The Teaching in Japan Page: Teaching Tips

Teaching Tips for Teachers New to Japan

Welcome to our new Teaching Tips Section. In this addition to the Teaching in Japan Page website, we offer teaching tips from teachers who are currently teaching in Japan. Our goal is to present classroom issues which are common at all levels of EFL instruction in Japan and to offer practical advice from those currently working in the field. When we decided to assemble a Teaching Tips Page, the Editors of the Teaching in Japan Page made a call for suggestions in several web forums, and we hope to continually update this section as new "tips" are sent in to us. Please feel free to send us either comments concerning our Tips Page or your own teaching tip. We ask that any submissions include a brief bio of the author and that your teaching tip be relevant to classroom teaching practice. Also, please be as detailed as possible so that readers can benefit from your practical experience as a teacher in Japan. Please submit your tips to:

Our first Teaching Tip comes from Glenski, who always dispenses great advice concerning teaching in Japan on the ESL Cafe Discussion Board. Glenski has kindly volunteered to get us started and to continue sharing ideas in this forum.

Teaching Tip One: Dictionaries in the Classroom

by Glenski Author's Brief Bio

Dictionaries in the Classroom.

Our first Tip topic concerns the use of dictionaries in the classroom. Any teacher who has been in Japan for even three days can attest to the fact that this topic is one that is faced in nearly every EFL classroom in Japan.

Japanese students will always rely on dictionaries, whether they're a paperback version or the fancy new electronic models. Teachers depend on them, too. I do. Sometimes I can't prepare a lesson without knowing a few Japanese words. Sometimes I use them as backup to explain something that's difficult to do with a class's current fluency level. Sometimes, even with an advanced level class, using a dictionary just saves time, rather than explaining a vague, ethereal point.

Let's face it. Anyone learning a new language is likely to use a dictionary, and that's ok. Whether you have a standard dictionary that allows you to check English and Japanese(preferably in both directions), or you have a lovely picture dictionary (with one or both languages represented), it's an indispensable reference book. Dictionaries serve several functions, and students have various reasons to use them.

a. You need to know the meaning of a word you haven't heard before.
b. You want to check the spelling of a word.
c. You want to check the pronunciation of a word.
d. You just want to confirm a definition that you aren't sure of.

In Japan, some students rely on them too much, and that's when the problems arise. I get annoyed when I've given a new word and its definition to a class, only to turn around and immediately hear someone clicking on an electronic dictionary keypad or see someone flicking pages in a paperback version. "Excuse me, can I help you?" is my first response, and students are immediately embarrassed that they've been caught. Maybe they figure they aren't supposed to use them in class; maybe they just don't like the attention focusing on them. Usually, they put the dictionary away, fold their hands, and say, "Oh, nothing." That irritates me. I don't like to see someone "checking" the definition I've given. That implies the students don't trust me or don't believe me, or that the students simply haven't understood what I'd explained and are unwilling to ask openly for a more thorough definition.

I teach adults from 18 to 80 years old, and I try to instill in them that conversation classes are not like strict high school situations. It's important to encourage students to ask questions, no matter what their age. So, I'll kid them at first and tell them, "Trust me. This is my language." That always brings a smile to people's faces, but it doesn't address the point. Japanese people seem to need confirmation of things in writing before they completely believe them. I've often wondered if that's why you see so much paperwork in this electronic age, or why news programs and information variety shows display so many hand-held boards with charts, graphs, and tables of data.

It's equally important to point out that dictionaries are not the easiest reference books to use. Words have several meanings, even subtleties that sometimes obscure their obvious use in daily life. And, English has a wonderful property of homophones, words with identical sounds but different spellings (and meanings), so students can actually confuse themselves by referring to a dictionary instead of asking the teacher. When a word has been mentioned in class, its context is known (at least to the teacher), so questions around its meaning are easier for a walking, talking human dictionary to assess than for a person learning the language and searching through various meanings in a book. A teacher is often faster than a dictionary, too. I tell my students that and have proven it on almost every occasion, whether they use a paper or microprocessor dictionary.

One more thing about electronic dictionaries can be annoying. A few models make noise. There are models that beep when each keystroke is entered, and that can draw unwanted attention to a student faster than a teacher's eagle eye. In an advanced free talking class, I noticed someone checking a word with one of those models, and several students were glancing her way as well. Their faces were not happy, because she was distracting the conversation. Other models actually pronounce the word on a user's command. One retired man does this occasionally, and he seems to feel the need to repeat this function two or three times. The synthesized voice is easily heard over the loudest crowd, and despite the current age of technology, it's just not comparable to a human voice.

Another disadvantage to using a dictionary is lack of communication with the teacher. I'm frequently appalled at fairly high level students who have not grasped the concept of asking, "How do you spell that?" Instead, they say "What is spell?" (The word "spell" is Japanese-English for the noun "spelling", so they just don't know better.) Using that word "how" is mildly confusing as it is, but students should learn the basic question structure as well. If they're paging through a dictionary instead of speaking, they don't have time to practice even this simple thing. Lack of communication also means they've wasted valuable moments looking for the right spelling, then the right definition, while other activities have taken place in the class, and they missed it all. Those activities could've made the difference between remembering a notable concept or word, and staying at square one. Put the dictionary down!

In a similar vein, I've often told students that they probably won't learn a word just by looking it up. I'm serious. Sure, for the moment, they'll understand the definition and answer the question, but to remember the word and use it in the future, they need more than a quick flash in the dictionary. A teacher's presentation can often ingrain that memory better; gestures, a facial expression, the tone of voice, or the example used can all do much more than a dry dictionary definition.

I've seen a couple of students actually using highlighter pens in their dictionaries. It's true! They marked whole definitions of words as they are introduced to them. The moment I saw that, I asked the students if they remembered those words. (I even covered the definition of highlighted words to check.) It wasn't surprising that they failed this spot check on every selection. I then posed the following rhetorical question, "What happens after you've highlighted every word and still don't know them?" I joked that they'd have to begin again with a different highlighter pen.

I've treated the unwanted use of dictionaries in class in several ways, and each depends on the situation and the relationship I've developed with the students. On occasion, I've collected everyone's dictionary and placed them on my desk. Go on the rusethat you're comparing what people have bought, or be a hard case and just pick them up before you start any lesson. Lay down the law if you feel like it, or wait until too many people have used them in one class period. I have a running contest with one student just to see who's faster at grabbing her two (yes, two) dictionaries. Childish? Certainly. The student is in her forties, but if she insists on acting like a child, and not asking for my help in defining words, I'll treat her like one. If she wins the contest, she knows that opening that dictionary should be done only if she has asked me, so I've won at least part of the battle. I've achieved the same result in most other classes; that is, people won't check something until I tell them it's ok.

Another tactic is to ask students for definitions of Japanese words. Choose ones that have more than one meaning. Make a big production out of this fact, and act out huge disappointment in the fact that the word you just looked up in a Japanese dictionary isn't right. Sometimes they get the message that it's easier to ask the teacher rather than scroll through a list of definitions until they reach one that seems to fit the situation.

On a similar note, I've tried to keep track of various mistakes in my own dictionary and in those that students have used. Show them that relying on it in class (stressing that phrase) may give them inaccurate information.

Adjectives, and certainly those denoting moods or feelings, are often the hardest words to define between two languages. I point this out every time the lesson calls for it. The ambiguity in meanings of these kinds of words probably stems from a difference in cultures, but it makes for a useful discussion, even if it takes a few minutes away from the lesson at hand. For example, what some Japanese mean by "serious" may mean something else to a native English speaker. Or, if you want to go the opposite direction, take hazukashii, a word that can mean shy, embarrassed, or ashamed, depending on context.

Other cultural curiosities may arise with strict dictionary definitions. Take the verbs "wear" and "put on". In English, these describe two different actions. "Put on" means to take some clothing and somehow get it on your body, while "wear" means having that clothing on you after you finish putting it on. In Japanese, however, these have the same meaning. A further problem arises, because you use a different Japanese verb for putting on/wearing clothing on different parts of your body. You wear (kiru) a jacket, you wear (haku) shoes or socks, you wear (kaburu) a hat, you wear (hameru) gloves, and you wear (kakeru) glasses. There are similar situations for English words as well.

Eikaiwa classes are usually more casual than typical academic English classes. I use that advantage as much as possible to establish a rapport with students, but it's not 100% foolproof. There will always be people who sneak a glance at their dictionaries, but you can deal with the majority. I've nicknamed the electronic models "magic dictionaries" and have trained a handful of students to restrain from using them until it's absolutely necessary. Teachers know the language better than students, but they don't know everything, so to save time, once in a while I'll ask someone to look up a word. On the right occasions, I'll say, "Gee, isn't there just one Japanese word for that?" and tease them about the complexity of their own language. Letting them know that English isn't the only complicated language sometimes makes them feel a little better.

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