Should We Call It 'Communication Class?  


As we approach the end of the school year, I make it a point to ask the HRTs I team teach with what they think of the Eigo Noto lessons as a whole. The teacher I taught with this morning had a very illuminating answer....

He said the hardest part for him, and for the students, has been knowing what the classes are all about. The list of questions included:

  • Are the Eigo Noto classes preparation for Junior High School English classes? 
  • Are the Eigo Noto classes English Conversation classes? 
  • Are they about communication?
  • Why is there so much focus on speaking English in the workbook? 
  • How are Eigo Noto classes different from other subjects/classes?
  • Eigo Noto classes don't have any tests...
These kinds of questions have been in my head for a year, and I have often heard other teachers voicing the same questions.

Whenever I go to a new school, I always ask the Koucho-sensei (school Principal), "What are your hopes or goals for my classes at your school?" And I always get the same answer, "Improving students' communication skills." There are other answers I get as well, but every Principal has put a priority on Communication.

So to address the HRT and his students' confusion about the goals of the Eigo Noto classes,
I wonder if a simple solution would be to call the classes 'Communication Class.' 
This would label an obvious goal for the classes for everyone to think about. There might be different class labels, such as 'World Culture', too. Just giving each class a clear name, and content or goal, would do a lot to help both students and teachers more successfully approach the learning task at hand. Throughout this year, I have heard a wide variety of class names/titles used by the toban (class leader) at the opening aisatsu of the Eigo Noto classes. How many have you heard?

Regarding confusion about teaching communication, in my 15 years of teaching in Japan, what I've seen some English teachers call Communication has really left me scratching my head sometimes. Clearly making Communication the name (or one of the names) of the classes would be an effective way of forcing everyone involved - students, teachers, administrators and textbook publishers - to have a serious discussion about what real communication is. Having an in-class, regional or national dialog about this could be very fruitful.

I have often had reason to ask why almost everyone in Japan studies English for years, but most adults are unable to have even the simplest English conversation. A common answer is "We're an island country!" Well, I lived in Indonesia for 2 years before I came to Japan, and it's an island country, too. And LOTS of people, with A LOT LESS education, speak a functional English. So I have a hard time accepting this reasoning. Perhaps an island nation that refused contact with the outside world for centuries would be a better explanation.
There are other reasons that are commonly put forth, and no doubt you have your own. But personally I have often wondered if, among other things, the socially-hierarchical nature of the Japanese language and society lend themselves to a handicap to true communication. It is often more important just say, 'Hai!', especially when talking (or rather, listening to) superiors, but does this really demonstrate comprehension?

And in the classrooms, a Japanese junior high school home stay student once observed,
'In America students raise hands to ask questions; but in Japan, students usually raise hands to answer questions.'
And my foreign friends agree on another point- 90%+ of Japanese people, when asked (in Japanese) 'Pardon?', go mute or stutter at best; seldom does a Japanese person repeat what they have just said to us. And asking a Japanese person to speak slowly, something I had to do as a learner of Spanish, Indonesian and Japanese, usually gets a positive response for only 1 or 2 sentences. And then speaking returns to 'normal' speed. These two points have been foremost in my learning 3 foreign languages; in Japan, these points have, and continue, to handicap communication with native speakers.

These are personal experiences I've had in Japan regarding why English is so difficult to learn for students here. No doubt you have other experiences or ideas. But regardless of why communication skills are lacking in young (or older) students, here or anywhere, let us next address Communication Skills.

There are 2 basic skills to Communication, Listening and Speaking.

To any adult, whether involved in education, business or personal relationships, the importance of listening skills should come as no surprise. And for the purposes of Communication (as well as Language Learning), we need to go one step further- Listening AND REPEATING.
Repeating what has been heard is often used as way to confirm what has been said. 'I have a dog.' 'A dog?' Or when someone tells us their telephone number on the phone, we usually repeat the number back to them again.
And for language learning, I think this is one of the most important skills, as well- Listening and Repeating. And I have been wondering if just the ability to do this repeatedly is one of the features of the language classroom that makes it different from learning language naturally.

Speaking well is something that takes practice. Again, the classroom setting allows students to say the same thing again and again. For students, or natural language learners, just saying something once seldom leads to speaking competence, let alone long-term memory.
As teachers, and especially those of young learners, we need to be creative in doing repetitive speaking activities just to avert boredom for the students. In Japan, this is often easily accomplished just by having students play Janken/Rock-Paper-Scissors first (it also conveniently serves to determine the order of speakers). See Janken Conversation Rounds and Janken 4's for a variety of ways to use this strategy.

Another aspect of speaking is simply having something to say. At a deeper level, this also requires self-knowledge. And the ability to give it a voice. Degrees of Introversion and Extroversion are different in all of us. There are probably also cultural tendencies that might make one stronger than the other in a given culture.

There are not-too-difficult classroom activities that prepare students for speaking, such as Brainstorming or Previewing, that I deal with on the ConverstionalFluency website. Another activity that I think would work well for elementary and junior high school students are the SOCC (Student's Own Conversation Cards) by Duane Kindt at this website. I will be working in the future to adapt his approach for elementary school.

We also need to be sensitive to what are known as Affective Factors, or simply said, students' feelings. Creating a speaking environment that reduces stress, and risk, for the speaker is very important. Compare
  1. Standing and speaking once in front of the class, and 
  2. Taking turns giving a speech with the other members of your small group. 
  3. Students making pairs, each saying a speech, and then forming new pairs and speaking again. 
Given these three activities, in what order would you put them for maximum student success with the least amount of stress?

Clear training in Communication and Conversation Skills is not that hard, in my opinion, but is something that anyone, in any culture, would greatly benefit from. Heck, it might even reduce violence and war.
The ConFluency Card game, and many of the other activities on this website, are activities that teach and practice these basic communication skills.
My own opinion is that many of these communication activities, and others, could be used in the lower elementary school grades, and used as a basis for building competence for later higher-speed and higher-level communicative interaction. At the lower grades these would be done in the native langauge, not only making it easier to teach (and for students to comprhend), but also building a foundation of communicative competence in the native language that will later be transferred to use with a foreign langauge.

To repeat, all of the school Principals I have asked in Japan have said they put a priority on improving Communication Skills for their students. Communication is such an all-encompassing parameter, as I have tried to discuss in limited detail, that making Communication a main theme or name of the Eigo Noto classes would do a lot towards bringing it to the front of teachers' and students' awareness, and towards giving the Eigo Noto classes a broad foundation upon which to build a many-faceted curriculum.

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