your site. My son who’s 7 years old struggles with his handwriting. I have been looking on different sites for something to help him and this is the best one I’ve found so thank you again. P.S. i also appreciate it being free.

Hello my 3 year old wanted to do dot to dot words but had bought the ‘wrong magazine’. Precocious yes. You just saved us from a tantrum! And she can have a go at all of her cousins’ names. She is very pleased with herself!

This is an excellent resource to help improve student handwriting and word recognition.

I am thrilled so find your website and have made several worksheets for my kindergarteners to practice their names. What a time saver!!

Just used the Writing Wizard worksheets to make some name practice sheets for my special needs students. What a user-friendly and useful resource. Many thanks!

I just found your website. I really love the idea of being able to create custom worksheets for my son. I tried a practice worksheet containing individual letters, and he loved it.

I work for the Head Start program in Marion, Ohio. Just wanted to know if it would be OK for us to distribute this to the families that we work with that are interested in helping their children learn how to write.

It makes my day to get messages like these. Sometimes, I get so much enjoyment out of working on the websites, that I actually forget that people use the worksheets in real life! They are actually used in homes and classrooms, and the children using them enjoy them and learn from them, too!

I look forward to ESL-Kids.com growing and bringing happiness and knowledge to more children, just as my other sites have done so far.

My gullible students!

Yesterday was our Halloween barbeque, which was a lot of fun. One activity we did was set up boxes with pictures of fingers, brains, worms and eyeballs on them. Inside were sausages, prunes, noodles and peeled grapes, and the kids were really quick to figure that out. The adults tend to have a better imagination and pulled some really icky faces when dipping their hands in the boxes.

Two of my students, both in their twenties, can be pretty gullible sometimes. Today in class, they were trying to explain the activity to another student who didn’t come to the barbeque. I jumped in and said:

“Oh, it was so funny, the kids thought they were grapes, noodles and prunes, but actually they really were eyeballs, worms and brains!”

The two girls sat up in horror. Had they really dipped their hands in a box of worms? I pushed it further explaining how we had contacted a farm and got leftover eyeballs and brains sent to us. I told them this with such an honest and serious face, that they truly believed it. It wasn’t until I said the fingers were really fingers that they realized I was joking.

My favorite gullibility test is the “Magic-eye tie”. I have this shiny tie covered in lines of elephants which I explain is like those posters that if you stare at long enough you can see a hidden picture in the center. I’ve done this trick on most of my students and they fall for it every time. It’s hysterical. They just stand their with their eyes wide open staring at the tie. I let them do it for a full two minutes before telling them I’m joking. If you haven’t tried this one before, go and find you most bizarre tie… now!

A massage from your teacher

I was looking through some of my old things and found a postcard from the first school I taught at in Japan. When a potential customer had taken a trial lesson, the teacher was supposed to fill in this postcard and it would be sent to that student. I had to shrink the picture a bit for the web, but if you look closely you’ll see a classic mistake.

Thank you for trying a lesson...


Okay, let’s zoom in on that…

...here's a massage from your teacher!


Yep, this was made by one of the biggest English schools in Japan, a leader in English language education, a company that thousands of people across the nation study at. Apparently they printed thousands of these postcards before anyone noticed the mistake. Of course, they were withdrawn quickly and I doubt if any were actually sent out to students… not that they’d be able to read it anyway.

After they were withdrawn they were used as scrap paper. Who would have thought that this little embarrassment would appear on the internet years later!

Is ESL in Japan a big joke?

According to an NHK report in 2000, Japan has the largest commercial English language education market in the world, valued at $20 billion. So, you would expect most Japanese to be fairly proficient in English, right? Wrong! Official TOEIC figures for 1997-1998 showed Japan to have the lowest average score among the 17 countries in which TOEIC test taking is most popular.

As an ESL teacher in Japan, I should consider myself fortunate that people are willing to spend so much money on learning English. I wouldn’t have a job otherwise. That doesn’t mean to say I don’t take pride in teaching my students to speak the language. After all, that is what they are paying for, right? Wrong again, it would seem.

Time and time again, I hear of students frustrated about using the textbook too much in class, or having too much homework, while many simply forget to do their homework completely. Remember that in most ESL schools in Japan, students only take one class a week, so common sense would suggest that if they really wanted to learn English, they would take their lessons seriously and devote some of their free time to self-study.

Okay, fair enough, a lot of adults just study ESL as a hobby. Hey, it’s cool to tell their friends they study English, regardless of whether they are learning anything or not. But how about children? Surely the parents are paying these huge fees so that their sons and daughters can learn English. Well, that’s debatable.

You’ve got two kinds of schools in Japan, the English Conversation eikaiwa schools, and juku, or cram schools. Eikaiwa are where the foreigners like myself teach, while juku are heads down, study, study, study, Japanese teacher-led classes. Although English lessons at juku focus soley on reading and writing English, I always thought that eikaiwa were equally important for learning communication. Now, though, I’m changing my mind…

After disciplining one of my elementary school students for atrocious behaviour, his mother kicked up an enormous fuss.

“This isn’t a school!”, she said. “We don’t pay this money for you to discipline our children! They come here to have fun! If I wanted my child to learn English then I’d send him to juku!”

Well, that knocked me for six.

The next couple of days I walked around shell-shocked. If I’m not supposed to teach English, then what am I here for? Why did I bother studying to be a teacher? Do all the mothers feel this way? Why have I spent the last few years developing a curriculum to teach English, when I should have just pulled out a copy of 101 Great Games for Kids?

I’m starting to come to the conclusion that the boy’s mother is right, and I should not worry about teaching, and just have fun with the kids instead. I mean, from a business point of view, going head-to-head with the grammar and vocabulary-based English curriculum of juku is a no-win situation, as the Japanese will always consider juku as real education. Instead, I think I’ll just go in the opposite direction altogther and play game after game after game, perhaps throwing in a bit of English here and there just to appease the teacher in me. Who knows, maybe the kids will have so much fun, none of them will ever want to go to juku!

As things stand however, until high schools, universities and companies start requiring English communication skills over the ability to read a book and memorize 10,000 words, Japan will continue to produce the most educated yet worst English speakers in Asia.

My house is a Daiwa house

There’s a TV commercial in Japan by a house-building company called ‘Daiwa House’ in which an English teacher is reading sentences for his class of high school students to repeat. I can’t remember exactly but he says something like “My father is a doctor”, and all the students diligently repeat him. Then, following the same rules of grammar, he says ”My mother is a teacher”, and once again they all repeat. Finally, he says “My house is a Daiwa house”, and he’s greeted by lots of blank faces.

Okay, it’s not particularly funny, but it’s typical of Japanese students to learn English through repetition drills such as the one he used. Generally I find the kids I teach are pretty useless when it comes to making sentences for themselves, and repetition is the most direct way to get the kids to speak English. Hopefully, over time, the language patterns will be so embedded in their brains that they will be able to fall back on their ‘database’ of  rote-learned phrases and produce something of their own.

When I visit kindergartens, I always have the children repeat me, and since I’ve been teaching for a while now, they do it automatically. Unfortunately, many of them do it without having the faintest clue what they are saying. So I like to amuse myself by saying silly things to shake them out of auto-repeat mode.

“I’m fine! I’m fine! I’m fine! I’m a banana!”

“I’m five years old! I’m five years old! I’m two years old!”

A couple of weeks ago I did the ‘Daiwa House’ test:

“Hi! Hi! Hi! Hello! Hello! Hello! Good morning! Good morning! Good morning! My house is a Daiwa house!”

It worked better than on the TV commercial! I had half of the 30 children repeat it pretty well, while the other half mumbled something along the lines of “My how is a hi are how”. Their regular Japanese teacher who watches from the sidelines was cracking up with laughter – she had obviously seen the commercial – while I laughed it off and moved on with the lesson…

Two weeks later on my next visit and the kids rushed out of the classroom to greet me screaming “MY HOUSE IS A DAIWA HOUSE!!!”. That totally blew me away!