Manners Matter in the Classroom


I wonder about the difference in manners or customs when teaching English to children. Do you do teach them good Western manners or do you follow good Japanese manners in class? Is there ever a conflict?

M.G, Teacher


I try to balance the two because I respect both cultures. Some
activities may be dominated by Western thinking, others by Japanese.

For example, when I was teaching in the States, I used to toss notebooks and papers back to my students rather carelessly. But here in Japan, notebooks and papers are never tossed on a desk; they are handed to the receiver with care. So I try to do things Japanese style.

I take attendance American style, calling out the first name, then the last. The students are then required to say, “Here” in a clear loud voice.

When I first started teaching in Japan, I would often sit on the desk as I talked. Even though I learned that sitting on the desk is bad manners here, I decided to continue to do so because I thought it would be a good chance to expose the students to Western habits. But one day, while sitting on a desk and talking to a fellow American teacher in the teachers’ room of a private high school, a teacher approached me and told me that everyone in the room was staring at me because I was sitting on a desk. Sure enough, I turned around to find 150 sets of eyes on me. That was a terrifying and humiliating experience. As a result, I have NEVER sat on a desk in Japan since. I learned my lesson, that I should not assume since such a custom is okay in my country, it is permissible here.

I encourage students to use “May I?” questions quite often. They say, “May I come in?”, “May I borrow a pencil?”, or “May I go to the restroom?”

All students learn how to shake hands, standing tall, using eye contact, offering a firm handshake and a smile. They get enough practice so when the time comes to use a handshake, they will not be shy or embarrassed.

These are a few examples of using and combining Western and Japanese manners in class. There is never a conflict; in fact, in the long run, I think they complement each other.

What’s in a name? Everything.


The Education, Science and Technology Ministry is suggesting that English teachers teach children to introduce themselves with their family name first. What do you think about this?


I think the Japanese should remain loyal to the dictates of their culture and customs and use their family name first when speaking and writing Japanese. I just as ardently believe that they should respect the customs and dictates of the English language by using their given names first when reading or writing English. They do not lose any of their Japanese identity by introducing or referring to themselves in the English name order. What they do is exhibit their commendable mastery of the language.

If a Japanese child with the name of Ayumi Kato, for example, learns to introduce herself in English using her family name first, the following linguistic errors and social gaffes will most certainly occur:

  • Ayumi, as a child and a beginning EFL (English as a foreign language) student, will not have the English skills to explain about the Japanese custom of placing the family name first.
  • The other children, and most likely adults, too, will not be aware of the reverse name order for Japanese and will unknowingly call her Kato, thinking Kato to be her given name.
  • When English speakers call her Kato, without the Japanese honorific “san” they will make Ayumi feel uncomfortable.
  • Most English speakers do not like being called by just their family name as it implies the speaker is being disrespectful. If and when English speakers discover they called Ayumi by her family name, they may feel bad that they were unknowingly rude to Ayumi.

In a nutshell, I think teaching Japanese children to introduce themselves in English with their family name first will only confuse them.

So the ministry, by suggesting Japanese children introduce themselves with their family name first, is giving our children two initial disadvantages: Their name will be misunderstood from the beginning, and they will most likely be put in a situation where they feel uncomfortable.

When I was teaching a class of future primary school teachers at Fukuoka University of Education, one of my students refused to use her given name first when she did a self-introduction in front of the class. I asked her why and she replied, “I am Japanese.” I told her she would not lose her Japanese identity by using her given name first. I just wanted to help her be able to conduct herself correctly in an English-speaking situation, and I wanted her to teach her future students so they would be able to do the same. It took me three weeks to make her understand I was not trying to take her passport away. I wish I could convince the ministry of the same thing.

Mistakes Aid Learning Experience


How do you feel about correcting young students? Is there a good or
a bad way, a good time or a bad time to correct them?

K. R., Teacher


To start with, one of the first things I announce in all my classes, whether they consist of students who are three or seventy-three, is that I like mistakes. I tell them that the more mistakes they make, the more I can help them. The classroom is the perfect place to try out their language and make errors. So no one should ever feel bad about making a mistake.

When a youngster does make a mistake, or even an adult for that matter, I use the mistake as an example for the rest of the class. Instead of focusing on the individual who made the error, I focus on the group and ask everyone to try out the corrected version. For example, if one youngster says, “He play baseball,” I will repeat the sentence and put an emphasis on, PLAYS. Then I ask the class to make and say such sentences as “He plays baseball” or “ He plays soccer” with each other as I walk around the room and listen to their pair work to see if their grammar and pronunciation are showing improvement. Then I praise them for their sentences. This way no one feels bad about the error and everyone learns from the experience because they all tend to make the same errors. Actually, by the time they finish the exercise, they have been so busy trying our sentences with each other that they have forgotten who made the mistake to start with. All ages and levels seem to appreciate such an activity.

As your question implies, timing is very important. I make it a rule never to correct students when they are doing a presentation in front of a group or when we have observers in the room. In addition, if and when a pupil has a special problem that warrants more attention, I make it a point to speak to the youngster outside the classroom before or after class.

‘Eigo Noto’ fails to hit mark


I hear a lot about the upcoming Eigo Noto (produced by the Education, Science and Technology Ministry) to be used in fifth- and sixth-grade primary classes throughout the country. Could you please share your thoughts on them? How well do they match the needs of learners of English here in Japan?


The Danish writer Hans Christian Anderson wrote a delightful fairy tale titled The Emperor’s New Clothes. The emperor hires two tailors to make him the finest garments. They tell him the cloth is only visible to the intelligent or elite; to all others it is invisible. When the emperor parades in public wearing the “new clothes,” everyone exclaims how fantastic the clothes look. But one little boy shouts out, “He has nothing on!”

I may be stepping on some toes here, but I think it is clear Japanese administrators and teachers are not questioning the book. I would not be surprised if, at some point, a Japanese child asks, “Where is the English in Eigo Noto?”

Teachers are being told that they do not have to use the books, but since it was created, compiled, published and endorsed by the ministry, a prominent and influential organization in the education community, teachers trust their superiors and think that they should adopt them.

I have reviewed Eigo Noto’s first and second volumes and am opposed to their adoption and usage in primary schools. Because of limited space, I will focus on the first volume today. The problems are:

  • The title is in Japanese. If the title “English Notebook” were used, children could learn those two important English works right away.
  • The book looks Japanese; there is nothing especially English about it.
  • Names are written in Japanese order: family name first.
  • All the names are written in capital letters. In English-speaking countries, this is generally the habit of uneducated people.
  • The manga characters look like third-graders. The oldest kids in primary schools want to look older, not younger.
  • There are no English model sentences for the children to look at, wonder about or try to imitate. I can see a lot of kanji, hiragana and katakana in the book, but far too little English.
  • It appears that activities encourage the use of Japanese by the teachers to explain what to do and how to do it. I can envision a lot of Japanese being used to complete activities as opposed to the use of simple English.
  • The song Head, Shoulders, Knee and Toes is appropriate for preschoolers. I know for sure the oldest primary school students would feel babyish singing that song.
  • There are little people at the bottom of each page, which is confusing.
  • I wonder when and how students will be transported in to the English zone with such a book.
  • This book is not user-friendly for teacher or students. Teachers do not understand how to use it, which will lead to confusing lessons and a dislike of the subject matter by students.

In a nutshell, the emperor is wearing no clothes.

Remembering Students’ Names


What are some tips on memorizing the names of students in large classrooms?

L. P., teacher
Hyogo Prefecture


This is a great question because mastering students’ names is really an important aspect of teaching. Once the teacher knows the student’s name, it sends a strategic signal to the student that he/she is important to the teacher. To tell the truth, when I was younger, I made it a point to try remember all my students’ names the first day of class. But now after all these years and the thousands of students I have taught, I must confess that it does get more difficult.

Dale Carnegie, the great American public speaking and self-help pioneer, had a great formula for remembering names, namely: commit to learning the name, concentrate on the name, repeat it and make an association between the name and the person’s appearance. For example, one of my university students always wears black nail polish because it’s her favorite color. Her name is Midori (which means green). I remember her name because she likes black although her name means green.

Taking this into consideration, I would suggest doing the following:

*Concentrate on the student’s name and form an impression based on the student’s physical characteristics, which will trigger some way of your remembering the name. For example, if a female student is pretty and her name is Satsuki; try to associate her beauty with the flower. If a male student’s name is Yuuki and he looks strong, then associate him with the concept of courage.

* When you take attendance, after calling the name, look at the student’s face. Use the student’s name to ask a simple question. “Junko, what’s your favorite fruit?”

* Make a seating chart. Write the names of the students and study the students and their names while they are doing some activity. Refer to the chart when you call on students to help you. “Taro, please collect the paper.”

* On the first day of class, have the students write a short and simple self-introduction. Then take a picture of each student and affix it to the self-introduction card and study it in your free time.

* When you pass out papers or tests, call the students’ name and hand them back to the students, saying, “Here you are, Taro.”

* In a nutshell, looking at the student and using the name as often as you can is the quickest way to remember.

Dale Carnegie said, “A person’s name is to him or her the sweetest and most important sound in any language.”? Good teachers should use this to their advantage.

‘Recycle’ English for Retention


I am having a problem in my English classes with young students who forget vocabulary or grammar if it is not constantly reviewed. It is easy to review all of the English previously gone over with newer classes, but it gets more difficult with classes that I have been teaching for a long time. I am trying to strike the perfect balance for my students between reviewing old concepts and teaching new ones. What do you recommend?


The challenge you face is a strategic one English teachers of all levels encounter in Japan, namely how to keep English alive in the minds of the students after we have taught it.

Since Japan is an EFL (English as a foreign language) society, this is an issue of concern because unfortunately our students have very limited exposure to English outside the classroom.

The mistake that most teacher makes is limiting review to an activity that begins and ends at the start of class. Instead, I would suggest recycling as a never-ending process; teachers can constantly recycle concepts via various activities throughout the lesson in interesting ways.

For example, language can be recycled while taking attendance by asking a simple question of each student. After calling a student’s name, the teacher can ask, ” What did you eat for breakfast this morning?” to recycle past-tense verbs. Other methods for recycling might be warm-ups, self-introductions and pair work. Blackboard examples can recycle vocabulary. The acts of entering and leaving the classroom can be used as tools for recycling questions and answers reflecting grammar points in class; the teacher can ask at the door, “How many people are there in your family?” to which the students would answer, “There are …”

I believe the four R’s-reviewing, repeating, recycling and reinforcement-are the greatest services an English teacher can give students in Japan.

Warm up class with a cup of tea

I would like to share with you one personal concept worthy of consideration, and that is the act of your having a cup of tea at the beginning of class.

Like all of you, I have a busy schedule, in my case, teaching at four universities, at my school, writing this column, conducting teacher-training seminars on the weekends and volunteering at Kyushu Cancer Center.

The only time I ever relax is the first fifteen minutes of my elementary school classes. Why? Because these children have more energy than I do. I harness their precious vitality by channeling it into manageable logistics/ writing/speaking challenges.

Here’s how: When the students enter the classroom, of course, I am there at the door to welcome them. While the CD background music fills the room in a welcoming and soothing way, I ask them to hand in their homework and copy the blackboard, which contains the language point for their lesson. I then sit down and relax with a cup of tea as I correct their homework and observe them busily accomplishing all their tasks which are: handing in their homework, copying the blackboard, looking up a word in dictionary, writing their name on the student blackboard, filling in the log to let me know how long they listened to their CD at home and then doing their free study workbooks. As they do all those things, I sit and sip my tea and marvel at their productivity, their ability, their cooperativeness and their desire to please. At quarter past the hour, I start the lesson. Two things have been accomplished. First, the students have acclimated themselves from the Japanese-language world into the English one in a gentle, subtle way without any anxiety or stress. They are now ready to take the next step by speaking and interacting in simple English. And second, I have had a breather from my hectic and busy day. I have had my cup of tea and I am ready to teach.

I even take it a step further in my junior high and high school classes, by serving the students a cup of tea for themselves to sip as they do the same manageable challenges on a higher level.

The key point is that I do not overtly engage students in English conversation as soon as they enter the classroom. Instead, I let them subliminally adapt to the change in environment by setting up short, manageable writing tasks, which require moving about the room and simple spoken English, such as: Here you are, I’m finished, I forgot my pencil, May I borrow an eraser, Please check, etc.

Please be kind to yourself this year and see if you can orchestrate your initial class activities to allow yourself the luxury of a cup of tea.

Games for learning, not just fun


When I teach primary school children, they are always asking for games. I am happy to play games, but I wonder how often I should play them, for how long and what I am supposed to accomplish by playing them. Also, how can I get them to play games and not speak Japanese?


First of all, I do not recommend playing games on demand. The teacher is in charge of the lesson structure, not the students; games should be an integral part of a planned lesson, not a response to a request. When I do teacher-training seminars, I always suggest teachers introduce a game the last five to 10 minutes of class, sort of like dessert after a nourishing dinner.

Playing a game in English is a stimulating activity whereby students are prompted to put away their books, notebooks, dictionaries and pencils. In order to succeed, they have to dive into English and focus on the challenges at hand using such skills as listening, guessing, being imaginative, speaking without hesitation and taking risks to reach their goal of winning. Games also foster cooperation by requiring students to wait for their turns, to give others chances and to respect everyone’s effort.

The five reasons to play games in the EFL (English as a foreign language) classroom are:

  • To teach new vocabulary.
  • To teach new expressions.
  • To foster students thinking in English.
  • To give students a vehicle to interact with each other in English.
  • To demonstrate good manners and sportsmanship

If your students can do the above five components, then the playing of games is a success in your class.

If they cannot because they are chattering in Japanese, then they are clearly having fun, but the activity fails as an English teaching tool. At our school, the first person to speak Japanese during game play loses his or her turn. This sends a strategic signal to all players that Japanese does not belong in the English game zone. In the long run, we all feel so good playing the game and even making jokes with each other in English. Everyone always walks out at the end of class with a touch of pride and a well-earned smile.

Starting with English at the right time


Concerning young learners, which level do you think is the easiest level to teach and which is the hardest? In other words, what age is the best to start learning English?

T.P., mother Osaka city


This is a provocative question because no two children are the same in terms of readiness. Along with the fact that each child ‘s brain is circuited differently, many factors come into play, such as the child’s home environment, parental support, exposure to English through toys, games, media, the child’s social skills (because learning English is a sociable activity), and the English classroom, set up and teacher, to name a few.

Having said that, I can make some generalizations based on my years of experience teaching young learners.

Preschoolers digest new vocabulary the fastest. They are naturally curious about naming things because the world is still new to them. They feel mastering nomenclature gives them control over their immediate environment.  Preschoolers are eager to imitate and not fazed by making mistakes. Because preschoolers are very responsive to stimuli encompassing the five senses (sight, sound, smell, taste and touch) they are very “responsive” to the ABC configurations, colors, sounds via songs and dances, and touching objects via TPR (total physical response).

At our school, we welcome young learners from two years of age to twelve and experience an equal amount of success with all of them.

Yet I would venture to say I think the ideal time for public or private school English education is third-graders who are usually eight years old. Children this age have already been conditioned to school life and procedures. Because of this they have developed study skills and understand the dynamics of what a classroom is. They have not been in the education arena long enough to be fatigued by it, which means their minds tend to be open and they are easily motivated.

Fifth- and sixth-graders want to act like junior high students and may have an attitude problem starting to learn English basics like the alphabet or counting as they may think it is childish, where as third-graders are very open.

So to answer your question, it all depends on the child. If you, as a mother, value English and plant the seeds of interest and curiosity and in your child, then your child can start at any age.

What is a Good Teacher?


I am wondering if I have the makings of a good teacher and so I would like to ask you what the qualities of a good English teacher are. Also, I wonder if those qualities are the same or different for teachers of other subjects.

N.Y., teacher


I remember having a discussion about this at a teachers’ meeting my first year of teaching English at Brentwood Junior High School in New York. We all agreed on one point: that the teacher should be passionate about his/her subject. We disagreed on another point: that the teacher should think that his/her subject was more important than any other subject. Now that I am older and wiser, I do believe the teacher should be passionate. I also think that all subjects are equally important; it up to the students to embrace the one(s) which channel into their talents and prompt them to excel; the teacher cannot dictate which subject takes precedence over another.

From my years of experience and observing, I would venture to say the teacher should have the ability to:

* Perceive/read the level and needs of students.

* Present subject matter is an easy-to-understand way.

* Gain and build on students’ trust.

* Find strengths in each and every student and acknowledge them in public and private.

* Ignite and maintain the interest of the class.

* Gear lessons to the appropriate level of students and know when and how to raise the learning notch higher little by little.

* Be prepared for class but be able to allow for transition at any moment for any reason.

* Teach to the middle of the class, helping weaker/slower students and giving responsibility and extra activities to the faster ones.

* Respect all students, no matter their age, learning curve or individual differences.

* Establish and nurture relationships using class activities as a catalyst.

* Remember what it was like to be a child.

I also think these qualities are basically the same for any subject. Of course, lesson needs to be presented in different ways in accordance with the subject matter.