Successfully Using Peer Review for Listening Exercises in a Japanese EFL Classroom

By Claire Ryan

In my work as an English language instructor in Japan, I meet a wide variety of students every day. High school students learning English at the behest of their parents, housewives studying as a hobby or because their husbands will be transferred overseas, final year university students hoping to brush up their skills before they enter the workforce – these make up a small section of the students who walk into my classroom each day.

However, working in the business district in Tokyo means that the vast majority of my students are businessmen who are learning English because their company has overseas customers, or who are anticipating their next business trip, or who work at a company that has decided English should be their internal language and they now have to catch up to the skill level of their colleagues. For many of these students, attending their English lesson can become a box-ticking exercise. “I’m here because my company said I have to learn English,” is a refrain I hear quite often. For these students – and all the others – I try to find ways of making the lesson more active, more interesting, and more worthwhile.

One technique that I find useful in getting students to engage with the material and each other is peer review. However, I have noticed over the years that this method can come up against some difficulties when being used in a Japanese EFL classroom. In this article, I’d like to share my experiences and suggest some useful methods of utilising peer review successfully in a Japanese EFL classroom.

What is Involved in a Peer Review System for Listening Exercises?

First of all, let’s look at what is meant by the term ‘peer review’ in a classroom setting. In general, peer review involves evaluation of work by others with a similar level of experience. In a classroom, this means students who are at a similar level of English ability can review and correct each other’s work and provide feedback following the correction. To apply this for a listening exercise, I use the following steps. Firstly, students should read the listening exercise questions by themselves before the listening track is played. This helps students to prepare for what they should be listening out for during the task. Students can try to complete the answers while listening, or in the time directly following the end of the track. When the instructor has observed that students seem to have completed their answers, they can then be paired or grouped with others in the class to collectively compare their answers. Students then discuss what they heard and try to justify their answers to each other.

For a moment, let’s consider an alternative approach. The students are set a listening task. The instructor plays the recording. Students choose their answers, and the teacher then lists the correct answers, with students allowed to correct their work by themselves. There is little chance for clarification in this scenario, especially if students are afraid to speak up and admit they got an answer wrong – a requirement if they are to query why it was wrong.

By utilising a peer review system, students are encouraged to talk about their answers openly. If two students working together have different answers, immediately it becomes clear that one of them is wrong, but it reduces the discomfort felt by each student because they don’t know which of them it is. As noted by Raba (2017) in The Influence of Think-Pair-Share (TPS) on Improving Students’ Oral Communication Skills in EFL Classrooms, “working in pairs also reduces stress and embarrassment. If they give a wrong answer, for example, they won’t feel shy because the embarrassment is shared”. This also encourages discussion as they each try to explain why they chose their answer. If students are unable to agree on the correct answer, it is useful to then play the track again with a focus on the section in question. This gives students who chose the incorrect answer an opportunity to recover control by pointing out the correct answer when they hear it.

It’s Not Always Plain Sailing

While it is a very useful tool, the system is not without its challenges when it comes to implementing it effectively in classrooms. These challenges can be broken down into two categories. General difficulties that can occur in any classroom, and the specific difficulties that present in Japanese classrooms.

The first hurdle can arise when trying to encourage students to use the technique. Many students may fail to realize they can learn a lot from their peers at the same level of ability as them, and often make the mistake of thinking that they can only learn from the instructor. This results in a feeling that they are ‘wasting time’ checking answers with a peer when the instructor could simply tell them if they are right or wrong directly. Students should be reminded that the discussion time with their partner provides valuable speaking practice.

The particular mix of students in a class can also make interaction difficult. In a university class setting, for example, where students are roughly the same age, or in a workplace group where they are used to interacting with each other each day, all class members are on the same level and can converse with relative ease. This becomes more difficult when faced with private students taking a group class together sporadically; instructors must control a different mix of ages, backgrounds, and experiences.  

One problem that I have noticed only in Japanese classrooms is the issue of loss of face. Fear of giving the wrong answer and facing embarrassment among classmates is prevalent among both children and adults alike, and often causes students to clam up if they are not confident in their work. Similarly, I have seen cases where students do not want to cause others to lose face either by correcting them. This apparent lack of confidence can also make students too eager to agree with others and change their own answer – especially in a workplace setting where they may defer to the group “leader”. There are a number of steps that the instructor can take to help students overcome this way of thinking, including reminding students that making mistakes is one of the best ways to learn, and praising students who offer an answer, even if it is not correct. A simple “thank you for trying” can be enough to ensure students feel encouraged enough to continue offering answers in future tasks.

Further Skill Development

While the main focus of this technique is to develop students’ listening skills, there are other areas that can also be improved through the peer review process when used in listening exercises. As noted in Listening Strategies for English Learner Comprehension, “listening comprehension is a skill that allows students to better understand all academic information” (Ruiz McLafferty, 2015). Let’s examine the other areas that peer reviewed listening exercises can have a positive effect on.

Speaking skills – students need to be able to express their own ideas and answers clearly and articulately to the other students in their group. This need to make themselves understood in English helps them to develop their fluency. If their partner cannot understand a word used by a student, they may need to rephrase or express their thoughts in a simpler manner. When comparing their ideas, each student will have a chance to speak in a less pressured environment than when speaking to the instructor.

Social skills – as well as the obvious improvements in the core English skills, students also benefit from the social aspect of peer review. Being able to listen to feedback from a peer and accept it as constructive criticism is a valuable life skill that can also be applied in their working lives. Similarly, being able to correct mistakes in the work of others in a helpful and practical way can be an essential management tool. Working together to combine their individual answers to fully complete an exercise encourages team-work skills and reflects the Japanese ideology of working for the good of the group rather than the individual.

Successful Implementation

As noted in Peer Review of Learning and Teaching in Higher Education, any peer review process is only as effective as the people who are taking part in the review (Sachs & Parsell, 2014). Thus, the process must be modelled for the students and carefully monitored by the instructor to ensure it is used to its full potential. The peer review session should be observed closely by the instructor, for a variety of reasons. First of all, you can ensure that students are using the target language to discuss their ideas with each other. I have seen countless examples, especially in lower-level ability classes, where students automatically switch back to Japanese when speaking to another Japanese person. This can be eliminated in two effective ways – remind the students just before they begin their peer review that they should converse in English or set the classroom as an “English-only zone”, something I prefer to do for longer courses and which I find students will adhere to strictly.

Encourage students to expand on their answers. if the listening activity has a true or false section, for example, encourage students to explain to their partner how they know the answer is false; what did they hear in the track that led them to that conclusion? Did their partner hear the same information? By being encouraged to expand on their answers in this way, students will become more effective listeners in future as they learn to listen out for the details that will help them to solidify their answers.

Consider carefully how to group students before the peer activity. I make sure to always set the groups myself as it removes the awkward – and often time-wasting – situation of students trying to find a partner. I also try to mix the groups up regularly so students have the chance to talk to many different people. If a student is struggling more than others it can be helpful to pair them with a stronger student who can help them more – this can also help the stronger student to improve as they develop a “leader” role in the classroom.

Set guidelines beforehand for what constitutes acceptable feedback, by modelling statements that could be used effectively. A kiss-kick-kiss method where praise is offered before correction can be most rewarding for learners. Students could offer encouraging feedback, such as “you gave the correct answer to many of the questions”, before then pointing out “however, it seems your answer to number 4 may not be correct” and finishing with a general praise for the effort shown.


In conclusion, the use of peer review techniques in listening exercises can benefit students in a variety of ways. It enhances their listening ability as they become more aware of how to listen for detail. Students show renewed confidence in their speaking abilities and become more eager to engage with their classmates and instructor. This improved assuredness in their English ability is a skill that can then be carried over into their working lives, where they will become more effective members of their teams who can use English in many real-world situations. It also benefits the instructor – monitoring the discussion allows the instructor to notice any mistakes or gaps in the students’ knowledge that can then be addressed and corrected later in the lesson. When combined, these improvements create a more effective classroom for EFL students, where the use of English can be an enjoyable and fun experience for all.


Bailey, K. M. (2005). Practical English Language Teaching: Speaking. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Fauzan, U. (2016). Enhancing Speaking Ability of EFL Students through Debate and Peer Assessment. In EFL Journal. 1. 49.

Nilson, L. (2003). Improving Student Peer Feedback. College Teaching Journal. 51. 34-38.

Raba, A. (2017) The Influence of Think-Pair-Share (TPS) on Improving Students’ Oral Communication Skills in EFL Classrooms. In Creative Education, 8. 12-23.

Ruiz McLafferty, A.M. (2015). Listening Strategies for English Language Learner Comprehension, a Teacher Resource Guide. Retrieved 2020/03/01 from

Sachs, J. & Parsell, M. (eds). (2014). Peer Review of Learning and Teaching in Higher Education. Australia: Springer.

Good In-Person, Even Better Online

By David Andrews

At the beginning of the last academic year, I was at first skeptical, as I am sure many of you were, when I heard that all classes at my university would be held online in an effort to stem the spread of COVID-19. However, after the initial panic subsided, I sat down and concocted a game plan to tackle the shift to online classes.

My university left the class format to the discretion of the teacher, which enabled each teacher to choose the format best suited to their particular teaching style and the particular class they are teaching. For a more lecture-style approach, some teachers recorded lectures in advance and posted them for their students to watch online. Others posted regular assignments using Google Classroom, while still others used Google Meet to hold live online classes. I chose Zoom because it was the only audio/video conferencing platform at that time that enabled students to work in groups via the breakout room feature. The question was, how would this format lend itself to the activities and exams that I did in person? One class that yielded some interesting, and somewhat surprising, results was a class called Current News Issues.

The objective of Current News Issues is for students to gain an understanding of the current political and economic climates both at home and abroad while developing the four skills of listening, speaking, reading, and writing through active learning. Students should not only develop an understanding of the news, but also be able to talk about it. This is achieved by having them read about current events in the latest English language newspapers, and then discuss and give presentations about what they have read, leading to deeper comprehension of the content.

To this end, one activity I often have students do is to work in pairs, with one student describing the content of an article they’ve read while the other listens and takes notes in English, which the student then uses to present the news to either a larger group or the entire class. With the online classes, I found that using the breakout rooms, this activity was quite successful and achieved results similar to those achieved in in-person classes. Unfortunately, this could not be said for all of the activities.            

One activity that proved more challenging online was a vocabulary-building exercise. During in-person classes, I have students again work in pairs and compare articles that they’ve read in preparation for the class. The students work together to find words or phrases that neither of them knows. They then use an English-English dictionary to look up the definition and use a thesaurus to find synonyms and antonyms. A volunteer from each group then writes the word or phrase on the board, along with its definition, synonyms, and antonyms, and an example sentence from the newspaper or Internet using the word or phrase. Once all of the groups have finished, the class discusses each of the words and phrases.

In online classes, I had students prepare in pairs in breakout rooms and then return to the main room to share their findings with the class. Despite being able to share screens and use personal whiteboards, the exercise was plagued by slow screensharing and whiteboards made illegible due to poor lighting, small handwriting, or screen size.

While some activities achieved similar results online as they did in person and others were definitely not as effective online as they were in person, two parts of the class that lent themselves particularly well to the online format were the midterm and final exam.

The midterm and final exam were in the form of group presentation “newscasts.” From preparation to presentation, these newscasts involved various tasks that incorporated both autonomous learning and collaborative learning. For the midterm, I divided the class into groups of three, with one student serving as a main news anchor, another student serving as a sports anchor, and the third playing the role of weathercaster. Each group of students was assigned its own breakout room within which to collaborate and prepare. Enabling the screen share function allowed them to work together on a single task. Then, each group created a name for its news channel and deliberated in English to determine who would play what role. Each student was then tasked with finding two to three articles from newspapers or the Internet that they would report on. Once they had selected their articles, they summarized them in writing and submitted them to me via email. I also gave the students online links to various well-known English news channels such as CNN, ABC, CBS, NBC, BBC, Fox News, etc. Not only did students learn something from the news they watched, but they were also able to improve their listening skills, learn authentic words and phrases that commonly appear in the news, and see how an actual newscast is conducted. They could also observe how the newscasters introduce themselves and the news channel, and how the newscasters converse amongst themselves during a newscast.            

For the midterm newscast presentation in an in-person class, I would set three desks at the front of the classroom facing the rest of the class, with the news anchor in the middle, the sports anchor on one side, and the weathercaster on the other. The students were urged to be creative and use drawings and other props in their newscast presentations to add a sense of realism. The use of tablets or computers was allowed for still images only, and the only audio allowed was music at the beginning and end of the newscast so as not to take the focus from the students’ presentations. Each newscast for the midterm was five to seven minutes in length divided approximately equally amongst the three students.

For the final exam, the students worked in the same groups of three, but the role of sports anchor was changed to that of a news correspondent reporting on a separate story and conducting a live interview. The student not playing the main news anchor or reporting on the story played the role of the interviewee. The number of stories covered could be the same or more than on the midterm, but if the same, students were expected to give more in-depth reports. In addition, students created an advertisement for a product of their choice, real or fictional, and incorporated it into their newscasts. Each newscast with a commercial was between eight and ten minutes long.

While the students always managed to come up with creative and imaginative newscasts when working within the confines of a makeshift in-person “newsroom”, I was truly amazed with what they were able to accomplish when they performed their newscasts online.

Going online allowed for a whole new level of realism that had not been possible in the classroom. Now, instead of just holding up drawings, the students were able to use virtual backgrounds to enhance their newscasts. One group even created its own moving virtual backgrounds; the news anchor had headlines and pictures related to the news stories appear and disappear as the news stories changed, the weathercaster had the weather forecasts for different locations floating by in the background, and the sports anchor had photos and scores popping up. Another group created an animated visual introduction introducing its news channel, complete with music fading in and out. Moreover, the fact that all the students in the class were viewing the presentations on their own monitors, and each student in a newscast literally had their own frame, gave the newscast a realistic quality unattainable in person. This added sense of realism was exciting and seemed to motivate the students to work harder and perform better.

It is now a year later, and classes, at least at my university, have moved back into classrooms. To be honest, I am glad to be back to in-person classes, as I enjoy the energy that is unique to them. That said, online classes were not the disaster I’d envisioned. While the online format certainly came with its own set of challenges, some activities that were good in the classroom proved to be even better online.

Detachment, Purpose and Opportunity. ALT’s Attitudes Towards Promotional English in the Japanese Linguistic Landscape

By Matthew Potter

Since the early 2000s, English education reforms implemented by the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT) in Japanese public schools have emphasized the development of students’ communicative abilities. This has led to ever increasing numbers of Assistant Language Teachers (ALTs) being employed in Japanese public schools.

However, in contrast with this emphasis on meaningful communication in the language classroom, much of the English on display in the Japanese linguistic landscape (L.L) serves no apparent communicative purpose. Described as having an emblematic or decorative function, promotional English (P.E) is utilized as an element of design evoking positive ethno-cultural stereotypes within its target audience, the Japanese consumer. The non-standard grammatical constructions and collocational links frequently found in this variety of English may be perceived as un-natural to native English speakers.

Positioned as experts of the target language and working closely with students and Japanese teachers, ALTs are afforded a central role in carrying out MEXT’s English language policy initiatives. This article aims to document ALT’s perceptions towards the discrepancy between the communicative and immediately practical language that ALTs are required to teach in the language classroom and the decorative, stylistic language frequently encountered in the Japanese linguistic landscape. It details how ALTs interpret, rationalize, and utilize this contrast in their roles as EFL educators.

Literature review

The Linguistic Landscape
American economic and political dominance following the Second World War has led to an Americanization of popular culture and consumer goods in many parts of the world (Bolton, 2012). This is reflected in the ubiquitous presence of English, particularly in the urban linguistic landscapes of traditionally non-English speaking countries. The term “linguistic landscape” refers to written language on public display (Rowland, 2016). This encompasses advertising billboards, shop fronts, public road signs and place names, vehicles, clothing, and myriad consumer goods.

Analysis of the L.L and societal attitudes towards it can help researchers to understand the interaction between language, culture, and identity. Seargeant (2011) identifies that “the organization of visually displayed language in public places can be an indication of social patterns of language use, especially in multilingual contexts” (pp. 190). Leeman and Modan (2009, as cited in Rowland, 2011) suggest that linguistic landscapes are “subjective representations rather than objective physical environments” (pp. 42) while Jaworski and Thurlow (2010, as cited in Bolton, 2012) argue that linguistic landscapes offer insight into issues of “demographic and institutional power, ethnic and racial relations, linguistic vitality and language ideologies” (pp. 32).

In his analysis of multilingual signage in Tokyo, Backhaus (2006) determined that official multilingual signs were produced to address different groups of monolingual readers who did not know each other’s language, such as tourists or non-Japanese speaking residents. In contrast, non-official signs presupposed a level of Japanese-English multilinguistic ability in the target audience. Seaton (2001) similarly argued that “Japanized English”, which he defined as “incorrect or unnatural written English produced by the Japanese and displayed in the public domain” (pp. 234) falls into one of two categories. English for information and English for promotion.

English for information is the translation of Japanese information into English, intended to convey meaning to non-Japanese speaking foreigners. This variety of English may contain errors commonly attributed to differences in phonological, syntactical and grammatical structures of the two languages. However, the meaning conveyed in the message is usually comprehensible for the intended reader.

By contrast, English for promotion describes English used as part of a promotional strategy as it is interpreted by Japanese consumers. In this case, how English is understood or interpreted by native speakers is irrelevant, as it is the majority Japanese population who are the intended addressees of this variety.

In Japan, English and the Latin alphabet carry connotations of positive ethno-cultural stereotypes such as modernity, luxury, prestige (Piller, 2003), individuality and freedom (Seaton, 2001). Yano (2011) suggests that Japanese adoration for western and especially American culture had led Japanese to feel that embedding English into advertising for products such as cosmetics, clothes and food is highly fashionable. Between 60-70% of Japanese loanwords are taken from English (Honna, 1995, as cited in Seaton, 2001) and due to the instrumental value of English as a global lingua franca, Japanese children now undertake English study from elementary school through to university level. As such, almost all members of society have had experience or contact with English.

English for promotion in Japan frequently takes on the role of a decorative design element, with a symbolic or emblematic value where traditional form and meaning are frequently detached (Seargeant, 2011). Phrases may include non-standard grammatical constructions, employ unusual registers, have odd collocational links (Hyde, 2002) and contain mechanical, and lexical errors (Hildebrand- Ikeshima, 2005).

Dougall (2008) suggests that decorative English stems from monoculturalism and represents an attempt to maintain an appearance of internationalization while remaining insular. In contrast, Backhaus (2008) proposes that decorative English on signage can be interpreted as a desire to join the English language community and associate with western values. Interviews conducted by Seargeant (2011) with native Japanese highlight the individual subjectivity in perception of the linguistic landscape but acknowledge the process of nativisation of English as part of the Japanese linguistic repertoire.

Assistant Language Teachers
MEXT’s 2003 Action Plan to Cultivate “Japanese with English Abilities” outlined the need for greater provision of English conversation activities in elementary schools (Machida, 2015), with the result being that as of April 2020, English is now being taught as an official subject to 5th and 6th grade elementary school students. These reforms have led to a large expansion of both the JET program, establishment of private ALT dispatch agencies and the direct hiring of ALTs to local boards of education, with one estimate putting the total number of ALTs in Japan at 20,000 as of the year 2020 (ALT insider, n.d).

ALTs have a highly specialized role in the language classroom, acting as somewhat of a cultural and linguistic touchstone for students. Their presence in the language classroom provides students with an opportunity to use English authentically, developing communicative competence. An ALTs ability to incorporate cultural knowledge into a lesson may stimulate student interest and motivation (Johannes, 2012). Additionally, the presence of an ALT in the classroom alongside a non-native English-speaking teacher (NNEST) in a team-teaching scenario can reduce students’ foreign language anxiety and encourage critical thinking (Gladman, 2015).

MEXT’s pivot towards a more communicative curriculum in elementary schools combined with a junior high and high school curriculum with a strong focus on written grammatical accuracy have allowed ALTs to be positioned as experts of the target language within the context of Japanese public schools in which they are expected to model and promote a native speaker ideal (Crosby, 2019).

As such, ALTs appear to be presented with two conflicting societal attitudes toward English. On the one hand, English is revered in the language classroom with ALTs being afforded a position of authority due to their native or near native English-speaking abilities. By contrast, in the wider linguistic landscape, English frequently takes the role of a superficial design element, bereft of meaning to the native speaker and employed in ways that meet the needs of its target audience, the majority Japanese population.


Data for this study was drawn from the results of a larger online survey investigating the role of promotional public English in the Japanese linguistic landscape on the attitudes of ALTs. The information and consent section prior to beginning the questionnaire explicitly stated that this research was focused on the presence of promotional or decorative English in the linguistic landscape. Photographic samples of P.E were presented in order to stimulate participants’ thoughts and opinions about the topic, with the final question of the survey asking respondents, “How does the presence of promotional English in Japanese public spaces influence your attitudes towards teaching English?”. Data for this article was gleaned from the qualitative responses to this question.

The survey yielded a total of 48 complete responses. Average age of participants was 30.6 years old with 78% of respondents being between the ages of 24 and 34. The majority of participants were from a country where English is an official language with 54% American, 19% Canadian, 15% Australian and 6% British and New Zealanders respectively. Most participants had been employed as an ALT from a period of less than one year to three years (60%), with the remaining 40% having been employed for more than 4 years.

A form of constant comparative analysis (LeCompte and Preissle, 1993, as cited in Mutch, 2013) was used to guide a thematic analysis of the qualitative responses to identify key patterns and themes.  Firstly, the qualitative responses were broken down and coded into thematic categories based on key words and sentiments in the text. These categories were then compared and contrasted, with the most frequently recurring or predominant themes aggregated based on their similarity.

Three key themes emerged from the data. The first described the perception by ALTs of promotional English as a stylistic medium detached from meaning. The second related to how promotional English shaped the ALT’s sense of purpose toward their role while the third theme highlighted how ALTs viewed promotional English as a potential teaching opportunity.

Results and discussion

Style, status, and detachment
The responses revealed strong attitudes concerning the roles and uses of English in Japan. The role of English as a language of status and prestige and its effect in advertising was particularly salient, as an ALT noted:

“Companies are trying to make products seem “richer” because they use English- in a lot of cases, imported goods have meant high class goods in Japanese history”.

Several other respondents had similar sentiments but also highlighted the emblematic nature of P.E and its lack of communicative purpose. In fact, the realization of the nature of this variety of P.E as a purely stylistic element of advertising was surprisingly prominent in participant responses.

“I know that businesses in Japan just slap English text onto things to look cool, rather than to actually communicate a message”.

“From what I see, English in public spaces (way finding signs or warning signs exempted from this) in Japan exists because it looks cool/stylish and serves no real communication function”.

“Japanese public English is like public sculpture. It is occasionally photographed, largely ignored and rarely used to inform”.

“Japanese people I’ve spoken to often don’t realize there are English words on these items or signs”.

The emblematic use of English appeared to be a source of frustration for many ALTs, who lamented the lack of communicative intent. As an apparent result of this frustration, several comments positioned P.E as evidence of a lack of genuine intent on the part of Japanese society to learn the English language.

“I want to teach students how to use English in those situations to actually be high class and intelligent sounding, not just like they’re playing at it”

“The Japanese attitude towards English appears to be: “it’s just fashion and fun so it doesn’t need substance or meaning”.

“I do not think Japanese people learn English to be good at it, I only think the push to learn English and use it publicly is a way to show the outside world how of a “modern” and “open” country they are, without putting in much effort”.

Mirroring the sentiments of Dougill (2008) that “it is basically an attempt to look international while remaining insular” (p.p. 22), these views suggest that decorative English stems from a purported monoculturalism and monolingualism of Japanese society. Some comments also raised questions about whether P.E could be considered a legitimate form of English.

“I’ve always thought of Public English as more of a style choice than actually trying to use English in a practical way, which is why I struggle with accepting it as a legitimate form of English”.

“I don’t think that Japanese public English is a legitimate variety of English like Singlish because Japanese people don’t naturally use it with one another to communicate, they just use Japanese”.

The comments above provide an insight into the attitudes that some ALTs have in terms of how English is used in the Japanese context. A perceived lack of desire to use English for meaningful communication can lead ALTs to de-legitimize uses of the language that fall outside of this function, such that only English that facilitates meaningful communication can be considered “real” English.

In his noticing hypothesis, Schmidt (1995) proposed that to learn an aspect of an L2, learners need to notice relevant linguistic material in the environment.  On the role of promotional English in students’ language acquisition, an ALT felt that the decorative nature of promotional English meant learners paid little attention to English in the environment and consequently gained very little from its presence.

“It is also noticeable that public English has very little effect on the students and their abilities. For example, the word “Christmas” is written everywhere during the season but some 13 or 14-year-olds still can’t read it”

Another respondent implied that, without guidance from a knowledgeable expert (such as a teacher) the disconnect between grammatically correct classroom English and the non-standard constructions found in the environment could hinder and confuse students in their L2 acquisition.

“Many Japanese people, especially kids, have no idea that the English they’re seeing everywhere is grammatically incorrect, holds no discernable meaning and is spelled wrong”

These statements, when combined with previous discussion of stylistic usage, intention of the Japanese towards learning English and legitimacy, form an overarching theme of detachment. The core role of the ALT in the Japanese language classroom is to act as a linguistic resource, allowing students to encounter authentic, communicative language and practice their developing language skills with meaningful interaction. However, ALTs appear to be acutely aware that outside of the classroom environment, English may be seen to have only a superficial role in Japanese society primarily as a marker of social status or prestige. P.E may be perceived as unrelated to and separate from the variety of English presented in the educational context, devoid of meaning and disconnected from the reality of a legitimate communicative context.

ALT’s sense of purpose
The contrast between English used in the classroom and English on display in the linguistic environment was found to influence ALT’s attitudes towards their roles and teaching practices across a wide spectrum.  These emotions and sentiments ranged from a sense of inefficacy or an attitude of indifference through to promotional English helping to instill motivation in teachers.

Beginning at the negative end of the spectrum, some respondents described how the discrepancy between societal attitudes towards the two uses of English provoked a sense of futility in their role as EFL educators.

“I think these all cause more harm than benefit and negatively affect the efforts we make in class, but it is not an ALT’s responsibility to fix this”

“It makes my ALT job seem hopeless and trivial”

“It makes me lose motivation to teach the kids”

For these respondents, P.E appeared to undermine the investment of time and effort that teachers put into their role, causing ALTs to doubt their value in the Japanese education system and imbuing a sense of futility. Many ALTs also showed feelings of indifference toward P.E in terms of both the role it plays in their students’ language acquisition as well as their role as EFL teachers.

“English in public spaces has influenced my attitude towards thinking of simple activities and games to be used in the classroom, but overall, I find its presence to be inconsequential to the lives of Japanese students”

“I’m proud of my students if they can spot what’s wrong and correct it but if not I feel indifferent”

“Generally, the presence of English in Japanese public spaces doesn’t influence my attitude toward teaching English”

Despite the overwhelmingly negative sentiments detailed above, for other ALTs the presence of promotional English acted to strengthen their commitment to teaching, reminding them of their professional purpose, to improve the English abilities of their students.

“It makes me want to be a good teacher in order to correct what I perceive as bad English”

“It motivates me to make sure my students understand the grammar or words that I teach in class”

“It makes me want to help students understand why the English is wrong so that they can laugh at it, too”.

“They motivate me to be a better teacher”

As noted previously, many ALTs felt that P.E was reason to question the genuine intention of society to learn English.  However, a few also held the opposite opinion, that it was positive evidence of a desire to use English, with this sentiment serving as a motivational influence.

“It is comforting to know that there is an effort by the Japanese to use English in public even though it may not be grammatically correct. It encourages me to teach English because it shows me that the Japanese are enthusiastic to use English”.

“I like it when I go out for walks or a drive and see that some restaurants, stores and tourist attractions use some level of English in their signage”

“For the most part, I believe that the quality of English appearing on products/signs/menus etc. has been getting better over time”

These sentiments align with those of Backhaus (2008) who argues that the use of English on signage “can be interpreted as a symbolic expression by Japanese sign writers to join the English language community and associate with the values that are typically attached to it (American/Western culture, internationalization, etc.)” (p.p. 63). For these ALTs, promotional English appears to represent Japanese society’s positive disposition towards English and a genuine desire to become more internationalized.

Spanning a wide spectrum of emotions, from feelings of purposelessness, futility, and indifference through to the emergence intrinsic motivation, ALTs individual reactions to the contrast between English in the L.L and the English they encounter in the classroom appear to be highly subjective. Seargeant (2009) noted similarly divergent attitudes in his small-scale study which primarily focused on how native Japanese interpreted English in the linguistic landscape. Findings from Sergeant’s respondents highlighted how lived experiences, cultural associations and identity uniquely shape an individual’s language ideologies.  For ALTs, it is likely the same variables apply in shaping their own attitudes towards language use.

A teaching opportunity
The inclusion of promotional English into lessons was also viewed as a way to stimulate meaningful conversation about language in the classroom.

“For me it can often feel as though pointing out flaws in the English is how we can deliver meaning through communication and conversation”.

“I occasionally share funny but incorrect public English with my JTEs/students as a way to have fun, but also to facilitate conversation about English and give insight into a native English speaker’s experiences”.

Other responses described in greater detail how promotional English could be utilized in class activities for lower-level students.

“It also encourages me to change something that is seen as a negative into a positive, using it as a building block for something new that I’m teaching in class. For example, I would use the incorrect grammatical signs and use it to teach my students new words”

“It’s a great teaching tool for how not to use grammar/word choice. In my elementary schools I always read the 英語プリント (English print) T-shirts my students wear and attempt to translate them for my students”

In these cases, the ALTs perceived that for lower-level students, incorporation of P.E into lessons benefits language acquisition by drawing attention to authentic, real-world negative examples.  Shang and Xie (2020) identified similar sentiments in the opinions of EFL teachers in China, who noted that utilization of English from the linguistic environment can improve students’ English literacy, cultivate critical thinking ability and encourage students to observe and think about English in their daily life.

Another ALT also acknowledged that P.E can be used to draw attention to the fact that promotional or decorative English may not have a communicative purpose, thus sparing students from confusion should they attempt to infer meaning from the decorative English present in the environment.

“I have to try harder to explain grammar rules, reading for comprehension, and maybe point out why “Engrish” is not English, it’s a different thing”.

These more nuanced sentiments toward the value of P.E in the language classroom reflect how ALTs perceive promotional English as an opportunity to stimulate meaningful dialogue in the classroom, draw attention to errors and highlight explicit boundaries between the two varieties of English to clearly differentiate them for students.


ALTs were acutely aware of the nature of decorative or promotional public English in terms of its function as a stylistic element of design, with no overt communicative purpose. For some, the use of English in this manner constituted evidence of a lack of genuine intent to learn English. This led some ALTs to question the legitimacy of P.E, due its lack of a meaningful communicative function Japanese society. 

The disconnect between the communicative English ALTs are expected to teach and promotional English in the environment affected their sense of purpose in their role as EFL educators. P.E may be seen to undermine the efforts ALTs make in the classroom, resulting in feelings of futility or pointlessness while ALTs may also harbor feelings of indifference, with the lack of a communicative function resulting in P.E being ignored or disregarded entirely. In a more positive light, the errors present in P.E may strengthen ALT’s resolve, encouraging and motivating them to increase their efforts in the classroom for the sake of their students and Japanese English education in general. The ubiquitous presence of P.E in the L.L may also be viewed as evidence of the enthusiasm of Japanese society towards the acquisition and practical use of English.

Contrasts between the two varieties of English were also viewed as a potential teaching opportunity in the language classroom. P.E may be presented as a discussion topic, allowing teachers to initiate meaningful communicative interactions with students while simultaneously drawing attention to errors in real world English usage. It may also enable ALTs to explicitly differentiate promotional English from a more standardized and communicative classroom variety.

These findings may be helpful in the development of ALT training programs by allowing new ALTs better prepare for their role. Making new ALTs explicitly aware of the various ways English is utilized in Japan and reasons for this may help to mitigate the emergence of frustration or doubts over the legitimacy of non-native uses of English, leading to increased motivation and job satisfaction. Ideas and techniques for using promotional English as a classroom resource could also be collected and distributed to new ALTs, allowing them to better understand how to incorporate real-world English from the Japanese linguistic environment into their lesson activities. 

Despite the limitations of this small-scale study, this article has provided insights into how ALTs perceive the relationship between English they teach in the language classroom, and English encountered in the Japanese linguistic landscape. In-depth qualitative data collection methods such as one-on-one interviews would help to further reveal the rationale behind these insights and would be an interesting topic for future research.


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In Memoriam Michele Steele

By Hideto D. Harashima

“Oh, you must be Mr. Harashima!”. That was the remark she uttered to me the first time we met at one of Gunma JALT`s monthly meetings. I didn’t recognize her, she was a total stranger to me, but she introduced herself soon as my kohai or junior in study, at our alma mater San Diego State University. She too had studied linguistics in the master’s course there. “I read your master’s thesis and I was impressed. I’ve wanted to see you, and here we are, it’s so good to see you.” I was a bit perplexed, but glad to have a kohai in the same professional circle and decided to take care of her as much as I could as a senpai. That was the beginning of our professional relationship and since then, Michele and I had gotten heavily involved in Gunma JALT operations and been through a lot of things together, rain or shine.

After serving as program chairs for a few years, we were nominated to be the co-presidents of the Gunma chapter of JALT. Gunma chapter had a tradition of twin leadership: a Japanese-speaking president and an English-speaking president taking the lead together. This way the leadership could keep close ties with both Japanese and English-speaking members and participants. This system had been praised by other chapters as a successful model, and we kept the tradition. We shared responsibilities in a rational way; I took care of escorting presenters and preparing and wrapping up monthly meetings while Michele took care of the executive board meetings and liaison. We both represented the Gunma chapter in national conferences. Michele was the first woman president of the chapter and she succeeded in bringing in a lot of woman participants and presenters, and that is something I appreciate. I recall with pride that the seven years of co-presidency with Michele was a time of fulfillment, prosperity, and success in Gunma JALT history. Of course, there were times of conflict. As a man with a rather conservative mindset, I sometimes clashed with Michele who was liberal, progressive and “a woman of steel”, as Melodie Cook described in her memorial in the March 2021 issue of The Language Teacher. But we managed to get along by being level with each other, along with great help from other members.  

During her presidency, she initiated the Best of JALT Award, which is now re-titled in her honor “The Michele Steele Best of JALT Award.” That is a proof of how much energy, passion, and dedication she’d put into this event. She used to say, “JALT is my life. I can’t live without JALT.” She loved the organization and the people so much. People loved her, too. Nearly fifty people gathered online for the memorial meeting on March 20th, 2021, and we shared fond memories of her. This is a rare thing, and it shows how inspiring her life was to many of us.

Apart from JALT business, we were good friends and we both loved wearing hats. Michele had been a fan of my band performances and she came to our gigs and sessions many times. She once brought all the students at her conversation school to our gig, and we had a good time. She would often hang out with friends at a bar in Kiryu where I played music regularly and cheered for me. Another story I want to share is when she came to my mother’s funeral all the way from Kiryu to Oizumi. I thanked her for coming such a distance for somebody she didn’t even know, and she answered me, saying, “a loss of a mother is a big thing to anybody.” She was so sweet.

The last time we conversed was on Facebook messenger. She was reacting to my public announcement of the loss of Leo Yoffe. She wrote, “I can’t believe this. I talked with him just a couple of weeks ago and he was fine.” She was very much shocked and trembled in pain by Leo’s passing as her time was looming ahead.

Leo Yoffe, Yoko Watanabe, and Michele Steele – ­the big three who built the golden age of Gunma JALT, and of the same generation as me – have all been taken much too young and within a short time. My heart is broken and missing every one of them.

JALT heroes, thank you, and rest in peace.

The Meeting Never Started Until Michele Arrived

By John Larson

For a while there, it seemed like she was everywhere.
She invited, introduced, even put people up in her home.
She was the meeting starter, the meeting ender,
made announcements before the breaks.
She was so good at that, making everyone feel welcome.
She put her heart and fire into our little group,
and such a heart of fire was it that we glowed,
though we seldom recognized it, like a light left on.

Few in our little group recognized how she changed other groups too,
wading through the miasmatic group of groups above us,
speaking out at the EBMs and breakouts, reasoning with eloquence.
She was so good at that, making everyone feel heard.
Passing the hat, literally her big felt hat, to collect for Best of,
before chapter donations became a thing.
Which was another thing she made happen.
Shushing the drunk and unruly so Charlie could be heard.
Charlie the benefactor who we needed before Best of was a part of the conference.
Which was another thing she made happen.
Another thing few of us realized in our little group.

For a while towards the end that no one saw coming yet,
the trains were scheduled such that there wasn’t a good one.
Southbound travelers could either arrive way too early,
or slip in just a bit after starting time.
Few took the early train. Most drove.
Michele, being Michele, often took the late train,
even though she herself was never late.
Even if someone else had done the intro,
Even if the speaker had started into the PowerPoint,
Michele was never late. She brought the meeting with her,
along with the smell of incense on her earth-toned gauzy scarves.
(Even before, she was a scarf kind of gal.)
She’d come in humble with a small wave, a whispered “hi”,
trying to be unobtrusive and failing spectacularly.
The sunrise would have more success arriving unnoticed.

And for a while there when things started to get bad,
there was a time when we couldn’t be sure.
Sometimes she’d come, but sometimes not,
and so sometimes we wouldn’t know when to start the meeting.
And even when we began, finally, without her,
out of the corner of our eyes, we would be watching the door,
half our minds on the speaker, half on our friend,
waiting for time when the meeting could truly begin.

Translating Man’yōshū Poems into Modern English: The Ishibumi no Michi Project

By Kirsten M. Snipp

It was the second week since April first, the official start date of my new job at the Takasaki University of Commerce. I was just beginning to settle down in my unfamiliar and very barren office when Professor Takuo Maeda, head of the Community Partnership Center (CPC), rapped upon my door, early on a Wednesday afternoon. He dove headlong into a discussion about Takasaki City’s treasured Kozukesanpi (上野三碑) (The Three Cherished Stelae of Ancient Kozuke).

Historical significance

These large and historic stones, erected some 1300 years ago, had just recently been inscribed as a UNESCO Memory of the World (2017). The stelae are 3 of the 18 still-standing monuments created and erected in the 7th to 11th centuries and are the oldest of these. The Yamanoue Stela, erected in 681, is the oldest of them all. The Tago Stela was erected in 711; the Kanaizawa Stela in 726. Considered as a whole, the inscriptions on the stelae offer evidence of Korean immigrants settling in the region and are considered to be important sources of information regarding cultural interaction and exchange happening in East Asia at the time. For example, the language used on the Yamanoue Stela is the oldest existing example of the Chinese writing system used with Japanese grammar. The sum of the contents of the three demonstrate the emulation of a Chinese-like political system and an acceptance of Buddhism in the eastern areas of Japan. They form an invaluable resource for understanding the ancient history of the region, as well as that of the whole country.

Research group formation

In celebration of the stelae’s inscription to the UNESCO Memory of the World, the university, by way of the CPC, sought to draw attention and interest in the three stelae. Professor Maeda then told me about the Ishibumi no Michi (石碑の路), a series of inscribed stone tablets placed along mountain trails very near the stelae and also near the university. He explained that the university was convening a team to work on a project to promote these monuments by creating English versions of their inscriptions. The team was to be called the Takasaki University of Commerce Ishibumi no Michi research group.

At the time, I listened with only half an ear, as I already had so much on my mind with my new position. I also worried about the idea of contributing to a translation. In the past when asked to participate in such endeavors, I had found that the only reason for my membership was to provide my “gaijin seal of approval.” On occasion, I had agreed to provide my assistance as a native speaker, putting in a great deal of time and effort. After this, I would discover that my input was ignored or over-written, sometimes with errors so glaring that I was embarrassed to have my name on the outcome. I was distressed by the possibility that I was yet again stepping into such a trap. This time, having just started my new role under a three-year tenure probation period, I was not in a position to refuse.    

Memorializing nature’s beauty

I soon learned that the Ishibumi no Michi stone tablets were commissioned, created and erected in the early 1970’s by Nobusawa Tatsumi. Nobusawa, known as a doyen in the area for his homebuilding and furnishings company, was born and raised in the Nekoya area of Takasaki. He was fond of the Takasaki Shizen Hodou (高崎自然法道), a 22-kilometer path in Takasaki that runs from Yoshii to Kannon Yama, and wanted to protect the beautiful vistas in their natural state. This area is also home to the Kozukesanpi stelae.

In creating the Ishibumi no Michi, Nobusawa looked to the Man’yōshū (万葉集), a collection of poems written during the Nara Period, roughly 1300 years ago. The bulk of these poems refer to various places in the area of Kyoto and Nara. Nobusawa chose a number of poems from the Man’yōshū to reflect the beauty and resonance of the Takasaki Shizen Hodou. He commissioned these poems to be engraved onto stones and then placed at various locations along the path.

The mission of the Ishibumi no Michi research group was to create modern Japanese versions of the ancient texts, write music to set the poems to and provide English versions that above all captured the feeling and nuance of the original text. The university engaged a classical Japanese scholar to help in the creation of the modern Japanese texts, along with a musical artist and lyricist to create musical scores for the poetry and to record the musical and vocal tracks. A bilingual Japanese colleague and I were tasked with creating the English translations.

Painstaking translations

The team met once a month on a Tuesday evening and generally followed the same procedure. First, the Japanese language scholar would discuss an individual poem with a rich and nuanced understanding. The rest of us would take copious notes and ask clarifying questions. My colleague and I would meet at a later date to discuss the poem and try to create a credible English version. I am not a translator; I have never even formally studied Japanese. However, I have lived in Japan for more than 30 years. My colleague and I managed somehow to create the English versions — and had a great time doing it. The challenges were legion, of course. The grammatical austerity of Japanese often left us struggling to work without an obvious subject. Deducing the subtle distinctions such as who is speaking to whom, and what is the speakers’ mood or intent were also stimulating tasks. Many of the pieces were love poems filled with innuendo and ambiguity, which created a very narrow path between saying too much and conveying too little in English. Oftentimes, we opted for rather difficult English vocabulary in order to capture a brief whiff of nuance. It would often take us more than an hour to translate what would become about 20 words in English. At the next meeting, my colleague and I would present our translations and explain them in detail. These were often tense moments as the scholar would frequently pick apart our work and, just as often as not, send us back to the drawing board. Sometimes, we misunderstood the initial discussion, which would send us in the wrong direction from the beginning. At other times, the scholar didn’t feel that our word choices accurately captured the overall thrust of the original. Occasionally, we would get it just right.

Interpreting challenges

Teasing out a few of the remarkable poem translating experiences, I recall the classical Japanese scholar explaining that one of the poems in question was comprised of the exhortations of one member of a pair of lovers, frustrated with his or her partner’s seeming unwillingness to commit to the relationship. The sense was that everyone around the couple thought it was a foregone conclusion that the two would marry. However, the frustrated partner recognized that the reticent partner was perhaps unreliable and likened that partner’s heart to a cloud bumping against a mountaintop. As always, while we digested the interpretations of the scholar, I would try to create a mental picture of the metaphors as a way of having more to work with when my colleague and I would actually sit down to hammer out the English version. I imagined a cloud, bumping into a mountain. Was this a floaty bit of cirrus mist? A heavy-with-rain nimbostratus, threatening deluge? A thunderhead with lightning in its heart? I asked about the physical attributes of the cloud. After a long pause, during which I began to suspect that the other members of the team were coming to the same sort of cloud-as-phallus allusions that I was, the scholar answered: “Just a regular-sized cloud. Regular.” I managed to reserve my laughter until later. Ultimately, the accepted English translation of that poem reads as follows: “While everyone is saying ‘those two are bound together,’ your capricious heart is like a cloud, adrift, nestled near the peak of a mountain.” I wanted the last phrase to read; “…nestled near the peak of a distantmountain,” but the scholar disagreed.

Another of the poems mentioned the 鶯 (uguisu), a Japanese bush warbler. One of the difficulties in translating that particular poem was the shared cultural experience of what that bird is: a harbinger of spring. The bird itself, largely heard and rarely seen, creates a haunting and beautiful song that is a familiar poetic trope to the Japanese. However, outside of a few enthusiastic bird watchers, the name “Japanese bush warbler” simply does not engender any significant shared cultural understanding among non-Japanese. We had to manipulate the following with a great deal of finesse in order to communicate to the bush warbler novice the significance of the reference without being didactic. “Yearning from the shadows in the fields of spring, a song bird warbles a mating call to you.” This poem is one of my favorites from the project.


Aside from the translation challenges, the work also caused me to reflect upon my own experiences. A number of the poems chosen by Tatsumi Nobusawa reflect a sense of undertaking a journey from which one is just as likely as not to return. Relating to the feeling of the ancient traveler is challenging for us in the world we live in now, with modern modes of travel available. Yet, after having lived here as an expatriate for such an extended period of time, I find myself reflecting on the nature of my own journey; a journey with which I believe many of my fellow educators in Japan can well relate. There is a profundity to the choices I have made, and some of the poems recall the distinct melancholy of the traveler. There is the ineffability of not being able to exist in two places at one time, or embracing that which is in front of you to the exclusion of that which has been left behind. The following poem, my favorite from that theme, captures the feeling deftly; “As each step of my journey takes me farther from my hearthside, my soul grows ever colder. If only I could meet a return traveler to carry my heart back home…No man crosses my path.”

Timeless emotions

Never having been much of a poetry reader, one of the most striking aspects of these poems was the portrayal of the universality of human emotion. It was revelatory to me to think about how the loves, fears, frustrations and desires written over a millennium ago are the same ones we all still encounter today.

A common theme is love gone wrong. “Being ghosted” might be a 21st-century term, but the sentiment is timeless: “Is your absence a message to me? I’m waiting for you; you won’t come.” It seems the anguish experienced at love’s end is nothing new: “Immersed in despair of her prolonged absence, I cannot decipher: is the susurration of the bamboo leaves a subtle whisper or a banshee’s shriek?” Or feelings of regret: “We believed our embrace free and endless, until the river stopped flowing. If only we had known…”

Difficulties with other people make appearances, too. Here is a problem with the potential in-laws: “I came to see her only for a moment and yet I was dashed out like vermin.” Consider the troublesome chin-waggers: “It doesn’t matter if we continue our assignations in some distant place or not at all: our affairs are the subject of others’ gossip.”

Another common theme is simply the wonder and glory (and humor) of love. Love at first sight, for example: “With only a glimpse of your face in the moonlight, I fell for you in that instant. You came to me in my dreams.” The beauty of a long-term relationship: “The grass of Inara marsh in Kozuke, when cut, dried and woven, becomes works of art. Our yearning, once requited, becomes exquisite.” Even a miniature lover’s spat, with irritation expressed and a snappy, sexually nuanced response. She: “So long did I wait for you to come along that night, I became soaked in the mountain mist.” He: “While you waited for me, you got soaked? Would that I were that mountain mist …”

During our translating sessions, we engaged in lengthy, philosophical discussions about the nature of love and relationships in Japan versus those in Western countries. I joked that while I found the poems were elegant, they felt too austere and indirect to my Western way of thinking. I often suggested to my colleague that I wished the poet would just tell her what he really wanted to say! We discussed in detail the immensely popular 1991 serial television drama Tokyo Love Story, prompting my colleague to go back and re-watch the entire series. I found it interesting that the fact that the two star-crossed lovers of the television drama did not end up together was somehow a happy ending to a Japanese way of thinking. This would have been interpreted as a tragedy to a Western mind. Indeed, it was for me when I saw it all those years ago.

Successful completion

The project was a painstaking task and it took us two and-a-half years. In the end, we created English versions of 22 poems. My bilingual colleague and I had a fun and informative experience. In the end, I think I gained a more nuanced understanding of both languages and the challenges of molding one into the shape of the other.

I need not have worried about my work being merely a “gaijin seal of approval.” The team was a cooperative, inclusive organization, dedicated to creating quality work. I am proud of what we accomplished on the project. And I am honored to be a productive and international part of Gunma.

Kirsten M. Snipp is a 30+ year veteran of university teaching in Japan and a recent transplant to Gunma, currently teaching at Takasaki University of Commerce. She is especially interested in working with lower-level students to help them gain confidence, especially by coaching them on how to employ logic and analysis to improve their overall communicative ability and comprehension. 


All data regarding the stelae were taken from the site, The Three Stelae of Kozuke( There is a great deal of other information about Takasaki’s stelae. Readers are encouraged to visit the site to learn more about them and their historical significance.

Another Technical Clerk, Third Class: Japan Snapshot – Teaching

By DM Zoutis

He is fat and sweaty. He smells like a bit of old fish left in the sun. He is an otaku before they were cool. He wears his hair Koshien-style and has glasses so thick he looks like Mickey Rooney playing the racist stereotype in Breakfast at Tiffany’s.

When we first met we were sitting in the teachers’ break room. While I sipped rancid coffee, he smoked up the small place (in the days before such things were stopped). I figured another boring guy. His first words to me, “So, how is your first day at Zoo Hell?” He meant, of course, one of the six junior high schools I was assigned to visit on a rotating basis.

Zoo Hell would become one of my favorite places, both for its Hell aspects and for the oddball Mr. S and a few other such teachers.

A few weeks after our first meeting we had another trauma. Some “bad boys,” extorters of other kids’ lunch money, had attacked a teacher, hitting him with brooms, their fists, umbrellas and a garden hose…a door was ripped off the broom locker and sent dancing down the hall. The men teachers stood around and did nothing much; the women tried to hold back some of the boys. The principal came eventually and contributed some nervous laughter and smiles. The ruckus soon fizzled out and we cleaned the debris from the hall and went back into the teachers’ main room to have our break between classes. Just another day where a few lost boys (and some girls) get to tweak the creaking system. While some foreigners (and not a few Japanese) were writing in awe and love of “The Japanese Educational Challenge,” part of the reality was this rage and anguish, this howling from these kids who refused to be doomed to the grinding boredom.

“Where were you, by the way, the other day when the fight was happening?” I later tweaked Mr. S. “Well…I was, uh, busy,” he said. “Oh, yeah? Where exactly?” I asked, though I already knew the answer. “Well, I was having a smoke,” he smirked.

As a contract teacher there for a year or so he had felt under no obligation to get hit with sharp metal objects by the Zoo Hell denizens. I couldn’t help liking him.

He is intensely shy and yet full of confidence in the classroom. He once told me he wrote songs and went to Tokyo to try to sell them. No agent was interested. He spent time in hospital once after he suddenly went deaf. He can’t hear out of one ear to this day and constantly says “Pardon?” to me.

I asked to listen to one of his songs and told him he should sing it in class. We had a particularly rough group. Surprisingly, he did it. The students were amazed and amused – though one girl, perhaps having read the Board of Education manual, wondered why “we have to learn this crap.” The love song he wrote as a 14-year-old was a great success. I felt like I was one of those Blues researchers in 1960s Mississippi who discovers some long-lost Skip James character. After his mini-concert and the English class ended we retreated to the smoking room where we joined six other cancer-seekers. I egged him on again to share his work with his colleagues, and he rushed to his desk to get copies of the lyrics. When he was done singing and playing guitar for his new audience, there were hoots and wild clapping and the teachers asked him to sign their lyrics sheets.

One day I had to go back to the Board of Education early for some reason, and Mr. S. quickly volunteered to drive me. I thanked him as we got into his tiny Kei car that smelled of tobacco and something sour. “No, thank you. I get a chance to escape early,” he said. He told me he planned to skip the rest of the workday to “do some banking.”

After learning that I had to go back to NYC for a short trip, he asked me to bring him some omiyage. “Sure, what would you like?” I asked this 220-pound love-song crooner.

“Anything about George Michael.”

Six Valuable and Applicable Lessons I Have Learned as a Preschool Teacher in Six Years

By Duangsamorn Haruyama


Standing at a preschool classroom’s afterschool program door are many kinds of students. Some children come to school with smiles on their faces. Some come with swollen ears because of a bee sting. Some cry from separation anxiety (distress when separated from home or parents) and kick things around, including teachers. Some cannot stop talking about the events of the day. Some still need more nap time, and some are totally quiet. On the other side, preschool teachers are the people who need to be calm, greet the children and try to welcome them into the class in a way that makes them excited to be there and okay with saying goodbye to their parents. After everything gets ready and settled, we can start the lessons.

It has been 6 years since I first became a preschool teacher at an English immersion preschool (after school program) in Japan. In general, I assist children in getting along in their circumstances and socializing in English through activities such as art, music, physical activities and crafts. My students and I have had a very good time together in our English lessons and cultural learning activities. We have had a cooking class, a sport’s day, a Halloween party and a Christmas party. At the same time, since I am putting on a preschool teacher’s hat, I am not only teaching English, but also teaching them how to behave and what proper manners should be taken into consideration.

As an Elementary School Education and English Education major graduate, I had previously thought of preschool children as being very innocent, naïve, and unable at times to solve problems or decide things by themselves. But in reality, I was wrong. Based on my experience, they are awe-inspiring. They have helped me develop as a language teacher in every aspect and have also changed my attitude towards young language learners. For this reason, I would like to share six valuable lessons that I have learned from my experiences as a preschool teacher. In addition, I will explain how each lesson can be applied to teaching students of all age groups and in turn elaborate on the similarities and differences of teaching preschoolers compared to teens and adults.

Preschoolers are adept

Children are different to teens and adults in physical and emotional characteristics as well as other aspects. For example, they have shorter attention spans and a relative lack of self-control. They also learn languages differently. Adults are found to have more varying levels of difficulty in learning languages than children do in that they consciously learn languages by studying grammatical structure, vocabulary and so on. They need age appropriate activities which relate to their real lives and detailed and encouraging feedback to promote their confidence. Teenagers are at the age where they are figuring out things for themselves. To understand them and their interests is the key in teaching them a foreign language and in creating a comfortable language classroom. On the other hand, small children tend to naturally acquire language just like they learned their native tongue through experience, interaction and play. The key aspects in teaching English to children are activities, songs and movement without over-corrections (Moran, 2013).

What I have learned is that even though preschoolers have been in this world for less than 6 years, their physical, mental and even spiritual capacities have already been developing. It is easy for an adult to assume that they do not know anything yet. But actually, they are experiencing and learning how to work with things around them constantly. They have marvelous memories, the ability to catch the sounds in languages, enormous energy and are full of pure love. They can do their age-appropriate tasks without help from an adult if we let them. For example, cleaning up toys, working in groups, solving problems or choosing what they like. Adults need to be patient, trust in them, respect them and believe in them. Preschool children are still small, but they know what they are doing and they also have the right to choose as well as take responsibility for their actions.

However, we need to remember that children and indeed students of all age groups are different in characteristics, aptitudes and even learning styles when compared with their peers. It is important for the teacher to understand their differences, strengths and weaknesses. Even though children and adults learn second languages differently, teachers of all age groups should focus on assisting their students in learning languages effectively and promoting their strengths as well as respecting their opinions and their choices.

 A well-organized classroom and routines are needed

In classes for teens or adults, teachers can talk about classroom rules, routines, tasks or even how to grade scores with students from the beginning of the year. Instead of being concerned about safety or space like in classes for younger learners, teachers can focus more on creating a language learning atmosphere. It can include setting chairs in a circle to engage in group discussion, building a collegial atmosphere, creating an informal learning environment and so forth.

However, in preschool, the classroom needs to be well-organized. Equipment is checked, organized, cleaned and prepared before the class starts. Prepared lesson plans and an organized classroom make teaching and learning go smoothly from start to finish. A neat, clean and orderly classroom also promotes a better learning atmosphere and makes it safe for preschoolers who like moving around. Dr. Maria Montessori suggests that the equipment, care and management of the environment is supposed to fit the natural physiological and psychological development of the child in three areas: motor skills, sensory and language (Montessori, 2011: 11). Teachers should provide a child-friendly environment to support learning and working. Moreover, Carson-Dellosa (2011) suggests that teachers can control some of the behavior by arranging furniture or moving some supplies out of sight because children are quite naturally going to be interested in them. Seating should also be considered. Problems can be avoided by seating children who have a difficult time paying attention next to the teacher or next to children who are better in that area of learning. Classroom rules should be discussed between the teacher and students or even parents from the beginning of the school year. Rules can be set in simple and clear English so that preschoolers are able to understand and follow them well. Similarly, routines and consistency are important (pp.101-106).

The tone of a teacher’s voice is vital

For preschoolers, teachers tend to use a more animated and active voice to grab their students’ attention and to have them enjoy the lessons. The tone of a teacher’s voice is especially influential in a language class for young learners. In my first year as a preschool teacher I tried to shout and yell against the children’s voices, but it was completely ineffective. There are many healthy techniques to calm children down or to get their attention instead of shouting at them. Techniques such as using a cue like a bell, clapping or even switching off the lights can be affective in calming children down. Then, the teacher may use a calm and quiet voice to grab their attention before talking about the main idea or the next task. Another method is using a call-and-response. For example, when a teacher says firmly, “1, 2, 3, eyes on me,” the students will reply immediately, “1, 2, eyes on you.” Then the classroom will be quiet enough, and the children will be ready to listen to your instructions. Furthermore, as previously mentioned above, preschoolers are more perceptive than we think they are. My students can easily understand my emotions. They know when I am serious, joking, or becoming angry from the way I speak, especially from my tone of voice. Therefore, the tone of your voice and the feelings you express through it must be considered.

Indeed, in classes of all age groups, the tone of a teacher’s voice and even their body language can reveal their thinking and attitude which all students can see. All teachers should therefore have patience as well as humility and respect towards their students.

A sense of humor brightens up the classroom

One year, I had the opportunity to translate the parents’ survey from Japanese into English. There were some parents who mentioned that my teaching method and style did not fit well with small children. After reading that comment, I was crestfallen. I looked back and replayed all the aspects of my teaching style. The parents were right. Some children got sleepy, yawned or even cried during my lessons. Since then, I have tried to overcome my shyness and to be myself. I started acting silly, playing with words or even making mistakes sometimes to make them laugh. In addition, I researched what kind of animation or cartoons they liked and made jokes about them. The result was that my students enjoyed my class a lot. I could even see the sparkle in their eyes while they were laughing and learning.

I agree with Stephen Krashen’s Affective Filter Hypothesis (AFH) in learning language, in that a low filter makes learners feel relaxed and able to learn language (Krashen, 1982, pp.30-32). Humor is one of the tools that teachers of all levels can choose to use in order to brighten up their classroom atmosphere as well as create a more friendly and relaxed teaching-learning environment. For preschoolers, teachers should be more animated, active and energetic than they would be in teaching older age classes. Preschoolers usually find humor in something fantastical (a cow with high-heels, a chicken with sunglasses and others).

Humor can also be used in English lessons for older age groups. Indeed, Deiter (2000) points out that for college students, “dullness in the classroom can kill student intellectual interest in any subject and destroy all student desire to pursue additional study in the subject matter area” (p.20). Moreover, I have found that the sense of humor of older students is much different from preschoolers. Teens and adults are more likely to find humor in jokes, puns or cartoon stories.

The use of humor is effective in breaking down communication barriers between teachers and students of all age groups. However, the age level, culture, gender and even the target language level of learners should be considered. One must also remember that humor in the classroom should not include sensitive issues, sexual content or joking about/putting down any nationality, race or religion. Also, as all teachers have different teaching styles, using humor should be seen as optional and not a must.

Using positive discipline to deal with misbehavior

Using positive classroom management techniques is both effective and healthy. Working with young learners is very enjoyable but sometimes I have to deal with behavioral challenges. These misbehaviors include not following directions, non-participation, backtalk or incessant talking, playing with materials, mimicking teachers, talking out of turn or making strange sounds. It is difficult for me to avoid using traditional punishment techniques in the classroom such as calling students out by name, using commanding language or raising my voice. But I remind myself that such punishments can have long-term negative effects on children. For example, it causes children to feel shame, guilt, anxiety, aggression and so on. After trying various ways to stop misbehavior, the best method I have found is positive discipline. Positive discipline is a program designed to teach young people to become responsible, respectful and resourceful members of their communities. It teaches important social and life skills in a manner that is deeply respectful and encouraging for both children and adults (Positive Discipline Association, 2019). Examples of applying positive discipline include telling the children what they can do rather than what they cannot (e.g. saying “walk” instead of “no running”); giving them compliments for what they have done right instead of reinforcing the things they did that are against the rules; and explaining how they can make better choices in the future.

Also, I have learned that a good relationship between the teacher and the students is key. Teachers should understand that misbehavior is a part of a child’s learning development, and all behaviors have a reason behind them. Also understanding the children’s backgrounds and learning abilities can build a sense of empathy that all teachers should have. From these points, I have learned that teachers should prevent misbehavior before it begins. One can do this by setting clear and easy-to-understand rules, dealing with challenges in a firm and kind manner, encouraging students and promoting cooperative learning. This will help decrease problems related to behavior in the language classroom (UNESCO, 2006).

In older classes teachers do not usually have to deal with discipline issues as much as their preschool counterparts. However, they still need to be concerned about building a good relationship with students and they should maintain a positive classroom environment. Disturbing habits, talking out of turn, unrelated use of smartphones and so on can all happen in older classes. To deal with misbehavior in a language class, the teacher and the students can talk about behavioral expectations from day one. For example, turn off or silence smartphones, raise a hand to speak or ask a question, stay on topic, be on time and others. When the disruptions occur the teacher may try some tactics such as making eye contact with the disruptive student, reminding them of the classroom rules, moving closer towards the disruptive person, being silent and waiting for the disruption to end, calling for a break or speaking with the student privately. Finally, in all class levels, the teacher should avoid sarcasm and publicly embarrassing students. The teacher should use a kind, respectful but firm manner and target the misbehaviors and not the student personally.

Letting children play supports their development

We need to remember that for the teacher it is a job or a vocation, but for the students, especially preschoolers, it is “play.” According to Rudolf Steiner, on whose ideas Waldolf Education was based, “Play and playfulness lie at the heart of childhood and any form of education should take this into account if it seriously wishes to meet the needs of the child” (Steiner, 2003, p.60). The opportunity to play with their peers makes preschoolers enjoy coming to school. Play supports their muscle development, social skills, problem solving and so forth. However, at school, play should be in a safe and friendly environment without any aggression. Toys should be educational and support language learning. And through limiting choices, children can learn how to wait and take turns. Teachers should let children play without disruption. Instead, teachers should take the role of observer, helper, facilitator or even play with them. Additionally, letting children play outside especially in nature-rich places or in schoolyards positively benefits their bodies and minds. Studies show that children who play outside especially in natural environments are healthier, have higher levels of vitamin D and have more advanced motor skills. They also develop stronger awareness, reasoning, observational skills and so on. (McGurk, 2013).

Although teens and adults tend to focus on grades and achievements, they still need the variety of activity and fun time. “Play” in terms of teaching language to older students tends to focus on creative activities besides textbook learning. This can include games, quizzes, role plays, giving directions, interviewing, show and tell, competition activities and others. These activities should be added to the lesson to make it more stimulating and to keep students engaged in learning a foreign language. Furthermore, students will be also more comfortable with other students or with the teacher during the “play” time.


A preschool English teacher is a parent, a nurse, a psychologist, an artist, a dancer, a singer and an English teacher all rolled up into one who helps children learn language through various kinds of activities in order to have them enjoy acquiring a foreign language. I look back at myself 6 years ago as a language teacher and see that I have learned and changed a lot in many aspects. I have evolved from a shy, strict and unorganized language teacher into a kinder, more patient, well-organized, friendly and playful teacher. The six lessons I have discussed can be applied to preschool language classes as well as to all levels of students. I will keep learning alongside my students both in preschool and in the higher education levels. At the same time, I will also learn from other teachers and listen to feedback from others to improve as a teaching professional. Finally, this article shows my gratitude towards my beloved preschoolers and also to my four year-old daughter. They all deserve unconditional love, respect, trust and encouragement from the adults in their lives, especially their parents and teachers.

Duangsamorn Haruyama is a preschool teacher at GKA Pre-School and a part-time teacher at Gunma University. Her interests include elementary school English education, teaching English for young learners, educational psychology, and positive discipline in the classroom.


Carson-Dellosa Publishing Staff (2011). Preschool ABC’s: Assessment, Behavior and Classroom Management. USA: Carson-Dellosa Publishing LLC.

Deiter, R. (2000). The use of humor as a teaching tool in the college classroom. NACTA Journal, 6(1), 20-28.

Krashen, S. (1982). Principles and Practice in Second Language Acquisition Internet Edition 2009. Retrieved 2018/11/02 from

McGurk, L. (2013). 13 Benefits of Outside Play That are Backed by Science. Retrieved 2019/08/30 from

Montessori, M. (2011). Dr. Montessori’s Own Handbook. USA: Createspace Independent Pub. Ret.

Moran, A. (2013). How to Teach ESL: Differences for Children and Adults. Retrieved 2019/09/29 from

Positive Discipline Association (2019). What is Positive Discipline? Retrieved 2019/08/30 from

Steiner. R. (2003). Rudolf Steiner Education: An Introductory Reader. Great Britain: Rudolf Steiner Press.

UNESCO. (2006). Positive Discipline in the Inclusive, Learning-friendly Classroom: A Guide for Teachers and Teacher Educators. Bangkok: UNESCO.

Empathy in Team Teaching: Practical Advice for Elementary School ALTs

By Matthew Potter

“Learning to stand in somebody else’s shoes, to see through their eyes, that’s how peace begins. And it’s up to you to make that happen. Empathy is a quality of character that can change the world.” – Former U.S President Barack Obama

While ALTs may not be able to change the world, empathizing with our co-teachers and seeing things from their perspective can enable us to change our own behaviors in the classroom, as well as the lives of our students through the quality and efficacy of our team-taught lessons. I had never experienced team teaching growing up in the New Zealand school system. It was a concept I was entirely unaware of until I dropped myself into the deep end of the Japanese public education system in April 2011. That year I began working for an assistant language teacher (ALT) dispatch company who, in their race to fulfill their contracts, rushed us into the mountains of Fukushima for an “intensive” three-day training seminar. This included wake-up calls at half-past six for radio taiso and writing self-introductions in Nihongo. Our role, we were told, was to create games and communicative activities for classes and generally to do as we were directed by the school. The subtleties of working closely with Japanese teachers of English (JTEs) or elementary school homeroom teachers (HRTs) was not on the list of training priorities. As far as I was aware, my primary role in the classroom would be to facilitate internationalization of Japanese students through cultural exchange, as well as provide a native-speaker model to assist with communicative activities.

My initial placement consisted of four days a week at a junior high, with one day teaching at the nearby elementary school. In the junior high school setting, my lack of experience didn’t create too many issues. The JTEs I worked with were trained and experienced professional EFL teachers who were proficient in English and were used to working with and directing new ALTs for the best classroom outcomes. This was in stark contrast to the situation at the elementary school where I seemed to be expected to teach lessons essentially on my own. During lessons, many homeroom teachers (HRTs) preferred to loiter at the edges or even at the back of class. Some would sit at their desk and grade papers, occasionally popping their head up to discipline the students while others sometimes wouldn’t turn up at all. In 2020 the Japan Ministry of Education (MEXT) intends to make English an official subject in elementary schools, and while the situation has improved over time I still notice a great deal of nervousness, apprehension and reluctance on the part of elementary school HRTs who are required to team-teach EFL.

The purpose behind this article is to provide elementary school ALTs with some essential background information that I think will allow individuals to make informed choices, thereby improving the quality of team-taught lessons. Firstly, this article will assess how team teaching positively influences students learning and benefits teachers. ALTs can thus better understand the impact of their presence in the classroom. I will then address some of the major issues hampering team teaching by investigating the perspectives of HRTs towards EFL to identify reasons why coordinated and balanced team teaching can be so difficult to achieve. Finally, this article will offer some practical advice that ALTs can implement to try and overcome these issues in order to cultivate a positive team teaching environment.          

The impact of team teaching

Before identifying how we might improve our team teaching, it is valuable to understand the impact of an ALT’s presence in the EFL classroom. The Japan Exchange and Teaching Program (JET) highlights the role of ALTs in “promoting grass-roots internationalization at the local level” through cultural exchange by “helping to improve foreign language education” (JET, n.d). But what factors facilitate this improvement?

As native (or near native) speakers, ALTs reduce the reliance of non-native English-speaking teachers (NNESTs) on textbooks and teaching aids by employing their wide, active vocabulary and native intuition of language usage. An ALT’s presence in the classroom promotes development of students’ communicative competence by providing learners with a reason to use language authentically (Barratt & Kontra, as cited in Carless & Walker, 2006). Some evidence also suggests that students find team-taught lessons more beneficial for language learning because the cultural knowledge the ALT brings into the classroom makes for a more interesting and motivating lesson (Johannes, 2012).

Successful team-taught lessons can facilitate the development of students’ critical thinking skills when teachers are able to model the acceptance of divergent viewpoints during lessons (Gladman, 2015). Aside from modeling the English language itself, team-taught lessons also allow the HRTs and JTEs to model effective communication strategies such as negotiating for meaning, turn taking and clarification requests. They also provide opportunities for natural pragmatic language use and pushed output. Team-taught lessons in which there is a balanced partnership allow HRTs to serve as role models of non-native speakers, demonstrating that native fluency is not a prerequisite to foreign language use (Johannes, 2012). Furthermore, the contrast between a single-teacher-led lesson and a more interactive team-taught lesson can lead students to take a more proactive role in the class, particularly in reducing anxiety levels when asking questions (Gladman, 2015).

ALTs act as a valuable resource to promote English language acquisition, facilitating HRTs’ professional development. Conversely, working with experienced HRTs can allow ALTs to expand their teaching skill set. Some of my most valuable teaching strategies and activity ideas have been copied directly from the more knowledgeable HRTs that I have worked with. ALTs are also typically rotated through different schools at a faster rate compared to Japanese teachers, therefore encountering many different HRTs and JTEs. This offers a wealth of opportunities for ALTs to learn new pedagogical techniques and strategies. Additionally, this high rotation rate also means that ALTs can act as conduits, spreading good activities and lesson ideas as they move from school to school.

Issues in team teaching

The benefits of team teaching can be reaped by students and teachers alike. However, in my experience, the reticence of HRTs can often make it difficult to implement effective team-taught lessons in the elementary school classroom. The following sections will attempt to identify reasons for this by looking at team teaching from the HRT’s point of view, providing ALTs with greater insight into their co-teacher’s situation.

English activities have only been part of the elementary curriculum since 2009, with the Ministry of Education’s long-term goal being for Japanese youth to be able to use English in the workplace upon conclusion of tertiary studies (Hashimoto, 2011). These changes have been implemented in a “top-down” approach, with very little input from HRTs (Butler, as cited in Machida & Walsh, 2015). This has possibly led teachers to consider themselves as mere implementers of policy (Li, as cited in Machida & Walsh) as opposed to active participants in policy development. The rapid expansion of the English curriculum has put elementary school HRTs in a difficult position as unlike their junior high counterparts, elementary school teachers were never required to undergo specialist professional language education training to teach EFL (Machida, 2016). In my own experience, the majority of elementary HRTs with higher English proficiency are English literature graduates who have not undertaken specialist foreign language education training, although their own language learning experiences do appear to have a positive impact on classroom EFL pedagogy.

Arguably, the biggest hurdle currently facing EFL education in Japanese public schools is the low level of English proficiency among HRTs, with the rapid implementation of the EFL curriculum resulting in foreign language anxiety for many teachers (Machida, 2016). As students growing up, HRTs may have had negative language learning experiences within a school system that prioritized grammatical accuracy and native-like pronunciation over communicative competence. Teacher anxiety may also be compounded by the fact that the Ministry of Education policy has now placed a greater priority on the teaching of speaking and listening skills in English.

The stage of an HRT’s teaching career can also have an influence on their level of foreign language anxiety. I have worked with experienced teachers who, although having low spoken English ability, can be quite enthusiastic about using English in class. These teachers relish the opportunity for spoken practice and frequently seek out conversation. On the other hand, I have team-taught with several young HRTs who, despite being English majors while in teacher training college, appeared to be unable to use English in a communicative setting and preferred to let the ALT manage the English lessons. In fact, I was completely unaware that these teachers had any English language ability at all until being made aware of this by other members of staff. Machida (2016) sheds light on this situation by noting that as a teacher’s length of service increases, they become more confident in dealing with curriculum changes and instructing new subjects. In contrast, he also found that EFL experience does not necessarily reduce teacher levels of foreign language anxiety, suggesting that even teachers with a background in learning EFL may still experience significant levels of apprehension.

The amount and quality of in-service training also plays a role in shaping HRT attitudes towards EFL classes. As mentioned previously, HRTs have never been required to be formally trained in EFL instruction. Many HRTs acknowledge that to be effective EFL educators they must improve their communicative competence (Goto-Butler, 2004). However, a heavy workload combined with myriad administration duties may result in teachers feeling un-supported and un-prepared for teaching EFL (Machida & Walsh, 2015). For the HRTs I work with, optional EFL training seminars are held for every school term. Topics covered include instruction on how to use “classroom English”, changes to the curriculum and textbooks, advice on team teaching and integration between the elementary and junior high school curriculums. However, due to schedule restrictions many teachers may only attend this conference once per year while the only officially dedicated time allocated to collaborative professional development between HRTs and ALTs is the mid-year prefectural conference. As a result, although some HRTs may be open to developing their English proficiency and have a desire to instill in their students positive attitudes towards communication in English (Machida & Walsh, 2015), a lack of officially allocated time for professional development built in to teachers’ hectic work schedules can lead to a slower development of HRTs’ EFL teaching skills. This can in turn lead to foreign language anxiety in the classroom.

The Ministry of Education requires that English lessons must be team-taught by both the HRT and the ALT and subsequently the act of team teaching may cause stress and anxiety for HRTs. Additionally, the treatment of ALTs merely as a resource to be utilized in the classroom may prevent more experienced ALTs from playing a professional role in the development of an English curriculum (Hashimoto, 2011). As was my own case, ALTs often have very little teaching experience or formal training when they arrive on their first job placement in Japan and are usually unfamiliar with the nuances of how they fit into the Japanese public education system.

Low levels of experience and poor ALT training may lead HRTs to resent having to work with someone who they perceive to be unqualified for the job, holding opinions such as, “We need native speakers who understand the content of English language education in Japanese elementary schools,“ or “Native ALTs are just ordinary people from English-speaking countries. I think it is difficult for ordinary people to teach 40 students in a foreign school” (Machida & Walsh, 2015, p.226). The presence of an ALT in the classroom may also act to heighten foreign language anxiety as HRTs may be reluctant to make mistakes and consequently lose face in front of their students (Nishino & Watanabe, 2008). Time and scheduling constraints can make it difficult for both ALTs and HRTs to arrange meetings to discuss lessons, while language barriers may also hinder the efficacy and efficiency of lesson planning.

How can ALTs positively influence team teaching outcomes?

A gap between MEXT’s goals of communicative language teaching in Japanese classrooms and the reality of HRT foreign language abilities (Nishino & Watanabe, 2008) persists within the context of Japanese elementary schools. However, despite having a highly specialized role and limited influence within the scope of the Japanese public education system, ALTs can take action by at first understanding the HRT’s perspective and then modifying their own work habits to positively influence team-taught lessons.

ALTs can help improve HRTs’ levels of spoken English by understanding that, like themselves and their students, HRTs are also second language learners with varying levels of proficiency. HRTs may generally rate their productive L2 abilities lower than their receptive skills (Goto-Butler, 2004) so ALTs should strive to create low pressure situations during meetings or break times to provide HRTs with the opportunity to engage in simplified, low-stakes English conversation. Burri (2018) notes that allowing inexperienced HRTs the opportunity to conduct pre-planned, input-focused aspects of the lesson can reduce the stress of having to spontaneously produce spoken English during class. For younger grades, this includes reading simple picture books or teaching simple songs. I do this by inviting HRTs to help review vocabulary items that we have covered previously in class. Although they are usually initially hesitant, I explain that our goal is above all intelligibility and not native-level pronunciation. Teachers and students alike can then experience an increase in their confidence and reduced anxiety. Sato (2019) suggests that in addition to practicing L2 explanations in advance of lessons, encouraging NNESTs to express their own ideas and emotions can increase their willingness to communicate in English. In my classes with older students, we use short presentations or “small talks”. These are pre-planned dialogues between the ALT and the HRT that are designed to demonstrate to students the key elements of effective communication and the general flow of a conversation. Because the focus is on self-expression around topics that are familiar to the teachers, the HRT is more relaxed and less apprehensive, thereby creating a positive atmosphere in the classroom. Additionally, students are able to observe the HRT using English naturally, setting a positive example of foreign language use. I have also found that encouraging HRTs to acquire and use “classroom English” phrases can allow HRTs to take control of their classes in the foreign language. This also increases their confidence and encourages them to have greater agency and autonomy during lessons.

By understanding the relationship between teacher service length and foreign language anxiety, ALTs can adapt their teaching style to best suit the individual needs of their HRTs. As noted previously, younger teachers may have a substantial amount of grammar and vocabulary knowledge but be highly anxious and may need to be gently coaxed into spoken production. In contrast, experienced teachers who are familiar with the curriculum can be enthusiastic about using spoken English. Furthermore, veteran teachers’ greater experience with team teaching may also lead them to be more open-minded to role-sharing in the classroom (Johannes, 2012). This idea of role-sharing and flexibility may contradict and blur the traditional roles of ALTs as a cultural and communicative resource and HRTs as the overseer and disciplinarian. However, it can allow both teachers to expand on their role in the classroom and further develop a wider repertoire of teaching skills. I have seen this happen in my own teaching context where, as the HRT gains confidence and takes a more active role in lessons, I am able to take a more supportive role by assisting students individually. Students have reacted well to this, having extra motivation and enthusiasm as a result of their homeroom teacher’s new-found confidence. An additional benefit I have found is that, particularly on days when I have a heavy class load with younger classes, switching to a supportive role can provide an element of variety to the workday and give me a chance to slow down and manage my own energy levels.

After class, post-lesson collaborative reflection with HRTs, even if only brief, can also help to increase the fluidity of future lessons. This helps team teachers to improve their working relationship by understanding the reasoning behind unfamiliar pedagogical techniques that either teacher might use. I find the ideal time to do this is at the end of the lesson when students are filling in their reflection worksheets and the lesson is fresh in both teachers’ minds. If time isn’t available for collaborative reflection, it can be valuable to self-reflect, critiquing the lesson and your own performance, identifying the strengths and weaknesses of not only the team teaching, but also the extent to which the students met the learning outcomes of the lesson.

Additionally, ALTs should also proactively seek to improve their own knowledge of EFL theory and practice. Compared with the junior high school context, elementary school ALTs may find their role is less that of an assistant language teacher and more that of a co-teacher, depending on the English proficiency and EFL experience of their HRT colleagues. Based on my own experiences, ALT training tends to be based around pragmatic issues such as improving the productivity of meetings or the exchange of ideas for communicative activities with little focus on EFL theory or instruction. Particularly for those that plan to extend their annual employment contract, investment in TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) or TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages) courses such as CELTA can help ALTs to improve their quality of instruction by acquiring a deeper understanding of EFL theory and practices. In turn, this can build trust between the HRT and ALT, as the ALT displays the aspects of professionalism expected of public-school educators. Having a wider knowledge base can also allow teachers to better align their classroom teaching practices. ALTs might also consider independently undertaking their own action research to further investigate any facets of team teaching found to be of interest or needing improvement (Chen & Cheng, 2010).

Ideally both teachers should be receiving some self-satisfaction from the team teaching partnership (Davis-Wiley, as cited in Carless & Walker, 2006). In addition to measuring the success of a lesson based on how closely students meet the learning outcomes of the lesson plan, I have found that setting personal targets for lessons enables me to identify what aspects of teaching I enjoy while allowing me to better identify exactly what I hope to learn from my co-workers.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, effective implementation of intercultural team-taught lessons requires cultural and interpersonal sensitivity, a willingness to compromise and the development of relationships inside and outside the classroom (Carless, 2006). By understanding that in Japan consensus is reached through group discussion, knowing key social discourse markers and actively cultivating a positive rapport with co-workers, it is possible to reduce tension and unease, allowing both parties to fully engage with the task of effectively educating the students.


The linguistic authenticity and cultural knowledge that the ALT brings to the language classroom adds an element of excitement and dynamism that captures the interest of students, motivating them to achieve their language learning goals. Effective team teaching not only benefits students but provides many opportunities for personal and professional development for both HRTs and ALTs. However, the rapid pace of change in the curriculum combined with low English proficiency, lack of training and being required to work with inexperienced ALTs can create high levels of anxiety for elementary school teachers in Japan who are required to teach EFL, resulting in ineffective team-taught lessons.

ALTs can address these issues by first understanding how MEXT’s implementation of the English curriculum has resulted in additional stress and pressure for homeroom teachers. By facilitating the development of HRT English language proficiency, creating low-pressure situations for HRTs to utilize English in the classroom and identifying how individual HRTs’ own teaching careers and experiences may have shaped their attitudes towards EFL, ALTs can strive to create a positive team teaching environment. Additionally, ALTs can look inward, reflect on their own teaching performance and look to expand their own knowledge of EFL theory and practice.

By empathizing, understanding and being informed about the perspectives of their co-workers, ALTs can become empowered by adjusting their own behaviors to better meet the needs of  individual HRTs. You may not be able to change the world with your actions, but you may be able to change your world and the world of the teachers and students around you.

Matthew Potter has taught EFL in Japan since 2011 and works for the Takasaki City Board of Education as an ALT. He is currently undertaking the University of Canterbury’s MATESOL program via distance learning. Matthew’s research interests include team teaching, minority language issues and family language policy. He can be contacted at


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The Not-So Dreaded Introvert

By Heather McCulloch


I was a university student sitting nervously in the office of my professor. She explained to me that she enjoyed having me in her classroom. I was doing well. I got good grades. I was present at every class. I sat right in front and took excellent notes. There was only one problem. I sat there and heard the words that I had heard my entire life. I could predict them. “You really need to participate more in class discussions. I wish that you would speak up more.” My reply, just as predictable: “I’ll try.” But as the words came out of my mouth I knew I was never going to try. I was going to continue to sit in class silently, just as I had for my entire life. I am an introvert. Just like all of my fellow introverts, I sit silently. I listen. I don’t speak. I soak in information. I am an observer, not a participant.

Charles Meisgeir’s research has found that the so-called ideal student is an extrovert (1994). This bias labels introverts as a ‘problem.’ However, a study done by Vernellia Randall (1995) found that introverts tend to get better grades. I was curious about how my own colleagues felt about their quiet students, so I decided to do my own research. I conveyed information about a quiet, presumably introverted, class to some teacher colleagues. I explained how I had a class of 28 quiet science students, but that they were hard working and gentle. The responses that I received included, “Oh, yuck. I’d die,” and, “Why can’t people just speak?” Even though these responses were foreseeable, they still broke my heart. Is that what my teachers said about me?

In this article, I would like to explain what an introvert is and to reflect on my own experiences of being an introverted language learner. Finally, I will detail some ways to adjust your lesson plans and teaching methodology in order to bring the best out of the introverts in your classroom.

The introverted mind

The Myers-Briggs Foundation explains how introverts think:

I like getting my energy from dealing with the ideas, pictures, memories, and reactions that are inside my head, in my inner world. I often prefer doing things alone or with one or two people I feel comfortable with. I take time to reflect so that I have a clear idea of what I’ll be doing when I decide to act. Ideas are almost solid things for me. Sometimes I like the idea of something better than the real thing.

Susan Cain further describes introverts by saying, “They listen more than they talk, think before they speak, and often feel as if they express themselves better in writing than in conversation. They tend to dislike conflict. Many have a horror of conflict but enjoy deep discussions” (2012). Introverts also need time to reflect, think before they speak and choose who they open up to carefully. Introverts are overwhelmed by outside stimulus and need time alone, some more than others, to refresh.

Just as introverts recharge in a different way, they also learn in a different way. Introverts refer to information that is kept in their long-term memory (Laney, 2002). Consequently, they need more time to elicit and process information. Their responses are thoughtful and deliberate. In a second language classroom, they learn by listening and paying close attention to grammar. They prefer to practice one-on-one. They prefer to show their knowledge through writing. They are uncomfortable being singled out even for positive reinforcement. When in a foreign country, introverts are more aware of social norms and non-verbal communication since they are intense observers.

My language learning experiences as an introvert

As a life-long language learner I can draw on my very different experiences with learning. I have studied both Spanish and Japanese. I learned both in different ways, and therefore had very different results. First, I studied Spanish from junior high school and on into university in an extroverted American classroom. Over the course of 10 years my classes included group discussions, whole class discussions and presentations. I loved studying Spanish so much that I chose Spanish literature and culture as my undergraduate major. I started with a positive attitude. I only had a few classmates, so the small class size was comfortable for me, a shy introvert. But all that changed in my second year at university. I had a professor who destroyed my love for learning Spanish. I will refer to this professor as “Dr. Garcia.” I bounced into class on the first day expecting to be reading romantic poems from Spain or Argentina to my new handsome classmate from Panama. But that is not what happened. Dr. Garcia was apparently unaware of how introverts communicate. I still have nightmares of her towering over me saying, “You have to be able to answer questions just like this,” while snapping her fingers in front of my nose. According to the Myers-Briggs based test at, I am 90% introverted. The Big Five Personality Test at gives me an even more meager score of only 6% extroverted which means I cannot answer questions as quickly as snapping one’s fingers in my native language, much less my second. Fortunately, the assignments in my Spanish literature class were mostly written. This allowed me to demonstrate my knowledge in a quiet, comfortable way. On the other hand, my grades always suffered from a low participation score which made up 10% of my grade. Still, to this day, every time I try to speak Spanish I hear Dr. Garcia’s voice in my head. I shy away from speaking Spanish and that really saddens me since I once loved learning it so much.

Learning Japanese was a different experience. I learned on my own with textbooks quietly in my own apartment. I was able to choose what I wanted to learn and how I learned it. I was not in a classroom with social classmates who always wanted to be the first one to speak. Studying with classmates who were eager to contribute was both a gift and a curse. In some ways this saved me from having to speak. I needed more reflection time, and consequently I would have the perfect response several days later. In other ways, I felt this was a curse. Because I rarely spoke, I appeared as if I had nothing to say. I had something to say, but it needed to be thoroughly thought out. In contrast, I loved studying grammar and vocabulary on my own. I loved comparing similar words and understanding how to use them. I lived in Japan so I had a lot of opportunities to practice, and I was able to determine when I was ready to try out a new word or phrase. I am an observer, so I enjoyed seeing the nuances of both verbal and non-verbal communication. I relied on a textbook for knowledge, and I practiced by talking to myself in my apartment. Yes, introverts often talk to themselves. When I felt confident enough, I would take my new skills out to a restaurant or supermarket to try them out. Therefore, I had more confidence in Japanese because of my positive learning experience.


The San Jose Mercury News (1998) reported that teachers and professors in the United States were perplexed by the silence of their Asian students. Preferring thinking to talking seems to apply to most of Asia as seen in an article by Heejung Kim, a cultural psychologist at Stanford University. In her article, she discusses the trouble American teachers have with quiet Asian students. She concludes that “…perhaps making students speak up in class might not be the only way to make them better thinkers for the colleges who are concerned about East Asian students’ silence. Another way might be for the colleges to realize that the meaning of students’ silence can be the engagement in thoughts, not the absence of ideas. Perhaps instead of trying to change their ways, colleges can learn to listen to their sound of silence” (2002). Personally, I would also make this same argument for western introverts like myself. I wish that someone had told Dr. Garcia about this article. It might be advantageous for teachers to see silence as fruitful. Being quiet and reserved might be cultural for some and a preference for others. Either way, introspection allows us to look with and find our creative minds.

The question is how does one reach a student who is, on the outside, silent and seemingly emotionless? How can a teacher instill a love for English in their introverted students? The most important thing to remember is that you will not get the best from an introvert by forcing them to participate in large group settings. When asking a question in class, allow students time to reflect before answering. Introverts need time to recall information stored deep in their long-term memories. A short pause before answering a question gives students enough time to construct an answer that clearly displays their thoughts and feelings. As much as possible, give students questions or discussion topics ahead of time.

Be mindful of how you do group work. Whenever possible, allow students to work alone or in pairs. I do this with my science majors. Some students feel comfortable working alone. The silence gives them the space to be creative and come up with new ideas. Research shows that brainstorming is more beneficial when done alone than in a group. An early study conducted by Marvin Dunnette in 1963 at the University of Minnesota discovered that the best, most creative ideas came when participants did brainstorming alone and later combined their ideas with their peers. One of the most heart-stopping things an introvert could hear in class is, “Find a partner.” If pair work is necessary, it is a good idea to assign partners, number students, or keep the same partner every time. This takes the stress out of having to find new partners for every activity.

If students are not getting enough speaking practice in class, assign conversation buddies. Ask them to practice in pairs weekly outside of class. By speaking to only one person, your introverted student will feel more comfortable and confident to practice new language that they might have picked up in your class.

As a student, I lost so many points for my lack of participation. When grading our students, keep in mind that quality is as important as quantity. The most talkative student does not always have the most creative ideas. There are various ways to think about what participation means. I consider whether a student appears engaged, listens intently, takes notes and talks to a partner when requested. The student might possibly be so interested in what the teacher is saying that they are trying desperately to remember every word. I regularly circle around the class talking to each student individually to get a sense of each students’ thoughts, feelings and concerns. At this time, students can demonstrate how much they are absorbing in the class without the fear of speaking to the entire class.

Allow students to show their personality through writing. This could be done through essays, journals or blogs. Some teachers have found that the use of Twitter and social media is a good way to let their introverts show who they really are. As an assignment, I ask my students to email me during the semester. I also assign journals. These assignments allow introverted students to correspond in a way that is more comfortable for them. I am always amazed at how much students open up when using this method.

Above all, when teaching an introvert, we must be careful with what tone and atmosphere we set in our class. If you constantly try to turn your introvert into an extrovert, you will never be able to see the immense power that an introvert brings to a classroom. It is important to have an attitude of acceptance. When teachers view their students as being lazy or having nothing to say based solely on participation and amount spoken in class, this can have negative consequences in the classroom. If there is a bias held by the teacher that only good students speak, students’ grades could be affected. Furthermore, if the teacher views these students as not performing up to standard, the teachers’ negative attitude will come across to students, pushing introverted students further into their shells.

If your classroom activities are varied, you are more likely to reach all learning styles in the class. Collaborative learning has its place in the classroom, and it is beneficial for both introverts and extroverts. But be careful to plan lessons judiciously and inclusively. By doing this, everyone has a chance to learn and shine.


Our goals as teachers should be to recognize the unique talents of each student and to develop those capabilities. When we focus only on extroverts, the hidden talents of introverts could possibly go unseen. When all students, both introverts and extroverts alike, are allowed and even encouraged to learn and communicate in their own unique style, everyone can benefit. As a teacher, I am grateful for the quick answers given by extroverts. This can shorten the awkward silence teachers sometimes feel while standing in front of a class. On the other hand, introverts offer us deep thought and reflection. Teachers can also appreciate an idea that has been mulled over and crafted into something creative that we have never thought of ourselves.

Next time you come across an introvert in one of your classes, think about some introverts who have been successful in science, entertainment and a host of other areas. They  include: Albert Einstein, J.K. Rowling, Steve Wozniak, Bill Gates, Rosa Parks, Alfred Hitchcock, Dr. Seuss, Helen Hunt and countless others. These people prove that when an introvert is allowed time and space to contemplate, amazing creativity can flourish.

Heather McCulloch was born in Crossville, Tennessee, U.S.A. and received her MA TESOL from Biola University. She has been living and teaching English in Japan for the past 17 years. Her research interests include personality science and language learning styles relating to personality type.


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