December 15, 2002
December 15, 2002
For many of our students, the classroom is the focal point of their English exposure. It is the base of where, when, why and how they speak English. The physical appearance of the classroom in itself is very important. And because of its importance, I am often amazed at how many English classrooms in Japan lack stimulating visual English materials. From a Westerner's viewpoint, most schools here appear plain and gray; English classrooms looks too Japanese. And since they look so Japanese, it seems only natural that students speak Japanese in such an environment.
I think English teachers should try to give the impression to students that they are making a visit abroad each time they enter the English classroom. Not only is their visit there a chance to speak English, it should also be a cultural dip into a foreign setting and international atmosphere.
How can we do that? At our school, we have travel posters in the office, and we have the American flag and state flags scattered throughout the building. Maps of the U.S.A. and the world hang in the lobby. And in each classroom, posters not only decorate the rooms but are also used as instructor's tools for warm-ups, teaching new concepts, reference and review. For example, there are ABC Posters which teach alphabetizing, initial letter sounds and vocabulary expansion.
Color Posters are a great physical warm-up booster; often we ask students to stand up and touch something in the room which is the same color that the teacher is pointing to on the color poster. Consonant and Vowel Charts help teachers reinforce phonics; the Body Chart is a good follow-up after singing "Head & Shoulders." Opposites Posters are often children's first exposure to adjectives; Animal Posters (both farm and zoo) help elementary school students learn the names of all their favorite animals.
We have three classrooms at our school whose posters are rotated every few months. Thus, the students feel the atmosphere is fresh, and they also get to learn or review basic concepts on a constant basis. In addition, the parents, waiting for their children in the lobby, get to see English from any position in the school. And for them seeing is believing.
I also think a bulletin board filled with pictures of the students in their classrooms with their teachers and classmates or from their trips abroad triggers a sense of community at their "home away from home".
Needless to say, after their lessons, students feel like they have made a mini-trip abroad, and the usage of Japanese has been kept at a minimum. They leave class feeling they "have been somewhere else" and they look forward to coming back next time. I firmly believe good visual materials help create an atmopshere which contributes to this experience.
Helene Jarmol Uchida is a veteran teacher with teaching, curriculum development and teacher training experience in the U.S., Greece and Japan. She is the director of the Fukuoka-based Little America English Schools and lectures at Fukuoka Kyoiku Daigaku. She holds the LATEM seminars every year in cities throughout Japan and is also the author of 'The Challenge Book', an interactive English book and CD especially created for Japanese elementary school students.
See also our Interview with Helene Jarmol Uchida.