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

by Rishma Hansil (Tokyo)


For many ALT teachers across Japan, there have been massive changes to our language learning lessons post COVID-19 lockdown. Students have returned to schools with a strict list of measures in place to reduce the spread of infection. In many schools, activities such as group work, speaking activities and interactive games are strictly prohibited. On the other hand, many other teachers are still teaching remotely. Our role as ALTs has always been to adapt to the needs of our classes, and this situation is no different. I’d like to share four tips from my social-distancing classrooms:

1. Embracing technology
Amidst the lockdown, teachers had no choice but to take their show on the “digital” road. Classes were taught through an array of digital platforms, using anything that could help students and teachers connect in a meaningful way. For classes with over 30 students, teachers used Zoom and Google Classroom to conduct lessons by separating the classes into teams and sending them to “breakout rooms” in Zoom in order to better facilitate essay writing and discussion. For students who couldn’t make the live sessions, videos were uploaded to YouTube via a private link. Having a digital database of resources helped students study on their own time and gave teachers some fluidity in preparing lesson materials. In these situations, the ALTs’ primary roles included assisting the JTE with video recording, modeling grammar and starring in interactive skits.

Club activities, like our school’s Language Club, relied on LINE to communicate with each other, share resources and even send voice notes for pronunciation practice. ALT teachers would also make themselves available for one hour a day on a zoom call, during which students could join the meeting for free conversation practice and get help with any assignments they were working on. Meetings were scheduled by grade to ensure the same level of students were participating in the conversation.

2. Listening instead of speaking
In the first month back at school, speaking in the classroom was prohibited. This was challenging as ALTs predominantly did speaking and conversation practice with students. To work around this, we decided to replace our speaking practice with more focused listening practice in our lessons. For a bit of fun, we watched YouTube videos, which were used as listening comprehension practice and gap-fills for the higher level students. Some videos included Aesop’s Fables, scenes from popular movies and snippets from National Geographic documentaries.

Another listening practice we used in our lessons was shadowing. The ALT would read a few sentences and students would map out the pauses, highlight the intonation of words and underline the points of emphasis in each sentence. This technique made the students hyper aware of the ALTs speech, and over the course of three weeks students were able to listen to more complex pieces of dialogue. This activity was repeated again when speaking was allowed in the classroom and students were able to reproduce the patterns of speech modeled by the ALT.

3. Going the (Social) Distance
How can we replace the high fives and good morning greetings with students in the hallways? Perhaps an elbow touch? ALTs needed to find new ways to connect with our students despite the distance. At our school, we used a simple hand wave and threw in some fun expressions like “stay safe” and “wash your hands”. With the Language Club cancelled, we decided to meet once a week at lunch time for an event called “English Table”. The classrooms were set up with enough space between students, and we invested in games that could be played from a safe distance while still using English. Games like Apples to Apples, Scattergories Categories, Scrabble and Pictionary were some student favorites. All of these games were bought online from Amazon Japan and delivered directly to the school.

Additionally before COVID-19, ALTs would usually meet students for one-on-one essay reviews after school in the staff room. With social-distancing restrictions in mind, we decided to build a safe “language bubble” in the hallway, consisting of two desks and chairs divided by a large sheet of clear, sturdy, plastic. We could safely review essays, provide feedback and chat with our students from the comfort of our bubble.

4. Interactive Learning and Pair Work
Peer-to-peer learning has always been a successful model in the language learning classroom. To encourage socially distancing friendly peer-to-peer learning, we retooled our usual classroom set up to ensure a safe atmosphere for the students. With desks spaced out, students were positioned back-to-back and did information gap activities. For example, 2-4 students would be listening for the missing words with their back against one student doing the reading. In other scenarios, an aisle was made down the middle of the classroom or diagonally and one student would speak one at a time from across the class to their partner or the ALT positioned on the other end of the classroom.

As ALTs we were also encouraged to make our own lesson plans and activities while using the textbook as a guide to review the grammar points and target language students were currently learning. One successful activity was based on Unit 4 Book 1 of the New Horizon Textbook. Students had to review the grammar point “I want” and the counters, like “one cup” and “one pack of”. We created a mock fast food menu board for our restaurant “BurgerMcChicken” with its own unique items and prices, while the ALT played the role of the cashier and the students were the customers. Students were spaced out as per social distancing guidelines and would come up one by one to the imaginary counter and place their order in English. This activity requires some prep work, but it was certainly worth it as it got the students moving around the classroom safely.

It’s been challenging navigating this new style of social-distancing friendly learning. Our role as ALTs in the classroom may have changed, but we will continue to find new ways to engage, interact and inspire our young learners, all the while wearing warm smiles behind our masks. There’s no telling how long these measures will have to be observed, but as time goes on we will continue to adjust and find new creative solutions.

Rishma has been living and working in Tokyo since 2017 as an Assistant Language Teacher and Tokyo Prefectural Advisor to the JET community. She holds an M.A in Future Media from Birmingham City University. She is the author of “Animal Adventure” an activity book for children set in her home country, the sunny Caribbean island of Trinidad & Tobago.