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How to get your students to speak 100% English

by David Martin

This paper is written primarily for teachers who have unmotivated to semi-motivated students and want (more than anything) for their students to communicate in English from the beginning of the lesson right through to the end. This would typically include most university, junior college and high school teachers in Japan.

Your first reaction may be that this is an unrealistic goal, one that you may have presented to your students before, but a goal they have always failed to achieve. You may be in a classroom situation where the students speak 20-50% Japanese. Or your students may not speak much at all.

Is a 100% English goal unrealistic? First let me explain that by setting a 100% goal this does not imply that Japanese will be outlawed in the classroom. You should in no way hint that Japanese is forbidden, wrong, or in any way inferior to English. At times using Japanese is advantageous to an English-only paradigm. Using Japanese to translate (rather then explain) difficult vocabulary is expedient. This shortens the explanation time and thus gives the learners more time to communicate in English. Another example where using Japanese is necessary is when a student asks the teacher (or another student), "How do you say...in English?" The thrust of this paper is that the bulk of conversation in class, especially when real communication is going on, should be done as much as possible in English.

Do the author's students speak mostly English? Presently I have four college conversation classes of unmotivated to semi-motivated students. On average, I would say the students speak about 90-95% English. Recently there have been days when the students speak almost all English. These classes have been meeting for about four months now, and during the first month the students were generally unmotivated and spoke only about 70% in English.

What follows are some techniques that I have found to be successful in getting my students to speak mostly in English.

Establish your 100% goal from Day 1.

On the first day of class make your expectations clear to your students. It's a good idea at this point to contrast the six years of jr/high school (non-communicative) English classes that they have experienced with what you expect of them. I usually have my students make a pact with both me and themselves. The students read the promises (see below) and I elaborate on each a bit. Next, the students sign their names in agreement.

My Promises

I promise to try to speak as much as possible.
I promise not to be afraid of making mistakes.
I promise not to speak any Japanese.
I promise to use English to communicate.
I promise to ask questions when I do not understand.
I promise to try to have fun!

*Copyright 2003 Talk a Lot, Book 1, EFL Press.

You can go back to these promises from time to time throughout the course as necessary.

2. Learn your students' names.

You will not be able to control your class well if you don't know your students' names. If a student is speaking in Japanese you need to be able to quickly say, "Yuki--are you speaking English?" This should not be said in an angry tone, but rather in a friendly, almost joking tone. I cannot overemphasize how important it is to learn your students' names. I make it my first priority, and usually commit all my students' names to memory by the third class.

3. Teach Classroom English early on.

In the second or third lesson students should be taught useful classroom English. The students should thoroughly memorize and practice using these expressions. It is essential that you explain that these expressions are not just for use with the teacher, but for use with each other as well. Some examples of useful classroom English are:

Do you have a partner?
Let's be partners.
How do you spell...?
What does ... mean?

4. Start (almost) every class with free conversation.

If I had to choose one technique that is the most effective for getting students motivated and speaking in English this would definitely be my choice. Have the students sit facing a partner and tell them they have to talk on a topic for a set time. They absolutely must not speak any Japanese during this time! Possible topics are yesterday, TV, movies, sports, etc. I usually do this for 2-3 minutes at the beginning of a course and build up to 10-15 minutes by the end (for false-beginners). Over the past few years I have noticed that whenever I fail to have the students do free conversation at the beginning of class, they often speak much more Japanese and the class generally is not as successful. Free conversation works because it warms the students up, and it gives them the sense that English can be used for real communication.

5. Explain that real communication opportunities arise after they say "finish" (sic).

After finishing a set task the teacher has given, and while waiting for the other groups to finish, students will invariably say "finish" and proceed to speak in Japanese with their partner. The goal should be for students to speak to each other in English between activities as well as during them.

6. Arrange the classroom so that students are sitting in rows facing each other.

As with free conversation, I have noticed whenever I fail to arrange the chairs in this fashion the students have been much more reticent to speak out. Ideally, there will be no desks or barriers between the students, only chairs in two rows facing each other (see diagram below). There is something magical about this arrangement that gets the students talking. It may work because the students are out in the open and have nowhere to hide and so feel obliged to speak only English. Also, sitting face to face affords direct eye contact which somehow improves communication in English.

Another advantage of this arrangement is that it allows for a very easy and fair way to change partners. Students simply stand up and move in a clockwise direction a set number of chairs and end up sitting across from a new partner.

7. Do the "Speaking Marathon" at least twice during your course.

I usually do the speaking marathon in the fourth or fifth lesson and after that once or twice more as needed.


Work with a partner. You can talk about anything you like with your partner, but you can't stop talking! If you stop for more than 3 seconds, your team is out! Also, if you speak any Japanese your team is out! Which team can keep talking the longest?!

*Copyright 2003 Talk a Lot, Book 2, EFL Press.

I tell the students they can say anything when they can't think of what to say, but they must fill in the silence. They can say "umm...", "Let's see...", "chicken", "kitchen", and so on. Amazingly, students usually pause very little, and I have often had groups go on for 20-30 minutes without pausing for more than three seconds. During this activity you must act as a "policeman" and go from group to group counting off three seconds and noting when a group has spoken Japanese or has stopped for more than three seconds. However, it's best if you don't tell a group when they are out so that everyone continues speaking for as long as possible. There is simply no better way to build students' speaking confidence than the speaking marathon.

8. Have the students write down every word they say in Japanese.

At the start of class pass out small slips of paper about the size of a post-it note. Explain that they are to write down every word, phrase, or sentence that they say in Japanese during the class. Tell them that at the end of the class you will collect their slips and count how many Japanese entries they have made. Writing down what they say in Japanese helps students to monitor their output, and this heightened awareness helps to decrease the amount of Japanese spoken. I have continually been amazed at how little Japanese my students speak while doing this type of self-monitoring.

As a variation, if you can speak a little Japanese, write some of their Japanese on the board and then teach them how to say the expressions in English.

9. Let the students go 5 minutes early if they speak 100% English.

From time to time, especially when the students are lapsing into Japanese too much, I stop the class halfway through the lesson and announce that if everyone speaks 100% English for the rest of the period everyone can leave early. The students don't always make it, but having this goal cuts down the amount of Japanese significantly if not completely. You may think that the students would be afraid to speak out at all in this situation, but I've actually found that they speak out more after announcing the possibility of leaving early.

10. Mimic your students when they speak Japanese.

You will need some Japanese ability in order to do this effectively. If you can't speak any Japanese, here is an incentive to learn. You will be able to control your students much better if you can mimic their Japanese slips and then say, "Is that English?" and supply how to say the phrase in English immediately. More often than not students quickly realize they already know how to say the word or expression they said in Japanese. For example, a student might indicate that his or her partner can begin an activity by saying, "Iiyo" in Japanese. At this point I would mimic "Iiyo" and say, "Is that English?" (facetiously of course) and then supply "Go ahead" in English. Again, this must be done in a friendly manner.

11. Be enthusiastic about your students speaking only English.

At times you must be more of a coach than a teacher to motivate your students. Until you have begun to modify their behavior you will have to constantly remind them not to lapse into Japanese. You must be continually aware of what is going on in all areas of the classroom monitoring all student output. Periodically I give "pep talks" to encourage the students when they are speaking too much Japanese and also try to motivate them at times when they have failed. Don't give up--change will not come overnight, but slowly the students will respond to your enthusiasm.

12. Turn regular activities into information-gaps.

Information-gaps force the students to communicate in English more than in activities where knowledge is shared. I have rarely heard students speak Japanese while doing information-gap activities, and for this reason I use them liberally.

13. Pick topics and activities that your students find interesting and useful.

I've put this point last for a reason. None of the techniques elaborated above will be successful in getting your students to speak English if your students simply don't want to talk about the topic you've given, or if they don't find the topic useful. Motivating and practical activities and topics are necessary to get your students talking in English.


Martin, David (2003). Talk a Lot, Book 2, EFL Press. Saitama, Japan.

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