Back to School: Getting Your Students Back into English Mode
By Liam Carrigan
On August 23, 2016
Having just returned from a few days off, I am now working on getting back into the swing of things and putting together some basic lesson outlines for the upcoming autumn/winter term. It is about 10 days before my students are due to report back to school, and about two or three weeks before I am likely to have any classes again — the first of which always present something of a curious challenge to English teachers in Japan.
Short though it may be, summer is the longest break that school kids in Japan will get throughout the entirety of the school year. As such, it’s also the time when their English levels display the most noticeable dropping off. It can be a frustrating time for teachers, since, on the face of it, very little of the knowledge we imparted on our students during the first term from April to July appears to have been retained.
All is not lost, though. The truth is, like a car that hasn’t been used in a while, all that your students need to get them started speaking English again is a little “jump-start.” It’s at this time of year that you, the teacher, will really have to get creative with how you manage your classes. What you need are immersive, communicative activities — and lots of them!
An example is a sports athlete who hasn’t trained in a while. While the typical batter in baseball may initially swing and miss a few times when he steps up to the plate, in the fullness of time, muscle memory and experience dictate that he will inevitably start hitting runs again in due course. It’s the same with your students’ English.
Like your batting arm or the soccer player’s sweet left foot, the brain is also a muscle and the muscle memory remains there. You just need to reacquaint the students with the environment, the process and the manner in which English is used in the classroom.
So what kinds of activities work best for this sort of thing?
Hopefully, if you’ve been following the advice I gave you in previous posts you established a regular routine in your classes in terms of classroom English, lesson flow and the running order of how things are done in class. A good first step after summer is to give the students a quick review of these areas, especially the classroom English. Pay particular attention to the students’ response time. It will be slow at first, but after a few tries, it should begin to return to normal.
From here, move onto basic, easy-to-answer questions, which will ease the students back into the routine of forming full sentences in English. Questions like: “How is the weather today?” “What day is it today?” and “How are you?” are all good examples.
If your students are quickly getting the hang of it, then try mixing it up with some slightly more challenging questions. It’s especially useful if you can work in some review of the target language and sentence structures that you covered the last term, but that is not essential at this point.
Rather than focusing on review, the emphasis at this point should instead be on simply getting the students comfortable with using English again. Keep it light, keep it fun and keep correction to a minimum unless the student’s mistake drastically alters the meaning of what they are trying to say or severely impedes the ability of others to understand them.Photo by Lin Yu Chen ChRis
Remember that when it comes to language acquisition, the area where students suffer the most, due to a lack of practice, is fluency. Therefore, for the first one or two classes after the summer break, the main aim of all your lessons should be to boost students fluency.
So, in all your games and activities use vocabulary that is easy to remember and structures that can be recalled with minimal difficulty. Start with a whole class activity like a quiz or something similar, then scale it down to group and finally pair work. Starting in larger groups at first will mean the weaker students won’t feel alienated and it also allows the stronger students to support them as they will, undoubtedly, take a little longer to readjust to the English.
Try to build a speaking activity around the question of “what did you do on the summer holidays?” This will give the students a logical context for their output at the end of the lesson and equally importantly, it tells the students that you, their teacher, are interested in what they have to say.
Overall, once your students settle back into the daily grind of school life and get used to hearing your voice again, you should find that things return to normal within two or three weeks. In the meantime, take it easy, be patient and give the students the time and space they need to express themselves.
Here’s to a successful autumn term for everyone!
What are some classroom techniques that you use to get your students back in the groove after summer holidays? Share them with us in the comments below.