By Helene J. Uchida / Special to The Japan NewsQ: I teach English at a high school. The students make no effort to speak English. I’ve tried to encourage them, but most refuse or just speak Japanese to me. How can I motivate my students to embrace English and try to use it more in class?
P. Y. teacher
Ise, Mie Prefecture
A: The behavior you describe is learned behavior. Since your students are in high school, they have gone through the Japanese English education system and are most likely burned out from memorizing vocabulary, repeating after the teacher, taking tests, writing, reading long, complex passages and trying to find the correct answers to difficult questions. In a nutshell, they are not receiving any reward for their effort.
Instead, they are the recipients of low esteem, which means that the system has denied them opportunities to experience communicative English challenges successfully. The absence of positive forms of satisfaction or acknowledgement contributes to their apathy. They are most likely bored by the concept of studying English and feel that this language does not “work” for them. In addition, they are probably strong believers in English not being necessary for them since they live in Japan.
Most adolescents list listening to music as their hobby, so I think the best way to approach them is through English songs. Listening is a fairly passive activity, which allows them to remain in their comfort zone while being exposed to English. I would suggest preparing an activity sheet that asks them to write the title of their favorite English song along with the lyrics and the person who sings it. They can do that as homework. Once that has been accomplished, you can write key questions on the blackboard, such as: What’s your favorite English song? Who sings it? Why do you like it? What are some of the lyrics? Can we listen to a little of it?
You can divide the students into pairs or small groups and encourage them to interact using the simple English questions you have listed on the board and share their musical tastes with each other. If you permit the use of cell phones for this activity, it may endear you to them so they can share the music with you. If the school does not permit cell phones, then you can encourage them to bring in their CDs to play on a CD player for the group.
Another approach is for you to select a popular English song that you would like to share with the students. It should be simple and easy to understand, for example, “It’s a Wonderful World.” You can dictate the song two or three times, then pass out a copy of the lyrics so the students can check and make the necessary corrections. You can then read the lyrics as they repeat after you. Finally, playing the song with everyone listening together is a positive way to end the class.
The above suggestions enable the students to use the following English skills: listening, writing, asking questions and receiving short answers. At this stage, you are not going to make interactive speakers out of them, but you may be able to foster a positive change in their attitude through the universal language that connects us all — music.
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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 email@example.com 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.