Za Katakana-English

By Antonija Cavcic


Is it “Katakana-English” or “Katakana English”? Whichever way one frames it and perceives it, it is unquestionably both liked and loathed and is one of the commonly debated subjects in ESL discourse in Japan, particularly with regard to acquisition of the English sound system. Indeed, the prevalence and practice of Katakana-English pronunciation is often held in a negative light and is frequently criticized for impeding students’ learning. While criticism of this nature tends to come from so-called native speakers, English instructors, or learners concerned about the accuracy or authenticity of their pronunciation, there are also advocates for its use and a distinct market for it in the Japanese publishing industry. Perhaps simply responding to market demands, the publishing industry has arguably played a significant role in perpetuating and encouraging the use of Katakana-English. This paper explores this phenomenon by first tracing the use of Katakana-English in Meiji period school textbooks which are then compared and contrasted with a recent publication from 2016 entitled 怖いくらい通じるカタカナ英語の法則 (Uncannily effective rules of getting by with Katakana-English). Essentially, I attempt to demonstrate how the English language-learning publishing industry in Japan has played a major role in perpetuating pronunciation problems among Japanese ESL learners.


 Just what is Katakana-English? While some people may confuse Katakana-English with 外来語 (gairaigo) or so-called loan words such as インターネット (internet) or トマト (tomato), in this paper I use the term “Katakana-English” to refer to the use of katakana inside the Japanese L2 classroom. In a context of IT inundation and increased internationalization, it is little wonder that loan words comprise 10 to 15% of everyday Japanese vocabulary and 80 to 90% of IT-related vocabulary (Olah, 2007). Assuming that the presence and ongoing adoption of loan words is unlikely to cease, it is thus perhaps not unreasonable to suggest that the adoption of loan words is partly accountable for the perpetuation of Katakana-English. While loan words might be part of the problem, what is more concerning is the ongoing practice of using ふりがな (furigana; i.e. kana characters printed beside words) rather than phonetic spellings as a pronunciation key in texts and social contexts. This custom dates back to the Meiji periodwhen katakana syllabary without a clear purpose after being superseded by hiragana for kanji pronunciationwas pressed into service to represent written Western loan-words (外来語). In ancient Japan, imported Chinese characters formed the foundation of written language, but by the 19th century the Japanese writing system was firmly established and katakana was chosen to replace all written gairaigo (Walker, 2010, p.109). According to Walker, this single decision resulted in three serious consequences: first, the original English word has been removed from cognitive recognition; second, the katakanized word has been branded “forever foreign”; third (and perhaps most damaging communicatively), the katakana script has been used as a pronunciation guide (Walker, 2009, pp.82-85).

Perhaps the use of katakana script as a pronunciation guide is partly related to the lack of emphasis on teaching IPA (International Phonetic Alphabetic system) in Japan. As Wang, et al (2005) pointed out:

In Japan, teaching English pronunciation is not a compulsory subject in schools. It is up to individual schools and English teachers to decide when, if, or how to teach pronunciation. English teachers with good pronunciation and adequate knowledge about how to teach English pronunciation may teach students IPA (International Phonetic Alphabetic system) or some other pronunciation system, while other teachers just use katakana to read and write English pronunciation and many junior high school texts and dictionaries only have katakana pronunciation guides. Also English pronunciation is seldom required in the entrance exam to colleges, so that students do not have the motivation to study English pronunciation. (Wang et al., 2005, p.39)

Wang, Higgins and Shima go on to argue that, “The English of many Japanese learners cannot be understood by non-Japanese speakers because of either poor or Katakana pronunciation,” adding that “Even though a few university English teachers are trying very hard to improve their students’ English pronunciation, many times, the effects are limited,” (Wang et al., 2005, p.39). The reasons for this, according to the authors, are that Japanese students who are corrected more frequently than others tend to lose interest in learning pronunciation, private one–to-one pronunciation training is costly, and “pronunciation training is currently delayed beyond the age when children’s tongues and mouth muscles are flexible” (Wang et al., 2005, pp.39-40). If we accept that these circumstances are still valid, then what are the options to learn or improve one’s pronunciation? If we take into account that: 1) schools and institutions do not have a standard or universal method of teaching pronunciation; 2) private lessons are expensive; and 3) the suggestion that Japanese students generally dislike being corrected in front of others, then perhaps one of the major alternative options of learning pronunciation is through self-study—and self-study involves books, software or other applications. More importantly, however, self-study requires tremendous amounts of motivation. For that reason, players in the self-study industry in Japan have tried to address this problem by marketing self-study as something fun, easy and effortless.

Take for example, Everyday English ( Upon accessing the website, the first thing one sees on the top page is a large banner which boasts that Everyday English has been providing “Japan’s leading English Education Materials for Seven Consecutive Years.” It also makes claims such as, “一日たった5分聞くだけ英語が聞き取れる・話が通じる“(Just listen for five minutes a day and your listening comprehension and ability to express yourself in English will improve.) The focus is on the learning process being easy, relaxing, and seemingly passive. This is reinforced by one of the customer testaments made on the YouTube video embedded on Everyday English’s website: “One of the important things is the easiness […] Many Japanese people make effort to study English very ‘stuffly’ […] The most important thing is the easiness of learning” (エブリデイイングリッシュ,2012).

Thus, in order to respond to this and various other consumer concerns/demands, Everyday English has provided the following solutions or selling points on its website (see source text in Figure 1):

Everyday English

Figure 1: Everyday English Selling Points (Everyday English, 2017)

  • I can’t pick up what people are saying à You’ll listen to two individual voices in a short conversation and you’ll start to pick up what they’re saying. You’ll increase your vocabulary, too!
  • I can’t speak à You’ll pick up expressions frequently used by foreigners in no time!
  • People can’t understand what I’m saying à You’ll be able to produce clear and authentic pronunciation—just like a native speaker!
  • I can’t make conversation à You’ll learn simple and useful expressions applicable to many situations.
  • I’ll end up forgetting everything I learned à Don’t worry! Because you’ll be listening every day, you’ll maintain your English skills.

In addition, Everyday English notes reveals its three secrets to success—that is, just listen and learn, no texts necessary; listen to native speakers speaking at natural speeds; use frequently used English in situations where you are most likely to use English such as for travelling purposes, omotenashi purposes, business, passing tests, listening to Western music, and so on (Everyday English, 2017).

Everyday secrets

Figure 2: Everyday English Secrets (Everyday English, 2017)

Although it sounds rather ideal and attractive, it is certainly a questionable method in terms of its effectiveness. Needless to say, this is not a stand-alone case. This is simply one example of a self-study service in a publishing industry such services and products.

While these kinds of products are readily available online or in bookstores that are simply responding to market demands, universities also provide a number of such texts. For an example, I chose the most recently published from over 20 listening and pronunciation-related books available at Asia University’s library. Published in 2016, 発音とスペルの法則: 英語の教師・学習者のために (The rules for spelling and pronunciation: For English instructors and learners) seems to be a reasonable title on the premise that there are certain rules and patterns which pertain to spelling and pronunciation. However, opening the text reveals quite a number of chapters and pages that rely heavily on kana pronunciation guides. Considering that this text was found in a university library, I anticipated that major bookstore chains would stock such items to a greater extent. To ascertain this, I visited one of the most prevalent secondhand bookstores in Japan, Book Off. A quick glance at the English textbook shelf revealed that the same kind of fare was available at popular book vendors.

However, the emphasis on ease of study and effortless improvement seems to be reinforced more extremely by titles such as: 先端脳科学者による一ヶ月簡単英会話脳トレ (Easy English conversation brain training in a month according to a leading neuroscientist), 3単語ですぐ話せる (Learn how to speak immediately using just three words), 中学レベルの英単語でネイティブとペラペラ話せる本 (Speak fluently with native speakers using Junior High School-level vocabulary) or 絵で見てパッ!と言う英会話トレーニング  (Speak everyday English instantly through pictures). Easy, quickly, and fluently. That seems to be the emphasis in the self-study industry, but how is it relevant to the use of ever-present Katakana-English? Simply put, Katakana-English is easy and comfortable for Japanese learners. , when reading a beginner’s Japanese textbook for the first time, most European learners of Japanese will probably encounter ローマ字 (Romanized Japanese characters) in the textbook and/or a large chunk of the textbook might be written in Japanese, but there are vital issues such as accuracy and authenticity which accompany Japanese textbooks written in ロマー字. In the initial stages of language learning, it might be acceptable as a transition tool, but as students develop, I argue that authentic L2 pronunciation training and textual input should be emphasized. While the use of ローマ字 Japanese textbooks or Katakana-English in contemporary English textbooks is not uncommon, what was the situation like over 100 years ago when Katakana-English flourished in Meiji period English textbooks and language learning resources?

Overview of texts employing Katakana-English in the Meiji Period

To see how Katakana-English has influenced the publishing industry in present day Japan, it is essential to track back to the days when English education in Japan was in its infancy – in the Meiji period. Even at that time, quite a number of texts were available not only to instructors, school, college or university students, but some books were also available to the average consumer. In any case, the first of the texts I selected, 英語発音秘訣 (English pronunciation tips) was written and published by Kikuchi Takenobu and published in 1886.

Figure 3

Figure 3: Oral Diagram II


Figure 4

Figure 4: Kana Pronunciation Notes

Figure 3 is one of the excerpts from the text which seems to indicate that the text might have some linguistic merit, or at least suggest that the text is encouraging learners to produce authentic or intelligible pronunciation of English sounds. However, the kana pronunciation guides which start to appear further into the text seem to nullify any attempts to encourage students to strive for accuracy or produce a variety of sounds (see Figure 4).

The second text in my sample, 和英発音原理 (The principles of English pronunciation) was written and published by Ikeda Tomoyasu in 1888. At first glance, the title seems to imply that the text is possibly based on linguistic theory or empirical studies in the field. Furthermore, much like the former text, the oral diagrams at the beginning of the text seem promising and useful, however the inclusion of pinyin-like diacritical marks, as well as katakana further into the text, just seem to complicate things on the learner’s part (see Figures 5 to 7). Needless to say, Chinese was learned long before English was introduced in Japan and Sino-Japanese relations were significant in the late 19th century, so it is understandable why a pinyin-like guide to pronunciation might have been applied.

Figure 5 edit

Figure 5: Ikeda’s Oral Diagram I


Figure 6 edit

Figure 6: Ikeda’s Oral Diagram II


Figure 7 edit

Figure 7: Ikeda’s Oral Diagram III

While the texts introduced thus far seemed to market themselves on their scientific foundations, Imamura Gentarou’s Practical English Conversation (1899) appears to have targeted a more general market. However, upon reading the text, the results reveal otherwise. First and foremost, the Japanese title (英和実用会話: 簡易速成) is somewhat different from the English translated title, as it suggests that the reader can learn practical English quickly and easily. The introduction to the text further emphasizes the need to study “easy and practical” English in the late 19th century (see Figure 8).

Figure 15

Figure 8: Imamura’s Introduction


Figure 16

Figure 9: Katakana Chart


Figure 10

Figure 10: Spelling Chart

Essentially, the book starts by introducing a Romanized katakana chart followed by a spelling guide featuring some phonics, which are all complemented with katakana pronunciation guides (see Figure 9 and 10).

After several pages of these pronunciation guides, the book then introduces basic vocabulary sets such as numbers, pronouns, prepositions, and greetings. This is then followed by more specific vocabulary sets such as terms of address and vocabulary used specifically for business and trade purposes. Unsurprisingly, katakana and errors are everywhere to be seen (see Figure 11).

Figure 19

Figure 11: Vocabulary Set


Figure 20

Figure 12: Short Phrases


About soldier.png

Figure 13: Dialogues

Aside from the use of kana in vocabulary sets, there are also sentences in the “short phrases” section written entirely in katakana (see Figure 12). Themes and contexts include talking about the weather, shopping, illness, telling the time, and making future plans, and so on. The overt reliance on kana and the lack of explanations of either grammar or form arguably imply that the focus is not on mastering the basics of the language for sustainable language acquisition. Rather, the focus is simply on rote learning and reproducing.

Further into the text there is a dialogues section. Once again, the example sentences are supplemented with full sentences of kana for pronunciation guidance. Dialogue contexts include at the hatter’s, at the tailor’s, at a shipping broker, at a play-things shop, at a fruit shop, asking a way (asking for directions), and similar situations one might encounter when travelling or living abroad. While not all contexts may have been relevant, many of them were fairly plausible situations, considering that the book was published at a time when a number of students and scholars were studying abroad in England or serving in the military between the Sino-Japanese war and the Boxer Rebellion. To cater for the latter type of students, less general dialogue contexts include talking about a soldier (Figure 13) or a police man. Evidently some dialogues were rather lengthy and arguably impractical—reinforcing that the emphasis is on simply rote learning the katakana pronunciations.

Towards the end of the book, a guide for letter writing is included. Rather surprisingly, even the template for writing letters placed katakana above every lexical item. The purpose of this seems a little unclear since letter writing generally does not involve articulation. In any case, after this section, the text ends abruptly with the Romanized forms of common Japanese names, names of prefectures, towns, and currencies.

Perhaps the author and publisher had legitimate reasons to select the specific content I noted and present it in an arbitrary fashion, but rather than being concerned about the content or structure of the text, I am concerned about the overwhelming use of katakana, the simplified spelling chart, and the assumption that one can drastically improve one’s speaking and pronunciation skills through rote learning of katakana-ized phrases. Although not entirely impossible, self-study is arguably not the best way to improve one’s conversation and pronunciation skills. Having said that, if we take into account the context, specifically, the fact that many students in pre-war Japan were learning English for military or trade purposes (and quickly at that), then this text may well have been a valuable resource for them. In addition, given that Japanese education has roots in Confucian culture, rote learning is still emphasized and practiced in many learning contexts even to this day. Due to these reasons, I argue that the supply and demand of these simplified speed-learning texts has probably been consistent for over the last 150 years or so.

Contemporary self-study pronunciation texts

Having considered several texts from the Meiji period, let us now turn to the current situation in the self-study publishing scene in Japan. Have texts or people’s attitudes towards language learning changed? At least we can acknowledge there are a great variety of texts and learning tools available now, but as I will demonstrate, there are the exceptional few authors whose attitudes have not changed. These are the people who perpetuate speed-learning culture and even take pride in maintaining the Katakana-English tradition. One of these authors and one of these texts is the aforementioned怖いくらい通じるカタカナ英語 (Uncannily effective rules of getting by with Katakana-English) written by Ikegaya Yuji and published by Kodansha in late 2016. However, prior to examining the text itself, it is necessary to briefly consider the author’s background. Believe it or not, Ikegaya holds a Ph.D. in pharmacology and is currently employed as a professor in the same field at Tokyo University. He studied abroad in New York for two and a half years and his experience of being unable to both comprehend and produce naturally-spoken English was the inspiration for this book.

Also, there is a disclaimer section in the introduction where Ikegaya claims three things: 1) That being born and raised in Japan, it is too late for him to cultivate and produce authentic English pronunciation (a belief based on scientific evidence), so he can only produce a katakana accent; 2) Due to the reasons in 1), his pronunciation is beyond repair and incomprehensible; and 3) Despite 1) and 2), he found that when he changed the katakana characters slightly, his English apparently became more intelligible (2016, p.7). He goes on to admit that he is not an English professor, nor did he receive any special English education. Therefore, the methods of pronouncing Katakana-English introduced in his book are, by his admission, not perfect and the book itself is not suitable as an English textbook or for students taking English exams. Nevertheless, Ikegaya still believes that it is a suitable resource for Japanese EFL learners who want to be understood by Americans and/or communicate and sound like near-native speakers, even if they are not perfect (2016, p.7; p.37). He understands that linguists believe that Katakana-English is a terrible way to learn pronunciation, but defends his stance by stating that he is not aiming for perfection – he is merely “giving a gift” to absolute beginners of English or people like him, who have simply given up hope on being able to converse smoothly and accurately (2016, p.8). He believes it is futile to strive for perfection, therefore using Katakana-English is apparently acceptable. In fact, Ikegaya even claims, without providing any references, that the neural circuits of Japanese brains were not built for English pronunciation. In all honesty, Ikegaya knows that his methods will be criticized and “made fun of,” but he insists that it is simply because people who are good at English do not understand the feelings of those who are not (2016, p.31).

Ikegaya then starts the book by offering advice to his readers. First, in order for these absolute beginners and hopeless learners to overcome their issues with communicating in English, Ikegaya argues that they have to reset everything they have been taught about English and deeply consider the notion that Katakana-English might actually be a good thing. Once learners grasp this, according to Ikegaya, they will maintain their motivation levels and continue practicing enthusiastically. But how long can one practice enthusiastically or maintain these levels of motivation? According to Ikegaya, readers should practice the same example sentences 70 times (2016, p.9).  He does so without justifying why. Although subject to debate, I find this boot camp-like approach to language learning hardly sustainable for most learners.

In Part II and Part III of the book, Ikegaya covers what he calls a “Practical English course for beginners” in which phrases are arbitrarily introduced. There is very little structure, if any. Furthermore, the English introduced is largely casual and colloquial and localized to reflect various situations one might encounter in New York which. In regards to the slight alterations to the Katakana-English that Ikegaya makes, it is obvious that he has made the alterations based on a typical New York accent. While that may be resourceful for those living or moving to New York, it does not really cater for people who need to be able to understand a variety of English speakers. Take, for instance, the following excerpt (Figure 14) where you can see some examples of this particular variant of Katakana-English. For example, becomes ナラロウ(nararou). Furthermore, on each page, there is also a QR code that connects the reader to the MP3 recordings of the phrases being spoken by a Japanese learner and a so-called native speaker.

Figure 22

Figure 14: Beginner’s Course

After pages of these collections of arbitrary phrases, Part IV becomes even more problematic. In this section, Ikegaya introduces and explains 13 specific rules that must be learned and drilled. There are also four supplementary rules thatcover exceptions and irregular pronunciations. However, before covering the supplementary rules, I will provide a brief overview of the 13 rules, followed by the rather challenging practice questions (Figures 15 and 16).

Figure 23

Figure 15: Ikegaya’s 13 Rules


Figure 24

Figure 16: Practice Questions

In numerical order:

  1. The (L) at the end of a word should be pronounced as (ウ);
  2. (A) should be pronounced as (エア);
  3. (-ION) ending words should be pronounced as (シュン);
  4. (T) ending words should simply drop the (T);
  5. (O) is (ア);
  6. (I) should be pronounced as (エ);
  7. (T) sounds should borrow katakana from the (ラ/RA-RO group);
  8. (US) should be pronounced as (エス);
  9. (アー/ɜː) should be pronounced as (ウオア);
  10. (アー) at the end of a sentence should be pronounced as (オ);
  11. With words that end in (NT), drop the (T);
  12. (W) should be pronounced as (ウウ); and
  13. With words ending in (-TANT), only the (N) is slightly voiced.

After studying these rules, readers are then encouraged to attempt the “Practice Questions” (Figure 23). For example, instead of “ボストン” (Boston), the Ikegaya-recommended pronunciation is “バッスン.” Debatable to say the least, but as the disclaimer reminds us, this is not a work of linguistic merit.

Now aside from the 13 “standard” rules that Ikegaya provides, he also acknowledges that there are exceptions – four of them, to be precise. The first is the notorious /L/ and /R/problem. Ikegaya claims that the Japanese brain cannot differentiate between /L/ and /R/ very well, and he adds that to aim for perfection is simply impossible (2016, p.165). Again, he argues this without providing empirical evidence or studies to substantiate his claims. On a positive note, for the first time in the book, Ikegaya explains (without diagrams) how to produce the (L) and (R) sounds, respectively. (L), he says, can be produced by simply biting one’s tongue, whereas (R) can be produced by keeping one’s tongue suspended in one’s mouth, not touching anything at all. The second exception is the (B) and (V) problem. Ikegaya suggests that (B) is equivalent to the バ行 (ba, bi, bu, be, bo row) in Japanese, while (V) is produced by biting the lower lip. He further adds that it is understandable if learners cannot tell the difference between (B) and (V), but notes that ヴ is a better alternative when producing (V) sounds. For example, village =ヴエレッジ. The third exception to his rules is related to the trouble many Japanese learners of English have with distinguishing (F) from (H) sounds. For Ikegaya, (F) is simply produced by biting one’s lower lip, while (H) is equivalent to the ハ行 (ha, hi, fu, he, ho row) in Japanese. Rather simplistic considering the pronunciation of フ (fu) is quite different than (hʊ). For instance, the word “hook” would still be pronounced as “フック.” The final exception Ikegaya touches on is one of the most notoriously difficult to pronounce, the (TH) sound. This is probably the first time in the book that the phonetic symbols are introduced: namely, Θ and ð. In spite of this, Ikegaya suggests that the standardザ (“za”, the common katakanization of the word “the”) should be traded for ダ, and therefore using the タ orダ行 (‘ta’ and ‘da’ rows, respectively) will suffice to produce (TH) sounds as long as one bites their tongue. Considering the variety of Englishes one may be exposed to living or working in a globalized context, this is perhaps one of the more useful rules. Taking into account the difficulty that many learners of English with Asian language backgrounds have with (TH), I would argue that this rule is fairly reasonable, but not a standard by any means.

After the introduction of the aforementioned rules, in the last part of the book, Ikegaya discusses his various views on language acquisition, making a lot of commonsensical and also a lot of contentious claims along the way. As heavily biased and overly pessimistic his arguments are, it is, however, necessary to cover some of the major claims that Ikegaya makes. They are as follows:

  1. First, he argues that adult beginners give up on the idea of mastering English. For Ikegaya, English is just a tool (2016, p.184). While giving up on perfection is a reasonable suggestion, striving for excellence is not necessarily bad.
  2. Although the Katakana-English method may be considered an easy way out for people who are not particularly good at speaking English, Ikegaya argues that it does involve a lot of hard work. Namely, one has to repeat the phrases 70 times (2016, p.197). Again, no empirical evidence or reasoning behind this required number is outlined.
  3. Children should be exposed to English from a very young age if they have any hope in becoming better English speakers. For Ikegaya, once you get old, it is “too late.” (2016, pp.178-179, p.207) The former claim holds some validity, but the latter claim is certainly debatable. For some, it is never too late to learn a language—it just requires more effort.
  4. Japanese learners cannot differentiate between (R) and (L) sounds because there is no (L) in Japanese. Furthermore, due to a lack of exposure to (L) and contexts in which one can practice or use it, as an evolutionary phenomenon, Japanese people’s ability to pick up or distinguish (L) devolved (2016, p.165). Evidently, Ikegaya’s claims seem to be informed by evolutionary theory and biological determinism. The problem with this is that he denies the argument that newborns have the ability to pick up a variety of phonetic input and listen for phonetic detail (Werker and Tees, 2014, p.509). Everyone is arguably born with this capability, but exposure to linguistic input is necessary to develop these skills. It is quite problematic to assume that Japanese children are born with the ability to only hear Japanese sounds.


Without needlessly searching for, let alone reading contemporary speed-learning texts, it is evident that there is a market for them and that they continue to be published. In all fairness, would it not be nice to learn another language with little to no effort? While instructors might look down on rote learning and the use of Katakana-English, it is essential to take into account the learners’ needs, the English language learning environment in Japan, and the publishing industry’s response to its consumers needs. On this note, and in short, what I have tried to argue in this paper is that the publishing industry in Japan is partly responsible for perpetuating ザ ・カタカナ・イングリシュー. However, this is possibly due to the fact that there is a great demand for it and unfortunately, it seems like the respective supply of speed learning materials advocating the use of Katakana-English pronunciation seems to show no signs of slowing. While this is beyond the control of English instructors, what they can do is try to understand their students’ needs, maximize the time spent on pronunciation in class, and stress the importance of producing intelligible English. As futile as it may be to simply undo a tradition of Katakana-English pronunciation spanning over a century, striving to produce intelligible (if Katakanized) English is at least a feasible pursuit.

Originally from the state which boasts the happiest animal on earth – Western Australia, Antonija Cavcic is currently a visiting faculty member at Asia University. Although she finally completed her PhD in late 2017 (and is in desperate need of a break), Antonija remains involved in research concerning both Japanese popular culture and English language education in Japan.


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The Takasaki Plan: Homeroom Teachers’ Perceptions

By Steve Ferrier


When foreign language activities became compulsory for fifth and sixth grade elementary school students across Japan in 2011, MEXT emphasized communication, not grammar or skills such as reading or writing (Kambaru, 2016). The MEXT Course of Study stated that the objective was:

To form the foundation of pupils’ communication abilities through foreign languages while developing the understanding of languages and cultures through various experiences, fostering a positive attitude toward communication, and familiarizing pupils with the sounds and basic expressions of foreign languages. (MEXT, 2010, as cited in Kambaru, 2016, p. 11)

Therefore, the main focus was on giving fifth and sixth graders a chance to become familiar with English in a casual environment, such as by singing or playing games (Aoki, 2016). The annual number of 45-minute lessons for both fifth and sixth grades was set at 35. Since 2009, English textbooks have been distributed to elementary school students in the fifth and sixth grade. The first textbook, Eigo Note, was used from 2009-2011. In 2012, it was replaced by Hi Friends. Both textbooks supplied teacher manuals, together with DVD-ROMs.

Following this, MEXT published its “Execution Plan for the Reform of English Education in Response to Globalization” in December, 2013 (Kambaru, 2016). Under the proposal, MEXT will upgrade English to an official subject in the fifth and sixth grades from 2020, after a two-year transition period. Students will study all the English skills – namely speaking, listening, reading, and writing – as well as grammar. The number of classes will increase to three per week. Along with that, foreign language activity classes will become mandatory for third and fourth graders (Aoki, 2016). Therefore, at the present time, whilst fifth and sixth graders are given official lessons in foreign language activities, there exists no official or standardized curriculum for English classes for grades one to four. It is left to each local Board of Education, and by extension, to each school, to design and implement their own curriculums and lesson plans for those lower grades.

The Takasaki Plan

English has been taught as an unofficial subject or as a foreign language in Takasaki elementary schools for a number of years. The classes were usually team-taught by an Assistant Language Teacher (ALT) and a homeroom teacher (HRT). However, the frequency and content of the lessons varied according to both the school and the grade. Before 2009, most ALTs worked at junior high schools and were sent to elementary schools a handful of times every year, for a period of one or two weeks each time. Therefore, students in many elementary schools in Takasaki had few chances to be consistently exposed to English or to interact with ALTs. Therefore, students graduating from different elementary schools would attend the same junior high school with different levels of English ability. This was a problem that was experienced by both teachers and students across Japan (Ikegashira, Matsumoto & Morita, 2009).

From 2009 however, most elementary schools in Takasaki were visited by an ALT at least once a week, with English being taught to fifth and sixth graders for 35 lessons a year using the Eigo Note textbook. Therefore, fifth and sixth graders were now learning English from a standardized curriculum. Grades one to four also had English lessons (at a much lower frequency than grades five and six) but there was still no standardized curriculum for these lower grades. Instead, each school had its own lesson plans.

In 2015, the Takasaki Board of Education announced that it would implement a standardized English curriculum for all grades in Takasaki elementary schools from April 2016. First to fourth graders would have one English lesson per week. Fifth and sixth graders would have two English lessons per week. The curriculum became known as the “Takasaki Plan”. Whilst almost all elementary schools in Takasaki would use the Takasaki Plan it was not compulsory for them to do so. Rather, the Takasaki Plan was seen as a sample curriculum that could be adjusted depending on the level of the students in each school. In addition to this, Takasaki also greatly increased their number of ALTs to a current total of 84, one for each elementary, junior high and high school under the auspices of the Takasaki Board of Education.  Indeed, some elementary schools at present have two ALTs, who divide the workload of teaching English to all the grades in the school.

The lesson plans for grades one to four were based on the Jonan Elementary School English syllabus. Jonan was seen as a benchmark for elementary school English classes in Takasaki, and ALTs visited once a year to observe, participate in, and discuss lessons. After adopting the Jonan elementary school English syllabus, the Takasaki Board of Education stated that the goal for first to fourth grade students was to become familiar with English as a foreign language. For example, students should be able to understand the differences between Japanese and English sounds and be able to feel foreign cultures and have an understanding of them. First and second graders should try to imitate the pronunciation of certain words that they hear in everyday life and should be able to understand the name in English of certain things around them when they hear them. Third and fourth graders should be able to have a conversation about simple topics and should try to actively connect with each other through simple interaction (Takasaki Board of Education, 2016, p. 7).

The lesson plans for grades five and six were based on the Hi Friends textbook, which was issued by MEXT. A DVD-ROM was also provided that includes chants and alphabet puzzles, along with “jingles” in which students can practice saying the phonetic sounds of each alphabet letter. Fifth and sixth graders would focus on all four English skills. The goals for these upper-grade students included being able to convey their own thoughts and ideas about familiar things using simple expressions, being able to understand simple content by analogy, and being able to read familiar phrases or sentences with the help of pictures, scenes, or speech models. In addition, students should be able to recognize and write all small and capital letters of the alphabet by the end of the sixth grade (Takasaki Board of Education, 2016, p. 7).

The introductory segment for each grade’s lesson plan guide recommended that individual teachers make adjustments to the lesson plans and activities in order to match their students’ level of learning, particularly in grades one to four:

When the content of the plan does not match the actual conditions and/or level of your students’ learning, it is recommended to adjust the activities to suit, either by repeating easier lessons or developing students with a higher level of learning, etc. This will depend on individual students’ abilities. (Takasaki Board of Education, 2016, p. 2)

However, the Takasaki Board of Education also advised that lesson plans for grades five and six should not be adjusted too much because, “If students in each elementary school are not taught in a similar manner, teachers will develop problems with students of the same grade having varying abilities leading to difficulty in teaching English to a common age group” (p.2). Worksheets were also provided for many activities, which could be adjusted by homeroom teachers or ALTs. A song or chant was provided for each lesson in grades one to four and at least one lesson for the lower grades would involve the ALT reading a picture book. As per the Jonan elementary school English syllabus, many of the topics covered were repeated from grades one to four so that students could become increasingly familiar with English expressions and vocabulary. However, whilst the topics were repeated across the grades, the vocabulary and expressions were expanded. Thus, a spiral approach to learning English was used. On the other hand, as stated above, the lesson plans for grades five and six were largely based on the Hi Friends textbook. This created a slight disconnect in that some fifth and sixth grade lesson plans covered material or expressions that students had already been exposed to in the lower grades, such as numbers. However, the Takasaki Board of Education explained that,

Some activities in the 5th and 6th grade may appear easier than the ones in 4th grade, this is because 5th and 6th grade students are required to be able to speak or understand the language and its expressions, and these exercises are used to verify this. 1st to 4th grade students are required to be familiar with the expressions, but not necessarily have a full understanding.” (Takasaki Board of Education, 2016, p. 2)

Therefore, whilst grades one to four would become increasingly familiar with various vocabulary and expressions, grades five to six would be able to use those vocabulary and expressions to communicate with each other in activities such as interviewing and group presentations.

The Survey

Twelve homeroom teachers at one elementary school in Takasaki were chosen to answer a survey about the Takasaki Plan. The participants’ teaching experience ranged from 3 years to 32 years. All questions except one and three were open ended so that teachers were encouraged to write their own thoughts and opinions. The questions were as follows:

  1. How many years’ experience do you have teaching at the elementary school level?
  2. Do you think it is necessary for students to learn English in elementary school?
  3. What do you think of the Takasaki Plan?
    • Is it easy to understand? (Options: very easy, easy, a little difficult, very difficult)
    • Is it easy to teach? (Options: very easy, easy, a little difficult, very difficult)
    • Is it a suitable level for your students? (Options: very easy, easy, suitable, a little difficult, very difficult)
    • Have your students improved in English? (Options: yes, not really, not at all)
  4. Have you made any adjustments to the lesson plans?
  5. Has your role as a homeroom teacher in English class changed?
  6. What changes would you like to see made to the Takasaki Plan in the future?

The participating teachers wrote their answers in Japanese. Their surveys were then collected and translated into English.

Survey Results and Discussion

The following section provides details of the homeroom teachers’ answers to the survey questions together with the author’s own opinions and suggestions regarding the results.

Q2: Do you think it is necessary for students to learn English in elementary school?
Eleven out of the twelve participants thought that students should learn English in elementary school. One of the reasons given was that elementary school students are more accepting of English than junior high school students and are more motivated to learn. Harmer (2015) states that younger children, from five years upwards, “are enthusiastic about learning (if it happens in the right way),” and “learn best through play and other enjoyable activities” (p.82). Elementary school lessons involve a lot of communicative games and songs in which students can enjoy talking or singing in English. Some teachers also commented that English was a global language and thus Japanese children should start learning and becoming familiar with English from an early age. In this way they could become participants in a global society. If Japanese children are exposed to English at an early age and their interest in foreign languages and cultures is stimulated, there is a strong possibility that they will continue to be interested and motivated to learn English and to travel abroad as well as interact with foreigners in Japan. In this way, Japan can have increasingly strong connections with a global society.

Only one participant answered that they did not think it was necessary for elementary school students to learn English. This homeroom teacher believed that students should focus more on Japanese, including writing Kanji and expressing themselves in their native language. According to Aoki (2016), “[…] discussions on the issue through the 1990s found many people opposed to teaching English in elementary school because they thought it would confuse children who hadn’t even learned their mother tongue yet.” It must be recognized that learning how to communicate in one’s mother tongue is crucial to a young person’s development. However, it must also be noted that homeroom teachers spend most of the day with their students and a strong bond develops between them. The classroom atmosphere or the students’ motivation may be affected if the homeroom teacher is not motivated to use English or fails to see any reasons to teach it. There is little option but to respect the opinions of all teachers and to have open dialogues with them on the topic of teaching English in elementary school.

Q3: What do you think of the Takasaki Plan?
Eleven out of the twelve participants answered that the syllabus was both easy to teach and easy to understand. One teacher responded that the syllabus was difficult to understand and another teacher stated that it was difficult to teach. All lesson plans for each grade have detailed explanations of activities, together with vocabulary and expressions to be taught. The structure of most lessons is consistent in that a song or chant is followed by a warm-up activity, introduction or review of vocabulary or expressions, and finally one or two main activities. The aim of the lesson is highlighted, which allows HRTs to write it on the blackboard at the beginning of the lesson so that students can understand what they will be focusing on. In turn, students also write the aim of the lesson on their reflection cards, called furikaeri, and at the end of the lesson they write what they learnt or enjoyed doing. However, there are some lesson plans in which the activity is too detailed or difficult to understand in both the Japanese and English versions of the syllabus. If teachers are confused as to how to do an activity then the students may in turn be at a loss which can lead to frustration or loss of confidence and motivation. Therefore, it is necessary for HRTs and ALTs to have regular meetings to discuss the lesson plans and to make adjustments if necessary. What must be stressed is the great benefit of having a standardized curriculum. ALTs and HRTs from different schools can now meet to discuss the same lesson plans or share adjustments they made, either in person, or in online discussion groups. Both ALTs and HRTs can improve their classes with feedback from their peers. In addition, the Takasaki Plan should be edited on a regular basis with input from both HRTs and ALTs to amend the details of some lesson plans.

There was less agreement on whether the level of the syllabus was suitable for the students. One participant said that the level was easy; six others stated that the level was suitable; and five teachers answered that the level was difficult. In public elementary schools, ability can vary a great deal between classes and individual students. What one student finds too easy may leave another student frustrated because he or she cannot understand. Therefore, it should be left to each HRT’s discretion (in consultation with the ALT) whether to adjust the vocabulary, expressions or activities in each lesson plan since they know their students much better than the ALT who only visits each class once or twice a week.

There was also no real consensus on whether the students had improved in English since the implementation of the Takasaki Plan. Seven teachers said that their students had improved, whilst four teachers said they had not really improved. One teacher did not answer. The Takasaki Plan is only in its second year of use and therefore more time is needed to ascertain if students have improved their English skills. Without doubt, elementary school students in Takasaki have much more exposure to English than previously, and this should lead to a greater familiarity with English and a greater confidence to use the language to communicate with others, even with very simple greetings and phrases. Moreover, with a standardised curriculum, sixth graders across Takasaki should be able to write and read both small and capital letters of the alphabet, as well as understand the phonetic sound of each letter. This should make them better prepared for the first grade of junior high school compared to previous years when a wide discrepancy in the amount of English taught in each school resulted in elementary school graduates with considerable variances in their English abilities.

Q4: Have you made any adjustments to the lesson plans?
Some teachers have been making adjustments to the lesson plans detailed in the syllabus. Four teachers stated that they select some activities that their students particularly enjoy and use them on multiple occasions. For example, activities such as the missing game and karuta can be used for many sets of vocabulary. One teacher commented that they sometimes change some details or steps in an activity if they think their students would find it too difficult to understand. Two more teachers stated that they consult with the ALT and other homeroom teachers in the grade before making any adjustments to the lesson plan such as changing some vocabulary or adjusting a worksheet. In the elementary school where the survey was conducted, the homeroom teachers of each grade have weekly meetings with the ALT to discuss the upcoming lessons. The Takasaki Plan does allow for some flexibility in its lesson plans. What is important is that HRTs and ALTs have regular meetings to discuss what adjustments are to be made. However, as the Takasaki Board of Education advised, fifth and sixth grade lesson plans should not be adjusted too much since the aim should be to have sixth graders graduating from elementary school with similar abilities in English.

Q5: Has your role as a homeroom teacher in English class changed?
There were a range of answers to this question. One teacher stated that they were using more English in class such as “Good job,” “Listen carefully,” “Stand up” and “Sit down.” One teacher thought that the HRT’s role is to support the ALT and that it was important that the ALT be an effective teacher. Another teacher commented that the ALT should be the main teacher (T1), but that the HRT should gradually assume the role over time. In addition, one teacher thought that it would be difficult for the HRT to be the T1, but that they should try to lead some lessons or activities. Finally, one teacher stated that the HRT should be the main teacher, with the ALT acting in a supporting role (T2). Many HRTs have very little training in teaching English. According to an education ministry survey in 2015, only 4.9 percent of elementary school teachers were licensed to teach English (Aoki, 2016). In addition, many teachers do not have confidence in speaking English or pronouncing English words since, according to Kambaru (2016), “They learned English through direct deductive explanations of grammar and remembering words one by one in a junior and a senior high school” (p.15). Therefore, it is understandable that some HRTs are anxious about teaching English to their students. However, with the implementation of a detailed syllabus, together with a large increase in the number of lessons, elementary school teachers can become gradually more knowledgeable of simple English vocabulary and expressions. Also, they can become more confident in teaching English, or at least participating more in the lessons. The role of the HRT may change dramatically when English becomes an official subject for fifth and sixth graders from 2020. The HRT may be required to lead the class or specialist teachers of English may teach the classes with an ALT. Until that time, it should be left to each homeroom teacher to define their role in the classroom in relation to the ALT and to discuss this with the ALT.

What is very important is that the HRT be motivated and enthusiastic during the English lesson. As noted above, elementary school students spend the majority of each day with their HRT and are heavily influenced by them. If the HRT is reluctant to participate in the class they can have an adverse effect on their students’ motivation. On the other hand, if the HRT tries to speak English and is not afraid to make mistakes then their students will also likely feel less shy or nervous about using English. MEXT has asserted that homeroom teachers are important in the English classroom as,

Even if they do not speak English fluently, their positive attitude towards interaction through English will serve as an extremely important catalyst to enhance pupils’ interest in foreign languages. (MEXT, 2010, as cited in Kambaru, 2016, p. 17)

Another reason for HRTs not participating fully in the English lesson is that they may feel they have to monitor students’ behaviour and in turn discipline some unruly students so that their class remains focused. This can be a difficult problem to overcome. One suggestion is to have another member of staff monitor the students with behavioural problems so that the HRT can participate more fully in the English activities.

Q6: What changes would you like to see made to the Takasaki Plan in the future?
In response to the last question on the survey, some teachers suggested changes or adjustments to the syllabus. One teacher thought that there should be more listening exercises so that students could improve their comprehension skills. Another teacher commented that there should be more visual aids and more listening resources. The use of visual aids (flashcards or actual physical objects) in the elementary school classroom in any subject is crucial since younger learners are stimulated and motivated by visual materials. Harmer (2015) states that younger children, “use everything in the physical world (what they see, do, hear and touch, etc.) for learning and understanding things” (p. 82). ALTs should be responsible for making flashcards that are both colourful and easy to comprehend. Moreover, some of the worksheets included in the Takasaki Plan can be improved upon by making them more eye-catching with better pictures to capture the students’ interest. Again, this should be the responsibility of the ALT.

Another teacher commented that the ALT should be a trained teacher. There should be more discussion or debate on whether ALTs should be experienced, trained teachers or merely native English speakers keen to introduce their countries’ cultures. No matter how experienced or motivated an ALT is, they should be given opportunities to improve their teaching skills. New ALTs should attend seminars and have regular discussions with more experienced ALTs who can share ideas and teaching methods, either in person or online. Without doubt, a standardized curriculum gives them more opportunities to do this.

Finally, one teacher observed that while students had become used to regular English classes, they were not sure how much English the students were learning or acquiring. This comment brings into question how much English students in Japanese elementary schools should learn or acquire. Certainly, students should be able to read and write the alphabet and understand the phonetic sounds of most letters by the time they enter junior high school. This would give JHS teachers more time to focus on more advanced English in the first grade. Students should also be able to communicate with each other using simple phrases, such as talking about favourite things and daily schedules. Above all, students should be familiar with regular English lessons and feel uninhibited in trying to use English. Finally, it remains to be seen what the effects will be of making English an official subject for fifth and sixth graders from 2020. Specialist Japanese teachers of English (JTEs) may be employed, and there is also the question of how the students will be graded and whether this will affect their motivation and enthusiasm to learn English. Above all, there should be a continuing dialogue between junior high schools and elementary schools, so that students can have a smooth transition in their English learning between the sixth grade and their first year in junior high school.

Concluding remarks

The survey was useful in giving homeroom teachers from one elementary school in Takasaki an opportunity to express their thoughts on the Takasaki Plan and for providing suggestions for the future use of the syllabus. Almost all the teachers thought that students should be learning or becoming familiar with English in elementary school and that the Takasaki Plan was easy to understand and teach. Some teachers thought that the syllabus was not set at a suitable level for their students and therefore they made adjustments to some lesson plans. There were differing viewpoints on the HRT’s role in the English classroom, such as thinking that the ALT should be the main teacher or, on the other hand, commenting that the HRT should be the T1. Finally, some teachers thought that more visual aids and listening resources should be provided so that students are more exposed to the English language and in turn increasingly stimulated and motivated.

A limiting factor of this research was that only twelve participants were selected to answer the survey. In the future, a greater number of homeroom teachers across a range of elementary schools in Takasaki should be interviewed about the Takasaki Plan in order to get a greater consensus or range of opinions.

It is unclear how long the Takasaki Plan will be in use given that MEXT has stated its intention of making English an official subject for fifth and sixth graders (and foreign language activities mandatory for third and fourth graders) from 2020. If an elementary school English curriculum becomes standardized across Japan, the Takasaki Plan may be discontinued. However, it can be strongly argued that the Takasaki Plan, with its easy to follow but flexible lesson plans, has made for smoother English classes in elementary schools. Moreover, with a standardized curriculum, both ALTs and HRTs can discuss the same lesson plans with teachers from different schools across Takasaki.  Mutual feedback amongst teachers can only lead to better lessons for their students. No syllabus is ever perfect and every syllabus should be constantly evaluated and revised in order to make it better for both teachers and students. This should be the case for the Takasaki Plan for as long as it is in use.


Aoki, M. (2016). English Heads for Elementary School in 2020 but Hurdles Abound. The Japan Times, 5 September 2016.

Harmer, J. (2015).  The Practice of English Language Teaching (5th ed.). Pearson.

Ikegashira A., Matsumoto, Y. & Yoshiko M. (2009). English Education in Japan – From Kindergarten to University. In: Reinelt, R. (Ed.) (2009). Into the Next Decade with (2nd) FL Teaching. Rudolft Reinelt Research Laboratory EU Matsuyama, Japan, pp. 16-40.

Kambaru, A. (2016). Japanese Elementary School Teachers’ Perceptions About English Teaching. The Tsuru University Review, no.83 (March, 2016), pp. 11-18.

Takasaki Board of Education (2016). Elementary School English & Foreign Language Activities Teaching Plan (高崎市小学校英語科・外国活動指導計画). 

Steve Ferrier is an ALT working for the Takasaki Board of Education.  He will be starting work as a lecturer at Gunma Women’s University from April 2018. His research interests include motivation, critical thinking, and the use of visual media in the English classroom. He holds a Master of Arts in Screen and Media. He can be contacted at

The Nitty-Gritty of English Phonetics for Japanese Learners of English

By Hideto D. Harashima


English and Japanese are two languages that are quite different from each other in regard to the speech sounds. There are a number of small differences Japanese learners of English should pay attention to as they study the sounds of English. However, the key elements peculiar to the English sound system are not numerous. In what follows, the author will introduce the nitty-gritty of English phonetics—the essential, yet often neglected points in English instruction in Japan.


The aspiration added to word-initial voiceless plosive consonants in English are often ignored by Japanese speakers. It is not a phonemic factor in that it doesn’t make a difference in meaning, but it is an important element of native-like articulation of English.

Alveolar–coronal configuration
Japanese speakers are usually not aware of the existence of the alveolar ridge in the upper jaw, nor do they consciously utilize the tip of the tongue when they are speaking Japanese. However, they need to be fully aware of the connection between the tongue apex and the alveolar ridge when speaking English. For example, when pronouncing the Japanese [t̪], the tongue blade roughly touches the back of the upper teeth and the alveolar ridge, but the English [t] requires the tongue apex to be pressed precisely against the alveolar ridge. This fact is not recognized by many Japanese speakers.

Word-final consonants
Word-final obstruent consonants such as the [t] in “night” are pronounced as naught [nai], or with a redundant vowel [naito] by most Japanese speakers, but the coda consonants play an important role in identifying the words. They also gleam when we appreciate songs and poems with rhymes. This is one area Japanese speakers must work harder on.


It is vaguely taken for granted that English has more vowel phonemes than Japanese, but ordinary Japanese speakers do not know exactly how many and what kind of phonemes there are in English unless they take a formal lesson in English phonetics. English has 11 to 13 (depending on regional varieties and individuals) vowel phonemes compared to the Japanese five, so English has more than double the number. It is therefore important for Japanese speakers to consciously make efforts to double their vowel inventory.

Uncultivated areas
Another fact to note is that there are certain areas in the oral cavity that Japanese speakers do not normally use when they speak only Japanese. Figure 1 shows the English and Japanese vowels mapped on the vowel square. As we can see, the three circled corners are the areas that have no counterparts in Japanese. Therefore, Japanese speakers must intentionally move their tongue into these areas to enunciate the target English vowels.

Figure 1: English and Japanese vowels in the vowel square

Lip rounding
Among the three corner vowels mentioned above is a high-back vowel, [u]. There are few Japanese speakers who are aware of the difference between the Japanese ウ [ɨ] (or [ɯ]) and the English [u]. The Japanese [ɨ] is a “flat-lip” /u/, whereas the English [u] is a “rounded-lip” /u/. The sound quality difference between the two vowels is more striking than we may think. Look at Figure 2 for a sound spectrogram of the two vowels pronounced by the author.

Figure 2: The sound spectrogram of Japanese [ɨ] (left) and English [u] (right).

As may be obvious, the Japanese [ɨ] has more overtones, or harmonics, than the English [u]. These overtones are of a non-integral order. Overtones of non-integral order make the base note sound muggier, rougher, and softer (Nakamura, 2010, p. 24). The English [u], with fewer overtones, sounds purer and more ringing. Speakers of Japanese must consciously round their lips when they pronounce this sound.

Tense/lax vowels
The difference between [i] and [ɪ], as in “beat” and “bit,” is usually discerned by ordinary Japanese speakers as the difference in vowel length, with the former being longer than the latter. However, the author believes this is the result of a fault in Japanese English education. Japanese educational systems have traditionally adopted “quantitative transcription” of English sounds, where the word “beat” is transcribed as [bi:t] in which the [:] stands as a symbol for lengthening the preceding vowel. This is thought to be one of the root causes for Japanese speakers being unable to acquire good English vowel sounds (Lewis, 1972, 1975; Walsh, 1974). Adopting “qualitative transcription,” (Harashima, 1993) which assigns different symbols to the above-mentioned two vowels, is believed to be a better and more fundamental solution to the problem because learners will visually realize the two vowels are distinctly different (especially in American English).



Among all the prosodic features of English, rhythm is what Japanese learners of English need to practice more to acquire. English has a tendency to have a stronger and longer sound at the end of a phrase. This is known as Iambic Law (Hay & Diehl, 2007; Iversen, Patel, & Ogushi, 2008). This tendency is a legacy from traditional English poetry. It may also come from English syntactic structure as well, as English has a head-light syntactic structure. If a learner of English wishes to sound more native-like, he or she must acquire this Iambic (weak–strong patterned) rhythm of the language.

Conclusive remarks 

Although English is one of the most important subjects taught in Japanese schools, lessons on the basic phonetics of English are not given systematically. Teachers of English are expected to have sound knowledge of the nitty-gritty of English phonemes and prosody as well as the differences from those of Japanese. They are also expected to teach these skills better than ever given that the trend of English education in Japan, as it is symbolized by the current university entrance examination reform, is toward four-skill development, with the focus on the speaking skill.

Hideto D. Harashima is a professor at Maebashi Institute of Technology where he teaches English and Linguistics. He has been a pillar of Gunma JALT for 30 years and currently serves as Facilities Chair. He had also served as the President of Moodle Association of Japan for 6 years.



Harashima, H. D. (1993). Toward a better phonemic transcription for English language education: A call for the qualitative transcription of vowels (Eigo kyooiku-ni okeru hatsuonhyooki-no arikata: Boin-no shitsuhyooki-no juuyoosei-ni tsuite). Bulletin of Maebashi City College of Technology, 26, 1–6.

Hay, J. S. F., and Diehl, R. L. (2007). Perception of rhythmic grouping: Testing the iambic/trochaic law. Perception & Psychophysics, 69(1), 113–122.

Iversen, J. R., Patel, A. D., and Ogushi, K. (2008). Perception of rhythmic grouping depends on auditory experience. Acoustical Society of America, 124(4), 2263–2271.

Lewis, J. W. (1972). The notation of the general British English segments. JIPA, 2(2), 59–66.

Lewis, J. W. (1975). The undesirability of length marks in EFL phonemic transcription. JIPA, 5(2), 64–71.

Nakamura, A. (2010). Overtones (Baion). Shunjusha.

Walsh, G. (1974). Another note on RP Notation. JIPA, 4(1), 31–36.

Duolingo, Clozemaster, and Other Media: Effective Tools for Supplementation of Classroom Teaching?

by Fuad Olajuwon


When measuring the ability of students to learn and process language, various factors need to be in place. Classroom instruction is an essential part of this process, as educators can observe the activities of students and calibrate lessons to fit the needs of learners. However, if teaching mostly takes place in classrooms, there is a risk students will not continue to practice and incorporate the material acquired to achieve language proficiency. It is important for students not only to practice as much as possible but also for educators to guide students through these practices. Therefore, the usage of online learning tools supports the ability to self-study, where students can continue to practice language study outside of the classroom. Before introducing some of the tools needed to facilitate learning, we must understand how to use online applications in a way that is most useful for the learner, as well as measure the effectiveness of self-study methods.

What is Self-Study?

To understand the efficacy of online language learning procedures, it is first important to understand self-study. Self-study methods can be used to learn information independently from an organized school setting. While its usage is mostly intended for independent study, it complements structured or “formal” education found in school settings (Cooper, 2003). In more traditional environments, responsibility rests among educators to create a series of plans, dates, and structures to facilitate the learning process. Self-study seeks to place more responsibility on the students, having educators attempt a more “hands-off” approach to learning ability (Armstrong, 2012).

Another common form of language study that focuses on more of a self-directed approach is self-accessed language learning (SALL). SALL practitioners create a learning environment where students have access to various materials while maintaining a high rate of autonomy. Through the usage of predetermined lesson content, educator based counseling, and online resources, students have the ability to individually configure the course curriculum (Klassen, et al. 1998). This idea is different from pure self-study, where learners are required to find material to study. Instead, SALL gives students a more traditional rubric to follow, while providing levels of individualistic autonomy. Like constructing a skyscraper, learners are given foundational tools to create learning modules tailored to their needs as long as the integrity of the course rubric remains. This educational strategy utilizes key concepts of pacing, repetition and frequency of material, time management techniques, as well as personalized feedback from educators.

What is the significance of using these tools? SALL helps to create new patterns of learning. By using predetermined content from teachers while giving students more leeway to go about studying freely, it presents a new set of skills necessary for learners to create a personalized learning plan. This model strengthens the decision-making ability of students rather than allocating most choices to educators (Cotterall, et al. 1995). Having individuals study in a way that matches their learning style while following a predetermined rubric, can lead to more productive learning results. As long as there are sets of guidelines, growth in scholastic ability, regardless of field, is very likely (Cotterall, et al. 1995). This concept holds true in language instruction as well, giving the student the liberty to acquire proficiency using any strategy that works with their distinct learning style.

Lastly, the combination of independent study imperatives with SALL methodology can lead to measured results with motivated students. Both self-study and SALL have advantages and disadvantages that can complement each other if combined in a learning environment. For example, it is necessary to mention here that some students may not adapt well to these methodologies. For example, in some cultures, traditional educational methods are considered the gold standard in terms of instruction (Scollon and Scollon,1994). Relying exclusively on self-access language learning tools may prove to be cumbersome to learners who are used to traditional classroom settings.

Autodidact Approach: Interactive Media

When students initially approach the task of learning a language, traditional forms of study are common. These methods often come from textbooks and classroom instruction. While those tools can be effective, it’s important to address other means of study outside of the classroom (i.e. the capacity to use online-based programs). With the rise of the Internet, students have the ability to study the target language without having to rely on traditional methods. This concept works great within the framework of the autodidactic approach, as motivated students create lessons to their needs. Still, this system has drawbacks, as beginner-level students may have a tough time discerning what materials to use. Hence, it is important for educators to choose materials that can be measured, while at the same time fulfilling the SALL objectives. Programs such as Duolingo have the ability to do so.

Figure 1: Example of Duolingo online classroom

Duolingo is an online language-learning module that is designed to educate students through the Internet. With over dozens of languages available to study, it has the option to learn English using a Japanese or Korean interface. This gives students and educators tools to keep the learning process fresh and new. Through online classrooms, educators have the ability to evaluate students outside of the classroom, ensuring that the assigned work gets finished promptly. While more traditional methods are effective in teaching languages, using systems that oversee the progress of students without physically setting foot in the classroom can create a higher level of learning efficacy.

One of the features of the software is the ability to conduct an online classroom. Teachers can use an assortment of different language lessons, with varying difficulty (Duolingo, 2011). Although learners are considered a part of the same online class, Duolingo provides a feeling of individuality and direct mentoring. Another strength is the diversity of material. Students have the opportunity to practice reading, writing, listening, and speaking through PC or smartphone. Most learners who commute by train or bus can make use of the software during those intervals. Educators can issue homework by individual lessons or by timeframe (i.e. 10 minutes of work). This setup works well for students, and so it can potentially prevent feelings of being overwhelmed.

This program has both advantages and disadvantages associated with the language-learning interface. The benefits of using such a system include the ability to practice daily. Duolingo keeps track of all progress made in the system and rewards users with streaks that monitor consecutive days of practice. This system works well within the learning process, as research supports the idea of absorbing small amounts of information consistently (Cepeda, et al. 2008). Referred to as the spacing effect, Duolingo encourages users to practice for less than an hour a day, while maintaining a daily regimen of language exposure. This type of regimented practice creates longer retention of material, as well as an increase in memory recall (Cepeda, et al. 2008). The program masks this idea through creating a game-like atmosphere, where users acquire points and can buy extra lessons through in-game currency. This paradigm creates an element of fun, which entices learners to keep practicing the target language.

Figure 2: Educators have the ability to issue daily assignments.

While the program contains many positive attributes that can help students, there are a few shortcomings. One flaw involves the level of difficulty. Duolingo benefits beginners and students with limited knowledge of the target language. Therefore, using this program for more advanced students isn’t feasible, except for perhaps solidifying basic foundational knowledge. More adept learners may lose interest in material that isn’t challenging enough. Translation miscues are also another factor to consider, as some of the L1 translations don’t always match. This situation causes frustration with some students, as they cannot understand the translated sentences effectively. The inability to connect with an actual language speaker is another disadvantage since the lack of live practice robs users of the ability to experience pitch, intonation, and a variety of speaking styles and forms of speech.

Another online program that is useful to students is Clozemaster. It helps learners grasp meaning and vocabulary through context, evaluating students on the ability to comprehend an array of different sentence patterns. Referred to as cloze testing, this method is used to help learners sift through language patterns and create a foundational understanding of the English lexicon (Hanzeli, 1977). This style of testing occurs when parts of sentences are removed, and students are asked to fill in the missing words or phrases.

The utilization of cloze testing requires students to understand meaning through a contextual framework, which is effective in evaluating the overall ability of L2 language knowledge (Taylor, 1953). Although Clozemaster boasts a large number of languages, this study only focuses on Japanese and Korean students looking to learn English. Practicing with sentences is the way Clozemaster works, providing the user with multiple-choice questions to help guide the learning process. More advanced students have the opportunity to write the correct answer instead, increasing the challenge factor (Clozemaster, 2017).

The program has measurable barometers, as each section is broken down into sets of ten questions. After answering, then it is the end of a section. With over 100,000 sentences, students have the ability to practice with many different sentence patterns.  Like Duolingo, this program is freeware, so it is easy for learners to register with the site and get started immediately.

Figure 3: Clozemaster interface: notice the cloze technique at work.

Clozemaster requires students to understand how to read sentences within the appropriate context. This format aims to help students to build a solid vocabulary base. However, this program also has some drawbacks which educators need to be aware of should they choose to implement it. The next section will cover some of the aspects that help to showcase the efficacy of Clozemaster and how it applies to student language proficiency, as well as some of the shortcomings associated with the program.

Clozemaster also has several advantages and disadvantages that educators need to be aware of when administering this program to students. One positive aspect of Clozemaster is how well it supplements other materials. If students are looking to get extra reading and vocabulary practice, creating the habit of sifting through the higher-level material can be essential in building up skills in proficiency. Accessing both English content as well as L1 translations helps students link together words and patterns that solidify memory retention. Furthermore, another advantage of using this software is the measurability of progress. After students complete several rounds in the program, a percentage of overall completion appears at the end of the session, allowing learners to set goals and timed tasks to motivate the learning process. This feature ensures that students have a clear idea as to how much of the program they have completed, as well as how many words in context they have retained. By having quantifiable data at hand, learners may get a sense of extra motivation.

Despite having some desirable characteristics, it’s important to recognize where the program needs to improve. Similar to other online initiatives, users should get real-world practice. Learners who rely solely on Clozemaster and other online forms may miss out on organic trial-and-error, which is an essential skill in expressing oneself adequately. While this program is a great tool for students, it isn’t as ergonomic for educators. Clozemaster is designed to be a standalone activity. Since there is no online classroom setting, teachers who want to utilize this software will have to trust that students are in fact practicing with the program, or manually take a record of progression by comparing the completion percentages between each class visit. While the task isn’t difficult, it can take up valuable class time.

Figure 4: Screenshot of the Clozemaster completion interface

Additionally, another shortcoming when using this software is the lack of clear and concise translations. While translation miscues seldom occur, some students may find some of the language content to be confusing. Nuance, syntax (whether the language is subject-prominent or topic-prominent), and grammatical structures are a few examples as to how translations may become confusing. Certain scenarios are common in online-based content, especially if the program in question teaches an array of languages. When mistranslations occur it is important to notify the students that mishaps may occur, and that it is an anomaly in the software itself, rather than an error made by the student. Consequently, this will help learners mitigate the language curriculum with less apprehension, focusing on understanding the content as a whole.

Overall, programs such as Duolingo and Clozemaster are tools that aid learner retention and proficiency. These programs benefit students by giving them frequent practice. Regardless, students need to be made aware of the shortcomings of these programs. Students can strengthen their learning by availing themselves of these tools. The next section will cover some of the components that make up these online systems, as well as the significance of using such methods in language instruction.  In addition, the paper will cover some key educational processes in place that help scholars maximize the effectiveness of interactive media.  By understanding these processes, learners and educators can craft effective strategies to ensure language ability and understanding of vocabulary.

Educational Significance

Online tools can facilitate language growth in the following ways: they help students learn outside the classroom, utilizing different learning methods, measuring the amount of material used, as well as increasing student confidence and enjoyment. Self-accessed language learning (SALL), cloze techniques, and the spaced repetition system are effective methods in creating new forms of language learning. As mentioned before, self-accessed language learning assists in creating higher learner autonomy. These are scalable objectives, as SALL promotes and encourages independence study initiatives by allowing students to be active receivers of information (Klassen, et al. 1998). Through this system, students have more control over their lesson arrangements as well as overall linguistic goals. This notion creates a sense of freedom in the learning approach, which is a more efficient way to study (Cotterall, 1995).

Not only do students have the ability to control variables within online tools like Duolingo and Clozemaster, the learning methods are also fully customizable. Within the SALL paradigm, learners can choose the level, content, and overall speed of their work, as long as educators approve it. This approach is beneficial to students since the initiative takes individual learning preferences into consideration (Gremmo & Riley, 1995; O’Malley & Chamot, 1990; Oxford, 1990; Wenden, 1991.)

Furthermore, incorporating such imperatives also increases student motivation. According to (Carter, 1999), using SALL methods helps to mitigate negative feelings towards language learning, bolsters autonomous achievement and promotes motivation. Educators need to have an understanding of SALL techniques, as well as an understanding of the levels of their students to ensure the programs work efficiently. Having a grasp of learner anxieties helps teachers create a more productive learning environment.  A combination of traditional classroom instruction and systems of interactive media is essential to learning a language. Although the role of the educator is just as important in this system, learners have to take more responsibility in the overall learning process.

Another factor is the role of spaced repetition, involving a spacing effect, which states that learning is more effective when spaced out at longer study intervals. This contrasts with binge-studying or cramming, ineffective compared to slowly memorizing material over an adequate timeframe (Greene, 1989). By spacing out learned content, students have a higher chance of recalling information. (Caple, 1996).

Duolingo uses the spaced repetition system, yielding positive results (Vesselinov, 2012; Ye, 2014). After students used the program for several weeks, Duolingo demonstrated the efficacy of implementing such a methodology, as well as maintaining motivation. This system was especially effective for beginning level learners, as the interactive software tends to focus on establishing a basic understanding of grammar and vocabulary within a language (Vesselinov, 2012). Vesselinov further reported that the effectiveness of supplementing study with online tools in preparation to take the TOEFL examination. First, students would take the Duolingo English test and determine language proficiency scores. The findings from the study indicated the following: students who used Duolingo to supplement studying for the test had significantly higher TOEIC scores than before (Ye, 2014). Therefore, spaced repetition and increased motivation were two important factors in increasing test performance.

Furthermore, such measures assist in developing the vocabulary and reading skills of students, suggesting that learners use prior knowledge to answer questions (Hanzeli, 1977). Although cloze testing is a useful tool in the development of language capability, students need to have a certain level of experience in the language. Therefore, such testing strategies work well with intermediate and advanced level students, since the pool of linguistic knowledge is much higher. Still, beginners have the ability to use this software significantly but have to rely mostly on context clues (McCray, Gareth; Brunfaut, Tineke, 2016).

Research concludes that advanced students engage in “higher-level processing,” using a broad range of contextual information and techniques to solve sets of linguistic questions (McCray, Gareth; Brunfaut, Tineke, 2016). Creating content based on mental modeling, incorporating new material, as well as implementing inference-based strategies are a few examples of how higher-level students decode language questions. This is in contrast to lower-level students, who use strategies such as word recognition, lexicology, and process of elimination to uncover solutions. This is observable by tracking the eye movements of learners. For example, lower-level students regularly glance at the word bank provided with the examination.  Secondly, lower-level students focus more on words immediately surrounding the blank, while higher-level students read the entire sentence. These observations demonstrate the different learning patterns both sets of students used to locate the answers.

Lastly, cloze testing helps formulate language patterns and sequences through context. These methods of evaluation provide learners with an increased sense of linguistic competency, enabling them to understand more obscure concepts behind language learning. Instead of teaching static parts of a language, such as memorizing grammatical tables and rules, cloze testing directs students to approach learning organically, relying on critical thinking procedures to interpret essential concepts (Hanzeli, 1977). Overall, cloze testing is an essential tool for learners to develop the necessary skills for learning a language. Furthermore, if such methods are supplemented by educators, as well as used on a consistent basis, there is a high chance for growth to occur.


As shown in this paper, a consistent and incremental program of language study is more effective than cramming. Studying both inside and outside the classroom provides the most practical way to achieve that aim. Practice outside the classroom can be accomplished through online programs that are measurable, motivating, and fun. By utilizing such programs, students have the opportunity to customize their lessons, thus addressing their personal needs and goals. This in turn incentivizes learning, creating a higher chance for students to continue practicing independently.

Online-based study materials use a series of different learning approaches to aid learners in gaining proficiency. This case study explored a few of those methods to analyze the efficiency of using such tools. Self-accessed language learning (SALL) initiatives help students to modify lessons, catering to their specific needs and creating a holistic approach to language learning. Educators have the ability to monitor the progress of students using online media and digital classroom applications. These tools give learners the ability to improve language proficiency as well as more responsibility in the learning process. This idea contrasts with traditional systems like eikaiwa, where some students have less concrete reasons to study languages (Kubota, 2011). According to Kubota, class surveys found that some students engaged in eikaiwa were content with studying once a week, while others wanted to practice more outside the classroom. Therefore, incorporating SALL could serve students wanting extra instruction. When combined with other initiatives such as the spaced-repetition system and cloze testing, online tools can play a critical role in student language development.


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Fuad Olajuwon is the Program Chair for Saitama JALT and presented this topic at the 4th Annual Saitama-Gunma MyShare. Working in Japan, he also writes about international relations, contributing to the Foreign Policy Project think-tank. When not involved in JALT activities, he is researching new methods on how to improve his teaching ability, studying East Asian politics or training in judo to one day fight in the Budokan.

Peer Assessment for Testing Classroom Chinese Speaking in a Japanese University: Correlations and Attitudes

By Ming Qu and Margit Krause-Ono


According to Falchikov (1995), peer assessment is a process in which a group of individuals grades their peers and which may or may not involve a set of criteria by teachers and students. In recent years, peer assessment has been increasingly used as an alternative method of assessment in language learning classrooms. Most researchers believe that it is not only an effective tool for encouraging students’ learner independence and autonomy, but also allows teachers to shift their teaching methodology to more students-centered activities. Numerous studies have been conducted on peer assessment, but only a few studies have focused on Japanese language learners. The question therefore remains as to whether peer assessment is really an effective tool for language learning in Japan, particularly in the field of teaching Chinese as a second foreign language. In order to answer this question, this paper will focus on two points associated with peer assessment: the first one is how reliable is the correlation between peer ratings and teacher ratings, and the second one is the Japanese students’ attitude towards peer assessment.

Problems with previous studies

Issues of correlation between peer and teacher ratings
A number of studies have been conducted with regard to the correlation between peer and teacher ratings, with some of them indicating that there is a high correlation between the two (e.g. Hughes & Large, 1993; Brammer & Taylor, 2001; ALfallay, 2004; Shimura,2006; Fukazawa, 2009). However, some studies also indicated that there is no strong correlation between peer and teacher ratings (e.g., Jafapur, 1991, Freeman, 1995).

Hirai (2011) indicated that the reasons for the conflicting results involve differences in assessment conditions and students’ characteristics among these studies. She compared the results from nine previous studies on the correlation between peer and teacher ratings, and showed that there appeared to be three points related to the correlation. The first one is that there is a tendency toward higher correlations when students rated a peer’s performance after discussion rather than when students assigned a rating without engaging in prior discussion. The second is that the correlation is higher when using mean score (averaging all the scores of the participants) than when using a single score. The third point is that correlation appears to be related to anonymity. Under anonymous conditions the correlation between peer and teacher ratings is higher. This is because anonymity helped reduce the anxiety felt by raters regarding potential accusations of excess severity by their peers. With regard to the prior discussion, Hirai (2011) used a rating scale which was developed by teachers, and a detailed explanation which was given to students. In this study, the students collaborated with the teacher in making a rating scale in order for them to understand the rating scale more thoroughly.

Beside the above three points, the kind of rating scale used is also expected to be related to the correlation between teacher and peer ratings. A study which was conducted by Shimura (2006) used a rating scale which included 8 categories. They were: good posture, clear voice, good eye contact, good gestures, clear explanation, good visuals, good analysis, and good organization. She focused on the contents of the presentation and body languages. This differs from Fukazawa (2009) and Hirai (2011) who focused more on linguistic aspects, such as grammar, pronunciation, vocabulary, and fluency. These studies used different rating categories, therefore the results on the correlations between the students and the teacher were also different. The previous studies didn’t shed light on every category, and only calculated the whole score for the rating scale. When considering the correlation between the students and teacher ratings, we need to clarify which of these categories have a high correlation and which categories have a low correlation. Therefore, in this study, the rating scale used was divided into three sections: body language, presentation content, and linguistic aspects. The correlation of each category between the students and teacher ratings was calculated.

Issues of Japanese students’ attitudes towards to peer assessment
Peer assessment has received much attention in the field of language teaching in recent years, but in Japan, this idea is still novel, especially in the field of teaching Chinese as a second foreign language. Traditional testing, such as paper tests, is still dominant. Alternative assessment methods, such as portfolios, peer / group oral test, and peer assessment are not widely used in language teaching classrooms in Japan. Some previous studies addressed the attitude of students to peer assessment (e.g. Azarnoosh, 2013; Wen, 2006; Peng, 2010, White, 2009), but they did not focus on Japanese students. Simon (2014) focused on the attitude of Japanese students, and conducted an online survey of first year students enrolled in oral communication classes at a private Japanese university. Students were asked to answer 10 questions related to peer assessment. The results revealed that Japanese students were broadly accepting of peer assessment, which was perceived as being a valuable language-learning tool. Simon (2014) only performed the survey once, after students had experienced peer assessment activities, and only quantitative data was used in his study. In order to gain a more complete picture of the attitude of Japanese students, an understanding of their attitude both before and after experiencing peer assessment is needed. Furthermore, in order to clarify what the students think about peer assessment, qualitative data should be used. Therefore in this study, a survey of student attitude was performed twice, both before and after experiencing the peer assessment activities in their language class, and the significance of any changes in attitude between the pre-survey and post-survey were analyzed Furthermore, a semi-structured group interview was conducted for collecting qualitative data on the students’ attitudes towards the peer assessment activities.

The purpose of this study
This study aims to broaden the knowledge of peer assessment by exploring which categories in the rating scale have high correlation coefficients and which categories have low correlation coefficients between the student and teacher ratings. By performing the survey twice, before and after the students experienced peer assessment, it was hoped that the students’ attitudes towards to peer assessment would be clarified, and the changes of the students’ perceptions would be revealed. This study answers the following questions and sub-questions:

RQ1: To what degree does peer assessment correlate with the teacher’s assessment? Which categories have high correlation coefficients and which categories have low correlation
RQ2: To what extent do students change their perceptions after experiencing peer assessment? What are the reasons for their changes in attitude?


The university
This study was conducted at a university in Hokkaido, Japan, which consists of only one faculty – the Faculty of Technology. Every year there are over 600 freshmen, 90% of whom are male. The study of a second foreign language, from Chinese, German or Russian, is compulsory for first-year students. There are around 25 students in each class, with 12 classes each for Chinese and German, and 2 classes for Russian. All foreign languages must be taught according to the CEFR A1 level. For second-year students, the study of a second foreign language is an optional subject, and it is taught according to the CEFR A2 level. This study was conducted among second year students.

Participants – Students
Eighty-Two Japanese students participated in this study. They belonged to three classes taught by the researcher. The participants’ majors included information technology, engineering, and science. The class met once a week for 90 minutes.

Participants – Teacher
M is female, with about 15 years of teaching Chinese as a foreign language experience at the time of the study.

The presentation
The students were asked to give a presentation on introducing his or her hometown, family members, and himself or herself by PowerPoint. The presentation was assessed by the teacher and his or her peers at the same time in the class. Students were asked to fill out the score sheet which included seven rating categories, scored from 1 to 5, with 1 being poor and 5 being excellent, by circling the appropriate number for each category. A sample of the score sheet is shown in Table 1.


In the next stage, the students were asked to discuss the points to be rated within each category. For example, in order to clarity the rating points for pronunciation, they were asked to discuss what good and bad pronunciation of Chinese is, particularly for Japanese students. And are these points operable when the assessment is conducted. The final rating points for each category are shown in Table 2.


Instruments and procedures – Five-point Likert scale survey
A five-point Likert scale survey was used to investigate the attitude of Japanese students to peer assessment. The survey was created by the researcher based on Wen, Tsai & Chang (2006) and Peng (2010). It contains six statements about peer assessment. Students were given five choices for each statement, 1) strongly agree, 2) agree, 3) neutral, 4) disagree, 5) strongly disagree, and they were asked to choose one of the choices. Furthermore, the participants were asked to fill out the five-point Likert scale twice to allow comparisons to be made. The pre-survey was conducted two weeks before the speaking test. And after experiencing peer assessment activities, the students were asked to do the same survey again, we will call it the post-survey. The five-point Likert scale used in this study is shown in Table 3.


Instruments and procedures – Semi-structured group interview
Semi-structured group interviews were used to explore the reasons for the changes, or lack thereof, in student attitudes to peer assessment and other points related to this assessment form. Students were divided into five groups, with each group consisting of 4~5 students. They were asked to discuss the positive and negative points of peer assessment first, and then answer the questions from the teacher. There were 2 questions: the first one was, “What do you think of peer assessment? What are the good points and bad points? ” The second one was “Did you change your attitude before and after experiencing peer assessment? If you changed your attitude, what is the reason? ”

Instruments and procedures – Analysis
Microsoft Excel (2000) was used for analyzing the data. Descriptive statistics were calculated first, and then a Spearman’s correlation analysis was conducted to explore the correlation between the peer ratings and teacher ratings. Finally a t-test was conducted to explore the significance of changes in attitude pre-survey and post- survey.


The correlation between students and teacher’s rating
Table 4 presents the descriptive statistics for the peer and teacher assessments. Other than pronunciation and body language, the mean score of peer rating for each category was slightly higher than those of the teacher’s. This indicated that, compared with the teacher’s rating, the ratings of the students for those rating categories tended to be lenient, while those for pronunciation and body language, the students’ ratings tended to be strict. The standard deviation (SD) for vocabulary, grammar, and fluency were slightly lower than those of the teacher’s, this indicated that the teacher rated the presentations across a wider range, while students rate their peers within a narrower range in these categories.


In order to investigate what degree peer assessment correlated with the teacher’s assessment, the Spearman’s correlations analysis between peer and teacher’s assessment was conducted. The results are shown in Table 5. The results revealed that, there were high correlation coefficients for pronunciation, presentation content, design of the PPT file, and body language, while the correlation coefficients for vocabulary, grammar, and fluency were low. Body language had the highest correlation coefficients (r = .42), while vocabulary had the lowest correlation coefficients (r = .17).



Creating the rating scale
In this study, the students were involved in developing the rating scale together with the teacher. The students were asked to imagine if they were teacher, what type of analytic rating scale they would use to evaluate the speaking ability of their students. The students suggested more than ten rating categories including facial expression, voice quality, interesting content, fluency, design of the PowerPoint file, organization of the content, pronunciation, accuracy of the grammar and vocabulary, natural expression, posture, and so on. Students were told that too many rating categories would be burdensome for the raters, so they needed to choose five or six categories. However, as this study sought to focus not only on linguistic aspects, but also body language and the presentation content, so at last, seven categories were eventually decided upon: pronunciation, grammar, vocabulary, fluency, presentation content, design of PPT file, and body language.

Japanese students’ attitudes towards to peer assessment – To what extent did students change their perceptions after experiencing peer assessment activities?
In order to investigate the Japanese students’ attitudes towards peer assessment, especially the extent to which students change their perceptions after experiencing peer assessment activities, a t-test analysis was conducted. Table 6 gives the descriptive information and scale score differences between the students’ ratings pre-survey and post-survey.


The results of the t -test revealed that students’ responses were higher than the neutral score (3.00) both pre-survey and post-survey. In the pre-survey, the mean score was 3.41, while the mean score in the post-survey was 4.06. Thus, it can be said that, the students reacted positively both before and after experiencing the peer assessment activities. The standard deviation for the pre-survey was much higher than that for the post-survey, indicating that the range in student attitude was wider before experiencing peer assessment than after. The mean score increased from 3.41 to 4.06 (t (81) = 6.41, P < .01), showing that the Japanese students’ attitude towards peer assessment became significantly more positive after experiencing the assessment activities. The effect size was calculated to examine the significance of the score differences between the pre- and post- surveys, the value of the effect size was 0.96, which is considered to be large enough according to Cohen’s (1988) definition.

Japanese students’ attitudes towards to peer assessment – Reasons for changes in students’ attitudes
In order to explore why students changed their attitudes to peer assessment and other points related to this assessment form, semi-structured group interviews were conducted. The students were asked two questions. One is “what do you think peer assessment?” The other one is, “did you change your attitudes before and after experiencing peer assessment? If your attitude changed, what is the reason?” Students were divided into small groups, one group consisting of 4~5 students.

The students’ answers were divided into two categories: positive responses and negative responses. Responses were given in Japanese and translated into English by the author. The content of responses for each group is shown below. More than 80% of the students gave positive responses, with less than 20% of students giving negative responses.

Positive responses
Peer assessment is helpful
・Peer assessment is helpful to learn about speaking ability, before experiencing the speaking test peer assessment , I never considered what speaking ability is, how should we assess speaking. It is very helpful for learning to speak.
・Peer assessment helps make me understand the criteria more fully.

Peer assessment is motivating
・When I give other students a high score: for example, he has a good posture, good eye contact, or good design for the PPT file, I get the feeling that I should learn from this student, and should do as well as him.
・Peer assessment encouraged my autonomy, I know what next step I should make to improve my Chinese speaking.
・I practiced the presentation many times before the test, because I wanted to get good scores from my peers.

Peer assessment is useful
・When assessing other students’ presentations, we could identify our own weaknesses.
・Through assessing other students’ presentations, I could identify their strengths and weaknesses, then I could improve myself.

Peer assessment is interesting
・This is the first time for me to do a peer assessment, it is interesting, I felt that I was acting like a teacher, and had a strong sense of participation.
・Peer assessment helps me understand what teachers think of us, it is a very interesting experience. I started to consider teachers’ (or other people’s) feeling even outside of the class.

There were also some negative answers about peer assessment.
Negative responses:
Peer assessment is difficult
・Peer assessment is difficult. Sometimes, I really don’t know how to assess the other students, especially when assessing vocabulary and grammar, as I couldn’t, in fact, catch everything said by the presenters.
・It is difficult to assess the other students, so I think the students’ ratings are not reliable, I also don’t like an arbitrary grading.

Peer assessment is boring
・At first, it was interesting, but there are too many students in one class, I soon felt bored
・I just wrote 3 for all the categories, because it was boring.

Peer assessment is troublesome
・I think peer assessment is troublesome and a waste of time, I ‘d rather learn something from the textbook instead of assessing other students.


Correlation between the students’ and teacher ratings
In this study, seven rating categories were included in the rating scale, and the correlation coefficients were calculated for every category between the students’ and teacher ratings. The results revealed that four rating categories (pronunciation, presentation content, design of the PPT file, and body language) had high correlations coefficients, while three rating categories (vocabulary, grammar, and fluency) had low correlations coefficients.

Except pronunciation, the rating categories with high correlations coefficients were all categories related to the content of the presentation and body language. The rating points were very clear; for example, there were three rating points for body language- eye contact, posture, and gestures, so a decision was easily made. There was only one point for presentation content and the design of the PPT file, so it was also clear enough to make a judgment. It is assumed that the content, design of the presentation and body language were easy to judge by the students, hence these categories had high correlations coefficients. Pronunciation is a rating category that focuses on linguistic elements of the presentation, with the rating points involving the use of Japanese-influenced sounds, and ease of understanding. It appears the students were able to distinguish between good and bad pronunciation very well, even though their own pronunciation of Chinese may not be adequate. When creating the rating scale together with the students, a lot of examples of what is good Chinese pronunciation were given, for example, the blade-palatal sounds, such as “zh” , “ch”, “sh”, and “r”, bilabial sounds, such as “b” and “p”, and compound finals, such as “ang”, “eng”, “ing”, and “ong”. It is difficult for Japanese learners to pronounce these sounds, but they can understand good pronunciation when listening. Therefore the pronunciation category also had a high correlations coefficient.

On the contrary, the data indicates that it was difficult to judge the rating categories related to vocabulary, grammar, and fluency. These three categories had low correlation coefficients. Vocabulary and grammar focus on linguistic elements, and it is possible that the students are incapable of identifying errors because they lack the language knowledge necessary to identify them. Vocabulary had the lowest correlation coefficients (r = .17). The results of the semi-structured group interviews also revealed that some students felt it was very difficult for them to make judgments regarding vocabulary and grammar. In this study, the participants were in their second year of Chinese classes, and they were taught according to the CEFR A2 level, so it is possible that the students’ language proficiency was not high enough to assess a wide range of vocabulary and structures, accuracy of the grammar or words choices. Nelson & Carson (1998) conducted a study on peer assessment of English writing, and pointed out that a lack of language proficiency in a second language affects peer review, as learners cannot review their peers’ writing appropriately because of their low proficiency. The same problem appears to exist in peer assessment of second language speaking. Language proficiency level is an important factor that influences the correlation between the students and teacher ratings, particularly in those rating categories which are related to linguistic elements. In Japan, there are a limited number of advanced students in second foreign language classes, and low level students cannot give presentations using a second foreign language. Therefore, in this study, only the data for intermediate level students were analyzed, and which is a limitation to the study that needs to be resolved in the future.

Japanese students’ attitudes towards to peer assessment
This study clearly showed that Japanese students held a positive attitude towards peer assessment both before and after experiencing peer assessment activities. With the mean score increasing significantly after experiencing the peer assessment activities. Furthermore, the standard deviation for the pre-survey was much higher than that for the post-survey, indicating that the students’ attitudes ranged widely before experiencing the peer assessment, but narrowed after experiencing the peer assessment activities. The results of the semi-structured group interviews showed that more than 80% of the students responded positively regarding the peer assessment. The positive answers included comments that peer assessment is helpful, motivating, useful, and interesting, while the negative comments suggested peer assessment is difficult, boring, and troublesome. Both quantitative and qualitative data showed the Japanese students had generally positive attitudes towards to peer assessment.

With regard to the negative comments regarding peer assessment, the students possibly felt it was difficult as they lacked sufficient language knowledge to make judgments using the rating scale. While there were some students who felt it was boring and troublesome, this may have resulted from the procedure used in this study. The students were asked to assess more than 20 peers in one class, and this may have left them feeling bored and burdened. Hirai (2011) asked students to record their speaking on tape in a language lab, and assess the student next to them only. This procedure may result in the students having less negative feelings toward to the assessment task.


The results of peer assessment are often influenced by the contexts and circumstances in which peer assessment is administered. Therefore, it is necessary to pay great attention to explaining the procedure. Language proficiency level is an important factor that influences the correlation between the students’ and teacher ratings, particularly in those rating categories which are related to linguistic elements, so for the students whose language proficiency is low, the peer assessment for linguistic elements maybe should be avoided. The teachers should know that not every student likes peer assessment, so peer assessment activities should be short and easy everytime. If students demonstrate an enjoyment and a willingness to observe and assess their peers, the peer assessment can be a useful tool in students’ language learning.


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AlDallay, I. (2004). The role of some selected psychological and personality traits of the rater in the accuracy of self-and peer-assessment. System: An international Journal of Educational Technology and applied Linguistics, 32,407-425.

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Falchikov, Nancy (1995). Peer feedback marking: Developing peer assessment. Innovations in Education and Training International, 32(2), 175-187.

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Hirai Akiyo. (2011). Applicability of Peer Assessment for Classroom Oral Performance. 日本言語テスト学会誌 14, 41-59.

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Nelson & Carson. (1998). ESL students’ perceptions of effectiveness in peer response groups. Journal of Second Language Writing. 7, 113-131.

Peng, Jui-ching. (2010). Peer Assessment in an EFL Context: Attitudes and Correlations. In Selected Proceedings of the 2008 Second Language Research Forum, ed. Matthew T. Prior et al., 89-107.

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Shimura, Mika (2006). Peer- and Instructor Assessment of Oral Presentations in Japanese University EFL classrooms: A Pilot Study. Waseda global forum 3, 99-107.

Wen, Tsai & Chang (2006). Attitudes towards peer assessment: A comparison of the perspectives of pre-service and in- service teachers. Innovations in Education and Teaching International, 43, 83-92.

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Ming Qu is an Associate Professor of Muroran Institute of Technology, Japan. Her interests include language testing, CEFR based language teaching, and Sinology (China’s cultural diplomacy).

Margit Krause-Ono is Professor of German, European Culture, and Intercultural Communication at Muroran Institute of Technology, Japan. She holds degrees from France and Australia, and a Certificate as intercultural trainer/coach from Friedrich Schiller University, Germany.

My Experiences as a Non-Native Speaker Teacher in Japan

By Johan Saputra Muljadi

Who are non-native speakers?

According to the Dictionary of Language Teaching and Applied Linguistics (2010, p.397), a non-native speaker (NNS) is “a language user for whom a language is not their first language.” The Cambridge dictionary defines it as “someone who has learned a particular language as a child or adult rather than as a baby.” I was raised in Indonesia until I was 10, then moved to New Zealand for the next 10 years of my life. Am I a non-native speaker? Taken from the definitions above, the answer would be yes. But from my possibly prejudiced point of view, I consider myself a native speaker. Although I only spent the last three years of elementary school in New Zealand, I completed both secondary and tertiary education there. If a person such as myself who has spent most of his or her formative years in an English speaking country is still regarded as a NNS, it begs the question of whether the title Native Speaker matters in the classroom.

In an interview with Dr. DeKeyser (2016) on the topic of age and its effects, he put great emphasis on the importance of native speakers’ roles in teaching children.

“This is because, given that what children have to learn and can learn very well is pronunciation, that’s precisely the time you need a native speaker. Then, once people are really advanced and they learn more sophisticated aspects of grammar and pronunciation, you don’t need a native speaker; you need somebody who knows the language well and who knows how to teach it.”

I definitely agree with this statement. If I had not spent my childhood in New Zealand, my pronunciation would not be as clear as an Indonesian who had never lived in an English speaking country. However, there are millions of non-native speakers who can speak English just as well as I. One article I found, written by Wilson from, was about a Polish teacher whose colleagues were surprised at how proficient her English was and mistook her for being British. Even this blog post, which is very sympathetic to the plights of NNS teaching English, erroneously conflates fluency with nativeness. Where this teacher is from is irrelevant. The only thing that matters is that, “a good language teacher, by definition, will be proficient in the language they are teaching.” (Wilson, 2016).

My 8 years working experiences in Japan as a non-native speaker

My first employment was in 2009 as an Assistant Language Teacher (ALT) 3 days a week in a small town called Tokigawa, Saitama prefecture. I was there for one academic year through a dispatch company called Heart. ALT work is more lenient than eikaiwa (English conversation schools) and juku (cram schools) in their requirements: usually requiring a non-specific university degree, but no teaching experience. The catch is that prospective ALTs usually need to own a car. I accepted the position in order to change my student visa to a working one and bought myself a car. In 2010, I landed a full-time ALT job in Takasaki City in Gunma prefecture, this time through a different dispatch company called RCS. In 2011-2014, I worked as a full-time direct-hire ALT for Maebashi City before moving back to Takasaki City to work as a full-time direct-hire ALT for another year. One of the main differences between working for a dispatch and a direct hire is the workload. A direct-hire ALT communicates with all levels of municipal government and may have duties above and beyond that of a dispatch ALT. When I was a direct-hire ALT in a Junior High School in Maebashi City, I had such responsibilities as assisting with the annual English speech contest, assisting with the annual summer events and attending monthly confabulation meetings with other ALTs. Other benefits of being a direct-hired include higher salary, paid holidays, and being included in the insurance and pension systems. Susatyo (2015), who is also an Indonesian ALT, had written an inspiring message to NNS teachers, “If you’re thinking of pursuing a career in teaching English, just do it. I know it won’t be easy and will be challenging, but think about the impact you will make on others: your students and fellow educators.” This was taken from the TEFL equity advocates blog; a blog that focuses on creating equal employment opportunities for native and non-native English speakers in ELT. I truly recommend reading the “teachers’ success stories”, they are very motivational to remind ourselves to never give up.

The importance of having qualifications

Qualifications are one way to overcome the prejudice against non-native speakers. Fortunately, many programs like the Trinity College TESOL Certificate and Diploma are available in Japan through a various providers such as Shane English School in Tokyo. In my circumstance, finding quality work was very difficult. This was because job advertisements in Japan often use the terms “native speaker” or “native English speaker”. This requirement creates frustration to people like me whose first language is not English. The majority of private institutions such as eikawa or juku are usually very strict on their hiring policies. On the website (retrieved September 16, 2016), there are employers such as the Sakura English Conversation School in Hyogo Prefecture that use the phrase “teach American English”, GEM school in Kagawa Prefecture preferably requires a “North American” and Berlitz strictly desires a “native fluent English speaker.” The first two are specifically searching for teachers who are American or Canadian, and the third one could be interpreted as looking for a teacher in which English is his or her first language. After completing a bachelor’s program in TESOL, I was offered an interview with Shane English School as an eikaiwa teacher and the British Council Tokyo as an elementary school teacher. Surprisingly, for an NNS, both employers were happy with my performance in each interview. I chose the British Council Tokyo position because of better career prospects in the years ahead. This experience shows that while I do not have what my peers certainly have, an automatic recognition that my English is good enough, my qualifications somehow compensated for that.

Employers’ preferences in Japan

Even in present-day Japan, non-native speakers are still treated as second-class citizens in English teaching. Holliday (cited in Houghton and Rivers) defines this trend saying

“in English language education, racism is revealed increasingly where the discrimination against “non-native speakers” is connected to skin colour. Hence, non-White teachers are taken for ‘non-native speakers’ even if they were born and brought up with English as a first or only language; and white teachers who do not have this background can pass easily as ‘native speakers’” (2013:20).

However, some jobs advertisements I found on the JALT website are more flexible and open. Rikkyo University for example, uses the phrase “applicants of any nationality are welcome to apply” (English Instructor – Rikkyo University, Tokyo, 2016) and Tokyo University of Science uses the phrase “native speaker proficiency preferred” (English Instructor, Tokyo University of Science, Kagurazaka Campus, Tokyo, 2016). Tamagawa Academy and University is also committed to provide equal opportunities to non-native English teachers according to the TEFL equity advocates. From these observations, such postings seem to be more common, and it is very relieving to see. Nevertheless, the frustration continues. Native speakers still have more choices compared to non-native speaker teachers. I find though, more companies are changing their recruiting requirements such as Shane English School Japan which used to recruit only speakers from Australia, Canada New Zealand, South Africa, UK or USA. Now, it only requires an honours degree taught in English from an accredited university. This shows that race is no longer the major issue that some teachers may perceive it to be. This is a great development because according to Wikipedia, only about 5.52% of the world’s population are native English speakers. Therefore, non-native speakers can fill gaps in the job market in Japan. I certainly hope that this trend will continue. Employers should realize that experience and professionalism are more important than the employee’s L1.

Future challenges for non-native speaker teachers

Regardless of whether a teacher is a native or non-native speaker, there are always challenges ahead. Perhaps we non-native speaker teachers have to take a step back and continue with the basics. Mastering a language is a lifelong journey and I always motivate myself with a quote from Harmer (2007, p.423), “one of the best ways of reflecting upon our teaching practice is to become learners ourselves again.” If you are a non-native speaker but you are confident in your English proficiency, I would strongly recommend studying towards a qualification. For example, a certificate, a diploma or even an MA in TESOL. Just because we are non-native speaker teachers, does not mean that we are incapable of matching our fellow native speaker teachers. Always remember to keep on developing; it is important to you as well as for your students.


Cambridge Dictionary. Non-native speaker. Retrieved September 22, 2016 from <;

Dunkley, D. (2016). Age Effects: An Interview With Robert DeKeyser, University of Maryland. The Language Teacher 40(3), p13-15

Harmer, J. (2007). The Practice of English Language Teaching. Fourth Edition. Edinburgh Gate: Pearson Education Limited.

Houghton, S. A. & Rivers, D. J. (2013). Native Speakerism in Japan: Intergroup Dynamics in Foreign Language Education. Bristol: Multilingual Matters.

JALT. JALT Job Info Center. (2016, September 16). English Instructor – Rikkyo University, Tokyo. Retrieved September 22, 2016. <;

JALT. JALT Job Info Center. (2016, September 16). English Instructor, Tokyo University of Science, Kagurazaka Campus, Tokyo. Retrieved September 22, 2016 from <;

Ohayosensei. Current edition. Retrieved September 22, 2016 from <;

Richards, J. C. & Schmidt, R. (2010). Longman Dictionary of Language Teaching and Applied Linguistics. Fourth Edition. Great Britain: Pearson Education Limited.

Susatyo, N. (2015, February 12). Teaching English in Japan as a NNEST. Retrieved October 16, 2016 from <;

Wikipedia: The free encyclopedia. (2016, October 8). List of Languages by number of native speakers. Retrieved October 10, 2016 from <;

Wilson, JJ. (2016, May 10). Native and Non-native Speaker Teachers: Prejudice, Privilege, and a Call to Action. ReallyEnglish blog. Retrieved September 22, 2016 from <;

Johan Saputra Muljadi is the lead teacher of English at a private elementary school in Yokohama organised by British Council Tokyo. His research interests include assessment, motivation and team-teaching in Japan. He holds a Diploma in TESOL and a MA in TESOL. He can be contacted at

A Comparison Between a High-Tech Learning Environment and a Low-Tech Learning Environment

By Stephen Howes

The education landscape has always seen change. It is a constantly evolving profession that has an enormous number of influences, whether they are societal or individual, pedagogical or policy-driven. Perhaps there has not been as great an influence to change as the technological advances of the past ten years though. As Gonzales and Vodicka (2012) state, the disruptive innovation that has been thrust upon us now aims to cause non-traditional changes to improve the education system. This paper aims to contrast technological change and its effects within one school in Australia and the limited use of technology in another school in Japan. It will describe, as experienced by the author, the education technology that exists in each school and the implications of each environment on student potential.

Brisbane Grammar School is a private non-denominational school with approximately 1700 boys ranging from Years 5-12 in Brisbane, Queensland, Australia. It has prided itself on its outstanding academic outcomes, the extracurricular opportunities it provides for students and the student welfare program embedded in the curriculum. According to their website (Brisbane Grammar School, 2015), the academic vision of the school is to achieve “national leadership in innovative, research-driven teaching and learning practice”. A strong emphasis is placed on providing the students and teachers with the most up-to-date resources available and on an education that reflects the traditional 148-year history of the school, but which nevertheless prepares the students for 21st century thinking. The facilities reflect this vision. The historic Great Hall, built around 1880 and adorned with elaborate stained-glass windows sits next to The Lilley Centre, built in 2010, with its modern glass and steel-framed architecture. More examples of this coexistence are seen throughout the school, including inside the classrooms.


Brisbane Grammar School’s Great Hall reflected on The Lilley Centre

In the period between 2008 and 2015, the time period the author was teaching at the school, the classrooms transformed from whiteboards and projector screens fixed to the ceilings to almost every classroom containing interactive whiteboards, and in some cases wirelessly connected. The Lilley Centre contains larger learning spaces that were designed specifically for collaboration, with tables seating six and an LCD screen at the end of each table for a student to display work. Furthermore, these screens could be controlled by the teacher of that class to display work from specific tables on the main screen. This style clearly supports Hattie’s (2009) notion that the teaching should be visible to the student, just as the learning should be visible to the teacher. The entire campus is fitted with Wi-Fi connectivity and is managed by approximately 10 non-teaching staff in the Information Technology (I.T.) department.

Teaching using tablet computers.png

Author teaching using tablet computers

In the first term of their school experience in Grade 7, the school provides each student with a tablet PC pre-installed with up-to-date software, security and insurance. The cost of the device is factored into each student’s school fees. The tablet PC, with a detachable screen and keyboard, was specifically chosen for its ability to maintain the traditional skills of writing (on a touch screen) and flexibility of switching to keyboard input. In addition, the stylus pen was specifically chosen to mimic a non-digital pen. All departments of the school were consulted on their desires, whether they be structural or digital, before the mass purchase and rollout of machines. The students were given a detailed orientation session when given their machines, as well as numerous follow up induction lessons in the subsequent weeks on the use of specific software and general maintenance. In addition to this, explicit lessons on digital citizenship were given during their student wellbeing class.

The rapid introduction of technology greatly influenced the pedagogical approach of teachers. Nevertheless, technology was not always used simply because it was available. The direction given by the leadership team was to use technology in an innovative way that benefits the learner, or do not feel compelled to use it at all. As per Senge (1999), learning to change is not the objective; changing to learn is the key mindset necessary. In most cases, teachers chose to adopt an innovative approach because of the unforeseen levels of motivation, creativity and enthusiasm from the learners.

On top of the existing framework for teaching that had existed pre-tablet introduction, the teachers developed new approaches to their teaching and learning, such as flipped and blended learning and design thinking. The software installed in the machines as well as beneficial sites discovered by the teachers (and students) enabled students to learn synchronously, at the same time as the teacher using the software, or asynchronously (e.g. at home). The result was an increase in connectedness within the class and with the global community at large, and an increase in personalised and self-directed learning. However, the depth to which the students understood and wanted to extend themselves further was the most encouraging outcome for teachers. With the ease of access to overwhelming sources of information, the path of their learning was seeing a greater emphasis in critical thinking and other complex reasoning processes such as justification, inductive and deductive reasoning, and analysing perspectives. Likewise, the formative and summative assessment instruments created by teachers were evolving creatively within the new landscape, such as book trailers instead of book reports, and video presentations via green screens instead of oral presentations.


BGS students using the collaborative spaces

Currently, the flow of technological integration has yielded the senior year students with an unexpected surprise. School policy dictated that students were to refrain from using their mobile phones at school. However to improve the Wi-Fi compatibility and robustness, it was decided that senior students would be permitted to use them on campus as a “Bring Your Own Other Device” (B.Y.O.O.D.). This has once again expanded the pedagogical implications of having another tool to utilize.

With the introduction of anything new, in particular technology-related, there is scepticism. Changing what has been deemed successful practise for an extended period of time can produce feelings of disillusionment with many parents, teachers and in some cases students, as they struggle to maintain normality (Senge, 1999). However, the exit results of the 2014 cohort defied the sceptics and provided evidence in support of a learning environment that has successfully integrated technology. The 2014 cohort of students were the first group to experience their entire high school curriculum using tablet PCs. As seen in Figure 1, the “Overall Position” (OP) scores for the cohort were the highest achieved by the school in its 147-year history (until 2014). The OP is the rank given to the students based on their individual subject results relative to state benchmarks combined with their score in the mandatory Queensland Core Skills Test (QCST). A ranking score of 1 is the highest and 24 is the lowest, and these scores are used to gain entry into specific courses at Queensland universities. Of the 250 students in the cohort, 29.7% achieved a score of 1 or 2. Furthermore, 57.4% of the students achieved a score of “A” in the QCST (Figure 2). Both of these scores were well above the state average and BGS average.


Figure 1: Brisbane Grammar School “Overall Position” (OP) scores in 2014 (source)


Figure 2: Brisbane Grammar School’s Queensland Core Skills Test (QCST) results in 2014 (source)

A common misconception amongst Australian students is that anything and everything in Japan uses the latest technology. However, the situation of technology-integration in most schools in Japan has not kept up with the image perceived overseas. This common misconception is perhaps fuelled by their exposure to Japanese exports such as the brand of their electronics, the maker of their automobiles, or the adolescent hobbies of anime or video games. As Anthony Salcito, Vice President of Education for Microsoft Corporation’s Worldwide Public Sector organization states, “What intrigues me about Japan is that the country has a very technology rich society, but the school systems are technology resistant” (2010).

Tokyo Seitoku University Fukaya High School and Junior High School are private co-educational schools with roughly 800 students in total, on the same campus in Saitama Prefecture. There is limited use of modern technology within the school, with the school maintaining the traditional blackboard and chalk classrooms. There are two computer rooms with desktop machines running on outdated operating systems, and a couple of other larger rooms capable of using DVDs on larger screens. However, as of August 2015, there seems to be little discussion about whether to implement any 21st century educational tools in the classrooms and little to no consultation with the educational trends outside the walls of the campus. Furthermore, as a symptom of this environment, teachers are not encouraged to investigate or seek professional development in the area of education technology.


A familiar sight to most Japanese secondary school teachers

This school’s situation may not be considered an anomaly though. At a recent conference for the International Symposium on Learning Sciences, Professor Yuichiro Anzai (2015) honestly portrayed the current situation and issued a dire warning that the education system needs to change. Anzai (2015) was critical of the over-emphasis on rote learning, both in instruction and its effect on the validity and reliability of assessment. In general, it is feared that students are not being prepared for 21st century learning, and interaction in the future global and local society (Anzai, 2015). Encouragingly, there are reforms being put in place to change the assessment instruments, which will hopefully inspire a pedagogical shift.

The difference between the Australian school and Japanese school’s learning environments are quite noticeable. The Australian school is at the forefront of integrating technology in education and preparing their students for a 21st century society. The Japanese school has not reached that stage yet and moreover, will not change suddenly. The Australian school made incremental changes that integrated with the ordinary school experience. These incremental changes were made by a team that was willing to experiment and report its failures and successes honestly. The educators have to be learners along with the students. This situation offers the perfect opportunity to model the process of learning itself. However, above all, the leadership team of the school has to have a clear purpose for changing, and that purpose is to improve the education for students in order to prepare them for the future.

Anzai, Y. (2015). Education at the turning point: Opportunities for cognitive and learning sciences. Paper presented at International Symposium on Learning Sciences: What matters most, University of Tokyo, Japan, 26 July, 2015.

Brisbane Grammar School (2015). Academic results. Retrieved August 7, 2015 from

Brisbane Grammar School (2015). Our learning priorities. Retrieved August 7, 2015 from

Gonzales, L. & Vodicka, D. (2012). Blended learning: A disruption that has found its time. Leadership, 42(2), 8 – 10. Retrieved from

Hattie, J. (2009). Visible learning. London; Routledge.

Salcito, A. (2010, December 31). Japan’s progress on infusing technology into the classroom. [Web log post]. Retrieved from here

Senge, P. (1999). The dance of change: the challenges of sustaining momentum in learning. New York: Currency/Doubleday.

Stephen Howes works at Tokyo Seitoku University Fukaya High School (東京成徳大学深谷高等学校). He presented this topic at the 26th Annual JALT-Gunma Summer Workshop at Kusatsu. Howes volunteers for Gunma JALT as Publicity Chair. He lives with his family in Takasaki City and enjoys blogging about his experiences in Japan. Find more of Stephen at his blog.

Success closer to home: Utilizing near peer role models to empower English conversation school students

By Daniel Hooper


Within a range of learning theories from situated learning (Lave and Wenger, 1991) to the zone of proximal development (ZPD) and scaffolding (Vygotsky, 1978), social situatedness and self identity within a particular setting have been claimed to have a profound effect on students’ cognitive development. Furthermore, identity and self-conceptualization have been posited to lie behind the maintenance of student motivation (Dörnyei, 2005), potentially supplying the affective robustness required to endure the marathon of language learning. Bandura (1977) claims that vicarious modelling, or showing through the actions of others that something can be achieved, increases the chances that people will envision their own success and stay the course in whatever challenges they face. The notion of near peer role models (NPRMs) (Murphey, 1998) can be viewed as a by-product of these theories. NPRMs are figures who, through being similar in some manner to the learner, act as successful figures that provide encouragement, advice, and proof that success is possible. In an ELT context, NPRMs provide students with examples of successful L2 users sharing similar backgrounds to themselves, separate from the unattainable, and often daunting, native speaker construct (Cook, 1999). In Japan, native speaker English still rules (Honna & Takeshita, 1998), and nowhere more so than in the private conversation school (eikaiwa) industry (Kubota, 2011).

This study aims to investigate how eikaiwa teachers can, through presenting students with examples of Japanese NPRMs, provide attainable goals that empower learners rather than setting them up for failure.

Review of Literature:

The utilization of NPRMs in the ELT classroom is grounded in a number of theoretical standpoints. The work of Bandura on self-efficacy and efficacy expectations greatly informs the approach as it rests on the idea of vicarious modelling affecting people’s beliefs and the notion that seeing others succeed in a task encourages us to persevere even in the face of hardship (Bandura, 1977). Showing gains made by others through “effortful coping behavior” (Bandura , 1977) demonstrates that downturns and stress are just temporary and that through perseverance people can eventually succeed in their goals. Vygotskian theory is also tied into the concept of NPRMs in that students are given models that are closer in level linguistically than the native speaker (NS) teacher to their zone of proximal development (ZPD) (Murphey & Murakami, 1998; Vygotsky, 1978). Furthermore, an ethnically or linguistically similar role model can arguably improve scaffolding within learning as barriers created by the daunting and distant figure of the native speaker fall away, allowing students to “step into each other’s shoes” (Murphey & Murakami, 1998). Lave and Wenger’s (1991) community of practice (COP) model is also relevant in as far as NPRMs are successful and established members of a COP, i.e. Japanese English language learners that guide peripheral participants towards greater competence and inclusion in the group. A final important perspective is Dörnyei’s (2005) concept of the ‘L2 motivational self system’ and the notion of the ‘ideal self’ or ‘ought-to self’ being a powerful motivator for continued language study. This concept is tied into NPRMs as they provide real-life examples of how L2 proficiency could feature in their ‘ideal’ or ‘ought to’ selves. NPRMs are at the same time proving that these identities are realistic and achievable in contrast to an unattainable native speaker standard.

Cook (1998) claims that a reliance on the NS model sets students up to fail as even highly advanced bilinguals fell short when their grammaticality judgement was measured against a monolingual NS model (Coppieters, 1987). He also argues that variations in pronunciation or grammar should be viewed as “differences, not deficits” (Cook, 1998, p. 194). ELT in Japan is arguably dominated by the native speaker construct. Honna and Takeshita (1998) claim that NS English is held up as the linguistic model by which English is judged in almost every Japanese teaching context, with non-native speaker (NNS) varieties being seen as substandard and flawed. According to Honna and Takeshita, students are led to believe that producing anything less than native level English represents failure and shame, and that communication in English is directed towards an extremely limited group of American or British speakers who ‘own’ the language. In their study, however, it was also found that sessions highlighting L2 users from NNS contexts and the communicative role of Japanese English produced encouraging reactions from Japanese student teachers such an increasing awareness of, and respect for, non-native varieties of English.

Arguably more than in any other educational setting in Japan, the image of the native speaker is idolized in the eikaiwa (English conversation school) industry. Kubota (2011) analyses the motivation behind students entering eikaiwa schools and claimed that much of the business model and motivation behind attending classes was based on a kind of ‘akogare’ or longing for the escapism provided by an exotic, i.e. mostly Caucasian NS teacher rather than any real concern for language acquisition. Based on this study, in order to provide a more educational focus to those who are actually interested in learning a language, eikaiwa teachers may need to work on changing the beliefs and values within the institutions that they work in.

The use of NPRMs can also be linked to practices in therapy and counselling for drug addiction recovery, where a counsellor will call in someone of a similar age to the client and a history of similar problems as an ‘expert consultant’. This approach has been found to be successful because the similarities between the two convince the client that success is possible (Murphey & Murakami, 1998). By presenting students with a role model of the same ethnic background successfully communicating in English, students feel that if it is possible for the NPRM, then it is possible for them also. Murphey (1998a) also refers to a project involving NPRMs where students produced a video presenting ideas such as “Making mistakes in English is OK.” and “Japanese can become good speakers of English.” (Kushida, 1995). Student questionnaires distributed by the researcher show that the video was successful in changing ingrained student beliefs. A further study by Murphey and Arao (2001) showed the student produced video to 115 Japanese university students. In a qualitative section of the study, where participants were asked to give their impressions of the video, 95% of comments received were positive. It was also found that the participants’ statements of surprise or envy at the NPRMs performances often “went from ‘they’ descriptions of the video speakers abilities and beliefs to ‘I’ statements of desire to be like them or behave like them” (Murphey & Arao, 2001, p7).


Context and Participants
This study was conducted in a small private conversation school located in Gunma Prefecture, north-west of Tokyo. The participants in this study numbered 10 Japanese adult students attending one of three separate evening conversation classes that meet for one hour-long lesson per week. Participants ranged in age from early twenties to late fifties, 6 females and 4 males. The students had studied at the school from a period of six months to three years. Their estimated proficiency levels ranged from beginner to intermediate. This estimate is based on the set textbook being used in each case and the level of graded reader the participants felt comfortable with during their extensive reading homework. However, it should be noted that, due to the lack of formal assessment and the school’s internal policy of placing students in mixed level classes, this estimation was largely based on the researcher’s subjective impressions.

There were six NPRMs whose interviews were filmed for participants to watch. Four videos were made featuring both students and NNS (Japanese) English teachers from the school. They agreed to film the videos on the understanding that they would not be uploaded to any online video sites and that they would be only shown to students and used for this study anonymously (pseudonyms were used for this study). Two more NPRM videos were kindly provided by Harumi Ogawa from Iwate University.

NPRM videos
Mari and Kimiko –  Japanese English conversation school teachers
Tetsuo and Haru – Japanese English conversation school students
Rie – a Japanese EFL student at Iwate University
Liz – a Canadian student studying Japanese and Law at Iwate University (talked in Japanese about her own Japanese study)
Total: 5 Japanese learners of English, 1 Canadian learner of Japanese

Data Collection:

The video participants were asked to relate their experiences or opinions on different areas of their own language study. Their responses were recorded using the researcher’s smart phone and then saved onto a laptop for ease of display in class.

Over a three-week period, students were shown two short videos per class as a listening and then discussion activity. After viewing the final two videos, students were given a questionnaire to complete focusing on their impressions of the video participants. The questionnaire was written and completed anonymously in Japanese and later collected and submitted for professional translation into English. The rationale for this decision was that use of Japanese was likely to provide richer and more authentic responses from the respondents than having them complete the questionnaire in English. The questionnaire included the following questions as well as a section for unsolicited student responses to the videos:

1. What were your impressions of the videos we watched?

2. What from the videos could you apply to your own learning?

3. What did you learn about making mistakes in English?

4. What do you think about Japanese people’s ability to use English?

5. Which person was most impressive to you, and why?


Question 1. What were your impressions of the videos we watched?

The responses to this more general question were divided into two main themes. The majority of students expressed admiration towards both the NPRMs’ linguistic proficiency and their confidence when using English.

“They all look so amazing just because they can speak English.”

“I was jealous that everyone enjoyed talking.”

“I was impressed that Japanese people looked very confident when they talked and they had no preconception that they couldn’t speak English. They were good role models.”

The second theme observable from several students’ responses was a questioning of the idea that English needs to be spoken perfectly or to an NS standard in order to be a communicative tool.

“No one speaks fluently when they start learning a new language. But I’ve realized that if you use it every day, you get better.”

“It doesn’t really matter if the sentence is perfectly correct or not. People understand you. I think it is the same thing as foreigners speaking Japanese.”

Question 2. What from the videos could you apply to your own learning?

In terms of practical ideas for learning English, several responses displayed an interest in engaging in diary writing in the future, an idea provided by Mari in her video when she stated how much it had helped her improve in the past.

“I want to write a diary like Mari said. And I want to express what I want to say only with the words that I use.”

“I listen to music and watch movies almost every day, but I want to try to write a diary in English next.”

Many respondents also claimed that they intended to alter the way they thought about language learning in the future. This included adjusting their attitude towards mistakes and perfection, the need for perseverance or daily study, or trying to enjoy their language learning more.

“I want to try to focus on having people understand me rather than trying to use perfect grammar to talk. And also it’s important that we talk, listen and read in English on a daily basis.”

“Regardless of age or experience, I think it’s important to enjoy learning and continue doing it. Taking the initiative is the key.”

Question 3. What did you learn about making mistakes in English?

The majority of respondents stated that they learned that mistakes are not something to be afraid of, that other people don’t really care about second language speakers making mistakes, or that mistakes could be used as learning opportunities.

“I learned that the important things are to learn from mistakes and that I should not worry so much.”

“We don’t have to worry about making mistakes so much. We should not be too afraid when we talk. We are not a native speaker; it is normal that we make mistakes.”

“Making mistakes makes me strong. No one really cares when you make mistakes, just like I don’t.”

“Most people said that ’you should not be afraid to make mistakes’ and ‘there is no problem when you make mistakes.’ I want to use it as a chance to learn more when I make a mistake next time.”

However, one student displayed some hesitation regarding the idea, exhibited in most of the NPRM videos, that we should stop caring about making mistakes when we speak. The student stated that this would be a difficult thing for them to do.

“They tell me ‘Don’t be afraid to make mistakes!’, but it is not easy.”

Question 4. What do you think about Japanese people’s ability to use English?

A key theme that emerged from the responses to this question was a reexamination of the belief that those studying EFL need to have perfect grammar or resemble an NS in order to be effective English users. An over-emphasis on grammar by Japanese students was also highlighted in Rie’s NPRM video and by one of the respondents.

“Everyone seems to be stuck with the idea that they have to speak English with perfect grammar, and lots of people think that they can’t speak English because of it. People in the video were great.”

“It is almost impossible to sound like a native speaker, but I can get close to that.”

“Like Rie said, they care about the details of grammar rules too much and that’s why they can’t speak fluently.”

Some respondents also emphasized the need for actual practice using the target language in order to improve and questioned the commonly held belief that Japanese people cannot become fluent English speakers.

“Lots of Japanese people think that they can’t speak English and they don’t want to try, but I think there is a potential that they can become fluent if they study hard.”

Question 5. Which person was the most impressive to you and why?

The NPRMs that were found to have been selected most by students were Liz (4 respondents), Kimiko (3 respondents) and Tetsuo (2 respondents) with one respondent stating that they found every NPRM to be impressive.  Liz offered students a counter-perspective in regards to learning a foreign language as they were able to see that, although her Japanese contained grammatical errors, she was able to communicate effectively.

“Her Japanese wasn’t perfect but I understood what she wanted to say. It makes me feel like my English is fine too.”

“It was Liz. It was a good opportunity in that I could see myself learning English from the opposite point of view.”

Kimiko was chosen by students because of her excellent pronunciation and the outgoing and positive attitude she exhibited towards studying and using English.

“It was Kimiko, because her pronunciation was great and easy to listen to.”

“Kimiko seemed to have fun in the video. Her facial expressions were like those of foreign people. If everyone thinks ‘I don’t care at all’, we can be more positive about speaking English.”

“I was impressed that Kimiko was quite adventurous as she started learning English because she wanted to talk to foreigners.” 

Finally, Tetsuo was highlighted as an impressive NPRM by respondents due to his persistence in working on his weak points in English and his personal drive and interest in learning the language.

“Tetsuo kept doing a listening lesson repeatedly because he was not good at it. It’s great that he knows his weakness and continues practicing.”

“He was very driven. He taught me that it was very important to take the initiative and take action to learn English.”    


In examining the student responses to NPRM videos, the findings strongly support the potential value of peers, over a native speaker model, being utilized to inspire and advise students on their language learning. NPRMs served to facilitate a questioning of the validity and practicality of NS competence as a learning goal whilst also offering a more viable, achievable alternative for students to work towards. In relation to Lave and Wenger’s (1991) COP model, the speakers in the videos acted as ‘old timers’ that offered advice and encouragement to students acting as legitimate peripheral participants in a wider group of successful Japanese English speakers.

Liz, as a Japanese as a Foreign Language learner, was found to have had a significant impact on many of the respondents in the study by opening their eyes to an alternate perspective on the role of communication and mistakes when learning a language. They were able to see themselves in Liz and, in a position of power as native Japanese speakers, were able to experience first-hand how, even without perfect grammar, effective communication is achievable in an L2. Furthermore, hearing their Japanese peers, already proficient in English, reassuring them that mistakes were not something to be feared seemed to resonate with students as they heard the same message repeatedly from NPRMs of different ages and backgrounds.

Additionally, several of the respondents were able to take not only inspiration or motivational support, but also practical suggestions on how they could improve their English. Watching movies, using English on a daily basis, and diary writing were some of the NPRMs’ suggestions that respondents stated an intention to adopt in the future. There is arguably great value to students in these types of practical suggestions as they are able to see clear proof of success through the NPRMs’ English proficiency.

The major limitation of this study was the extremely limited number of participants. However, this was mainly due to the nature of eikaiwa classrooms being highly regulated, and it is perhaps unlikely that a much larger-scale study is possible due to institutional concerns such as requirements related to the minimum amount of textbook usage in class. Also, the participants were students taught regularly by the researcher and, to a certain extent, may have been indirectly swayed into stating what they thought the researcher wanted to hear despite the surveys being anonymous. Finally, this study provides only short-term reactions to NPRM videos and fails to investigate whether the positive effects found in the survey data would be present months or years later. Addressing these concerns in future studies would go some way to giving a fuller picture of the value NPRMs have, not only in university and eikaiwa classes, but in other areas as well.


Bandura, A. (1977). Self-efficacy: Toward a Unifying Theory of Behavioral Change. Psychological Review, 84(2), pp. 191-215.

Cook, V. (1999). Going Beyond the Native Speaker in Language Teaching. TESOL Quarterly, 33(2), pp. 185-209.

Coppieters, R. (1987). Competence differences between native and near-native speakers. Language, 63, 545-573.

Dörnyei, Z. (2005). The Psychology of the Language Learner. Individual Differences in Second Language Acquisition. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Honna, N. & Takeshita, Y. (1998). On Japan’s Propensity for Native Speaker English: A Change in Sight. Asian Englishes, 1(1), pp. 117-134.

Kubota, R. (2011). Learning a foreign language as leisure and consumption: enjoyment, desire, and the business of eikaiwa. International Journal of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism, 14(4), pp. 473-488.

Kushida, Y. (1995). Near peer role models. Unpublished senior thesis, Nanzan University.

Lave, J. & Wenger, E. (1991). Situated learning: Legitimate peripheral participation. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK.

Murphey, T. (1998a). Motivating with Near Peer Role Models. In B. Visgatis (Ed.), On JALT’97: Trends and Transitions (pp. 205-209). Tokyo: JALT.

Murphey, T. M. & Murakami, K. (1998). Teacher Facilitated Near Peer Role Modeling for Awareness Raising within the Zone of Proximal Development. Academia. Literature and language, 65, pp. 1-29.

Murphey, T. & Arao, H. (2001). Reported Belief Changes through Near Peer Role Modeling. TESL-EJ, 5(3), pp. 1-15.

Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Appendix 1. Student questionnaire (Japanese version)

性別:男 女

年齢:20歳以下 20~30歳 30~40歳 40~50歳 50~60歳 60歳以上

  1. 私たちが見たビデオの感想は?
  2. ビデオを見て自分の学習のためにどういかしたいですか?
  3. 英会話で失敗をするということについて何を学びましたか?
  4. 日本人の英会話力についてどう思いますか?
  5. どの人が一番印象的でしたか?なぜそう思いましたか?


Daniel Hooper has taught in Japan for 10 years and at the time of publication was studying at the Kanda MA TESOL program. His research interests are vocabulary, learner autonomy, teacher cognition, and critical pedagogy.

Dungeons and Dragons for Children

By Mel Thompson

Dungeons and Dragons (D&D) was created by Gary Gygax (1974), out of his passion as a child of playing war-games and battleship. D&D is a fantasy tabletop role-playing game where participants play in a world created by the Dungeon Master (DM) or Game Master (GM). The players design their own characters by choosing the stats themselves, for example: height, weight, gender, job, weapon, clothes, etc. Once the characters are established the DM creates the story or background for the players and details what quest they embark on. Quests could be: investigate a robbery, defeat a dragon, etc. The DM and the players will roll the dice to decide how certain events will unfold in the story until the quest is completed. This is a brief summary of how D&D is played.

For my students (ages 4-8), D&D is a great game to play as it involves learning English through playing. I control the dialogue, scenarios, and story, while the students decide their characters` fate. This gives me great control without them realizing that English is being learned to play. The imagination is the limit with D&D, as long as you can make the encounters and story fun for children with a chance to fight monsters, win treasure, and save the day as a hero they will be enthusiastic to play while using English. Examples of my encounters to get my students to use certain speech or grammar such as verbs include the following prompts: do they “run at the goblin?”, “fight the goblin?”, or “wait for him?”


  • D20 Dice for Instructor and students
  • Whiteboard with Markers
  • Draw out a map, monsters, and squares
  • Stickers
  • Prep time: 3 minutes
  • To scale down D&D for the EFL classroom, the materials and rules need to be tailored depending on the age and level of your students.

Example D&D Game:

For my youngest students 4 to 8 years old, it begins they are a band of friends looking to find treasure, in a cave, where an “evil” troll lives. If they can make it to the end and defeat the troll they win the treasure, which in real life I give them a sticker, which they love.

To help them visualize this with English words, drawn on the whiteboard is the game board (around 20 to 30 squares), with spaces labeled: traps, monster, riddle, fool the monster, and are you…?, At the end of the tunnel (or last square) is a typical Japanese “Oni’ picture next to a chest of gold, which you tell the children is the troll/monster. The children`s characters can either be designed on magnets or drawn on the board. You teach them the words needed to play the game such as treasure, monster, cave, numbers, and etc.

D&D can be broken down to its simplest form the D20 system, in which the D20 (20 sided polyhedral dice) dice is used. To play, the DM rolls the D20 first. The students then roll, if they can get a higher number than the DM, they can advance together as a team. The children call out what number they roll to see if they rolled higher, which gets them to practice numeracy. An example would be if the DM rolls a 15, the students have to roll a 16 or higher to advance on the squares. If 3 students beat a 15, they get to move three squares through the cave. If one student beats the DM’s roll of 15, they move once space. If no student can beat the DM’s roll they move back one space. The rules don’t need to be explicitly explained, they will figure it out by playing and watching.

The squares that were used in this game are labeled below:

When they encounter the trap square, a trap is activated; everyone must act together to escape the trap. For this all the students perform Total Physical Response (TPR) such as swim, run, jump, hop, fly, skip, walk, jog, etc. to evade the trap. Have fun and over exaggerate the trap and tell them they have to escape. They excitedly perform the list of TPR, you say in order to evade the trap and continue the story.

This encounter is taken from the many folktales of the hero who answers a riddle to get past a monster, gate, or bridge. For your students’ level, adjust to what they can handle or what you have already taught them. An example, “It’s white and black, what animal is it?” They will respond with panda, penguin, or zebra. You congratulate them on passing the challenge and ask all the students in turn. The next could be, “It’s big and brown, what it is?” Answer is bear. This goes on until everyone has a turn and once everyone succeeds they can move on to the next square.

With this encounter the children see a glimpse of a monster and must scare it away by doing TPR actions such as yell, shout, clap your hands, stamp your feet, etc. You act as the monster. When the students have performed the actions (loud enough) you act as the monster running away. They feel they are stronger than the monster and revel in being the one to scare the monster away. After this they can move to the next square.

Fool the Monster
In this encounter the students come across a monster and he asks them questions about themselves but they must not answer correctly. This can be used in a variety of ways, what’s your name, how old are you, where are you from etc. They must come up with false answers such as “My name is Hanako, I am 33 years old, I am from China” and so on. It is fun to play and they relish in being able to fool the monster. Once every student has had a turn they get to move to the next square.

Are you…?
During this encounter the students come across an old monster, who can barely see and he ask them questions of “Are you….?” The first couple of questions should be created to ensure students` answer `no`, for example “Are you a panda?”, “Are you sleepy?” “Are you a girl/boy”, “Are you twenty years old?” They practice saying, “Yes I am” and “No I’m not.” They like the definite no answers as you pretend to be a blind old monster and when they all get a turn to answer `yes` they move on to the next square.

Boss Fight!
When the children get to the last square they must fight the evil troll, which turns out to be you the teacher! The young students will gasp in surprise that it was you the entire time. To defeat you they must roll a high number on the D20 dice, for example over 17. When a student rolls over the set high number, they must battle through `Rock, Paper, and Scissors` to see if they can attack the monster. This is a great way to battle and the children’s imagination will fill in the rest of the fight. If the `monster sensei` loses three battles of Rock, Paper, Scissors the battle is over and the monster sensei gives away his valuable treasure of stickers. Each student is allowed to choose one sticker. This gives them an incentive to want to play again in the future as it makes them feel that they won something special.

This is a template of the English used in D&D for my students; you can adapt the English or grammar to fit your kids or the lesson’s needs. Feel free to try new encounters and ways of getting the students to engage in English with this game.

As the instructor/DM, you can set or change the rules to help the students to progress while keeping the rules understandable to their respective levels of English. There are many benefits of D&D. You can make a continuous story with your students when you play. This is great as it will keep their interest and feel they are progressing through a story, which they are getting to make choices. For you as the instructor you get to craft a story that gets them to use the English you want them to practice. Dungeons and Dragons has given my students a wonderful way to play and use English instead of drills. It’s a great device to get them to practice English, while they are focused on playing a game.

Mel Thompson has been teaching in Japan since 2011, after teaching children in Gunma for 2 years earned a Diploma in Montessori Education and TESOL Certification for Children. He currently teaches children from ages 3 to 15 years old. He enjoys the Montessori philosophy of teaching children to learn through exploration and playing games. His interest include having fun, and finding ways of teaching children English outside the box.

Making Free Speaking Accessible to Everyone in Classroom Settings

By Amy Russo

Everyone (teachers, students, schools) wants students to speak. Not only to speak, but to communicate and express themselves in meaningful ways freely and with confidence. Despite this, free speaking in a classroom setting is not systematically included in most curriculums. It is often thought notoriously difficult to organize and evaluate, plus not achievable by all levels of students. A common concern is that adding a free speaking exercise will backfire: one-word answers, blank stares, unhappy faces, frustration, and shutting down. Thus free speaking seems to be a high (unattainable) ideal achieved only by “best students,” which renders it useless for the vast majority of classrooms. This is a situation the author has had many times, but over time has learned the problem was not due to a lack of grammar/vocabulary, not due to a bad attitude/disinterest and not too far above student level. It boiled down to this: students literally do not know what to do and teachers do not know how to evaluate or smoothly incorporate it. This leads to infrequent practice with topics not at student levels, and when students cannot smoothly do the activity it is treated as further evidence that free speaking is not doable. It then seems to teachers and students alike backfire is a given, which further entrenches the feeling that free speaking is a nice thing, but just not practical.

Free speaking (if scaled correctly) is not only accessible for all classrooms, but also deeply academically and individually beneficial. This paper will outline a method that has been successfully used at two high schools to make free speaking accessible to everyone. Free speaking skills can be acquired through a leveled series of non-threatening high return small victories, where everyone can see the visible progress. The first half of this paper will introduce goals for free speaking exercises, along with strategies to achieve these goals. By clearly delineating goals and strategies, bite-sizes chunks will be created. Those chunks make evaluating free speaking manageable for teachers and performing free speaking becomes a defined task for students with the opportunity for self-evaluation and improvement.

The second half of this paper will introduce a fast, flexible, and fun free speaking exercise; AAA. This exercise fits the strategies and goals of part one, and is therefore also easy to use as an evaluation tool. A little bit of background, AAA (sometimes called QA+1R) is a junior high school conversation activity to promote impromptu speaking, reactions, and active listening in 2 minute rounds. This is a scalable activity that can be used from junior high school (JHS) 1st grade and up. After every few practices, you “level up” the activity to help students naturally develop conversation skills. (See Figure A) Students speak in complete sentences and aim to speak as smoothly and much as possible; students can use prompt cards. AAA is the high school version and stands for ANSWER, ADD and ASK, which starts roughly at the lesson 8 pattern. This paper will describe the version of AAA used by our schools, but we recommend other teachers to adjust AAA to their student current level. Russo Figure A

Free Speaking Goals
Communication = Sharing your ideas: if your partner understands then you are successful.
Fluency = Sharing your ideas smoothly and keep a conversation going with your partner.
Accuracy = Using easy, comfortable words and grammar your partner knows.

This order of importance is critical. A common student problem is an excessive focus on accuracy, which leads to one-word answers, long pauses, etc. When students have trouble doing a speaking task, it adds to their internal belief that speaking cannot be done. To combat this, students were instructed, “In free speaking, accuracy is something we like; it’s great, but it is our third goal and is only ‘times 1 or一倍’ important. Communication and Fluency are the top two goals and worth ‘times 3 or 三倍’ important. ” Students must periodically review these goals. All students at my both my mid-level and high-level academic high school could utilize these goals.

Strategies for the Free Speaking Goals
Communication: 1) reactions 2) gestures 3) facial expressions 4) voice tone 5) detailed sentences.
Strategy 1: Reactions are the signposts of language that show your partner that you hear and understand. Students have consistently sought these functions: happy, interested, surprised, sad, support, and agree/disagree (see Figure B). Mostly these functions are accomplished with short phrases using familiar words. This makes it perhaps the fastest way to improve speaking performance. To increase energy level and memorability, teaching gestures are closely tied with reactions. For example, teachers can pair “That’s great” with thumbs up or “I see” with touching your eye then pointing out. Teachers serve as models by reacting through class over the year, which shows good teamwork and correct timing for reactions. Having students practice the gestures/reactions combinations with a partner works well.

Russo Figure B

Strategy 2: Teachers show students that communication is far more than just words. Over 90% of communication is non-verbal, made up of body language and voice tone. Students use their whole bodies: eye contact, facial expression, voice tone, and gestures. For example, teachers demonstrate by doing a thumbs-up and say, “That’s great” twice, the first time in a bright, happy tone and the second in bored monotone. Students are asked to mimic and compare the different feelings.

Strategy 3: Good communicators volunteer information. Students should use complete sentences and aim to have at least two ideas. A simple sentence contains one idea, e.g. I like ice cream. A detailed sentence contains two ideas, e.g. I like baseball and I am in the baseball club (See Figure C). Detailed sentences require the speaker to produce more language and expand the field of conversation.

Russo Figure C

Fluency: 1) Ask follow-up questions 2) Talk around unknown words or change topic

Strategy 4: The ability to make questions is vitally important to conversation, but while students know how they rarely exercise the skill. This can make students slow at producing questions, so making question formation more automatic is key. A conversation partner has the responsibility to listen actively and seek information through asking follow-up questions. Teachers illustrate follow up questions by using a nested set of 4 questions (See Figure D), that the ALT asks the JTE. After each answer, the ALT quickly draws a picture on the board of what is known so far. Then the ALT says, “I understand some now, but not enough.” The ALT asks the next question and updates the drawing (See Figure E). After all questions have been asked, teachers will have illustrated through the drawing how everyone can finally understand clearly the what, who, where, and why of the JTE’s story. Students work in pairs and ask the prompt question followed by three original follow-up questions and ‘draw a picture in their heads.’

Russo Figure D and E

Strategy 5: Students have a tendency to stall, if they cannot think of the perfect thing to say or how to translate their desired phrase. Students should work on talking around unknown words using “It’s like ___” or using gestures to explain. Students should also try for good teamwork and help their partner find words by providing assistance, “Do you mean __?” or “You mean, __?” Students can always change topic as well by saying, “By the way, [New question]?” It is important that students do not see changing topics as failing, but rather as another way to make a conversation smooth.

Accuracy; 1) KISS: Keep it short and simple.
Strategy 6: Students should use grammar and words that are comfortable for them. A general rule of thumb is if you would need to check the dictionary for a word it’s too hard. Students should understand it is not cheating to use simple, clear English.

Thoughts on Scaling
Adding any number of the strategies will benefit your students (without or without AAA). For example, I start off my mid-level academic school by only introducing reactions + gestures (Strategy 1) and having them practice making chains of follow-up questions (Strategy 4) at first. Students practice a few lessons before I start slowing adding the other strategies in (takes about 1 semester) and build towards AAA (the following semester). The key point is to make free speaking look really doable to students, so they relax and engage with teachers praising all effort and so students can gain confidence and over time improve as number strategies in use goes up.

PART TWO: Using AAA Goal-Oriented Self-Evaluation
Now that the goals and the strategies used to achieve them are clear, free speaking become a known quantity and measureable. This section will detail the AAA used at my schools. Figure F is the version of AAA I use at my high level academic high school with more detailed requirements of students. For my mid-level academic school, I adjust the requirements, making them more open. For example, I write only ANSWER, ADD, and ASK on the board without listing requirements for a detailed sentence or follow-up question. Scaling AAA (or QA+1R) to your current students is recommended; starting with simpler instructions often produces best results.

Russo Figure F

Russo Figure G

Activity Procedure:

  1. Students play rock/paper/scissors. The winner is A, and the partner is B. Students aim to have good Communication and Fluency. (worth x3 )
  2. A introduces a topic (either given or original) by saying, “By the way [Question?]” At first, it is best to choose easy factual questions, “what did you do on Sunday?” or simple preference, “what kind of food do you like?”
  3. B ANSWERs using a detailed sentence and then ADDs a related second sentence (simple or detailed) and A reacts.
    B ASKs a follow-up question.
  4. A then ANSWERs, ADDs and ASKs in the same way, while B reacts. Students continue for 2 minutes. If necessary, students change topics by saying, “By the way [New Question].”
  5. Afterwards, stop and have students do a self-evaluation together. (See Figure G) They evaluate their performance on the scale 1 to 7 for the 3 goals and count their questions (average is 4, high is 10). Students should then consider how to improve during the second practice; what should they do differently?
  6. Repeat with a new partner. It is convenient if done in groups of 4 people; students work with the person in front first and next to them second.

To add a game element, simply find the pair with the most questions.  Start low and work high, asking the class “Who has one question?” then “Who has two questions?” and so on, praising students at each number.  It is also a good idea to challenge students to get more questions or improve their Communication or Fluency numbers the second practice.

Using the sheet below in Figure H, the first introductory lesson may take about 30-40 minutes to complete. (You can contact the author for related worksheet[1])  Students then can practice once a week doing two 2-mintue AAA conversations as warm-ups.  After 6 weeks, students can take a practice test during their regular team-teaching (TT) class.  Each teacher listens to 10 pairs in 45 minutes, giving about four minutes for each pair.  While others are being tested, the remaining students do active group work to create sufficient background white noise.  After the test, students receive comments on how to improve. The practice test helps both students and teachers get used to the grading system and become active participants. Students do 4 more weeks of AAA and then are given a real test during TT. This whole process can be done in one semester, but doing it continuously is recommended. Students can lose some gains if the skills are not exercised. The outcome in my classes was clear: students understood how to develop conversation on an abstract level, gained many positive experiences using English, learned to produce English more automatically, talk about themselves, and improve self/peer/teacher feedback over time.

Russo Figure H

Often students spend all their time building the tools of language (vocabulary, grammar etc.), but little time learning their proficient use; students are passive in their language development. However, this can be changed through systematic inclusion of leveled free speaking in curriculums. Free speaking (in combinations of strategies and/or AAA) can be made to fit all levels of classrooms and so give students a change to take an active role in their language learning. Our students excel at meeting expectations, if they can see how and why, teachers can utilize this by making free speaking a part of our expectations of what is possible. Bottom line, everyone can win: leveled free speaking not only fosters a sense of personal accomplishment and reinforces skills for all English classes but also provides both students and teachers a practical road map for advancement.

Amy Russo teaches structured writing and free speaking at Maebashi Girls High School and Maebashi Minami High School. She helped start and design a 2 year graded reading program for all first and second year students at Maebashi Girls. Her research interests include: L2 learning autonomy, long-term L2 retention and motivation, and fluency in speaking and writing in L2 classrooms. She can be contacted at


Dassow, T. How to Teach Speaking: Lesson Plan Guide. ALT Scene Retrieved May 30, 2015 from <>