PRIMARY ADVICE / Wearing a mask can mask communication

By Helene J. Uchida / Special to The Japan NewsI have a question about students wearing surgical masks in class. I understand that they are used for hygienic purposes, yet I sometimes feel bad telling my students to take them off. What are your thoughts on the use of surgical masks in class?

R.L, school owner


What good timing for your question as it is still “mask season” in Japan. This is a phenomenon that many teachers struggle with because the wearing of masks clearly hinders communication, which is the focal point of our lessons.

The most common reasons for wearing masks include: hay fever, prevention from catching or spreading a cold or influenza, protection from pollution (namely PM 2.5), hiding acne, keeping the face warm, concealing the fact that one is not wearing makeup, the desire to hide and become somewhat “invisible,” or even the notion that wearing a mask is fashionable.

About 4.8 billion masks were either produced or imported in fiscal 2015, an approximately six-fold increase from 2011, according to the Japan Hygiene Products Industry Association. Unfortunately for us, many of those mask wearers are in our classrooms.

It is socially acceptable to have a mask on in almost any situation in Japan. Wherever we go, whatever we do, we will always encounter someone wearing a mask: at the bank, the convenience store, the hospital, the office, on the street, on a bus, at school, to name a few. But we do not see them on singers when they perform, actors when they act or TV reporters when they present the news. These professionals are clearly aware of the fact that their focus is on communication and that wearing a mask would impede the ability of their viewers and listeners to understand them. I think the same standards should be upheld in the English classroom.

I personally have no problem with students wearing masks while they are doing reading or writing activities, but I do ask them to temporarily remove them when we do pair work, questions and answers, presentations or role play. Since these activities are opportunities for our students to try out their English with each other, I ask them to remove the masks as a courtesy to the people who are trying to understand what they are saying, thinking, feeling and meaning when they speak.

An integral part of oral communication is exhibiting and reading facial expressions. A mask is a mask. It might be a good tool for hygiene, but it inhibits social exchange. Hiding the face prevents the listener from receiving expressive signals from the speaker. Native English speakers tend to look at the speaker’s mouth or eyes when listening. We need to encourage our students to develop this habit to support communication.

The only exception for me is when I teach children at the Kyushu Cancer Center as a volunteer. All staff, visitors and patients are required to wear masks. I must admit it is a challenge because I miss a lot of answers and have to guess what the children are saying. This two-way mask scenario truly filters out 50 percent of the communication. But that is something over which I have no control. Naturally I adjust the lesson accordingly.

I encourage you to have your students at least remove their masks for communicative activities. Present them with the solid reasons given above. Knowledge can be quite persuasive.

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Readers are encouraged to send questions to Helene J. Uchida on any themes related to teaching English — particularly those at the elementary and junior high school level — to with “Primary Advice” in the subject line. Questions to Uchida are also accepted via postcard at “Primary Advice,” The Japan News, 1-7-1 Otemachi, Chiyoda Ward, Tokyo 100-8055. Questions should preferably be written in English, accompanied by your name, occupation and the area in which you live.

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Uchida is the director of Little America, a Fukuoka-based company for training teachers of English.Speech

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