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Kids World

Topics of interest to teachers of English as a second or foreign language to young learners.

March 15, 2004

Floating in the English Swimming Pool

Kids When I conduct teacher-training seminars, many teachers ask me how much Japanese they should tolerate in the classroom. I cannot answer that question for them; only they can decide for themselves. It depends on whether they are a Japanese or a non-Japanese, to what degree they speak Japanese, what their purposes are in teaching English, what their English education philosophy is, and what their expectations of the students are.

"Students understand from the beginning that I expect them to try to speak English in my class."

As for me, I make it very clear from the start that Japanese does not belong in my English classroom, except for emergencies. One of my purposes of teaching English to children is to help them think and interact in English. This cannot be accomplished if they speak Japanese. Students understand from the beginning that I expect them to try to speak English in my class.

I like to think of my English classroom as a swimming pool. The students are the swimmers and I am the life guard. Since I know beginners cannot jump in and swim right away, I feel it is my job to initially teach them how to get their feet wet and then float. The only way they can learn to float is to give me their full attention, focus on what they are doing and try. They cannot float in a swimming pool if they do naturally what they have done all their lives, namely walk. The same goes for English; they cannot learn to navigate themselves around in the English world if they hang on to what they have done all their lives, namely speak Japanese.

Just as the life guard and swimmers walk when they pull themselves out of the swimming pool, students understand that I am available to them in Japanese when they are outside of the classroom, if and when the situation requires it. For example, if they need to ask me a question about our school work or what I expect of them, I am happy to discuss it with them in Japanese outside of the classroom. In addition, if I need to ask someone why homework was not completed or if it is necessary to discipline someone, I do it in Japanese outside of the classroom on a one-to-one basis.

Since students never lose face in the English classroom, no matter how many language mistakes they make, they feel safe in the "pool" and are enthusiastic about getting their feet wet and floating. Of course, the biggest joy for the teacher is seeing some of them starting to swim on their own.

In a nutshell, there is a time and place for everything. Students know that I expect them to try to speak English and not to speak Japanese in my classroom. My staff and I are available to them in their own language outside of the classroom before and after class. It is very clear. Students like clarity.

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