When I started teaching English in Japan, I think the students got some good communication time with me. I had no idea how to teach, even less Japanese ability and so what I did was talk to the students. And without any idea of what they had studied so far. During warmup Q&A's, the class teacher would often tell me "Sorry, they haven't studied that grammar yet."

Later, I learnt how to "teach" and that communication time went out the window. Perhaps students were better equipped to answer test questions but that's not communication.

My teaching style has changed so much over the years it has come almost full circle and I now see that what I was doing in the beginning might have been quite beneficial. Now I "teach", but I also try to give the students as much chance as possible to communicate as well.

What is real communication?

Communication defined by merriam-webster.com:

the act or process of using words, sounds, signs, or behaviors to express or exchange information or to express your ideas, thoughts, feelings, etc., to someone else

In a classroom, often we miss this. Students may be speaking English, they may be having fun but they often aren't really communicating using English - there is no realistic exchange of information or expression of thought.

Not always, but often.

Using English without communicating

Let me give an example.

In an elementary class, students are playing a game where they race to carry a ping pong ball on a spoon to their team mate at the other end of the room. When they get there, there is some English spoken, the ping pong ball and spoon changes hands, and repeat.

They students have a great time, they speak a little bit of English but they aren't using it in any realistic context, they aren't exchanging information or expressing their thoughts. In reality, all they are doing is saying the password so the game can continue.

I don't mean to write these types of activities off completely, as I believe they have merit. However, where I was going wrong for a long time was to have this as the main part of the lesson.

Students never got the chance to use English to communicate.

How to get students communicating in English

Communication is exchanging information or expressing thoughts. But that's not all. The most important part is the last three words of the definition above. "...to someone else."

"I have a silver bike." is an example of expressing opinion. It's the first step, but it's not real communication yet. Not until there is someone else involved, listening and understanding.

When we understand, naturally, we respond. This response can be (to quote the definition again) using words, sounds, signs, or behavior.

When you add this response to your lesson, suddenly there is real communication.

  • Hello. Do you have a bike?
  • Yes, I do. / No, I don't.
  • Goodbye.

This kind of dialogue is ok but really, student A can say his bit without any regard to what student B is saying.

Improve this dialogue and make it communication by making A listen and respond.

  • Hello. Do you have a bike?
  • Yes, I do. / No, I don't.
  • Nice. / Me too. / I see.

Depending on the answer to the question, there is an appropriate response.

This has changed the layout of my classes but the students seem to be much more able to remember the English we have studied later in the year. And not only for elementary classes. I apply this to any communication activity in junior high school too.

By adding these extra little pieces of language to your lessons, (and the response doesn't have to be verbal - gestures work too,) your students are now listening to understand. They are now communicating with English.

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