Teaching Classroom English: Activities for the First Few Classes

Cathrine-Mette (Trine) Mirk, Nishimorokata Educational Branch Office, Miyazaki



  • Key Words: Learner Training, Vocabulary
  • Learner English Level: beginners
  • Learner Maturity Level:Jr. High, Sr. High
  • Preparation Time: approx. 1 hour
  • Activity Time: approx. 2 50-min. periods, but vocabulary should be constantly employed thereafter

In order to effectively and efficiently control and organize activities in English class, both JTLs (Japanese Teachers of Language) and ALTs (Assistant Language Teachers, usually non-Japanese) often resort to using Japanese. This is a shame, because with just a couple of classes, young Japanese students can indeed come to understand basic English requests. The following is a description of 4 activities covering about 2 class periods to help meet that objective. Team-teaching with an ALT is effective for this plan, and makes good use of the often rare ALT visit. Continual use by the JTL and ALT of classroom English in subsequent classes is paramount to the plan's success.

1. Handouts with the following Classroom English list and translation into Japanese:

repeat. write. listen. read. look. study.
raise your hand. stand up. sit down.
get into pairs. get into groups. get into line.
get into a circle. copy. one more time.
close your book(s). open your book(s). be quiet.
don't be shy. do your best. don't talk.
don't speak Japanese. speak English only. show me.
tell me. say something. help your friends.
erase the blackboard. switch papers. return papers.
turn around. don't sleep. speak loudly. clear your desks.


2. Large word-cards with the above English on one side and the meaning in Japanese on the other.

3. Three small cards with E-J, J-E, or Gesture written on each one.

Introducing the vocabulary

JTL and ALT each have a stack of cards, and they hold up the English side of one card at a time to the students. One teacher reads the English side and solicits a repetition from the students. The other teacher then makes a gesture to indicate the meaning, and the students must try to guess what it means. The Japanese side is shown once the students have guessed the meaning. If they can't guess the meaning, the Japanese side can be very quickly flashed to the students in a playful manner.

For younger students this may take up a large chunk of time as all vocabulary is probably new, and students are only starting to contend with the alphabet. Teachers may want to simplify or amend the list to suit their classes. The JTL might want to remind students that they are not expected to remember everything at first, and that as the teachers will always be using the words and phrases, they will come to learn them in time. They are also told that the focus is speaking and listening, not reading and writing.

Teachers can flash the cards again, this time getting more advanced students to read the cards aloud and then stating the meaning. Handouts should be passed out after the vocabulary is introduced so that students are not distracted. If students are tiring or look bored, it might be best to skip the repetition and move on to other activities.

At the beginning of the second class, the cards can be flashed to the students once again for a quick review and warm up.

Activity 1: Gesture Row Race

Row races are effective games in Japanese classrooms because, if used correctly, the competition and support from peers motivates students to partake in the activity, and they allow a great majority of students to participate.

In the type of row race I like to use for this activity, the back line of students going from the left to the right side of the classroom stands up. If students feel they know the answer to a command given by one of the teachers, they raise their hand. When a student is chosen s/he must indicate comprehension of the command by using gestures and body language. They are not allowed to use Japanese or English. If understanding is appropriately communicated within 5 seconds (excitable students often get caught up in the countdown), the student may sit down, and the person sitting directly in front of them must then stand. The teams race each other to see whose row can get to the front, or to the front and back, first. Students are permitted to look at their handouts at first, and they may assist their teammates, although I sometimes prohibit those students who are standing from looking at their sheets. The race can also start from the front row or from a side column.

The gesture row race is an effective introductory activity because there is not yet any pressure on the students to use English; they learn the rule of "no Japanese"; they learn about the effectiveness of non-verbal communication; and the game is a "total physical response" method which seems to be effective especially with young, restless learners. The activity is also loads of fun.

Activity 2: Crisscross game

One row stands up and a teachers says a Classroom English phrase. Students who recognize it raise their hands and a teacher chooses the fastest one who does so. If the student translates the phrase accurately into Japanese, s/he can sit. The game continues until one person remains. The column of students perpendicular to the last remaining person then has to stand and the process is repeated.

When this becomes relatively easy, switch to translating from Japanese to English. At first, students can look at their sheets. Teams are permitted to help their mates.

Activity 3: Pick a Card game

Students get into 4-6 teams of 4-6 people. (These groups are usually already pre-assigned for junior high students.) A teacher writes E-J (English -Japanese), J-E (Japanese-English), and Gesture on the blackboard, and explains their meanings in easy English. One teacher walks from group to group getting a student from each team to select one of the three prepared cards, which are held out face-down. The other teacher keeps score. If a student picks E-J, a teacher says a Classroom English phrase and any student from the team has 5 seconds to translate it into Japanese, thus earning a point. If after 5 seconds noone can, anyone from another team gets a chance. The card-holding teacher progresses from group to group. If J-E is chosen, a teacher must say the classroom English phrase in Japanese, and students try to get it in English. If Gesture is chosen, all the members of the team must execute a gesture for the Classroom English phrase said by the teacher in English. Only one student is not enough here, as it's meant to be a team effort. A final rule is that each student in each group is allowed to answer only once (although they can help other members), so that more students get a chance to participate.

Activity 4: Simon Says

Simon Says is a classic which works well to test comprehension. Teachers give Classroom English orders, and students, who all start the game by standing, must indicate their comprehension by carrying out appropriate gestures. However, they can do it only if the order is preceded by "Simon Says..." or alternatively, "X-sensei says...." Students who are slow or miss the order have to put their heads down and pretend to sleep (which many love to do, so it's not much of a punishment!). Prizes can be awarded to the last few who remain standing. In fact, prizes for any of the above games is motivating for students.

The Simon Says game, when used again in other lessons, presents itself as a useful way to review and use the Classroom English terms as building blocks to incorporate new vocabulary and structural patterns. Therefore, in addition to initial, simple commands such as "Simon says raise your hand," students can also be tested with, "Simon says raise your right hand," or "Stand on your chair, Sit on your desk, Open your friend's pencil case, Open the door, Repeat 'I love English,' Write a sentence in English and show me," etc.


I have found these activities to be a worthwhile investment of time for the first classes of a term, as many of my JTLs and I rarely have to use much Japanese for basic organization-type requests in the classroom. The plan works best if introduced at the beginning of the term, and if, of course, the phrases are repeated on a daily basis. As teachers are presented with opportunities to use these English phrases quite frequently, there is really little room for failure.