More Participation, Less Awkward Silences

Participation FII want to write more regularly in this blog about teaching English as a foreign language. I have grown a lot during my 3 years as an ALT and I feel responsible to pass on the things I have learned. Hopefully, somebody someday will find this information helpful.

In these posts, I will write about a teaching strategy I use in my classroom that I have found particularly useful or about a lesson plan that I think was successful and worth sharing with other teachers (I’ve already posted a few EFL lessons here and here!)


You ask a question to your class of very bright capable students but instead of raised hands of participation, volunteering the information you are given blank stares and silence from your students. Another similar problem could be that you have the same two students always answering your questions and the rest of the class is happy to sit back and let them.

The problem here is the students are not engaging in your lessons. As a teacher, you ask questions in order to get the students involved and thinking about your lesson or to check understanding. How can we force participation in a fair way?

If you teach in Japan you have definitely encountered this problem. I find the lack of willing participation very frustrating, but there really is no changing it because of cultural differences. There are very few Hermione Grangers in Japan because students don’t want to appear like they are showing off by knowing information. Even if students know the answer right away, they won’t answer your question unless you specifically call on them by name and even then they may just lie and say “I don’t know.”

In the beginning, I was hesitant to call on specific students because I didn’t want to appear like I was playing favorites with any student. Furthermore, I didn’t know all their names! I teach about 600 kids a week. It’s almost impossible to remember everyone.


Hermione is such a boss. People who find her annoying are just jealous of her awesomeness. I love that she is unashamed and unapologetic of her brilliance. Get it.


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These are no ordinary chopsticks…

At the beginning of my second year as an ALT, I started using these name sticks. On the first day of class, I passed out a disposable chopstick to each student. I tell them to write their class, their student number, and their name (English style, first name then family name) on the chopstick.

I collect the chopsticks and put them name down into a cup. Every time I ask a question I choose one chopstick and that student gets to answer the question.

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  •  No awkward silences when you ask questions in class.
  •  You avoid picking on certain “favorite” students more often than others
  •  When you ask a question every student is thinking of the answer for themselves rather than only the students who raised their hands to volunteer the answer to the question because they don’t know if you will choose them. This makes every student think for themselves and try to answer your question.
  •  You can also practice learning students names this way!

Variations/Helpful Hints:

Here is a hint: Whenever a student doesn’t know an answer, don’t just move on to the next student. Here is an example of what I do when a student can’t answer a question.

Me:            “What color is the sky?” *choose a chopstick* “Yuki?”
Yuki:          “I don’t know…”
Me:             “That’s ok… *choose another chopstick* “Kanako?”
Kanako:     “Blue!”
Me:             “Very good. Yuki, what color is the sky?”
Yuki:           “Blue.”
Me:              “Yes. that’s right!”

This way the student has to listen to his classmates answer and repeat it himself. Also, a student never doesn’t answer a question properly eliminating the feeling of failure.

Here is a variation: Some ALTs I know only write numbers 1-37 on the end of the chopsticks and use the same set for every class. In Japan, each student is assigned a class number so this is an easy way to identify students quickly. This is certainly a more economical way since you only have 37 chopsticks instead of 300+. It works just the same. However, I prefer having students names on them to help me learn more students’ names and faces, but whatever works for you is your choice!

Where Did I Get This From?

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I was required to read a book during my student teaching written by my supervising professor called, “Teach Like a Champion.” At first, I was quite annoyed to be forced to purchase my professor’s book for his class, but the book ended up being pretty useful. I still use a lot of the teaching strategies in my classes.

This strategy, which was taken from the first chapter, has been useful especially in Japan. Some of my JTEs have even started using this teaching strategy in their other classes where we don’t have team teaching.

I would recommend this book to any ALT who doesn’t have a ton of teaching experience but wanted to pick up a few useful tricks for teaching and managing a classroom (buy it here!). It isn’t written for the EFL classroom so you’ll need to edit some of the techniques to fit your own situation.  If you studied teaching in school you could probably do without the book since most of it will be pretty redundant information for you.

I hope you could find this post useful. If you do this in your classroom let me know how it goes in the comments. Happy Teaching everyone.

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