Teaching English at a Japanese Academic High School (by Tomo Wakui)

 My teaching History

Hello. My name is Tomoe Wakui. Please call me Tomo. I am a high school English teacher in Niigata, Japan. I am very happy to have this opportunity to introduce myself here in Teaching Village.

Tomo WakuiLet me explain my teaching history briefly. I became an English teacher in 1989. I worked at a Girls High School. Except for only having female students, it was just a normal high school.

After three years, I moved to a kind of vocational high school. The curriculum included textile, domestic science, commercial and general education courses.  There were many mischievous students at this school. They caused a lot of problems, but they were always energetic and bright. I loved them very much. The problem with teaching English in both of these high schools was that most of the students didn’t have a concrete purpose to learn English. Even term examinations weren’t enough to provide a purpose to learn. In order to motivate students and have them experience a sense of achievement and enjoyment, I tried to focus on 5 points in teaching. First, I always set goals for the whole year, the whole lesson, each class and each activity. Second, I spent enough time at the pre-reading stage. In this section, students were encouraged or motivated to read a text by looking at the pictures, title or diagrams, and guessing the content of the text. Thirdly, I chose materials carefully. I tried to find texts that were inherently interesting to the students. Fourth, I tried to adopt a communicative approach with my lessons as much as possible. I used classroom English. I made my own conversation textbook and used it in every class. This book consisted of questions and answers because they are the most basic elements of communication. To teach how to ask and answer promotes student communication. Lastly, I did many kinds of pair and group activities in my class and created an atmosphere in which students could talk freely and comfortably.

In 1998, I moved to a credit-system high school. Many students there had various kinds of problems. Some of them needed mental support. Both very fragile and sensitive students and rebellious students were mixed together in one school. It was really tough for teachers to take care of each student. Since many different students were absent from class one after another, it was very difficult to accumulate knowledge. I worked for this school for nine years. While teaching there, I learned a lot about counseling, mental health, class organization and so on. I used a cooperative learning style in my classes. I divided students into groups in which all members had roles. I also used this group system both inside and outside of the class to encourage students to take care of each other. Students did really well. I was very proud of them.  They stuck together like a family and enjoyed learning English together. My students made me realize how wonderful it is to learn together! They managed to do well because they did not learn alone; they motivated and stimulated each other because they worked as a team.

Tomo's schoolNow, I am working for an academic high school. I was just transferred last year. Working in an academic school is hard because teachers are always busy and face a huge amount of pressure to cram students full of as much knowledge as we can, and then worry about the result of their exams. In my former schools students caused a lot of trouble and did not have specific reasons to learn English. But I could teach anything I wanted to suit the students’ levels and preferences. I didn’t have to reach a certain fixed standard. I just set each attainable goals and got there moderately. When I first started teaching at an academic high school, I didn’t feel like I had enough experience or skill because teachers were required to follow a rigid syllabus in order to help students attain a level high enough to pass very difficult college entrance exams, irrespective of their abilities, motivation or interests. So, in order improve my teaching ability, I observed most of the other teachers’ classes and I also visited classes at other academic high schools. Even so, I felt like my efforts were not enough. I needed to know more about many kinds of effective teaching skills. Finally, I made up my mind to learn at International University in Japan. That is where I am now studying.

Present conditions at a Japanese academic high school

Since I became a teacher, I have explored specific methods in which students learn and help each other in pair and group activities. However, in a typical class at an academic high school, there is no time to do any “extra” communicative activities. I found that some teachers still teach English in almost the same way we were taught when we were high school students. Nowadays, there are a lot of new English teaching methods. Especially, the communicative way of teaching has become popular. However, the truth is that the majority of teachers at academic high schools still follow a passive, teacher-centered, lecture style of teaching.

The main reason is college entrance examinations. Students believe that studying at an academic high school will help them pass the exam to get into a good university. Teachers face a lot of pressure to finish the lessons which will prepare students for the exams. I really want to do something fun in class, such as communicative team-teaching lessons, but this puts me in conflict with the reality that we have to cram as much knowledge for the entrance exams as we can, and finish each lesson as fast as we can.

 If we teach students more communicatively, they will enjoy interacting with each other. The problem is simply time limitations and teaching skills.

However, I still believe that student-centered communicative teaching methods don’t necessarily have to disturb students in their studies for entrance exams. Instead, this style of teaching has beneficial effects on language acquisition. So, I would really like to develop more interactive, student-centered ways to teach, using existing textbooks. I would like to prove that even at an academic school, we can teach communicatively, involving students with the text and with each other as well as giving them enough knowledge for entrance exams. I believe that if students learn more interactively, it will not only make them feel motivated, but also have a great combined effect on their examination results.

Tomo’s Tips for pair and group activities

Here are nine tips for my pair and group activities. This might be a little bit different from typical pair and group activities. I believe that student-centered pair/group activities encourage students to work independently. I will be glad if these might be of some help for other teachers.

1. Each group consists of four members. All students must have their own roles. 

(a) They should choose a leader to represent them as the “Chairman” of the group

(b) Then they choose a “Secretary” who will correct the assignments and take notes during discussion.

(c) The other two members will be “Spokespeople” who present the activity to the whole class. In case these two members fail to do their task, it is the Chairman’s responsibility to carry it out.

2. All the group members should cooperate and work together to practice using English language–in reading, writing and speaking, both inside and outside the classroom.

3. The secretary must ensure that every member of the group submits assignments or activities. He/She only submits assignments to the teacher once all of the members have completed the tasks.

4. Usually, the teacher can’t finish most activities during class. Thus, students have the liberty to choose any method to accomplish the reading and listening activities (e.g., Shadowing, Fill-in-the-Blanks, Read-and-Look-Up, Reproduction activity) according to their English level and preferences and should be encouraged to continue doing their preferred activities even outside the classroom.

5. Every day, the first 10 minutes of the class is utilized for a group reading test. Each member of the group must do well on the test; otherwise, the group takes the test again until every member passes.  The group is encouraged to help each other to improve their English reading skills so they can pass the test with flying colors.

6. If a student is absent, their partner or group members update the absentee before the next class. It is very important for them to help the returning absentee to catch up.

7. Each member of the group must respect their co-members, especially during discussion activities.  They must give each other a chance to express their opinions on the topic and should show their interest by listening carefully and interacting with each other. All members of the group must learn how to become good listeners in order to foster good communication within the group, thus improving their communication skills. Showing positive peer attitude and being an audience of good listeners encourages the speaker to gain more confidence and be motivated to present strong arguments.

8. Students are responsible to look out for each other. If one member of the group is tasked to do a presentation in front of the class, the rest of the group is obliged to support that member.

9. Members share ideas, exchange information, set goals and encourage each other to improve their English skills. If one of the members has higher English skills than the rest of the group, that member should share knowledge, be a role model and foster peer support to his/her co-members.

Note: This article by Tomo Wakui originally appeared as a guest post on Teaching Village, and is licensed under a Creative Commons, Attribution-Non Commercial, No Derivatives 3.0 License. If you wish to share it you must re-publish it “as is”, and retain any credits, acknowledgements, and hyperlinks within it.

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15 Responses

  1. Barbara says:

    Thank you so much, Tomo, for sharing this inside peek at a system I don’t know very much about. I really admire the way you are trying to use communicative methods inside a system that doesn’t reward communicative ability.

    Do you have any kind of choice about which school you are assigned to? It sounds like a big challenge to teach in so many different types of schools with so many different types of students.

    I really admire you!

    • Tomo Wakui says:

      English education has changed greatly in Japan. My comments might be a little behind the present trend because young English teachers have bravely challenged new methods which they learned at their university and researchers have published many new ideas about English education. I am always afraid that I can’t keep up with new trends, but I know all I can do is just to do my best for my students. I really want to be a good teacher.

  2. Hi Tomo,

    I have learned so much from you, and this article allows me to learn even more about being a Japanese Teacher of English here in Japan. Thank you for sharing some of the things you’ve learned over the years.

    I’d love to do some classroom research for HS students: something related to motivation or writing. Would you be interested?



  3. Alex Case says:

    Very interesting, I had no idea there were so many different kinds of school in Japan and I can’t imagine coping that well in any of them, yet alone all of them! Can you tell me what “academic high school” is in Japanese?

    • Barbara says:

      I checked with Tomo to be sure. Academic high schools are often called Shingakukou. These are schools that are well known for having graduates who are able to pass the entrance exams to get into “good” universities. Most of the Japanese moms I know just call them “good high schools” and their students study hard in junior high in order to get into them (just like they studied in elementary school to get into the “good junior highs” and so on).

  4. Chris Cotter says:

    Hi Tomo,

    Thank you so much for the interesting and enlightening post. A firsthand view of the present problems in Japanese education is so important. Even better, it comes from a Japanese educator who can see that perhaps tests don’t provide effective impetus to use English as a communicative tool. For Japan to succeed on a global scale in the 21st century, it must produce speakers of English not people adept at taking tests. I’m very curious to hear how you will find a way to reach both goals.

    Again, thank you.

    Chris Cotter
    Yokohama, Japan

  5. Takakiyo (Kiyo) Mizogucihi says:

    Thank you very much for sharing your experiences with us. I’d be very happy if I , too, could start contributing even a little from my own experience.

    I teach English at my own school where my wife and I have classes for stuents with various interests: They are 3-year old kindergarten pupils as well as elementary school kids who enjoy singing, chanting phrases, playing games and learning to communicate. Also, there are students whose interests are mainly acheiving better score in mid-term and final exams and finally in an entrance exam for upper schools. or business-person just returned from an overseas post having realized how crucial it can be to have a command in English in a tough environment.

    It’s quite a challenge to do all this. But we sure enjoy it. While realizing we need to learn more everyday to achieve our goal, we are confident the blessing from above will never leave us ! Learning from the dedicated teachers like you means a great deal for us. Please tell us more. I hope you will welcome me in your community of English teachers.

    • Barbara says:

      Welcome, Kiyo!

      I’m glad you found your way to Teaching Village. We would all love to hear more about your teaching experiences–it sounds like you have a very interesting situation. I hope you will write a guest post about your school or about your experiences in your overseas post, or both!

      Everyone who shares helps us all become better teachers 🙂

  6. Takakiyo (Kiyo) Mizogucihi says:

    Thank you, Barbara for inviting me to start writing my own English Blog. I guess I should start at “guest auther” category, right?

    • Barbara says:

      Yes! We have three on-going series. Take a look and see what might appeal to you.

      Send me a message through the contact page on the blog, and I’ll send you details about submitting a post.

      I look forward to hearing form you!

  1. November 26, 2009

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    […] Tomo Wakui is an incredible high school English teacher in Japan. Steven Herder persuaded her that others would enjoy her story. She mentioned in her post that she was a student at International University. What she failed to mention was that she’s at the tail end of her masters, as in trying to finish her thesis (in her second language) while teaching full time. Tomo gave us a look into a teaching environment few of us get to see. At one point in the process of posting her story, I asked Tomo why she decided to become a teacher. Her response was so wonderful that I’m planning to share that as it’s own post in the future. […]

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