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Teaching in Japan: 5 Steps to Handle Nervous Students

As a language teacher, how do you deal with students who are too nervous to take part in your class? Here's 5 steps to help you.

By 4 min read

If you’ve ever taught a language class in Japan, you’ll probably agree that, in general, Japanese students are somewhat reluctant to speak out. They are quieter, more withdrawn and less likely to voice strong opinions in classes.

The Confucian nature of the Japanese classroom naturally tends to encourage a more introspective class of students who are more inclined to listen and learn rather than question and inquire.

So what to do in a classroom context where speaking aloud is a fundamental skill that students need to practice? What if a student is so nervous that they shut down any time you ask them a question?

Step: Identify and deal with any underlying issues

Sometimes it’s easy to dismiss signs of genuine speech and/or communication difficulties as simple shyness and natural reluctance.

I have in my ten years of teaching, however, encountered several students who were not just shy or quiet. They have genuine problems with expressing themselves, and often not just in English class. These students need to be handled with both care and respect, and present a great challenge to even the most experienced English teacher.

One of the first key steps to helping these students is identifying what may be the underlying causes of their reluctance to speak out.

In many cases, victims of bullying become quieter and less expressive. If you see bullying taking place, don’t just allow it. Step in, stop it and inform your managers at the earliest opportunity.

Step: Create a safe, positive environment

A safe environment doesn’t just mean an environment where they feel safe from bullying. It also means making the classroom a place where all your students, regardless of their ability can feel comfortable speaking out, even if their responses aren’t especially accurate.

I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to praise your students. This reinforces positive behavior. Any positive contribution that a student makes to your lesson, however small, needs to be acknowledged and rewarded.

By the same token, don’t be too harsh in your correction of students’ errors. Of course, we need to make sure that English is reproduced accurately in the drilling and language acquisition phase of the lesson.

Nonetheless, during the free practice and activity phases of your lessons, the focus should be on building confidence and increasing fluency. Don’t stop students when they are in mid-flow, unless their mistake is so acute that it completely alters the meaning of what they are saying.

Step: Handle feedback with care

As much as possible, keep correction and feedback until after the activity is completed and try to address all feedback to the entire class as a whole rather than to individuals.

In the mindset of the typical Japanese student, one of their greatest fears is being singled out from their peers. The more you can focus your feedback on the collective as opposed to the individual, the better results you will see.

Likewise, when a student really doesn’t feel they can talk, don’t force the issue, get their friends to answer collectively with them.

I really can’t emphasize enough how important it is to keep your class relaxed and friendly.

Step: Get to know your students

Getting to know your students, especially the more nervous ones, will also help enormously.

Try to talk with them outside of class, even if your Japanese isn’t that great. A little effort goes a long way, and when the more reluctant students see you trying your best to communicate in a foreign language it may just be the motivation they need to spur themselves on to do more in class.

Step: Seek support from your colleagues

Getting your Japanese colleagues on side is important too. Where appropriate, ask them if they can give you any background info about any students you are concerned about. Of course confidentiality is an issue, and we always need to respect students’ privacy, but it does no harm to ask your colleagues if there is any particular issue that is affecting the student’s performance in class. Even if you get a vague answer like “family issues”, or “mental problems” at least it gives you something to work with.

It may seem daunting to work with students who appear very reluctant to take part in your lessons. But believe me when I say, there is no greater sense of satisfaction in teaching than when one of these students finally does open up and start to use what they’ve learned.

Have you ever had to deal with very shy or nervous students in class? Got any tips or recommendations for what to do? 

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