Encouraging students to use English outside of class

T. L. Tensai

Dear TLT,

I’ve been trying to be social and encourage my students to use English outside of class, but whenever I see them around school, the conversation invariably goes like this: 

Me: Hello!

Student: Hello.

Me: So, how are you?

Student: I’m tired.

Me: (sigh)

That’s how things usually end. It’s very difficult to get beyond this point, to know what to say next. I always have the feeling that students just do not want to talk. What shall I do?

Flummoxed in Fukushima


Dear Flummoxed,

Thanks so much for your letter. Good on you for at least trying to engage your students outside of class! This desire on your part for connecting with them is a wonderful thing. Anything you end up doing with your students will rely upon this foundational interest in connecting with them in a more real way. With that said, here are some of our thoughts on how you can improve communication with your students. 

Take into account differing cultural codes

First, one thing to keep in mind is that just because some students interact with little enthusiasm doesn’t mean they don’t want to talk with you. Beyond issues of ability, shyness, or interest are differing cultural codes for communication. As you know, in Japanese culture, this sort of question-short reply, question-short reply structure is quite common when sempais talk with kohais. While we may take it as a sign of disinterest, it may be just a case of the students following their cultural conditioning by showing deference and humility and all those good things to you, the sensei. Remembering to take different cultural patterns of communication into consideration can give you some perspective as you go about your efforts to improve the quality of your interaction. 

Putting your effort into giving your students the tools and confidence to communicate more effectively can pay great dividends. Here are two activities you can do in the first semester of school to get them started.

Get to know the staff

The first one is a simple “getting to know the staff” activity. With the consent of those involved, make a list of all the English-speaking staff. In class, make a list of things the students are curious about regarding their teachers, such as where they are from, what they studied, their favorite this or that, or what countries they’ve been to. Next, give each student or pair of students one question. After they think up a few follow-up questions, have them do the interviews over a one-month period, by a specified date. Then, spend an entire class talking over the results. If possible, encourage them to take photos, too. This can help break the ice.

Let’s do lunch!

The second activity you can try at the beginning of the school year is to simply have lunch together with your students. At some time in the first month or two, have your students make small groups and negotiate with you a time and place to have lunch together. You could meet at the cafeteria, or they could bring their lunch to your office. If you spring for drinks and snacks, that might help! The students must also bring some prepared topics to talk about. Then just sit and chat. With luck, you may find that these small groups in comfortable surroundings makes them much more open to real conversations. And then, when you meet your students outside class, you will have something to actually talk about!

Tips for taking the initiative

Another basic thing you can do to improve communication with your students is to make yourself more available around school and to employ various strategies for initiating conversations. For students you teach, look for something appropriate to compliment them on: Hi, nice to see you. Oh, I really like your (new hat). You can also teach this strategy in class. It’s important for students to remember that when you compliment someone, they generally smile, you smile, and then the whole world starts smiling, too. For students you do not teach, you can ask general questions about what they study, if they enjoy the school, things they might recommend for you to do, or really any question that gets them talking. In either case, the point is to be ready with something to talk about and go from there. 

Another tip is to avoid the typical How are you? opening because it’s really a non-starter, as you’ve experienced. A better way of opening a conversation is to frame your questions in such a way that the students come away with the feeling that they are helping you in some way. For example, you could ask: 

  • Where is a good (hot spring) around this area?
  • I really like (udon)! Do you know where I can get some good (udon) around here?
  • I bought this new (notepad holder), but I don’t know how to use it. Could you help me?
  • I need to buy a (hanko). Is there a shop near here?

These sorts of questions can be effective openers because they place the student in a favorable “helper” position. Hopefully this can bring up topics that lead to more extended conversations. For example, if you ask about good places to eat udon, you could extend the conversation to other types of favorite food. The key is being available outside of class by going to the cafeteria, the coffee shop, or just sitting outside reading a book. This will give students ample opportunities to approach you. And when they do, be ready to engage them in skillful ways.  

Technology can help

Technological gadgets such as smartphones and tablets can also help you interact with students, and you do not need any fancy software. One excellent app for breaking the ice is Google Maps, believe it or not. If you ask a student where they are from, look it up on your device and have fun going over the map. You can explore neighborhoods, talk about where they went to school, where they hung out, tourist spots in their town, or anything else. Likewise, you can do the same for where you grew up. In addition, YouTube can be explored if you want to talk about music or other forms of entertainment. Have students introduce their favorite bands or the various sub-genres of J-pop. They will love that. Likewise, you can share with them some of your favorites. This will give you a chance to show off your knowledge of Japanese pop culture. There are a lot of movie clips on YouTube as well, so another idea is to show scenes from films and TV shows of people meeting and greeting each other. Students could take note of what questions get asked, how many turns were taken, or any set expressions. For fun you could throw in some extreme examples. For instance, old Seinfeld shows can give you situations where Jerry really enjoys—or not—bumping into people and talking to them.

So there you go, Flummoxed. We hope these ideas have given you some food for thought. If you make yourself available, get a bit organized, and put some energy and thought into it, there is a lot you can do to improve the way you communicate with students outside of class, both in organized or spontaneous ways. Good luck, and happy chatting! 

T. L. Tensai