Big in Japan

Big in Japan

Teacher Trainer and Storyteller Gareth Davies has taken a three-month sabbatical to teach English in Japan. Here are his initial observations of his time in the land of the rising sun.

Being in Japan is certainly a bewildering experience. From the space age toilets, to the rules about taking your shoes off in restaurants to the extremely loud earthquake alerts on your phone, to trying to get my head around three alphabets, there is a lot to get used to.

So, it’s reassuring to discover that teaching in this distant part of the world is similar to teaching back at home. The classes have mixed levels, and mixed motivation, students struggle with listening and think writing is boring and attendance is irregular but when it goes well, and the students ‘get’ it, it is the most rewarding thing in the world.

The biggest challenge in Japan is helping students overcome their shyness. I get the feeling that students have a lot to say but they are not brave enough to say it. They tell me that their English lessons in school  were mostly grammar, reading  and writing. Speaking was only done as part of choral drilling when students were expected to be pitch perfect. I can see when I am talking to my students that they are playing the question back to themselves in their heads and then rehearsing their answers before opening their mouths to speak. This means you have to give the students time and not jump in and ask a different question before they have had the chance to process the previous one. After they have finally answered, they often ask you if they were correct in how they said it. This suggests that the accuracy of what they are saying is more important to them than the content.

So, my challenge for the next few weeks is to try to get my students to activate their knowledge and get them to speak more fluently. To do this, I have to start by showing them that I am interested in what they are saying as well as how they are saying it. Simple responses like really, how interesting, why did you do that? show that I am listening to their thoughts, and not just tracking down their mistakes.

Secondly, I have told my students that my best student is the one who makes the most mistakes and that I want them to make mistakes. This is to show them that mistakes are not to be feared but can actually be helpful. If they are not afraid of making mistakes, then they might be more willing to speak without the pauses and hesitancy that affects their fluency. I do correct their mistakes but not zealously. I am trying to get them to see the importance of successful communication rather than grammatical perfection.

And it is already working! Today a student handed in a written assignment and told me he’d tried to use ten new words in the essay and would like to know if he’d used them correctly. To be honest, he hadn’t used even one of them in the right way, but at least he’d been willing to take a risk and hopefully his bravery was rewarded when we discussed the reasons why things were wrong and how to use the words correctly.

As you can see, I am facing many challenges; I need to be patient and allow my students to find the answers. I need to foster a relationship of trust, where students feel they can open up, and I need to make sure my correction is subtle and encouraging. I hope all those things will help my class put their knowledge into practice, speak more freely thus adding fluency to their language skills.

Care to share an advice or two? Feel free to, I am open for your suggestions. If you have had a similar experience, I would love to hear more about it. You can post them in the comments section below.

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Gareth Davies
Gareth Davies Autor

I am Gareth the Storyteller. I bring stories alive for adults and children alike. I specialise in graded stories for English language students. 
I have an MA in Creative Writing from Cardiff University and have told stories in the UK, China, Croatia, Poland, Portugal, Slovakia and the Czech Republic. You can often find me telling stories at venues across Cardiff and I am a member of the Society for Storytelling.
As well as being a storyteller, I have the DELTA qualification and have worked in English language teaching for over twenty years as a teacher, teacher trainer and materials developer. I've developed materials for Oxford University Press, Cambridge University Press and the British Council and taught for Cardiff University in Cardiff and International House in the Czech Republic, Spain and Portugal.
As a teacher trainer, I've visited over forty countries and have collected a range of traditional stories on my travels. Now, I am combining my two passions and bringing traditional stories to the English language classroom. 

To find out more about my teaching background please visit my teaching page here.

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