Eikaiwa 101: An Introduction to Facilitating English Conversations

This article originally featured in the October 2020 issue of Connect.

by Andrea Cunningham (Kyoto)

For foreigners interested in coming to Japan, teaching English is one of the “go-to” methods of getting here and having a steady paycheck. If you do take the teaching route, the two major schools are AET (Assistant English Teaching) and eikaiwa. If you’re familiar with the JET Program, you’ll know it primarily falls under the AET umbrella of English teaching. But what about eikaiwa? It’s very possible that even as a JET you could be asked to teach a class or two, or twenty! In this article let’s explore what eikaiwa is, how it differs from the job of an AET, and some tips for getting you off on the right foot for your first eikaiwa lesson.

To give some background, I am a fifth-year AET in Southern Kyoto. I have worked extensively at kindergarten, elementary school, and junior high school, and I have experience teaching both kids and adult eikaiwa as part of my contract on JET. I have never taught at an English conversation school so this article will instead be focusing on eikaiwa as it pertains to the JET Program. With that disclaimer out of the way, let’s first look at what eikaiwa is.

Eikaiwa 英会話 means “English conversation” and as the name implies, usually focuses more on speaking than on reading or writing. There are eikaiwa for both casual and business English learners. Eikaiwa is often used by non-native speakers as an opportunity to practice the English they’ve learned elsewhere with native speakers. In my experience classes can run anywhere from 45-90 minutes, and the content tends to be tailored to the individual or class. For example, in one class you may have a strong emphasis on giving speeches and in another, you may spend most of the time chatting and simply conversing in English. Overall, eikaiwa are flexible with both time and content and have an emphasis on speaking. Now that we know a little bit more about what eikaiwa is, let’s see what makes it different from AET work.

There are lots of unique aspects of eikaiwa that make them a world away from AET work, but let’s spotlight three major ones that you might not encounter in your every-day-AET life.

 

1. Being the Main Teacher
First and foremost, the biggest difference, in my opinion, between AET and eikaiwa work is the format. Most AETs work in a school as an assistant teacher to either the homeroom teacher or the Japanese English Teacher (JTE). For eikaiwa, you can throw this expectation out the window. There is usually only one teacher per class, with rare exceptions. Class size may be anywhere from 1 to 20 students but in my experience, 7-13 is a safe average. Smaller groups mean more one-on-one time with the teacher, allowing for a more personal experience and specialized assistance. Suddenly being the only teacher in the room can be shocking for those whose influence in the classroom ends at “Repeat after me!”.

2. Creating the Curriculum
There is (usually) no set curriculum with eikaiwa.
The students join with goals in mind and you as the teacher help them to hit those milestones. For my adult eikaiwa students, I take a survey at the beginning of each term to get an idea of the class’s general goals and create the “curriculum” from there. This has been true for all of the adult eikaiwa classes I’ve taught. On the other hand, for my kids’ eikaiwa classes, I follow a textbook “curriculum,” which means I am required to teach them certain grammar points, while I have the freedom to decide how I teach them. The reason for this dichotomy is that the goal of eikaiwa for most school-age students is to pass a test or exam, whereas adults tend to have work-related goals or are just taking the class for leisure. Creating a curriculum from scratch may seem like a big ask but just remember that you’re always working towards your students’ goals.

3. Leading Student-Based Classes
The third difference is that eikaiwa is student-based as opposed to instructor-based. That can be an unusual concept to grasp since schools usually follow a curriculum where everyone learns the same material regardless of interest or relevance. “Student-based” means that the students’ goals and desires shape the class, not the other way around. Even with a textbook, you may spend way more time on one section than you anticipated based on the students’ response. If your students decide they don’t want to learn present progressive tense then you can scratch that off and move on to something that they do enjoy. To put it very simply, there is a lot more freedom in eikaiwa compared to AET work. Keeping these in mind, let’s explore some tips for eikaiwa, featuring anecdotes where I learned about the three differences we just talked about the hard way.

 

Let’s set the scene: you’ve suddenly been asked by your BoE or Contracting Organization to go to the local community center every Wednesday afternoon for six weeks to teach eikaiwa. You’ve never taught by yourself nor made a curriculum before, but you say yes because of that obscure clause in your contract that makes eikaiwa technically part of your contract. So what do you do? Here are three tips that’ll guarantee that your first eikaiwa lesson doesn’t go like mine did.

1. Remember that eikaiwa is student-led
The first time I taught eikaiwa, I wanted to teach my students what I thought they should know. By the time they were sorted into their English level-appropriate classes Harry Potter style, I had already made the entire curriculum. I had the graciousness to leave spots for games and activities where I could plug-and-chug their interests, but the bulk of the lessons were completed before I’d even met the students. I thought the classes went great. Then I read the feedback sheets they’d filled out at the end of the term. This leads to my second bit of advice:

2. Ask for feedback loudly and often (at least until you know your students)
Asking for feedback is incredibly important when teaching eikaiwa because of how different it is from working as an AET. It can’t be ignored that students attending eikaiwa are usually paying for it, as opposed to students who attend compulsory school. Dissatisfied students won’t come back and/or they’ll save their dissatisfaction until the teacher evaluations. One of my students was very displeased with my early lessons and dropped out of the class halfway through. I didn’t find out why until I read the feedback sheets. Had I asked for opinions and feedback early on, I might have been able to turn things around. Your students may be uncomfortable coming forward so going to them and politely asking for feedback and in general keeping an ear to the ground to see how things are going can go a very long way.

Finally and perhaps most important of all:

3. Expect Imperfection
Expect it from yourself and from your students. You’ll have plenty of bomb lessons and you’ll have plenty of lessons that will bomb. Some days your students just won’t be interested. Some days you’ll wish you could move that one lower level student out so you can progress smoothly or get rid of the know-it-all who really should be in Advanced instead of Intermediate I. That’s okay. Language-learning is a marathon, not a sprint. Learn with your students and enjoy the ride.

Hopefully this article was able to demystify the amoeba that is eikaiwa as well as instill confidence in you that it isn’t some insurmountable task. With patience and trust in yourself and your students, eikaiwa can be one of the most rewarding experiences of your English-teaching life.

 

Photo by note thanun on Unsplash

Andrea Cunningham is a 5th year AET in Kyoto Prefecture. She lives with her husband and their dog, Gatsby. Her hobbies are Animal Crossing, cycling, and performing with her local taiko group.