Translation Troubles

It is guaranteed that your students will use online dictionaries and translation websites, on their phones, tablets, or computers. There are many productive ways to do so, but it’s guaranteed that sometimes your students will act in unproductive ways, too. As a result, it is worth spending some class time looking at good ways to use technology and common ways it’s misused.

  • Dictionary Use. Two excellent dictionary websites and screenshots of proper use.
  • Dictionary Fail. Examples of how using a dictionary wrong leads to bizarre results.
  • Online Translation Fail. Examples showing how online translation services can majorly mix things up.
  • Good Keyboards. Screenshots of typewriters, computer keyboards, and finally some soft keyboards on tablets showing why the QWERTY layout is generally best for English writing.


Here are some likely scenarios and reactions you might have.

  • Too Much Dictionary. If you assign difficult topics, some students will look up a large percent of the nouns and verbs in a dictionary. The result is typically illegible. You can’t give them credit for such writing, but if there’s time for a rewrite, give them a chance. Also, keep in mind that obscure topics involving obscure vocabulary take longer for students to write, and they are likely to start writing too late.
  • Google Translate. Many students try to write using Google Translate or other paragraph translation sites and apps. It’s usually fairly obvious, but sometimes excessive dictionary use looks the same. If you get writing that looks like it was auto-translated, call the student during break time and ask them how they wrote the thing. If you manage the conversation right, students will usually be honest. You can’t give credit for auto-translated work, but letting students redo it with a lower score for being late is reasonable.
  • Paper Dictionaries. If students use paper dictionaries, some of the above risk goes away. Looking up words takes longer, and there is no auto-translate for paragraphs. If your students all have paper dictionaries — supposing they were required to purchase them for another English class — then you can take advantage of the books for in-class writing assignments. At home, students are probably going to use their handheld devices.
  • Motivation Questions. If you do a lot of writing, establishing the long-term goals is crucial. When students write essays, ask them to put the word count and time spent writing at the bottom of each essay. Through regular practice, their speed could easily double or triple over the course of a year. Tell them this. If they track their own times, they’ll see and feel the improvement.
  • Level Gap. Most of my students were born and raised in Japan. Their Japanese is really good. If they form complex thoughts and and expressions in Japanese first and then try translating these to English, it might not work. One framing idea is: If you were a sixth grader, how would you say this in Japanese? Take your current ideas and put them into easy Japanese. Now take that Japanese and write it in English.

You should tell students not to use Google Translate for writing, but some of them will ignore you, at least some of the time. Over the course of the year, you might want to come back to dictionary and auto-translation problems several times, specifically looking at things that students are trying to say but couldn’t, and brainstorming strategies for what to do. Many students want to write well but feel like it’s too hard, so they fall back on auto-translate. Such students appreciate explanations and advice for how to learn and write better. A few students might keep using auto-translate, and that’s unfortunate, but you can sigh, give them the zero, and spend your time on other things.

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Grades and Evaluations

At my junior high school, we need to write short evaluations for students’ performance in English class.  These are character-limited, and typically two sentences drawn from the following sentence bank are used.  We prefer positive or constructive statements.  After all, students get a grade for English class too, and even if their grade is low, they’re probably doing well in certain areas, and that’s worth recognizing.

Very active in class. Shows initiative. 授業にとても積極的に参加し自発的に発言しています。
Active in class. 授業に積極的に参加しています。
Should participate more in class. もっと授業に参加すると良いでしょう。
Not very active in class. あまり授業に参加していません。
Shows creativity in group work and projects. グループワークやプロジェクトでクリエーティビティを見せられます。
A leader in the classroom. クラスのリーダー的な存在です。
Helps classmates a lot. よく周りの生徒を助けています。
Works well with classmates. クラスメイトと力を合わせて取り組む学習を一所懸命することができます。
Shows good classroom deportment. 授業態度が良いです。
Easily distracted but can do well when she pays attention. 気が散る傾向がありますが、真面目に取り組めば良くできます。
Needs to pay more attention in class. もっと集中して授業を受けた方が良いでしょう。
Makes efforts to use English even outside the classroom. 授業以外でも英語を使おうとしています。
Makes good efforts to use English in the classroom. 授業では英語を使おうと努力しています。
Shows little interest in using English. 授業中英語を使う事にあまり関心がありません。
Uses too much Japanese in the classroom. 授業中に日本語を使いすぎています。
Noisy. Distracts other students. 授業中騒がしく、他の生徒が集中できません。
Delivers presentations that capture the audience’s attention. プレゼンテーションでも、周りの人の注目を集めるような発表ができます。
Good at using technology in presentations. プレゼンの技術的な分が上手です。
Very good pronunciation. とても良い発音です。
Good pronunciation. 良い発音です。
Makes efforts to use good pronunciation. 発音を良くしようとする姿勢が見られます。
Is capable of good pronunciation when aware and trying. 意識している時は発音が良いです。
Needs to make more efforts to improve pronunciation. もっと発音を上手にするため努力する必要があります。
Speaks in a loud clear voice. 大きくはっきりした声で話します。
Speaks clearly in class. はっきりした声で話します。
Needs to speak in a louder voice. もっと大きな声で話した方が良いです。
Usually speaks very quietly. 常に小さな声で話します。
Generally does well on homework. 全体的に宿題は良くできています。
Often does well on homework. 宿題はたいてい良くできています。
Needs to work harder on homework. 宿題をもっとしっかりとやる必要があります。
Often forgets to bring homework. 宿題を頻繁に忘れます。
This student never attended class, so no remark is given. 授業に出ていないので評価できません。


To be precise, regular English class doesn’t require a written evaluation, because students get a grade for the class, but our school uses one hour per week from the Period for General Studies, and the Ministry of Education mandates a written evaluation for these hours.  We aim for under 50 Japanese characters (approximately two sentences) per student.  At other schools, one would expect a different setup and these might not be necessary.

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Tomoko & Jennifer

Back in 2012-2013, I worked with Danielle Tsumita, a talented artist.  She drew a set of four cartoon skits, and together we made them into a project for beginner ESL students.  At our school, every year we use these materials with seventh graders as follows:  Groups of three or four are made.  Each group gets a scene that has cartoons and partial dialog.  They work together to finish writing the dialog, then they learn and perform the scene as a play.  This can be done over three 50-minute classes.

Performance is a great way to learn a language for several reasons.  First, if you get the environment right, it’s fun.  Second, props are involved, and some people are fairly quick to understand the connection between the words they say and the things in their hands.  Third, when you practice for a short play, you spend a long time saying the same lines over and over again.  This gives confidence to weaker students, and it helps all students memorize their lines for both the performance itself and the long term.  Finally, when you’re doing a performance it’s natural to try to speak with and show emotion.


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World Schools

These are materials for a project I usually do with seventh graders when the topic of school life comes up in the textbook or syllabus. Students are in groups of two or three, and each group is assigned one school. Using the one-page poster, and possibly the internet, their job is to create a presentation introducing that school to their classmates.

Starting from scratch on a project like this is too hard, because students don’t know how to do the research or what materials to include, so by providing them with more than enough information on their assigned school, they can focus on understanding it and writing sentences in English that will convey the information to others.

Given a little help, students can take sentences about the example school and modify them to fit their assigned school.  Alternately, stronger students are encouraged to create new or longer sentences.

  • World Schools.  A PDF with information on seven middle schools around the world.  The information is all real, and was accurate at the time of creation (2013-2017).
  •  The posters in PDF and editable ODP format, plus related worksheets.

South Middle School

Choose a time in the year when students are already on the topic of schools.  If they’re already learning the names of classrooms or school supplies, it’s a natural transition into this specific topic.  I usually take three classes for this.

  1. Show an example presentation using South Middle School.  After that, put students in groups, and either assign them or let them choose their own schools.  Explain their task.  Give them twenty minutes of writing time.  If they don’t finish writing, they should do so for homework.
  2. Proofread the completed scripts.  While and after proofreading, students practice speaking aloud.  Some specific points to emphasize are making eye contact with the audience, speaking loudly and clearly, and pointing or zooming in on pictures that the presenter explains.  Time permitting, students can take a video of another group’s presentation, that group can watch themselves, and continue to practice.
  3. Presentations to the class.  This works best if the classroom has a projector, but it’s possible to use a large TV instead.
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Who You Are

Who You Are is a free speaking getting-to-know-you game. I saw a similar game last year and liked the general notion, but rather than spend a lot of money, here is my new and improved (and free!) alternative. You can play this with JHS students, SHS students, or even a group of adults. When this game goes well, it’s a great way for people to get to know each other better. Also, many of the questions are likely to lead to answers that naturally vary greatly from person to person. This is a low-key way of expressing diversity in a casual setting.

  • Students sit in groups of four, five, or six.
  • Each group gets as many cards as there are people. Cards have questions in both English and Japanese, and depending on the students’ abilities, either language could be used for the activity. Some example questions include: How do you make yourself feel better when you are feeling down in the dumps? and What food could you not live without?
  • One person goes first. They pick up a card, look at it, and answer the question aloud without saying what the question is. Other students take around ten seconds to guess the question. The card is then passed clockwise, and the second student answers the question. Again, the remaining students try to guess the question. Repeat until the last student, and then reveal the card. It’s cool if students can guess the question, but that’s not very important. Keep the activity moving quickly, so students don’t feel much pressure.
  • In the next round, shift one person to the left. That person picks up a card, and answer it. Follow the above procedure.
  • Repeat this for each student in the group, so everyone has a chance to pick a card, and everyone has a chance to guess the question last.

Here are the cards. Print double-sided on A4 paper, cut out each card, and laminate them for long-term use.


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Diamonds and Spades

Diamonds and Spades is a card game similar in nature to Apples to Apples and Cards Against Humanity we created to use in the ESL classroom in junior and senior high schools in Japan.


  1. Each player draws six spades.
  2. Player A plays a diamond face-up.
  3. Other players play a spade face-down.
  4. The spade should fit with the diamond.
  5. Player A chooses which spade fits best.
  6. That card’s player gets one point.
  7. Rotate clockwise and draw back to six.

To play the game, download and print out these two files: Diamonds and Spades. Ideally, use thick paper when printing, and optionally laminate to ensure long card life.

As the rules are written, the game is suitable for perhaps 5-10 people.  In the classroom, though, you might have a varying number of students, and there are several modifications that might help your particular circumstance.

  • Encourage students to use a dictionary or tablet to look up words on the spades cards.  This adds a few minutes to the start of the game, but after that it flows well.  For the diamond cards, waiting for a dictionary would slow the game down, and you can just re-draw that card until Player A knows the word.
  • If you have more than ten students, play in pairs.  This helps a lot if students are not confident with the vocabulary, because they can discuss things in pairs.
  • If you only have four or five students, play the game normally for five minutes, and after students are confident with the game, alter the rules so each player lays down two spade cards instead of one.  This gets more cards on the table faster, and it leads to higher quality answers.


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Speed Speaking

I made a collection of slides that are designed for TOEFL-style speaking.  They can be used as a pair warmup activity in class, and optionally in an interview test, according to the teacher’s interests.

Speed Speaking

There are several sets of questions.  Each set is a slide show with the rules followed by four example questions and eight practice questions.

The general format is to read a question, think for fifteen seconds, and then say your answer for forty-five seconds.  Speaking for that long can be quite challenging.  This gives teachers a natural occasion to introduce brainstorming and mind maps, and it’s also a good chance to review both connecting phrases like “Because of this…” or “As a result, I feel that…” and time-filling thinking phrases like “Ah, well…” or “Let’s see…” or “Also, I suppose that…“.

Here are some activities.

  • Interview test.  Described above.  Do this after practicing for part of several classes.
  • Pair speaking practice.  In pairs, choose a speaker and a listener.  After that’s determined, the teacher shows a question.  The speaker thinks for fifteen seconds and speaks for forty-five seconds.  Switch roles, switch questions, and repeat.
  • Video practice.  Do this alone or in pairs, similar to the above, except that each student uses their own tablet to take a video of themselves speaking and submits it electronically.
  • Writing homework.  For many students, impromptu speaking is quite difficult.  As an intermediate step, ask students to choose one or two questions from the set you’re using in class and write 10-sentence answers.  Taking time at home to think about what kinds of things to write will help build confidence.
  • Make mind maps.  Choose a question and give students three minutes to make a mind map about it.  Take some time to share mind maps with neighboring students.  Then try speaking for forty-five seconds.
  • Make T-charts.  For some questions, students have to choose A or B and explain their answer.  T-charts are a good tool for situations like this.  Show a question, ask students to make a T-chart for it, share the T-charts with neighbors, and then try speaking for forty-five seconds.
  • Blind listening.  Don’t tell students the question, and play an audio recording of an example answer.  Afterwards, ask students what the question was and what reasons they heard.  Optionally, play the audio recording again.  When students listen to example answers, they can get more ideas for things to include in their own.
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