Brainstorming in Oral Communication Lessons: Using L1

Page No.: 
Barry Mateer, Nihon University, Buzan Junior, Senior High School


  • Key Words: Brainstorming, Discussion, Classroom Interaction
  • Learner English Level: Beginner to Advanced
  • Learner Maturity Level: Junior High Second Year to Adult
  • Preparation Time: None as a blackboard activity; 20 minutes if turned into a handout
  • Activity Time: 15 minutes or more

It might be safe to bet that most teachers have experienced asking a simple question and getting no response from students. For example, a student walks into class late and (with genuine concern) the teacher asks why the student is late, but there is no response, other than silence. It is easy to let the student off the hook and let him go on to his seat, but it can be disconcerting to have such an easy question go unattended, time and time again.

A technique that can turn an individual student's non-response into a learning opportunity is to invite the whole class to brainstorm appropriate responses. The problem is posed again to the whole class, asking them to give possible reasons that someone could be late. Common reasons for being late to class are volunteered and with luck, there will be some less common but interesting reasons also rounding out the list on the blackboard.

In general, students within the classroom are requested, encouraged, and expected to speak English. But when a student with something to share does not have the ability or confidence to say it in English, it is not a reason for hesitation within our classroom culture. They are encouraged to say that word or phrase in Japanese. So on the list on the blackboard, some sentences or phrases may be completely expressed in English, others only in Japanese, and some of the listed ideas may be a mixture of English and Japanese. This is not a strange occurrence in our classroom culture, as interacting and sharing ideas are the purposes of the class and fluency in expressing an idea takes priority over the accuracy of English -- especially on the initial try. To be "fluently inaccurate" is accepted.

This purposeful and controlled use of L1 in the classroom poses no threat to learning English. At least it is true in our classroom culture, because whenever Japanese is used in our classroom, the first order of business is for others to help that person express their idea in English by paraphrasing the idea, not translating an isolated word or phrase. Of course, students get the first chance to help their friends, but if they can't, the teacher takes on that role.

But at other times, such as in the following activity, students are requested to brainstorm in Japanese. Let's say that one reason given for being late to class is that the student's mother didn't wake him up on time. Taking that idea, students are asked what that student could say to his mother when she wakes him up. Responses could include:

Kyo yasumi.
Kyo yasumu.
Mo sukoshi.

After the list is on the blackboard, students can be asked for any comments. There might be disagreement as to whether a certain response is really appropriate or not, or whether two separately listed items are actually the same. Once the list is accepted, the students are asked to express those ideas in English. They are encouraged not to translate, but rather to give the feeling and the intent of the response.

For example, "I say 'mo sukoshi' when I want to sleep more." The teacher or another student can then suggest how a native speaker might express that feeling in English. One way might be "Let me sleep a little longer."

Somehow, once the ideas are listed on the board, it becomes easier for students to choose one and try to express it in English. Not only is it fun to work through these ideas together and come up with English equivalents, but it's also a great chance to focus on the form, meaning, and use of the equivalents in English.

Through this activity, students can become more aware of the fact that translation can hinder more than it helps. Students often want to translate "urusai" as "shut up" -- certainly something that students would be advised not to say to their host mothers if they ever went on a homestay.

With collaboration between the students and teacher, a list of equivalent English can be listed. For example:

(a) All right. Okay. I heard you.
(b) I don't want to. I can't.
(c) I'm awake. I'm up.
(d) I can't (because I'm too sleepy).
(e) Leave me alone. Please don't bother me. Go away. I heard you the first time.
(f) There's no class today.
(g) I'm not going to class today.
(h) Let me sleep a little more.

But the list should also be looked at carefully and clarified. For example, can "muri" include both the meaning of "not being able to" and "not wanting to?" Do "I'm up" and "I'm awake" express the same situation?

Once the technique of brainstorming is introduced and practiced regularly, students are comfortable slipping into brainstorming in Japanese as a warm-up to the main purpose -- communicating in English and communicating about English. Letting students brainstorm in Japanese at certain times allows learners to contribute regardless of their skill level in English. It also creates great opportunities for raising language awareness -- awareness of their own language as well as of English.

Needless to say, lists from such brainstorming sessions can easily be turned into a handout for other classes.