A Different Challenge: Teaching English to Japanese College Students

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Most assistant language teacher-type jobs in Japan involve team teaching in a mix of elementary, junior and occasionally senior high schools. From time to time, if you’re lucky you may also be invited to do the occasional visit to local kindergartens or special needs schools.

One type of teaching that had, thus far, eluded me however, was the opportunity to teach at the college or university level. Typically, entry to these types of jobs is more restricted, often requiring specialized teaching certifications or even a master’s degree.

Thankfully, this all changed with my new assignment, where in addition to junior and senior high school classes, I now have the chance to teach college classes. I’ve found, though, that along with this rewarding new experience there also comes a host of fresh challenges.

Here are the five differences between college and regular classes and how to best navigate them.

1) Be ready to fly solo

The most immediate difference between teaching college and teaching elementary and secondary schools is the lack of a Japanese teacher of English (JTE) in the classroom.

As a solo teacher, you need to be mindful when planning activities. Not only do you need to be confident in your own ability to demonstrate and explain the lessons to your class, but you also need to make sure they are easy for the students to pick up and follow. Since you don’t have the luxury of a Japanese partner who can step in and explain everything in the students’ native language if things get confusing, you’ll need to ensure that you can clarify it yourself.

With my students, I’ve found role plays to be particularly effective. Start by giving the students a two-person dialogue, which they will practice in pairs. Once they are confident reciting this interchange, give them a different copy of the conversation — with a few key words removed — and invite the students to use their own suggestions. If they are struggling to come up with ideas, you could also elicit and drill some recommendations from the whole class before moving on to the second stage of the activity.

Like any age and ability level, it will take some trial and error before you find a balance of activities that work well for your individual class.

2) Older students have more distractions

In a junior high school classes, your main sources of distraction will probably be students talking or falling asleep. However, with college students, there are a host of other possible distractions. Smartphones, eating, drinking. I even had to ask a student once to stop applying her make up during class. This isn’t always a product of a lack of discipline, rather it’s a genuine misunderstanding of what the rules and boundaries for acceptable behavior are in these circumstances. It’s really up to you how you manage this.

For example, I decided against a blanket ban on smartphones in class. I let students use their smartphones to look up words via online dictionaries and Google Translate. However, if I see a student playing games on their phone during class I will ask them to stop. Sure, there are students who will, from time to time, send Line messages or check their Facebook/Twitter feeds during class, but so long as it doesn’t disrupt the lesson, I let it go. Over time, my students and I have developed a natural equilibrium where they are allowed a certain degree of leeway, so long as they don’t push it too far.

… just because you’re dealing with older students, you are not necessarily going to be contending with students of a higher English ability level than your younger students.

3) Older doesn’t necessarily mean better at English

As I have alluded to previously, English ability varies greatly from class to class and student to student in Japan. As such, it’s important to remember that just because you’re dealing with older students, you are not necessarily going to be contending with students of a higher English ability level than your younger students.

In my own current assignment, my junior high students are of far-above-average ability, but my high school students are below the average and it’s a mixed bag with my college students.

4) Each student has their own motivations

Whereas in junior or senior high school classes, the motivation for attending English class is mostly extrinsic — i.e. they are there because they are told they have to be — once you get into further education, the student has made a choice to be there.

I guess in some ways college classes are perhaps closer to eikaiwa (private language school) classes than they are high school classes. High school classes are, for the most part, purely about preparing students for exams and tests. In the case of college courses, in order to maintain student interest, it helps if there is a concrete, easily identifiable outcome to each lesson. Students should leave with the clear feeling that they have learned something new and useful.

To accomplish this, I always try to base each lesson around a particular theme or common scenario where they would be using English. It could be something as simple as going shopping or it could be more involved like booking flights over the phone or attending a job interview. It really depends on the group you are working with and how far you want to push them.

5) Sometimes there is such a thing as too much freedom

It varies from place to place, of course, but from my own experiences and those of other college English teachers with whom I consulted, we are typically given a far wider latitude to create and use our own ideas and approaches in college classes than we are in conventional ALT classes.

The downside of this is that — particularly in those first few early classes —  the lack of firm guidance from management can be problematic.

Prior to my first college class, I was told: “Do anything you like, so long as the students can understand you and have lots of opportunities to practice English conversation and listening.”

Overall, this freedom has undoubtedly been a good thing as I have had the chance to experiment with some different approaches and activities that the more restrictive adherence to curricula in junior and senior high schools simply does not allow.

Teaching college students has been a challenging experience thus far, but a highly rewarding one. I have no doubt that the self reliance and extra creativity in my approach to crafting unique lessons has made me a better teacher.

Do you teach English in college or university in Japan? How did you adapt your style from ALT- or eikaiwa-style teaching? Let us know in the comments!

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Teacher, journalist and now blogger.

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