Reflections on Teaching English Oral Communications Courses at Japanese Universities

Reflections on Teaching English Oral Communications Courses at Japanese Universities

Steve Urick

Associate Professor, Education Development Center

Having taught English courses at universities in Japan for over 15 years, I’ve become accustomed to the classroom dynamics. While I still try to find ways to improve the courses I teach, I believe that most students use the time in my classes meaningfully. Usually I do not have data showing measurable increases in students’ proficiency levels, but I am confident that I have challenged them to do new things with the English language and to be reflective about their language learning.

My initial experiences in Japanese university classrooms, however, were not all successful. Having previously taught in language schools, where classes were small and students were motivated to speak up, I was not prepared for the response I got, and my first attempts to elicit opinions from students were failures. After having students in one of my first classes do a reading on a relatively simple topic, I asked a student in the front row to tell me their opinion about the issue. Although this was a class of more than 20 students, I had not divided the class into pairs or groups. So as I asked the student to share her opinion, the other 20-odd students were listening.

She was silent. Her face was expressionless, but as seconds ticked by, there was a growing sense of uncomfortableness in the classroom. I encouraged her to share a little information with us, and emphasized that the accuracy of her language was not important. I just wanted to know what she thought. More silence ensued. “Well,” I told her, “I will get back to you later. No worries.” Moving on to the student sitting next to her, I tried a similar approach. Needless to say, the response was similar—silence and a strong sense of ill-being. The only difference was that the second student squirmed a little in his seat and looked over at a nearby classmate as if to ask for help. (None was forthcoming.) A second attempt to encourage this student to share some ideas only resulted in more silence. At this point I realized I need to stop and try something different.

This was the beginning of my education in the dynamics of the Japanese university foreign language classroom. I quickly learned that students don’t generally feel comfortable speaking in front of the entire class, and I began putting students in pairs or groups for speaking activities.

Later, I came to understand why this was the case. First of all, most Japanese middle schools and high schools do not place much emphasis on speaking in English. High school and university entrance exams have content that leads secondary school teachers to focus on rote learning rather than communication skills. For example, the Common Test, which is used for university admissions, has multiple choice questions focusing on grammar and vocabulary knowledge and listening skills. There is no content that aims to measure students’ speaking skills directly. Given the high-stakes nature of this test, it is no wonder that most high schools do not focus on teaching speaking skills. In addition to de-emphasizing speaking skills, the pressure to perform well on such tests can lead students to view correctness rather than communication as the goal of English use. Finally, even Japanese-language discussion tends to be a rare sight in Japanese secondary schools. Many students have told me that they felt comfortable speaking out in elementary school, but that this changed as they encountered a different atmosphere in junior high school.

Adapting to these conditions, I have developed my own way of structuring activities. But before I discuss the actual activities, I would like to outline the approach taken in general. I explain this approach to students at the beginning of each course I teach, as getting students to understand it and buy in to it is key for having a positive experience in the classroom.

First of all, in my approach, the teacher often functions as a facilitator. Of course, the teacher is the authority in the classroom, and bears responsibility for managing the flow of activities and students’ participation. But I view student motivation, especially intrinsic motivation, as very important. In order to foster this, the teacher needs to strike a balance between using their authority and making student agency possible. This means that the teacher is often consciously working to make the class student-centered, rather than teacher-centered.

Since each student is different, I ask them to find their own goals for increasing their language fluency. For some students, increasing speaking speed is an appropriate goal, while for others, asking improvised questions, or providing more details may be a target. In a communication-based classroom, errors are not to be feared, and I encourage my students to make mistakes; if they are not making mistakes, they are probably not stretching themselves. Because circumlocution is an important skill for second-language learners, I ask students to try to communicate even when they have not acquired all of the vocabulary the need to “correctly” express an idea.

Whether I am using a textbook or other materials, I encourage the students to realize that the English they need to use is in their head, and not on the paper. It is important for them to ask follow-up questions, make comments, include specific details, and even feel free to discuss a tangential topic that emerges from an idea in the learning materials. After all, this is how a normal conversation works.

One final part of the approach I convey to students is their right not to speak. In my classes we cover many different topics, and a large number of them relate to students’ experiences, daily life, and plans or goals. Since everyone has topics they don’t want to discuss, and since these tend to be different for each student, I emphasize this right and give students language to use when a topic or question has gotten too personal.

In the oral communication courses that I teach, there are many different formats I use for speaking activities. The most common formats are pair work, group work, line-ups, and mini-presentations. Pair and group work are used to elicit relatively spontaneous communication, while line-ups and mini-presentations involve recycling of topics and/or longer preparation time.

Pair work and group work are similar. Pair work can include information exchange activities, but typically both group work and pair work are topic-based. In groups there is sometimes more interaction in terms of comments or questions, but this can emanate from one or two particular students. On the other hand, less fluent or less motivated students may feel less pressure to perform in a group than in a pair and participate less.

When I put students in groups or pairs, I pay attention to several things. First, I make sure to give students new partners as much as possible. I believe that working with different classmates will give the students a variety of opportunities for speaking and generates more interest. And it can also help create a cooperative atmosphere in the classroom, which is critical.

With almost every group or pair activity, thinking time is included. I often allow students to take notes, but require them to write down only key words or phrases, rather than full sentences. Choice of topic is also an important part of these activities. It goes without saying that one student may have much to say about a pet, while another does not. One student may have developed an opinion about English education in Japan, while another student may not have. Often I provide students with a list of topics to choose from and ask them to look for topics about which they have details they can include. Depending on the type of topic, these details may be explanation, narration, reasons for an opinion, background information, connected information, or examples.

In contrast to group and pair work, line-ups require students to stand up. Students are placed in two lines, facing each other and given a set amount of time to speak. After both sides have had a turn, one line moves so as to create new partners for each student. I usually repeat for a total of three times. The time goal or limit can be used in more than one way. It can be used as a goal: for example, challenging students to speak about one topic for 90 seconds or two minutes. It can also be used to challenge students to increase their speaking speed. For instance, students can be given 120 seconds the first time, 105 seconds the second time, and 90 seconds the third try. They can be challenged to try to include the same information by speaking faster each time. For line-ups, recycling topics can also be useful. I often challenge students to speak in a line-up by choosing one topic from a group activity that we have done. When in a group, some students include minimal information about the topic, but the time goal of line-ups can motivate them to say more.

Mini-presentations are another way to challenge students to provide more details about topics than they might in group or pair work. For mini-presentations I put students in groups of three or four. I have the speaker stand up and ask their partners to time the speaker and give them written feedback. After all of the students in a group have spoken and received feedback, each student writes a self-evaluation. The topics can be recycled from group work or line-ups, or can relate to ideas from a textbook.

In addition to the general approach I outline at the beginning of a course, there are a number of things I fell that it is important to remind students of throughout the semester. First and foremost, I often need to remind students to try to use only English during speaking activities. I try to do this in a friendly way, and although I move around the room, I almost never directly tell one student or a group to stop using Japanese when I hear it. The main reason for this is that I don’t want to play policeman. I don’t want students to speak English because they have been warned by the teacher, but rather I want them to bring their own motivation to the classroom. So I remind students of what we are trying to achieve, reinforce the notion that mistakes are okay, and I don’t get reactive when I hear a little bit of Japanese. Depending on the variables in any particular class, allowing a small amount of Japanese can be helpful, especially at the beginning of a course.

I also urge students to challenge themselves and to be reflective learners. Although students make comments, ask questions, and make conversational interjections in their native language without even thinking about it, many students have trouble with this when speaking English. I ask students to identify ways they can be more active in a conversation, make it a goal, and then set out to do it. This technique stems from my intention to foster student agency and intrinsic motivation. I can see that different students need different goals for their speaking, and I hope that by doing this, students will be able to both reflect on their learning, and take charge of it.

In this brief article, I cannot include all of the details of my approach, but I hope it is successful as an outline. I would be happy if other practitioners would read it and consider how my teaching methods are similar to or different from theirs. Clearly, there is no one correct way to teach English oral communication at Japanese universities. However, I feel strongly that we must be reflective and open about our teaching. Even if we do not share similar approaches, if we can articulate the philosophy behind our approaches, and the ideas underpinning the design or our courses and activities, there can be fruitful conversations among us. And if we remain open, such conversations can be an impetus for trying new things in our classrooms and developing our own teaching methods.