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8 Ways for English Teachers to Save a Bad Class

Even the best instructors can have a class that just doesn’t work. Get things back on track with these tips.

By 6 min read

When you step off the plane and start your adventure teaching English in Japan, the whole thing can be rather intimidating. You might have experience teaching in your home country or none at all. Either way, adapting to teaching here is going to be a challenge. It can be hard keeping students in line and on track when they speak another language. You might not understand them or they might not understand you and miscommunication can lead to some pretty disastrous lessons.

I remember the first English class I found difficult to control in Japan. The students kept sticking their tongues out and yelling “Justice!” every time I said, “just this” (a reference that I still don’t fully understand). It was stressful at the time but after teaching for a few years I’ve figured out that classes tend to have one of two problems: they can either be too quiet or too loud. The knee-jerk reactions to a loud class would be to tell the students to be quiet and to softly encourage a quiet class to speak more but with a language barrier, these tactics don’t always work.

So what to do? Here are eight ways based on my experience that can help you to save a class that feels like it’s going wrong.

If your students are too quiet…

Men's junior high school student falls asleep.

1. Use technology to engage students

Interactive websites or apps are a great way to teach shy kids and get everyone engaged. Many ESL textbooks (such as National Geographic’s Explore Our World) have online games that test students on the book’s vocabulary and can be a really helpful teaching tool alongside regular classes. There are also many other websites that have education games such as BBC Bitesize or Games to Learn English.

To be honest, I thought a lot of these games looked boring but found that my students loved them. Many modern kids feel more comfortable with a computer or tablet rather than shouting out in front of the class, competing in games such as a Pictionary challenge. I’ve found using connected computer- and tablet-based tasks to be particularly effective with shy students who might otherwise shut down when confronted with a foreign language.

2. Get students to do creative writing 

Creative writing might seem like quite an advanced skill when writing in another language, but with the right task, it can be a great activity. I’ve had a lot of success asking students to make comic strips. Even the most basic of students can write speeches, given enough encouragement and help.

Getting everyone to put their heads down and draw a comic won’t stop your class from getting quiet but it gets kids doing something and you can even have them present to the class depending on how confident they are. If they are advanced enough you can also try English haiku, short poetry or six-word stories in the style of “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”

I’ve had a lot of success asking students to make comic strips.

3. Become a game show host 

If you really want to wake up a class, then engaging them with a game seems like a great idea — and more often than not it works wonders.

Unfortunately, there are some classes where the students are so shy and awkward that they don’t want to join in at all. For these situations, I recommend really hamming up your performance as a game show host when teaching kids. If you talk with enough enthusiasm, use enough over the top hand gestures and perhaps even get a fake microphone you are sure to get the students attention.

They might laugh at how silly you’re being but it will definitely get them talking if only so they can stop feeling the second-hand embarrassment from watching you. Bonus points if you learn the Japanese game show noises — ピンポン! for correct and ブブ! for incorrect answers — and enthusiastically make them when a student answers right or wrong.

4. Play the balloon game

A super easy game that works with anyone of any age is the balloon game. You bounce a balloon to one another making sure that it doesn’t touch the floor. Every time someone touches the balloon they have to say an English word. You can recite the alphabet, count to 100 or practice any kind of vocabulary, really. If the ball falls or someone can’t think of an answer just start again or change the topic. It’s a versatile game and a real crowd pleaser.

If your students are too loud…

USe technology to engage students in the classroom.

5. Watch a video together

If your kids just won’t be quiet and you’re really struggling to keep them in line — then playing a video might just do the trick. It might seem like the tactic of a worn down teacher who just wants to sneak off for a smoke break but bear with me.

After the video there will be a lull of quietness, everyone’s conversations were interrupted, now you strike! Immediately leap into an activity relevant to the video and take advantage of the students undivided attention. With enough momentum, they can pay attention to you for the whole class.

6. Try simple coloring or drawing

An awesome way to keep younger students entertained is by giving them a picture to color. This is another activity where a tired teacher can dodge their responsibilities and just let the students color in while they slink off and look at their phone, or you can use the opportunity to talk your kids through colors and the vocabulary in the picture.

This activity can be applied to older kids by having them draw their own creations, such as characters or buildings and then labeling them in English with their recently learned vocabulary. Drawing and coloring can be very soothing, as well, so it also helps calm a restless class.

7. Play a complicated game

Sometimes when kids are too loud it’s because they’re bored and need more stimulation. You can solve this by investing time in a complicated game. Having a small class play something with quite a few rules like Scrabble can do the trick or trying a game like Typhoon with a larger group can lead to students getting more involved. Teams are another great way to keep bored students interested as they love competition.

8. Demonstrate a strange talent

Something YouTuber Chris Broad from the Abroadinjapan channel swears by is beatboxing at the front of the class. When he was a teacher and was having a hard time getting his kids to listen he would just start beatboxing. It was such a strange thing that people stopped talking and just stared at him.

If you’re anything like me you probably can’t beatbox to save your life but you might have some talent that can attract students. Whether it be dancing, singing, drawing or something totally unique to you — just go for it. Once you have the students attention, fly into the topic you want to present without a millisecond for them to start their own conversations.

Hopefully, some of these tactics can help newer teachers — or older ones looking for different activities to try  — liven up the classroom if it’s getting a little quiet or focus students to bring the level down a notch. Add them to your bag of teacher tricks and use them whenever the need arises.

What techniques do you use in the classroom to get lessons back on track or energize students? Let us know in the comments!

Read up on more tips for teachers via the Work category on the GaijinPot blog.

You can find teaching jobs in Japan on our GaijinPot Jobs site.

Japan101: Teaching English

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