How to Teach English for Assistant Language Teachers (ALTs)
In Japan, native English speakers are seen as effective English teachers, but in most cases, new Assistant Language Teachers, or ALTs, find that being a native speaker doesn’t automatically qualify them as English teachers. Just as teachers in English-speaking countries need to earn a degree or certificate to teach English as a Foreign Language, or EFL, ALTs also need to know how to teach English.
Still, ALTs in Japan will not spend over $200 or 120 hours of EFL training on becoming better teachers. Even murky pedagogy books and online texts are daunting for ALTs looking for the quick fix. Good thing that there’s this little guide for curious (and uncertified) ALTs.
What are my students’ language levels?
“My kids are junior high school students, so they’re intermediate level.” Any seasoned, certificate-holding teacher would shake their heads at that statement. In any language, students are put into different levels of English by how much English they know, not their grade levels. Many of my senior high school students were beginners even after 6 years of English study.
How do you determine the language level of your students? If you’ve already done a few classes but you’re still uncertain about your students’ language abilities, look at the list below, keeping in mind some of your students’ mistakes and problems in English.
- Beginners level: If learners were blank slates with a few illegible words scrawled across the surface, these slates would be beginners. They have zero to little English knowledge.
- Elementary level: These learners can make sentences on their slates, but only on really easy things such as nouns (i.e. cat, dog, baseball) and simple verbs (i.e. play, walk, run).
- Low/pre-intermediate level: Students at this level can say what’s on their slates and understand what’s on the slate sometimes, but they need an eraser in their hand at all times. Even with basic sentence structures, they will make lots of mistakes.
- Intermediate level: These learners can say and understand what’s on the slate sometimes, even if there are some more in-depth ideas. Still, they need the eraser, but they aren’t as dependent on it. They can make sentences on their own such as “I can speak English fluently.”)
- Upper intermediate level: Students here can communicate what’s on the slate without looking at it, but there are a few mistakes that need to be fixed. They are able to say, “I saw teacher at McDonald’s yesterday,” though they will forget the “the” or “my” before “teacher”.
- Advanced level: Learners don’t need a slate or an easy-to-grab eraser anymore. They are fluent enough to speak and/or write in English without making many errors (“Unit 1: Teachers and Learners” 7).
You can also gauge students through questions to Japanese teachers by showing them English sentences and asking, “Can the students make these sentences on their own?” A sympathetic “no” or a gleeful “yes” will help you identify your students’ language level.
After you find your students’ language level, you can uncover worksheets and activities that better fit your students and your lesson plans. Some EFL websites such as iSLCollective.com and ESL Games World.com use these language levels to separate worksheets and games with the same target grammar.
How do I plan a lesson?
Whether you’re writing down a plan (which you should for later reference) or you’re thinking it, lesson planning is a crucial part of teaching in any subject. In EFL, it is the brain of English class—without it, you, your co-teacher, and your students will be wondering what everyone is doing in class.
In planning an EFL lesson, there are teaching patterns to make the class flow smoothly from learning and practicing to producing the target English. First, there are 3 stages for teaching EFL. The first stage is the Engage Stage, which is an introduction of the target English through skits, clips, items, role-plays or pictures. For example, you and your co-teacher may perform a skit for introduction phrases such as “Where are you from?” This stage is a way to get students interested in the target English and expose them to how the actual English can be used in real time. If the students are learning grammar, utilize the Engage Stage to do quick games that practice words they will use later.
The second stage is the Study Stage where the target English is formally taught. JET Program ALTs won’t be responsible for this area as stated in the JET Program Handbook, but private ALTs and elementary school ALTs will face this task regardless of their contracts. In teaching English grammar, build off of the Engage Stage words or games. For example, if students know nouns (i.e. cat) and simple verbs (i.e. jump), they can learn auxiliary verbs (i.e. The cat can jump). This is also the best place to predict students’ mistakes (i.e. The cat can jumping). Make sure to point out the differences between an incorrect sentence and a correct sentence.
The final stage is the Activate Stage, which is for practicing and producing the target English. Here is where students should interview or use the target with each other. In most cases, this is also where students produce the target, so it is very important to clearly explain the activity, do examples, and ask Instruction Check Questions, or ICQ’s (“Do you understand?” is not a good ICQ. Use, “What’s step one?”) (Burns). Teachers monitor students and their English during the activity. In this stage, if students are making the same mistakes, you should inform your co-teacher about this as they’ll be likely to make these same mistakes in the future.
Using the Engage-Study-Activate format, or sometimes called the Present-Practice-Produce teaching sequence (J. Richards 54), is the most basic way of lesson planning in EFL. There are other teaching patterns, but many Japanese English teachers are familiar with this format, and some may prefer this method.
Does my plan go over the time limit?
Now that you’ve identified your students’ language levels and learned the different stages in EFL, time will be your greatest enemy. “How do I teach everything I want on this grammar in 50 minutes?” Look at your lesson plan and write how long each stage and activity will take in minutes. Take care to include the time to explain, demonstrate, and question each stage or activity.
For example, if you are going to play a spelling game where students race to write an English word correctly, an explanation (“We will play a spelling game. It’s a race.”) and a demonstration (“Mr. Tanaka is Team 1. I am Team 2.”) should take 3 minutes while the example round with students and the real gameplay will take around 8 minutes. Total time for activity is 12 minutes. “Wait, that’s supposed to be 11 minutes.” Always plan an extra minute or two for what I call transition time. Between each stage and activity, there needs to be a little prep time. If students are told to wait for too long, they will drift off, and you and co-teacher will have to try your hardest just to coax them back. On the opposite end of the spectrum, playing a game or doing an activity for too long will bore students. Shoot for 10- to 15-minute activities.
The Study Stage usually takes around 20 minutes, depending on the teacher, so during that lengthy time, walk around and help students. But if you’re an elementary school ALT, you’re more than likely to be the main teacher because the homeroom teachers don’t speak English. Still, the timing applies to these cases—give the repetitive and pictorial Study Stage no more than 20 minutes. No matter what happens in class, be flexible with the time. If you rush or pack too much information in the Study Stage, your students’ brains might explode, making the entire 50 minutes completely useless.
Once you’ve got your lesson plan done, it should look like this:
(Start with words. Students usually know these.)
|8 – 10 minutes||Translation Race: Teachers will say a word. One person from each line (team) will put their team’s number on the translated word. (Example: Jd says, “playing” and students must race and put their number on the word “している”).|
|2||2 minutes||Give worksheet to students. Students will write the words from dictionary form (“run”) to progressive tense (“running”).|
(Target grammar with words students know.)
|8 minutes||Hideaki will explain the grammar and students will fill in the blanks on their worksheets. Jd walks around and helps students. Hideaki will also explain the question form using present progressive tense.|
|4||7 minutes||Criss Cross: All students will stand up. Teachers will say a sentence using the grammar (Example: Jd says, “I am playing piano” and a student will answer, “私はピアノをしています”). The student who can translate the sentence can sit down.|
(Activity using target grammar and words.)
|20 minutes||Sugoroku: Jd and Hideaki will explain the activity using gestures and pictures. Students will play rock-paper-scissors (じゃんけん). Winner will ask a question using the grammar point (Example: “Who is flying?”). Loser will find the character and answer, “Anpanman is flying.” The loser will sign the winner’s box. Now the winner can move to the next box.|
|(When students finish early or when most students are finished with Sugoroku) Funny Animals: Students will take 2 pictures with animals doing human things. They will glue the animals to their paper and make 2 English and Japanese sentences from the pictures.|
|Leeway Time: 3 minutes|
After 3 years of teaching 7 junior high schools and 2 senior high schools, I’ve learned that how long students are sitting is very important. If students sit still for more than 10 minutes, they start to daydream, talk, or the worst, sleep during the class. The best way to combat the sleepy nature in sitting schoolchildren is to make them stand or do mini games during the Study Stage. Sometimes, I do Criss Cross (立ってよこ, or tatte yoko) after the Study Stage to give slower students a chance to catch up and to gauge how well the students on a whole have learned the target English. This and other mini games get the students to their feet as well, breaking the monotony of the lecture teaching style.
After finding the students’ language levels, picking the activities for your lesson plans, and timing each stage, you must ask yourself one more thing: do the games and activities use teacher-to-student interactions or are they student-to-student interactions? In EFL, student-to-student interactions are required—no matter how “shy” or quiet your students seem, they must talk or work with each other using the target English. Interviews, rock-paper-scissors games, and interactive BINGO worksheets will get your students moving around and practicing what they just learned.
Your final lesson plan should look like the following:
(Start with words. Students usually know these.)
|8 – 10 minutes||Teacher-Student||ALT and Mr. Tanaka||Translation Race: Teachers will say a word. One person from each line (team) will put their team’s number on the translated word. (Example: Jd says, “playing” and students must race and put their number on the word “している”).|
|2||2 minutes||Teacher- Student||ALT and Mr. Tanaka||Give worksheet to students. Students will write the words from dictionary form (“run”) to progressive tense (“running”).|
(Target grammar with words students know.)
|8 minutes||Teacher-Student||Mr. Tanaka||Hideaki will explain the grammar and students will fill in the blanks on their worksheets. Jd walks around and helps students who aren’t writing.|
|4||5 minutes||Teacher-Student||ALT (and Mr. Tanaka, if needed)||Criss Cross: All students will stand up. Teachers will say a sentence using the grammar (Example: Jd says, “I am playing piano” and a student will answer, “私はピアノをしています”). The student who can translate the sentence can sit down.|
(Activity using target grammar and words.)
|10 minutes||Student-Student||ALT and Mr. Tanaka||Sugoroku: Jd and Hideaki will explain the activity using gestures and pictures. Students will play rock-paper-scissors (じゃんけん). Winner will ask a question using the grammar point (Example: “Who is flying?”). Loser will find the character and answer, then sign in the box. Now the winner can move forward.|
(Correcting any mistakes.)
|10 minutes||Teacher-Student||ALT and Mr. Tanaka||Funny Animals: Students will take 2 pictures with animals doing human things. They will glue the animals to their paper and make 2 English and Japanese sentences from the pictures.|
|5 minutes||Student||ALT and Mr. Tanaka||Original Sentence: Students will draw their own picture and write their own sentence in English and Japanese.|
|Total time: 50 minutes|
As mentioned before, the goal of this lesson, as is for all EFL lessons, is for students to produce an original sentence using the target English. But they can’t jump into it—think skydiving without a parachute. They’ll surely crash into a sea of jumbled English. Instead of ending the lesson at the first Activate Stage, insert another Study Stage between the first Activate Stage and the second Activate Stage, easing students into their original sentences with several references to the target English.
In this lesson, I gave each student small pictures of animals doing human-like things (i.e. squirrels with cameras, monkeys studying, cats eating hamburgers), and they made sentences from what they saw in the pictures. Once the teachers and I checked their funny animal sentences, we tell them to make their own sentences. At this point, students have gone from memorized verbs and nouns to a full sentence using those terms. Using different games and activities, they gained confidence in producing the target English in an original sentence.
Now that there is a simplified guide for teaching EFL, ALTs without EFL training or certification will have no excuses in making more effective and memorable lessons in Japan.
- Burns, Lucas. How to Teach English (ESL): The ultimate guide to teaching English as a Second Language. Amazon Digital Services, Inc., 2014. Ebook.
- Clump, A. 2007. Examining the Role of Assistant Language Teachers on the JET Programme within the Context of Nihonjinron and Kokusaika: Perspectives from ALTs. Masters Thesis, McGill University, Montreal. 40-41, 50,75 p. PDF file.
- Houghton, Stephanie Ann and Damian J. Rivers. Native-Speakerism in Japan: Intergroup Dynamics in Foreign Language Education. Vol.151. Bristol: Multilingual Matters,2013. 168. Print.
- International TEFL and TESOL Training. Unit 1: Teachers and Learners. 2011. PDF file.
- Richards, Jack C. and Theodore S. Rodgers. Approaches and Methods in Language Teaching. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014. 54. Print.