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 <>

ALT’s Thoughts on Teaching in Japan

By Johan Saputra Muljadi

In 2013, I decided to survey 20 junior high school ALTs of Maebashi City focusing on two particular focal points: what aspects of the current team-teaching situation are disliked and what makes a good team-teaching environment.

Muljadi Table 1

Table 1 illustrates team-teaching situations ALTs dislike. In “The English taught/used in activities is authentic”, 0 participants strongly agreed and only 3 participants agreed, and the remaining 9 slightly agreed, 5 slightly disagreed, and 3 disagreed. This could suggest that ALTs ideas are still heavily controlled by JTEs on what is allowed and disallowed in the classroom. In the additional space on my questionnaires for teachers to comment, a teacher wrote “some JTEs have very low-confidence in themselves and are afraid to ask for help from the ALTs or have an ALT in their class. This mentality should be changed”. Another teacher wrote, “I’m pretty lucky with my JTEs; they’re strong teachers, open to ideas and know how to get the best out of me and the class”. The common norm is JTEs advising ALTs to construct communicative activities from pages of the textbook students had learned in class. JTEs are often critical on the content as JTEs would advise the ALTs, “I think it is too difficult for the students because they have not learned it”. On a positive note, during my years of team-teaching with one JTE, where possible she would allow me to have a freer role where I could implement a series of communication activities reciting grammar patterns they learned in class. When she decided that the lesson must be on textbooks or worksheets, it naturally became livelier simply because there were two teachers in the classroom; the students could freely ask questions, work in small groups, and the teacher could tailor to individual needs. From this I would like address the importance of authenticity in language learning. Transforming textbook materials into communicative activities is always possible, but it requires improvisation and language input from the native speaker in order to achieve authenticity. Even without a concrete plan for communicative activities, in lessons where the ALT is present, authentic communication can be achieved through the reinforcement of classroom language such as, “excuse me, I don’t understand this question”, etc.

The other focal point that I would like to draw attention to is the sixth question of the survey, “My JTEs have the English skills needed to communicate clearly with me about lesson planning”. Three participants strongly agreed, 4 agreed, 6 slightly agreed, 1 slightly disagreed, and 6 disagreed. This evidence shows a drastic improvement from what McConnell (2000:211) referred to as “language skills road block”. McConnell concluded upon his findings between 1993 to 1999, “…deficiency in English conversational ability led many JTEs to fear loss of face in the classroom and in the teacher’s room”. Most JTEs found it difficult to convey what they really thought about the ALTs ideas, partially because JTEs resisted surrendering some autonomy in the classroom. It has become an exciting opportunity for the students because in general, present Japanese teachers have better English communication skills. This could suggest that team teaching lessons today are not largely spent on reading or translation.

Learner English (2001), Team Teaching (1990), Planet Eigo: Down To Earth Team Teaching (2007), Team Teaching: What, Why, and How (2000), Professional Development for Language Teachers (2005), are great resources that should be available in every public school in Japan or given during orientation. Brown (2014), Christmas (2014), Hahn (2013), Hamamoto (2012), Hiratsuka (2013), Macedo (2002), Ogawa (2011), Rapley (2010) and Tahira (2012) research articles are also worth reading, especially to JTEs more than ALTs. These articles should be translated into Japanese so JTEs can understand how ALTs really feel. In the near future, as I now live in Sagamihara city in Kanagawa prefecture, I am interested to know about the team-teaching situation and how they are different or similar to Maebashi City.

Johan Saputra Muljadi is currently working for the British Council in Tokyo. He is the lead teacher of English at a private elementary school in Yokohama. His research interests include: homework and testing for young learners and the development of team-teaching in public schools. He can be contacted at


Brown, J. D. (2014). On The Way to Effective Team Teaching. Retrieved May 24, 2015 from

Brumby, S. and Wada, M. (1990). Team Teaching. Hong Kong: Longman.

Buckley, F. J. (2000). Team Teaching: What, Why, and How? California: Sage Publications, Inc.

Christmas, J. (2014). Challenges with creating professional development workshops for Japanese elementary school teachers. The Language Teacher, 38(6), p3-9.

Hahn, A. (2013). Training teachers. The Language Teacher, 37(3), p19-22.

Hamamoto, S. (2012). Elementary Teachers’ views on English teaching. The Language Teacher, 36(5), p5-6.

Hiratsuka, T. (2013). Beyond the rhetoric: Teachers’ and students’ perceptions of student learning in team-teaching classes. The Language Teacher, 37 (6), p9-15.

Macedo, A. R. (2002). Team-Teaching: Who Should Really Be In Charge? A Look At Reverse Vs. Traditional Team-Teaching. University of Birmingham, Retrieved May 24, 2015 from

McConnell, David. L. (2000). Importing Diversity – Inside Japan’s JET Program. Los Angeles: University of California Press.

MEXT. (2007). Planet Eigo: Down To Earth Team Teaching. Tokyo: Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology.

Ogawa, C. (2011). Perceptions about team teaching: From Assistant Language Teachers and Japanese Teachers of English. JALT 2010 Conference Proceeding, Retrieved 24 May, 2015 from

Rapley, D. J. (2010). Learning to Speak English: Japanese junior high school student views. The Language Teacher, 34(6), p33-40.

Richards, J. C. & Farrell, T. S. C. (2006). Professional Development for Language Teachers: Strategies for Teacher Learning. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Sutherland, S. (2011). Team teaching English in Japan: An English as a lingua franca analysis. Saarbrucken: Lambert Academic Publishing.

Swan, M. & Smith, B. (2001). Learner English: A teacher’s guide to interference and other problems. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Tahira, M. (2012). Behind MEXT’s new Course of Study Guidelines. The Language Teacher, 36(3), p3-8.



by Michele Steele

Walking down the hill to the station, I encountered a pack of high school kids, mostly boys, riding their bicycles to school. Their faces were glistening with perspiration from the effort of riding in the early morning heat. They wore blazers and striped ties, the uniforms I have been told are worn by the students who go to low-level high schools. This is a great tragedy of school uniforms – the social hierarchy that is established as a result, the marking at such an early age. These kids are said to be the ones who never studied and who care nothing about responsibility.

I looked into their faces, watched the evident strain as they pumped their legs to propel their bicycles up the slope, saw in their eyes an earnestness, an inextinguishable determination to reach their destination. In that moment they were the greatest winners in the world, and I loved them all.

Michele Steele has been involved with JALT for over fifteen years, almost as long as she has lived in Gunma. She works as a university instructor, primarily at Gunma Women’s Prefectural University.

How Teaching in Japan Redefined My Pedagogical Beliefs

By Stephanie Ortiz

As my teaching assignment in Japan comes to an end, I have been reflecting on how my teaching beliefs have shifted over the course of the last three years. Beliefs about language learning and pedagogy stem from life experiences, self-discovery, workplace experiences, and what “works” in a particular setting (Graves, 2000). The experiences that I have gathered have helped me improve as an educator and have helped me to further develop how I approach language teaching. The following is a basic set of teaching beliefs that have emerged and that offer me new ways to appreciate my journey as a language teacher.

My View of Teaching
I believe in my students. They come with life experiences that are as diverse as the languages of the world. In exchange for a communicative tool, they offer their stories and a part of their lives. I believe that being a good teacher means that I do my best to make information accessible to all my students, considering their varying cultural and economic backgrounds. In serving students, I want to remain passionate, actively pursuing learning opportunities within professional fields to learn current methods and implement these in the classroom. I want to help students to value diversity and ethnic differences by facilitating a community within the classroom.

My View of Learners
Good learners are actively engaged in the learning process and growing a capacity for autonomy is at the core of success in language teaching (McCarthy, 1998). A curriculum that includes training can extend students’ learning beyond the classroom with the knowledge to perform successful strategies and ways of expressing themselves (Brown, 2007). In order to do this, the goals should be discussed with the students in each lesson so that they have an understanding of the relevance of topics. Providing goals helps students focus on their talents and experiences which is a skill that they can carry beyond the classroom (Brown, 2007). Self-awareness creates opportunities for students to accomplish such tasks as generating input and using contextual cues to decipher information that moves the learner out of the comfort zone.

My View of Language Learning
Meaningful Learning expresses that new information is taken in by the learner and is built upon the foundation of existing, learned information (Brown, 2007). Capitalizing on students’ interests, academic goals, and career goals helps learners anchor everything possible to the foundation of existing knowledge and facilitates association and retention.

Motivation is a central variable in the success of acquisition (Brown, 2007). A motivated person can tap into goal-directed behaviour to accomplish tasks. Deci & Deci (1985) have argued that a learner’s motivation should be connected to the course or the teacher for the reward to bear significance (as cited in Kover &Worrell, 2010). Goal-directed behaviour does help in acquisition. Language learning is a tedious process and the ability to self-regulate is instrumental to success.

The Social Context of Language
Language is a dynamic system and a by-product of communication. Proficiency in a language is not measured by memorization of forms and structures but on information exchanges. How proficiency is determined becomes complicated by the native speaker debate; however, the validity of a “native speaker standard” should be questioned. It is not realistic to attempt this status or to compare the ability of an L2 user with a native speaker; this is simply a marker of one’s first language. Instead, the goal should be centred on an L2 user’s success in exchanging ideas, or communicative competence.

Learners are shaped by their social environments and depend on interaction in social spaces to become competent in communicative contexts (Zuengler & Miller, 2006). The sociocultural view of language learning states that language use in meaningful, authentic situations is the most important component of effective learning (Zuengler & Miller, 2006). Therefore, the teacher’s role is that of a facilitator, creating student-centred tasks which give learners genuine ways of using the target language.

I have learned that the students’ goals for language learning may not coincide with communicative goals. Some students need to acquire language for entrance into a university or to take a qualifying exam. In such cases, communication will not be relevant to the students and a structure-based approach to teach grammatical rules and vocabulary may be more appropriate. The teacher should operate in the best interest of the students.

Culture carries the behaviours, attitudes, beliefs, values, and perception of the world that a group filters into language. Social and psychological contact with the culture of the target language community is critical to acculturation. Adoption of the lifestyle and values of the community is not required, but attitude towards the target culture will directly affect success in acquisition. As a learner interacts, a new mode of thinking develops and a new identity emerges (Duff, 2007).

Learners coming from other countries bring with them new perspectives and are teachers themselves. Learners are an opportunity for teachers to re-examine their own perspectives and methods. Students from other cultures can challenge social constructs and provide new perspectives that can lead to important critical reflection (Smith, 2009).

Although these set of beliefs are not exhaustive, I have found it very therapeutic to revisit what informs my pedagogy and to discover how I have grown and what I understand. As I continue to work in the field of TESOL, I look forward to reflecting on my experiences and re-examining what makes the profession so meaningful to me.

Stephanie Ortiz has taught English in Japan since 2012 while simultaneously completing her M.A. in TESOL from Azusa Pacific University in California. She has over ten years of experience teaching in schools to learners of various levels and cultural backgrounds. As she prepares to return home, Stephanie is interested in pursuing a career in administration to assist international students and immigrants to the United States.


Brown, H. D. (2007). Teaching by Principles: An interactive approach to language pedagogy. White Plains, NY; Pearson Education.

Duff, P. (2007). Second language socialization as sociocultural theory: Insights and issues. Language Teaching, 40, 309-319.

Graves, K. (2000). Designing language courses. New York, NY: Heinle & Heinle.

Kover, D. J., & Worrell, F. C. (2010). The influence of instrumentality beliefs on intrinsic motivation: A study of high achieving adolescents. Journal of Advanced Academics, 21(3), 473.

McCarthy, C. P. (1998). Learner training for learner autonomy on summer language courses. The Internet TESOL Journal, IV(7), 1-6.

Smith, D. I. (2009). Learning from the stranger: Christian faith and cultural diversity. Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing.

Zuengler, J., & Miller, E. (2006). Cognitive and sociocultural perspectives: Two parallel SLA worlds? TESOL Quarterly, 40(1), 35-53.

Writing Fluency – A Case of Ten Minutes Timed Writing

By Kayvon Havaei-Ahary

Developing active learners is quite a common target in English language education these days, but it can be quite difficult to define. Most interpretations pertain to a communicative and learner-centred approach, in which students` actively participate in the learning process (Richards and Rodgers 2001).

However, what seems to be overlooked in the process of having students interact and communicate more, is the need for students to generate the conversation and initiate their own learning. From this perspective, I think that questioning skills play an important role in facilitating the development of active learners, and thus opportunity for students to ask and form their own questions needs to be fostered in the classroom.

Student generated questions are quite rare in my own teaching context at a senior high school and seem to be particularly demanding on them. It is easy to see the value in having our student`s ask questions: They aid the learning process (help us know what the student`s want or need to know), develop a more natural and interactive learning environment between teacher and students, develop more autonomous learners, and develop student`s critical thinking (Rothstein & Santana 2011). Given the value of their function in language it`s surprising that in most EFL contexts it gains little attention.

From the basis of the EFL classroom it is quite easy to see why such a paradigm has developed. It predominately fosters an answer dominated pedagogy and promotes the idea that answers are more important than questions. This bias is clearly evident in most language learning textbooks, in which the actual opportunities for students to ask questions (and form their own questions) are very limited. In addition, from my own experience I have been guilty of assuming that when a student understands and answers a question that they can also form the same question type, but as we know this is quite a different skill. This is not necessarily a more difficult skill, but it requires practice in the classroom.

Therefore, I propose the need for employing more question-centred activities in the classroom and more opportunity for students to ask questions, as a means of developing more confident, active, and inquisitive students. For the rest of this paper I will go through a number of question-centered activities that have benefited me, and will hopefully give you some new ideas of how to give your students the opportunity to practice creating questions in the classroom, and thus hopefully motivate them to become more active learners.

1. Dictation

  • Read a sentence from a text to the students.
  • Ask students to write a transcript of the sentence while you read it.
  • If the students do not ask any clarification questions, continue reading the next sentence.

    *When students start to fall behind, it will force them to ask you for help (e.g. learning English is `what`?). If students are unable to ask the questions they want to, provide them with some examples.
    *This activity can be followed by pair or group dictation.

2. Course reporters

  • Put students into pairs or groups.
  • Tell the students to make a list of questions they have about the course or lesson (e.g. what topics will we study? How much homework will we have?).
  • Get students to ask you the questions after preparing them.
  • Students should record the questions asked and the teacher`s answers.

    *This could be developed into a needs analysis in which students rate the information they have collected in a likert-scale of 1-5.

3. Getting to know your classmates ( jigsaw activity)

  • Split your class into equal groups (e.g. 4 groups of 4).
  • Assign each group a topic (e.g. English, hobbies, family, travel // music, sports, movies, food).
  • Tell each group to write 4 questions about their topic using 4 question types, e.g. What, Who, Where, When (you can choose the question types).
  • Each group`s members must write the same 4 questions.
  • After groups have created their questions, assign each group member a number, e.g.: Group 1: student 1, student 2, student 3, student 4 Group 2: student 1, student 2, student 3, student 4 Group 3: student 1, student 2, student 3, student 4 Group 4: student 1, student 2, student 3, student 4
  • Tell all student 1s to form a new group, all student 2s to form a new group, etc.
  • In their new groups students must ask their 4 questions to all of their new members and record all the answers.
  • After all students have asked their questions they must return to their original groups and create a table of all the information.
  • Then each group must present their information to the rest of the class.

4. Memory-tag

  • Get students to write 3 questions they would like to ask their classmates (e.g. what is your favorite food?).
  • Put the students into groups of 4.
  • Have students take turns in asking their questions to all group members.
  • The students need to remember their group members` answers, but they cannot record the answers.
  • Once all group members have asked all of their questions, break the students from their groups.
  • Tell them to try and recall all of the answers to their questions (give them a short time limit of about 2-3 minutes).
  • Tell the students that they will have a chance to check and confirm the information by asking their group members tag-questions (depending on the level of the students this may have to be demonstrated).
    *optional: Give them time to prepare the tag questions they will ask.
  • Re-group the students into their groups and have them ask each other their tag-questions.
  • For each piece of information they recorded correctly they get one point.
  • The student that gets the most points is the winner.


Kayvon Havaei-Ahary comes from England. He has been teaching English for 4 years at a Japanese senior high school on the JET (Japanese Exchange and Teaching) Programme and is currently studying for his masters in TESOL at Nottingham University via distance learning. He is particularly interested in task-based learning and developing creative ways in which language can be taught in the EFL classroom. You can contact him at


Richards, J., & Rodgers, T. (2001). Approaches and methods in language teaching (2nd ed.). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Rothstein, D. & Santana, L. (2011). Make Just One Change: Teach Students to Ask Their Own Questions Harvard Education Press.

Listen: New research informing EFL reading comprehension

By Anna Husson Isozaki

All EFL instructors know the difference between English decoded or “deciphered” aloud (Kanatani, 2014) by learners without a sense of the pronunciation expected and the rhythm and stress required, versus fluent communicative oral reading. This difference is one which often shows whether the students understand what they are reading, or not. John Fanselow, professor emeritus of Teacher’s College, Columbia University, comments that he can instantly see if learners understand what they are saying, or reading aloud, by watching their body language; overly-still hands or lack of congruent expressions betray that someone is “reciting” rather than speaking in English (Fanselow, 1992, p. 118, 122; Fanselow, 2014). Similarly, when we listen to reading aloud by our learners, we can usually guess if it is done with or without comprehension (see also Wolf, 2008, p.123).

More reading work is, unsurprisingly, usually the first recommendation to improve reading skills and comprehension, but EFL learners in Japan face particular challenges which sometimes hamper the effectiveness of this approach. Japanese and English are almost as far apart as two human languages can be (Pinker, 1994, p.111) and while many languages’ written forms are easily decodable, English is at the far end of the spectrum of difficulty (Ziegler & Goswami, 2006, p.430). While children from other L1 settings can often easily decode new words in their L1, English L1 readers tend to need more time (Wolf, 2008, p.152). We know also that English is a stress-timed language, and much of what is communicated comes through prosody in its delivery (Whalley & Hansen, 2006). Furthermore, much of that communicative information is not visible in the written form of English (Whalley & Hansen, 2006, p.299).

What can concerned teachers of EFL, with limited class time, do to help students over the hump from decoding toward fluent, comprehending, unimpeded reading? Fortunately, there has been significant progress in research within the last decade. Some the findings are initially surprising.

Catherine Walter’s (2008) research shows decisively that, at least in alphabetical languages, words both heard and read briefly enter working memory in audio form to search for a match, also held in audio form, in long term memory. She writes: “L1 readers of these languages do not mentally see what they have just read: They hear it” (Walter, 2008, p. 458). A match-up, when found, is the “light bulb” moment – comprehension. Misheard, mispronounced or misread words are like wrong numbers punched into a cash machine; unable to connect to the bank (longterm memory), and unable to complete a transaction (reach comprehension). Walter’s suggestions are for bolstering listening skills in EFL students to support the development of their reading, and she lists a number of strategies to consider, including simultaneous listening and reading, as with graded readers with audio (Walter, 2008, p.470).

Consensus among researchers since Goswami and Bryant (1990) has been that phonological skills underpin reading development and the case has been strengthening ever since (Ziegler & Goswami, 2006; see also Wolf, 2008, p.117), with increasing attention to prosodic sensitivity (Magne & Brock, 2012; Whalley & Hansen, 2006). In Japan, Meredith Stephens (2011a, 2011b) has been calling for instructors to put this knowledge into practice: “Exposure to prosody in the form of aural input, before learning to read may help students develop reading comprehension more efficiently” (2011b, p. 71), also suggesting in the ELT Journal:

Simultaneous listening and reading are clearly of benefit to all L2 learners, but this practice may be especially suited to learners whose L1 is distant from English…. Extensive reading materials should thus be used in tandem with audio recordings…. EFL students should be encouraged to listen… before they read and while they are reading. (Stephens, 2011a, pp. 312-313)

In Taiwan, relevant experimental research has been producing valuable evidence for the EFL classroom (Chang, 2009, 2011; Chang & Millett, 2014). In a recent study, university learners tried graded reader stories in three conditions: reading only, listening only, and reading and listening together. The results were clear, with the strongest improvements in listening comprehension and fluency from reading and listening together (Chang & Millett, 2014). This follows on an earlier study which showed dramatic improvements in vocabulary acquisition for high school students who combined listening and reading (Chang, 2011).

While those experiments tested primarily for growth in listening comprehension, parallel experiments could be promising. Mentally, we hear words as we read or write them in our L1, and as we become competent in reading new languages, we listen to an inner voice in those as well. Probably the most prominent proponent of extensive reading, Dr. Rob Waring, recommends an extensive reading library be a collection of loanable books-and-audio sets (Waring, 2003). With more research now to back our developing practice, it would be interesting to see future investigations following Walter’s and Stephens’ suggestions and examining how proactively integrating listening into reading projects may influence, and likely benefit, learners’ reading comprehension and fluency.

Anna Husson Isozaki teaches reading and listening, journalism, and media studies part-time at Gunma Prefectural Women’s University. Her research interests include: L2 literacy acquisition, media, and learner collaboration and critical thinking in the L2 classroom. She can be contacted at


Chang, A. C.-S. (2009). Gains to L2 listeners from reading while listening vs. listening only in comprehending short stories. System, (37)4, 652-663. doi:10.1016/j.system.

Chang, A. C.-S. (2011). The effect of reading while listening to audiobooks: Listening fluency and vocabulary gain. Asian Journal of English Language Teaching, 21, 43-64.

Chang, A. C.-S. & Millett, S. (2014). The effect of extensive listening on developing L2 listening fluency: some hard evidence. ELT Journal.68 (1), 31-41. doi:10.1093/elt/cct052

Fanselow, J. (1992). Try the opposite. Tokyo, Japan: Simul Press.

Fanselow, J. (2014, March 14). Rosetta Stone. [Web log post]. Retrieved from http://

Goswami, U. & Bryant, P. (1990). Phonological skills and learning to read. East Sussex, UK: Psychology Press.

Kanatani, K. (2014, March 10).学校英語教育の課題 [The problems in English education in schools]. Speech presented at Gunma Prefectural Women’s University, Tamamura, Japan.

Magne, C. & Brock, M. (2012). Reading acquisition and phonological awareness: beyond the segmental level. American Journal of Neuroscience, 3(1), 10-16.

Pinker, S. (1994). The Language Instinct. New York, NY: William Morrow and Company.

Stephens, M. (2011a). The primacy of extensive listening. ELT Journal, 65(3), 311-313. doi: 10.1093/elt/ccq042

Stephens, M. (2011b). Why exposure to prosody should precede the teaching of reading. The Language Teacher, 35(4), 68–73. Retrieved from

Walter, C. (2008). Phonology in second language reading: Not an optional extra. TESOL Quarterly, 42(3), 455-474.

Waring, R. (2003, Nov. 23). Graded readers for extensive reading AND listening. Presentation to JALT, Shizuoka. Retrieved from

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The Gas-Mask

By John Larson

On my way to school yesterday, I saw that they had decided to demolish the old laundromat near my station. They had one of those demolition machines with the scissor beak attached to the industrial arm. I saw the guy in the sealed control booth had this gas-mask on. And that immediately concerned me because here I was just walking past without any protection, sucking in whatever he was kicking up. However, I later reasoned that he probably had the mask on because he was in that environment constantly, day after day, year after year, and that by just briefly walking by I was in no real danger.

At school, we process boys and girls, round off their sharp edges, make them into people. We take in awkward pieces of humanity and turn out thinking members of society. To accomplish this we encourage, we love, we praise. We also coax, we threaten, we punish.

What happens to those of us who are trapped in this stone tumbler day after day, year after year? Where do all these joys crystallize? How far have all these malignant fibers woven into our subconscious? Who of us knows how to protect ourselves? When have we breathed enough to make any protection useless?

John Larson teaches English at Isesaki High School and is the man who pulls it all together as President of Gunma JALT. As a student, he wrote as a columnist for his high school and college campus newspapers. His love of language inspires him to help students take ownership of language, engaging them in a dynamic literacy study based on self expression.

Critical Thinking Instruction in a Blended Learning Environment

By David Gann

In 2008, I began introducing content into first and second-year conversation and reading classes aimed at fostering the development of critical thinking skills. In this article, I briefly describe how a blended learning approach transformed classrooms into dynamic and fun experiential learning spaces.

Initially, integrating content aimed at teaching general critical thinking skills led to a strain on class time. With only ninety minutes a week, teacher-fronted presentation of content via explicit instruction left insufficient time for students to engage in conversation and complete language learning tasks. Also, students had difficulty with the triple cognitive load of (1) understanding the abstract principles of critical thinking; (2) parsing the meta-language through which those principles were conveyed; and (3) applying critical thinking skills to readings or other media involving social issues. This was predictable in light of Schmidt’s observation that “control processing associated with novice behavior cannot be carried out concurrently with other demanding tasks” (1990: 136). I found myself between two contradictory truisms: first, that what is needed in the classroom is not more but less teacher-talk; and second, that regrettably, critical thinking instruction involves just that: instruction. This was the impetus behind the creation of Critically Minded Podcast: Critical Thinking for Second Language Learners, ( which Nicholas Bufton and I began co-producing in 2010.

The podcast solved the aforementioned problems in several ways. For our purposes here, it relocated explicit instruction as out-of-class mobile learning and thereby reserved more class time for student-student communication. Podcasting also allowed us to offer carefully expressed quality instruction designed the way we considered appropriate and which we found unavailable in commercial textbooks for English learners. Specifically, we avoided an issues-based approach by teaching critical thinking skills through simple and expressly non-sociopolitical examples. Thus, by controlling the nature and quality of our content as well as the space in which that content was delivered, cognitive load was minimized.

When we introduced the podcast, Bufton and I were very much focused on piloting its implementation and monitoring student response. After smoothing out the technical and logistical wrinkles; however, we were able to step back and see that moving explicit instruction out of the classroom had affected the class holistically. Shifting from a traditional to a blended learning approach has required maintaining students’ sense that the podcasted content is relevant to what occurs in class.

Accordingly, the class is no longer a partitioned space but rather includes a new “third space” (Godwin-Jones 2005: 17) where podcast delivered content overlaps with students’ emergent ability to notice and apply certain lexical devices associated with either written or spoken argumentative form (such as premise indicators, conclusion indicators, major and minor premise indicators, issue indicators etc.). Schmidt explains how “noticing is the necessary and sufficient condition for converting input to intake” (1990: 129). In my revised pedagogy, Schmidt’s noticing is scaffolded through the course of four cumulative stages.

Gann Figure 1

In short, podcast content flows into in-class small-group discussion and notebook presentation at which time the advantages of face-to-face communication can be exploited. In addition to building a sense of classroom community, these discussions in turn prepare students for text reconstruction exercises, which reinforce the noticing of the salient textual features discussed in each podcast. Working from the precept that “task demands are powerful determinants of what is noticed” (Schmidt 1990: 143), these exercises are performed in pairs or triads. Students are tasked to orally mediate a successful completion of the exercises in terms of premises and conclusions. Text reconstruction exercises have been an indispensable method for replicating successes detailed in (Gutierrez 2006) and (Mercer 1996).

In stage four, students begin group project-work relevant to their field of study, for example regional policy, business, or English literature. Depending on the course and the nature of the project, students use a blend of two means of communicating and working on-line. At the Forums of the Critically Minded blog, students can post their work in discussion threads. They can also comment on the work of other students. In addition, if, after posting their work, other students’ work leads them to reconsider their own contribution, they can reenter their post in edit mode and continue working. This format allows some exchange of ideas but is suited more for individual work.

Social constructivist theory, has guided me towards working more with on-line documents such as a Google Doc or Primary Pad. Primary Pad has two features that make it very useful for assessing group work. Like a Google Doc it contains a chat area and students are directed to engage in a/synchronous collaborative communication. Primary Pad users are assigned a text color so any composition in the work area can be attributed to the group member who did that work. Furthermore, Primary Pad features a time slider, so the teacher can view the history of the composition. The immediacy of chat encourages communication that closely approximates face-to-face communication (Thorne 2005: 374). Also, some students who are reticent to speak out during small-group discussion feel less inhibited in a chat context (Warschauer 1997: 473). Asynchronous text communication also has advantages over both face-to-face communication and text chat. It “provides time for reflection” (Garrison et al. 2000: 90) and “is very closely associated with careful and critical thinking” (90).

It is important to note that although the figure above appears to show a linear path, a more complete illustration would show a cyclical pattern. At the same time students begin stage three or four, the next podcast episode introducing new content is assigned. Stage four therefore is not a culmination of the entire term. It is begun during the second month and is revisited successively as students build a community of inquiry (Garrison 2000) and develop individual critical competence.

This blended learning approach has blurred the line between in-class and out-of-class learning. The podcast, which initially resembled an annex, has come to be an integral component of the course. This was accomplished not by an increased emphasis of the podcast itself, but by the development of a four-stage process predicated on the need of holistic balance. The ratio of teacher-fronted instruction time to pair work and small-group discussion time has been dramatically inverted. During my presentation at the Kusatsu Conference this year, I presented examples of students’ application of the aforementioned textual features that demonstrate how effective this pedagogy has been in converting input into intake. As a result of the demands of developing the technical end of this curriculum the second stage of small-group discussion has hitherto received the least attention. In future terms, I plan to develop materials that will activate vocabulary and provide a more guided approach to the discussions in order to provide support for the students who most need it.

David Gann composed this article shortly after co-presenting with with Nicholas Bufton on the morning of August 25th, 2013 at the Gunma JALT 24th Annual Workshop at Kusatsu. David has been teaching in Japan since 1996 and is an Assistant Professor at Tokyo University of Science. He holds a M.A. in English Literature and recently completed a second M.A. in Educational Technologies and TESOL at the University of Manchester. He is the coordinator of the Critical Thinking SIG and the co-producer of Critically Minded Podcast. His main interests include critical thinking instruction, CALL and learner autonomy. You can contact him at


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