Graph Comprehension

Reading graphs and describing graphs are two fundamental academic English skills. Here are some slideshows that focus specifically on these two activities.

For reading practice, send students one of the relevant PDFs. There are four graphs, and for each graph there are two questions. Answer the questions individually or with a partner, and then go over everything together.

For speaking practice, send students one of the relevant PDFs. Make pairs or groups of three. Each student chooses one graph and says six sentences about it, following the template in the slideshow. Classmates listen and take turns speaking. The teacher may want to show examples of this before or after the activity.

Time permitting, connect one of the above activities with something else. For example, if students just used a slideshow about religion, ask them how religion is identified in Japan. Many people in Japan observe ceremonies from two or three different religions. Or, where there is survey data in the slideshow, ask your class the same question, and discuss how the class’s data differs from the original data. Alternatively, assign students to do some kind of research presentation on world population.

If you want to make any changes, download the whole bundle from Archive.org.

Free Writing

Writing practice is important for language learning, and one easy way to do it is give students five minutes at the beginning of class several times a week to write as much as they can about a topic. This is a free writing activity. Students can write on paper or on an electronic device. If using a tablet, a keyboard is much better than a touch screen, because it allows students to practice touch typing.

This activity is meaningful only if students are trying to improve their writing skills. If you assign essays on a regular basis, probably many of them will focus on this activity because it’s a great way to practice. This is similar to a writing journal, but typically journals have word length requirements, whereas free writing is based on time.

Check out the PDF or ODT if you’re interested in trying the activity in your class.

Rules

  • Write as much as you can in five minutes.
  • Don’t erase anything. Just write more.
  • Count the total number of words at the end.

Example topics

  • What part of your culture do you want to share with the world?
  • What part of your culture do you dislike or think needs to change?
  • Why do people eat natto?
  • Write about a food you hate.
  • If you had to describe yourself in three words, what words would you choose?
  • What’s the most interesting thing you learned in the past year?
  • What’s your favorite book?
  • What’s your favorite short story?
  • What’s your favorite holiday?
  • What’s your least favorite holiday?
  • What music do you associate with junior high school?
  • What music do you associate with high school?
  • In your life, what was the most boring subject you studied?
  • Where do you see yourself in five years?
  • Where do you see yourself in ten years?
  • Do you want to live alone in the future?
  • Write about a skill you want to have in the future.
  • Write about your dream part-time job.
  • Write about your favorite cafe or coffee shop.
  • Write about a place in Japan you think everyone should visit at least once.
  • Write about a place in the world you think everyone should visit at least once.
  • How have you changed in the past year?
  • How do you want to change in the next year?
  • Would you rather live in a very warm place or a very cold place?
  • Would you rather work mostly at a desk or mostly moving around a lot?
  • Would you rather have pet fish or a pet rabbit?
  • Would you rather communicate with animals or hear people’s thoughts?
  • If you were an animal, what animal would you be?
  • When you’re feeling sad, how do you cheer yourself up?
  • When your friend is feeling sad, how do you cheer them up?
  • Do you think you use social media too much?
  • How’s the weather right now?
  • What’s your favorite color?
  • What’s your favorite food or drink?
  • What’s your favorite restaurant?
  • What’s your hobby?
  • Are you in a club?
  • Are you a morning person or an evening person?
  • Would you eat ice cream in the winter?
  • Where do you like to study?
  • Do you want a pet?
  • Do you like sports?
  • Do you like to clean?
  • Do you often use social media?
  • Do you want to go to the moon someday?
  • What’s the most beautiful place on earth?
  • What makes you smile?
  • Write about a movie you watched recently.
  • Write about one of your friends.
  • Write about the people you live with.
  • Write about someone you respect.
  • Write about a challenge you overcame.
  • Write about a celebrity you want to meet someday.
  • Write about a place you want to go someday.
  • Write about a place where you can relax.
  • Write about a place where you can’t relax.
  • Write about something that scares you.
  • Write about a time you made a mistake.
  • Write about a great high school memory.
  • What do you like to do on Sundays?
  • What do you want to do next summer vacation?
  • What do you like to cook?
  • What’s your favorite fast food chain?
  • What’s your favorite day of the week?
  • What’s the best thing about school?
  • What did you do this morning?
  • What are you going to do this afternoon?
  • What is your first memory?
  • Where did you go to elementary school?
  • How many languages do you want to learn in your life?
  • How often do you clean your room?
  • Do you think schools should have club activities?
  • Do you think schools should require P.E. class?
  • Do you think high school seniors should quit extracurricular activities to study?
  • Do you prefer to travel by airplane or by train?
  • Do you prefer to watch movies or TV shows?
  • Do you prefer to be indoors or outdoors?
  • Do you like the rainy season?
  • In the future, would you like to live alone or with roommates?
  • Write about a cause that you hold close to heart.
  • Write about something you learned from a book or movie.
  • Write about a person who inspires you.
  • Write about a person who helped you overcome a challenge.
  • Write about your favorite childhood vacation.
  • Write about your biggest goal.
  • If you could do anything for work, what would you do?
  • Is music important to you?

TED Talks & Movies

Videos and movies are a great addition to the ESL classroom, but finding the right ones takes serious thought. Can your students understand it? Would they even care? Is it too long? Is the English level suitable? Does it fit with other activities?

TED Talks

I like to use TED Talks and other instructive videos as the topic allows. Here are some that I’ve found suitable for high school students. I tend to show these with Japanese subtitles, since they’re highly technical and all the famous TED talks have multilingual subtitle options.

  • How to Speak So That People Want to Listen. By Julian Treasure. He talks about reasons people want to listen on a topical level, providing basic commentary about the damaging effects of gossip and negative speech, and he also gives some specific vocal warm-up techniques.
  • 5 Ways to Listen Better. By Julian Treasure. He offers suggestions for how to change the environment to enhance listening.
  • Don’t Eat the Marshmallow! By Joachim de Posada. The speaker’s conclusion is that self-discipline in life can be predicted by a simple test using marshmallows. Although this particular test’s reliability is somewhat overstated in the video, self-discipline is nevertheless important to develop.
  • Do Schools Kill Creativity? By Ken Robinson. This is one of the most famous old TED talks, and it brings up many important questions about how schools ought to be designed. One drawback is that he speaks very quickly and tells a lot of jokes, so it may be difficult for students to follow along.

If you’re going to be absent and need a simple self-paced lesson plan, you can tell students to watch a TED Talk and then write an essay about something from that video.

Cognitive Science Clips

Here are some cognitive science videos that are fascinating. I don’t want to describe them, because some of them are gimmicky, and the first time you watch can be quite interesting.

Full-length Movies

Sometimes full-length movies are on-point. Because they’re in English and listening to a foreign language for a long time is quite tiring, I like to pause every 20-30 minutes and ask students to fill out a summary about what happened in each of the scenes they just saw.

  • Hairspray. If you’re doing a unit on discrimination, this movie might be a good addition to your syllabus. It covers racism, sexism, and stereotypes about physical appearance.
  • Romeo + Juliet. The 90s version of this Shakespeare classic is a wild ride. Shakespeare is quite hard for ESL students to understand, but they probably already know the general story. Well, who doesn’t? A boy and a girl fall in love. Their families hate each other. Everyone fights, almost everyuone dies. The end. If you’re touching on Early Modern English or the history of the English language, you might want to queue this movie up.

National Geographic

National Geographic has great videos for many science and culture topics. I won’t even try to list them all here, but you can easily find them on YouTube.

Video Journal

The idea is simple. Students make a series of short videos that share pieces of their lives with their classmates. The format and length can be adjusted, as can the topics. When students are given complete freedom, they tend to spend a long time on production value, but that’s time they aren’t spending studying English, so keep an eye on how fancy the videos get.

Goals

  • Organize your thoughts clearly and develop confidence expressing yourself in English.
  • Learn about yourself and others by freely exchanging information with each other.

Rules

  • 30-45 seconds.
  • Practice 3+ times before recording yourself.
  • Record yourself 3+ times and choose the best one.
  • Show yourself in part of each video.
  • Show places and things in your video, if you think it’s reasonable.
  • You choose the topic for each video. Use each topic only once.
  • Include a title with the topic, your name, and the date.

Topics

  • A message to past me
  • A new thing I want to try
  • One of my strong points
  • A message to future me
  • A new place I want to go
  • How I de-stress
  • My favorite place
  • A thing I learned last year
  • Online vs. in-school learning
  • My perfect day
  • A thing I missed this spring
  • An idea to change school
  • My hero
  • What I want in a classroom
  • What I want in a teacher
  • Something I’m proud of
  • What I accomplished last year
  • A major goal for this year

Notes

  • Talk about things that you’re comfortable sharing. We’ll watch some videos in class.
  • You can write things down before speaking, if you find that helpful.
  • Ask a teacher if you’d like some help with the English.

Common Core Values

This is an activity on recognizing our own core values. I’ve done it with high school students and adults. It’s a good way to learn about people around us and ourselves. To begin with, give everyone a copy of the worksheet.

If necessary, ask students to use a dictionary or ask their classmates and translate each word to their native language. My high school students know around half of these words. It might take 5-10 minutes to look everything up.

We’re trying to find out what values we hold dear, and we do this in several rounds, shortening the list each round.

  1. Cross off ten values that you don’t think are as important as the others. Don’t think too much, because we have several more rounds.
  2. Make pairs, and show your partner what you have so far. Then, on your partner’s list, find two or three remaining values (i.e., values they haven’t crossed off) that are similar in nature, and ask which of these they think matters more. For example, Which is more important to you, honesty or integrity? or Which matters more to you, peace or safety? Do this for three pairs, and then switch roles with your partner.
  3. On your own, circle ten values that you hold most dear. This should take four or five minutes.
  4. Make new pairs, and ask your partner three questions. From their ten values, choose any two, and ask them, Which of these is more important to you? Why? After your questions, switch roles and repeat. When asking questions, your job is to listen. Ask your partner which and why, and do not give them your opinion.
  5. On your own, underline five values that you feel are the most important. This should take two or three minutes.
  6. Take a few minutes and show your sheet to people around you. Look and see where you overlapped with them.
  7. Time permitting, ask students to write about what they felt or learned.

This activity could take thirty minutes. You can adjust the rules for each round according to time constraints and group energy.

Depending on your goal for the class, you can frame the activity in terms of understanding yourself, or you could emphasize surprising differences in the community (i.e., consensus bias).

Oceans Game

This is a team-building game, but one of the key lessons is about cooperation and community.

In a classroom, make a 4m x 4m using string or tape to show the boundaries. Move all desks and chairs to the side. To prepare, get 16 foam mats. You can probably buy these at the dollar store. If possible, get 12 of one color and 4 of another. Let’s suppose you have 12 brown mats and 4 black mats.

Put students in four teams of roughly even numbers. Give each team 4 brown mats and 1 purple mat. Then explain the rules. Optionally, show these slides to students.

  • The goal is for everyone to cross the ocean.
  • The square in the middle is the ocean. You can’t walk around.
  • The brown mats are islands. You can place them in the ocean, but once placed they cannot be moved. If an island has no feet on it, it goes away. If an island has three feet on it, it sinks.
  • The black mats are whales. A whale can be placed anywhere, but it cannot be moved. It lasts for 10 seconds before disappearing.
  • You have four minutes. How many people can get across the ocean? Go!

As you play the first round, one or two teachers should supervise, answering basic questions about what’s permissible, forbidding students from doing things that are likely to result in injury (e.g., trying to jump 4m), and taking away islands and whales in accordance with the rules.

Use those rules or make adjustments based on numbers of students. Try to make it somewhat difficult for students to all get across the ocean. This encourages creativity.

After the first round, give them some discussion time and see how they could do better or faster in the second round. Use leading questions if absolutely necessary. This is where the game gets interesting.

Depending on how exactly you set up the rules and logistics, there are several ways to solve the problem, and one of the neatest ways is sharing mats with neighboring teams. Sometimes, focusing too much on your team is problematic. Sometimes, helping everyone is the best way to solve the problem. Moreover, that was the game’s explicit goal!

This is a gimmicky game, and it would be better for you to experience or see it rather than read about it here. Give it a try with your own class and leave a comment with your results.

Culture and Thought

At my high school we have a comparative culture course. Originally it was called Comparative Culture and then later the name was changed to Culture & Thought. Content has varied from year to year, and here are some of the noteworthy topics.

There are several general topics: Japanese culture, foreign culture, foreign language, cross-cultural relations, and how people think (which is often cultural). The course has always been a mixture of workshops, guest speakers, hands-on experiences, presentations, and writing. If you’re scheduling something similar in the future, I hope you find some good ideas here.

Tea Ceremony. Our school has a tea club, and the coaches of the club are wonderful old ladies who are willing to teach classes of students, too. The university has two tea rooms, and learning and doing the tea ceremony in a proper location is a memorable experience. Afterwards, ask the students to write a report (PDF, ODT) on the topic.

Flower Arrangement. Our school also has a flower arrangement club. If students take a class with the coach three times, they can get a beginning level flower arrangement certificate, which is quite neat. Also, flower arrangement class is a great time to have a photo contest.

Karate. I did karate for five years in Akita, and my coworker Mr. Shirota is also a black belt. We used to do two-hour workshops, where students would learn a little about the history of karate and then practice a simple kata. Here is an information sheet (PDF, ODT).

Showa Museum. The museum is dedicated to life of the average person in Japan during and after World War II. The war is a huge topic for students who study or live abroad, and a visit to this museum is well worth the time. It is located in central Tokyo. You can easily visit JICA in the morning, have lunch there (if you reserve a room), walk by the Yasukuni Shrine, and visit the Showa Museum in the afternoon.

World War II. Two social studies teachers at our school, Mr. Osaka and Ms. Matsuoka, can give great lectures on the war. There was a weapons factory near the school back then, and with some research one can go on a short field trip to places hit during bombings.

Hiroshima. Every year we took our 10th grade International Course on a field trip to Kyoto and Hiroshima. Kyoto has the temples, and Hiroshima has the war history. Starting from Tokyo, it’s possible to do the two cities over a long three days. Four days would be better.

Tourist Presentation. If you’re taking a trip somewhere, you probably want to have students make some of the plans themselves, and if they already have plans, why not make them do a presentation where they pretend to be a travel agent trying to convince tourists to visit the area? Here are the rules (PDF, ODT) and an example.

World Holidays. Make groups. Each group chooses one holiday or festival from somewhere in the world. They show a short video (from YouTube, for example), and give a short speech explaining what the holiday is. A simple variant of this is to give presentations about customs instead of holidays.

Honduras & Vietnam & Hungary & Qatar. In college I studied abroad in Hungary, and in graduate school I lived in Qatar. Mr. Fujita worked in Honduras, and Ms. Tanaka worked in Vietnam. At any large school, you will find teachers with international backgrounds, and if the schedule allows, invite them in your class for an hour or two.

Exchange Student Presentations. We try to host exchange students each year, and when you host exchange students, it is absolutely worth asking them to give two presentations: one on their home life, and another on their native language. Exchange students are not professional teachers, but usually they develop a close bond with their classmates, so issues of clarity and time management are not a big problem.

ALTs. We have had a handful of great ALTs over the past few years, and when given creative freedom, they can create great things. Example topics: notions of beauty around the world, university in AU vs NZ vs PH, culture shock, poverty, and the perfect classroom.

TUFS. The Tokyo University of Foreign Studies has a student group called くらふと, and they visit elementary, junior, and senior high schools and do workshops. You can request various topics. The student group has a wide variety of students, both Japanese and international, and some of them study very obscure languages. Several times we asked them to focus on challenges and goals of study abroad, and once they did a workshop on the global aspects of cell phone manufacturing, from rare metals in Africa to assembly factories in Taiwan.

Guest Speakers. Ms. Watanabe knows a woman who works for Doctors Without Borders, and this woman occasionally has the time to visit the school and talk to the students. My mom’s old high school classmate teaches at Tokyo Science University, and he has given several workshops on developing skills useful for university and working life. One year we asked some people from the U.S. Embassy to give a presentation on women in the workplace. Another year we invited a man from JICA (ODA) to give a talk about the SDGs. Also, Kimiko’s husband Nave has given great presentations on Israel and animal rights over the last three years.

Study Abroad Training. This is a series of slideshows, each of which could be used as part or all of a lesson. The materials are designed for students who might study abroad, either in high school or university, or live or work abroad at some point in their lives.

Board Games. Explaining things in any language is surprisingly difficult. One way to feel this is to put students in pairs, assign each pair an obscure board game, give them time to prepare, and ask them to teach the game to two other pairs. This is a delicate activity but works well with a motivated group. Here is the description and an evaluation sheet (PDF, ODT).

Participation Rubric. The class is largely participation-based. Twice a year, my students evaluate their own participation using this rubric (PDF, ODT). I include this as a portion of their grades.

Video Journal. In an effort to improve students’ speaking skills and get them to think about themselves, we did a series of video journals. Attached is the rule sheet (PDF, ODT) we used, but you can easily modify the topics and details. Students might want to make fancy videos, which is acceptable but not required. Teachers should occasionally remind students to keep it simple. This should be a fun light-weight series. Some topics are quite personal, so if you are going to show students’ videos to the class, either tell students this in advance, or let them choose among several submissions.

Diversity and Discrimination. Learning about foreign cultures is important, but it’s also important to recognize diversity in our own. I often touch on discrimination, and if students are serious enough, it’s a great thing to study in detail.

Diversity and Discrimination

It’s surprising how different people are, even if they’re from the same town and go to the same school. This is exciting, and it’s also not obvious, but if you take some time to help students learn about themselves and others, they’ll start to realize.

Janelle, an ALT at my school, gave a wonderful little workshop on beauty. She opened by giving students 2 minutes to find a picture of something beautiful and then we looked at all of them. In a class of twenty-one, the only cluster of similar answers we saw was three students who chose Korean pop idols. Three out of twenty-one. That was an eye-opener to me and to our students, and it’s a cool illustration of the false consensus effect.

MLK’s I Have a Dream speech is sometimes taught in junior high school English classes. In 2020, Black Lives Matter became a global movement. One of my coworkers spent many class hours on feminism and women’s rights last year. There are so many great topics, and choosing them depends on your interests and your students’ willingness to engage.

Here are some materials that connect with diversity.

  • Who You Are. This card game is a great ice breaking game for new classmates and new teammates.
  • Oceans Game. This gimmicky game helps students realize that teamwork is much more open-ended than we sometimes believe.
  • Common Core Values. This is an activity where students learn about what values they and their classmates think are important. It may surprise students to see the variety of opinions in the class.
  • Culture and Thought. This is a class that focuses on cultures around the globe. Many topics and activities in it expose students to cultural diversity.
  • Diversity Lesson. Put students in groups and ask them to create and deliver a presentation on diversity or discrimination. They can choose their topics, but they have to show clear examples. Here are the files (PDF, ODT).

Here are a few slideshows on discrimination.

Reading Explorer Extras

Here are some unofficial resources for two textbooks, Reading Explorer 1 and Reading Explorer 2 (3rd edition). In Asia, these are published by CEngage.

Vocabulary Lists

Vocabulary Quizzes

These are quizzes on the website Quizizz. Homework mode is a handy review tool, because students can take each quiz several times as they learn the words. Ideally, ask students to learn the twenty target words for each chapter in advance, using a dictionary as needed. Knowing the key vocabulary before starting the chapter is a good way to boost student confidence, and it doesn’t take a long time to memorize twenty words.

Why

Why do you do your job? More specifically, what are the motivating factors for this job, other than convenience, finance, and logistics?

Many years ago the university president asked me, Where do you see your students going? The vice principal later asked, What kind of students do you want to produce?

The other day, the principal mentioned Simon Sinek’s Golden Circle, which is another way of getting to the same question. Sinek said, Every single person, every single organization on the planet knows what they do. 100%. Some know how they do it, whether you call it your differentiating value proposition or your proprietary process or your USP, but very very few people or organizations know why they do what they do.

The “what” for a language teacher is easy. Language classes should mostly be some kind of four skills practice that is around 95% review. If your students are doing that, they’re probably learning.

The “how” is a big question, and there are many teaching styles. Much has been said on the topic. If you’re a contract teacher, this is where you spend most of your prep time. You take an activity that’s OK, tweak it slightly, and get 5% more value from it. You take a complicated explanation and find a few simple examples that illustrate the rule clearly. You find some new technology and smoothly integrate it into your lessons. If you have pride in your work and try to improve, over time you will. Training seminars target this.

Training seminars can’t tell you why it matters. They can’t tell you why you should care, and why you would want to keep doing the job for a long time. That’s something everyone has to figure out for themselves. You can talk with others, read blog entries, and watch TED Talks, but then you still have to find your own answer. Here’s mine…

Studying foreign language is always interesting if you want it to be. I’ve studied Japanese since 2001, speak it reasonably well now, and sometimes people ask me how I learned. I tell them, In many ways. There are many ways to practice a language, so if you’re bored with one, dozens of other study methods are waiting for your attention. This goes hand-in-hand with life-long learning.

Learning a language makes you learn about yourself. When you start learning a foreign language, you can’t speak with subtlety, so when you have to talk about yourself, it’s natural to speak plainly and simply. Simple language encourages us to be honest with others and ourselves. Also, many people speak less aggressively in their non-native languages, which can help avoid pointless conflict, and it also lets us reflect on how we speak in our mother tongue.

Learn forever. You can’t learn everything, but you can learn forever. Basic information and global skills are necessary, but you can’t learn it all. Therefore, if we want our classes to provide long-term benefit to students, we should help them learn about themselves, how and why they might want to learn and keep learning things, and give them some specific skills for acquiring new knowledge in the future.

Understanding discrimination is hard. For example, I didn’t really understand the difference between racism and xenophobia until my early 30s. Even if you personally have witnessed or experienced discrimination, it can be hard to recognize and decipher. The issues are complicated and often we feel things strongly but don’t know exactly why or what to do. If we expose students to examples of historical discrimination, or contemporary discrimination elsewhere, the barriers to entry are low. They can learn about things like stereotypes and systemic discrimination without being forced to judge their own society, at least not yet.

War is bad. When you live abroad or make strong international friendships, you realize that nationality isn’t or shouldn’t be important. Let’s care about the whole world, not just one country.

We need critical thinkers. We have the power to solve or mitigate many major societal problems, if we work smart and work together. But large-scale problem solving is complicated and time-consuming, and many people don’t like that. If we can get students to appreciate the value of critical thinking when they’re younger, maybe they’ll keep using it later in life.

We need dreamers. Critical thinking and problem solving help you get places, but you need somewhere to go. That’s where dreamers come into play. There are so many good questions that involve dreaming. Where do you see yourself in ten years? Is there a place you really want to visit once in your life? If you had to change jobs, what would your new field be? How can you make your community better? What kind of household do you want to live in? What is your perfect day? Where do you want to live? Who do you want to be? Why?

That’s a long enough answer for now. What’s yours?