Teaching in Japan: A Guide to English Speech Contests

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Working as an assistant language teacher (ALT) in Japan can often seem a pretty thankless task. From my perspective, co-workers and superiors have been kind, supportive and cooperative in almost all instances. It soon becomes clear, though, that ALTs have very little actual power or authority. When it comes to visibly improving classes and raising student achievements through changes in procedure or approach, our recommendations are always listened to politely — but seldom acted upon.

Thankfully, I now work at a private school where my suggestions are given the same level of consideration as those of my Japanese colleagues. I’m made to feel an equal partner in a small but highly dedicated unit of educators.

But back in my ALT days, there was one area where I was given the freedom to make a real difference, one area where my unique talents and language abilities gave me an edge over even the most exceptional Japanese teachers of English (JTEs).

It was the humble English speech contest.

What is it?

As an ALT in Japan, one of the first things you’ll be tasked with is helping students to prepare for an English speech contest. The format usually goes like this: A student will write a speech on either a given or independently chosen topic, then have to deliver the speech in front of a panel of judges at either a school, city, prefectural or nationwide level. Judges will evaluate all the speeches and announce winners on the day. Students prepare for several weeks in the run up to the contest, and will normally travel to the contest during school hours accompanied by a teacher.

The benefits for students vary; from increasing confidence to encouraging critical thinking. But there are also disadvantages, particularly in the way that contests are judged. Usually judging panels are made of a combination of foreign and Japanese teachers, who will more often than not differ in their opinion of what makes a good speech. Native speakers will most likely score points for natural, likable delivery, whereas Japanese judges tend to rate memorization, gestures and accent.

Who takes part?

Where, when and how frequently students enter such competitions depends on a number of external factors, such as the size of your school and the city in which it is situated. They may enter as little as one or as many as three or four contests in a single school year. Local districts, city governments, prefectural boards of education and sometimes even regional English advocacy groups will organize these events for schools under their remit.

The qualifying criteria also vary. Some events are aimed exclusively at a certain age group. Some may include only boys or only girls. While others are restricted to students of certain backgrounds.

How ALTs can make a difference

During my time working for the Osaka City Board of Education, I twice served on adjudication panels for a city-wide speech contest. I was amazed with the dedication and time that the students had clearly given to mastering not only the content of their presentations but also the intonation, pacing, pronunciation and mannerisms that accompanied them.

These things simply can’t be taught by anyone other than a native speaker of English. It’s at times like these when the ALT becomes truly indispensable to his or her school. As a native speaker, you’re able to support students not only in a fluent-sounding delivery but also in giving them pointers for creating an “original” speech – one of the factors that can help them stand out in a contest.

English Speech Contests JapanProducing students who do well in local speech contests — especially if they come from a school that isn’t held in especially high regard — can go a long way to impressing the powers that be. And who knows, perhaps when contract renewal time comes around, achievements like this might prove to be the difference between whether you’re kept on for another year or replaced by some cheaper, fresh-off-the-boat newbie.

Some challenges

Helping your students rise to the top when it comes to speech competitions is by no means a simple process. I remember when I took part in public speaking and poetry recital competitions as a school student. Then, it was so simple: Study, study, study, followed by practice, practice, practice.

Unfortunately, in Japan it’s a little more complicated. There are a number of external factors that, depending on your students, may help or hinder their chances. For example, from what I have seen, the eligibility of students to enter these contests is something that varies from city to city.

When I worked in Osaka, there was a clear restriction that said no “returnee” students (students who were either born in or spent an extended period of time living in an English speaking country) were allowed to enter. While I understand the reasoning behind this, I do feel this unfairly singled out students who may already be subject to bullying and or exclusion from the social group as a result of their background.

However, more recently, I have also seen the other side of the coin. Late last year, I helped prepare several students for a local speech contest. None of the students who entered from my new school were returnees, however, the contest was duly won by students who not only had a highly advanced level of English — but even the California-type accents that come with several years of living in abroad.

None of the local students had a chance. And were it not for the remarkable maturity shown by my own students, this could have severely damaged their enthusiasm for English.

Clearly, pitting local students who have never studied abroad against returning students with a near-native level ability is a complete mismatch. At the same time, those students shouldn’t be made to feel unwelcome simply because they have had the good fortune to study abroad.

I don’t really have the answer to this, but from a teaching perspective, I have learned to try and focus as little as possible on the competitive element of these events. In all honesty, it’s often the student whom the judges “like the most” rather than the one who delivered the best speech who wins. In such instances, having an American or English accent seems to go a long way — regardless of the actual content of the speech.

My advice would be to give your students as much support and advice as you can, and help them to deliver the best speech possible for them when it comes time for the contest.

Have you worked with students for speech contests in Japan? What do you think about them? Any advice or tips for other teachers? Let us know in the comments below! 

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Teacher, journalist and now blogger.
  • james says:

    One year I worked my ass off with this one student who I thought had a real chance to win. She got second because a student that had lived in America until she was 13! won the contest. I have no problem with having people that have lived abroad entering the contest, but it’s tough to feel like its an even playing field when it happens. The important thing is just concentrating on the improvement of your student.

    • Sean John says:

      It’s not an even playing field. It’s completely unfair. One solution could be to have a separate one for returnees and people born abroad. Due to numbers this might not work in smaller areas, but they could just be combined under a wider geographical umbrella.

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