The Internet TESL Journal

Dialog Performances: Developing Effective Communication Strategies for Non-English Majors in Japanese Universities

Susan Gilfert
sugi_ngo [at]
Aichi Gakuen University

Robert Croker
rc100 [at]
Nagoya University

Originally published in
The Aichi Gakuin Research Journal, General Education faculty #45, Volume 2, pp. 33-49.
November, 1997

How many teachers have been faced with the dilemma of having more than 35 students in a Japanese university 'English Conversation' class for non-English majors? This paper will give some background on Japanese students' English-language preparation before university, discuss three concepts--cooperative learning, communicative learning, and communicative competence--that English classes should center upon, and offers a classroom technique based on these concepts that is a practical solution to this dilemma.

Background: High School

Japanese students are given six years of English Language instruction in most junior-high and senior-high schools. These six years are mostly translation-based; the students rarely, if ever, need to speak English at all. The English-language curriculum is suggested in guidelines (and enforced through governmental funding) by the centralized Ministry of Education. High-school students receive considerable passive exposure to grammar, translation, vocabulary and semantic information from written sources, but little exposure to communicative situations, or required to actively use English.

Educational points to note include:

The result of the combination of these factors in a typical Japanese high-school is that, when they finish high school:

The chart in Figure 1 shows a typical English-language curriculum for a Japanese high school.
	            pre-1994                          post-1994

			  yr in high  # of hrs			        yr in high   # of hrs.
course title  school       /wk      course title    school		 /wk
------------  ----------  --------  ------------    -----------  ---------
English I         1       4         English I	    1            4
(Reading/Gram)                      (Reading/Gram)

English II        2       4         English II      2            4
(Reading/Gram)                      (Reading/Gram)

English IIB       3       4         Reading         3            4

English IIC     2 or 3    2         Writing         2 or 3       2

                                Oral Communication  1         2
                                  A level--simple, everyday conversation
                                  B level--speeches
                                  C level--discussion
                                    (the school decides on which level
                                    they will teach)

Figure 1: Changes in English curriculum, pre and post 1994 Source:
Monbusho, 1989, p. 30-38

Course Titles Explanation

Reading Class

A class in which Japanese students are given a paragraph in English and asked to first read aloud, then translate the text--sentence by sentence or phrase by phrase. Coherent meaning from the complete text is rarely extrapolated. Various comprehension questions, generally focused on specific details within the text, finish the exercise. Students are carefully taught to regard the word of the dictionary as absolute, and to look up every single word in a sentence. Discussion of the ideas in the text, or relating the ideas in the text to the students' lives, is unusual.

Writing Class

A class in which Japanese students are given disassociated English sentences and required to translate these into Japanese. The concept of several sentences combined into one paragraph with a coherent topic--a topic sentence with sentences of supporting detail--is rarely explicitly taught. This concept, important to Western patterns of logic, writing, and argument, is rarely taught in Japanese-language classes, either. Students memorize basic English sentence patterns, and practice by applying the patterns to Japanese sentences. Students are rarely taught how to relate one sentence to another, or how to build a coherent argument or idea in English.

Oral Communication (OC) Class

This class is a relatively recent innovation from the Ministry of Education, and is only offered at the senior high school level. Most high schools have OC-A (basic dialogs); a few offer OC-B (memorized speeches); and a very few offer CO-C (discussion classes) for academic credit (Monbusho, pp. 30-38). An increasing number of senior high schools are obtaining funds to provide smaller Oral Communication English classes to first year students, by splitting classes into two. These are increasingly communicatively-based, depending upon the teacher's pedagogical preferences.

Thus, high-school students receive considerable passive exposure to grammar, translation, vocabulary and semantic information from written sources, but little exposure to communicative situations. The underlying theory of high school English learning is based on the premise that, by studying the structure of the written language, students will be able to produce the spoken language (or comprehend the spoken language) easily. This ignores basic language acquisition principles, that there needs to be a consciously constructed process of converting passive or static knowledge of English to active or dynamic communicative ability. Students complete high school with little communicative ability, little exposure to communicative strategies, and little knowledge of how to develop communicative ability.

That the Japanese high school and university education system is facing the challenge to become more practical is clearly recognized in Japan. The Central Council on Education, a group that advises the government, released a report in May 1997 that came out strongly in favor of ending many of the practices that create the "examination hell", particularly the rigid reliance on testing. Universities are to be encouraged to select their applicants by, among other means, interviews, which could provide the opportunity to make communicative ability in English a requirement to enter the better universities, and set a precedent for the smaller universities also. Moreover, the need to create diversity should encourage some secondary schools to diverge from the set curriculum, and offer more communicatively-based English courses to attract students, particularly in the present climate of a declining student population. A further factor that the report highlighted was that there is a mismatch between what the education system produces, and what the economy requires. Major employers no longer have the luxury of training recruits who learned very little practically or vocationally in high school or university. Increasingly, the newly-hireds must come equipped with a greater array of immediately applicable skills--including a communicative ability in English. (The Economist, 28) This should provide a greater motivation for students to concentrate on such abilities, and schools and universities to prioritize their development.

Background: University

In most Japanese universities, students are grouped together by major (for example, all Law students together), and divided into classes by surname (for example, all surnames beginning with A-E), just like many Western elementary and secondary schools. Japanese university students are expected to take their major classes together with the same group of people throughout their entire undergraduate academic career at the university. Almost all university classes meet once a week for 90 minutes, for 13 to 15 weeks of a semester, with an expected final exam at the end of the semester. This is obviously a challenging situation for developing communicative competence in English for non-English majors, particularly when compared to most western universities, where students usually meet every day, albeit for a shorter class time (usually one hour). Moreover, most university classes, with the exception of 'seminar' classes, have more than 30 students enrolled; this would consist of one group/class of students. This number of students is also a challenge for the teacher with the goal of developing communicative competence.

These factors provide the background to the issue:

These conditions are conducive for English conversation classes to not do well.

Educational Theory

Outside the classroom, the instructor may have limited ability to affect these underlying factors. Rather, the instructor can select and develop strategies to maximize learning opportunities in class, with regard to these background factors. The following sections propose three concepts that facilitate student learning in English (EFL) classes, and then proposes a classroom technique suitable for English conversation classes for non-English majors at Japanese universities.

Effective EFL teaching is based upon two complementary concepts:

Communicative learning can be conceived of as a sub-set of cooperative learning. Cooperative learning is a teaching approach applied in a vast array of subjects. Communicative learning is particularly appropriate to language learning. A further concept, developing student "communicative competence", is introduced as the principal goal of communicative learning.

"Cooperative learning" is a situation where students learn together, based on group work; contrasting this educational method is "competitive learning," where students compete against each other in a learning situation. Competitive learning is prevalent in contemporary Japanese educational methods, and cooperative language learning is largely absent at the junior and senior high levels. However, Johnson and Johnson (1988) have found that cooperative learning experiences promote higher academic achievement than do competitive learning experiences. Moreover, cooperative learning suits communicative English-language classes well. Communicating in English is based on cooperation between students to negotiate meaning and understanding with each other. This is contrasted with the traditional reading and translation-based classes, which by comparing the students to arrive at grades are competitive and penalize cooperative learning. Combination of cooperative and competitive goal structures is feasible, by having cooperative learning groups compete against each other. In the Japanese context, cooperating in groups has been found to be highly successful, tapping into two strong Japanese identities--the group-identity and educational competitiveness.

"Communicative language learning" emphasizes interactive language learning, as opposed to the traditional "grammar-translation method" of the mere memorizing of rules of grammar, semantics, phonology or lexical items. It is often noted that the grammar-translation method is similar to the traditional "Confucian" style of learning, in the sense that it emphasizes:

By contrast, a communicative language learning approach emphasizes:

The communicative language learning/training is predicated on slow but steady progress, frequent exposure to the target language, and easy access to the instructor (see Hill & Hill, 1990; Johnson & Johnson, 1988; Gilfert and Carlson, 1992; Ulichny, 1996 for discussions on effective learning and effective language learning).

The principal goal of communicative language learning is to develop "communicative competence". Communicative competence is a broad concept, encompassing the following concepts:

As more fully discussed above, the main goal of the English-language curriculum in the Japanese high school system is the development of grammatical competence, and to a lesser degree, semantic competence. Competence in these areas obviously does not infer communicative competence, however. The challenge facing the English language instructor in a Japanese university is to develop a balanced competence in these other areas, to develop overall communicative competence in the student. The classroom technique proposed in this paper is specifically designed to develop communicative competence, in the context of communicative learning and more broadly cooperative learning. It considers the student's prior and existing knowledge of grammatical and semantic competence, and the student's motivation and needs. This requires providing opportunities to manipulate language as well as learn appropriate language applicable to a variety of situations. What this means is discussed in the following sections.

Classroom Technique: Dialog Performance Class

Classroom Activities

Developing communicative competence is associated with the following classroom activities:

A short comment on peer interaction: the acquisition of English-language speaking experience is not the transfer of relevant input from a more capable person to a less capable person, but rather the development of communication strategies through interaction.

The classroom technique that this paper proposes is based upon and utilizes the classroom activities outlined above.


The classroom technique is based upon using 'dialogs' as the core of communicative classroom activities, leading up to student 'performances' of these dialogs. Following is a short summary of the technique.

A dialog-based textbook is chosen that is suitable for the students' level (see Text below). The dialogs written in the selected text should be quite natural both in phrasing and in lexical content. At the beginning of the semester, the class is provided with a syllabus that lists the pages of the text that will be focused upon in each class. Students are expected to prepare for the class by reading the dialogs before class, and to familiarize themselves with the dialogs. Most of the dialogs are between 6 and 10, but sometimes 12, lines long. Students are also expected to ascertain the context of the dialogs, to develop an awareness of strategic competence.

In class, the teacher suggests various situations in which each dialog is appropriate (or not). Students are then randomly assigned partners and specific dialog/situations page(s). Partners then practice the dialogs together with their partner. Students are expected to improvise/create language for each dialog, to represent different social situations. The higher the ability of the class or the individual speaker, the greater the degree of manipulation required. Partners are expected to utilize class time to write down the modification, check it with the teacher, and then to memorize the short dialogs.

As the students practice their dialogs, the teacher is available to answer any questions, and check the language manipulation. By being accessible to students on a relatively individual basis, the teacher has an opportunity to work with questions on usage, grammar, cultural points, or other information that a student might not want to bring up in front of an entire class.

After 20-30 minutes of practice, this modified dialog is performed--without notes--in front of the class. Pairs are called up randomly to perform, and this performance is graded by the teacher on a scale of 1 to 5 or 1 to 10 (see Assessment below). The completion of another two or three modifications is assigned for written or audiotaped homework for each week. These are put into a student-kept portfolio, available for student review, and periodic instructor revision.

The class can respond to the different learning needs of the students in a number of ways. Firstly, the dialogs from the same textbook are, within a limited range, of varying length and difficulty, so more advanced students can be assigned more challenging dialogs. Secondly, the more advanced students can be required to manipulate the language to a greater degree than the less advanced students. Moreover, they can be encouraged to perform more than one dialog, or to integrate dialogs together. Thirdly, the students are given a limited degree of choice of dialog, so that they can select those conversational situations that they expect to find themselves in. Temptation to simply select the simplest dialog can be removed by determining a difficulty quotient for each day's dialogs, thus encouraging the students to select the dialog that most closely mirrors their interests. Fourthly, the students can manipulate the language to suit their own interests and concerns of that day, the only limitation being that it is linguistically and socially feasible. Fifthly, those students that lack confidence are also catered for. As the dialogs to be performed on each particular day are determined at the beginning of semester, these students are able to prepare beforehand, and they need not be concerned about semantic patterns outside of the assigned dialogs. Students are free to use their dictionaries, and to negotiate meaning and content in Japanese or English as they choose, although the more advanced students are encouraged to negotiate meaning only in the target language.

Small group work is preferred, as it encourages:


The text used must have basic dialogs to set up the situations; there are a number of texts that have been used successfully. The Expressways series by Steven Molinsky & Bill Bliss, published by Prentice-Hall, has been found to be particularly appropriate in Japanese universities. This series has several levels, which can be used according to the level of the class. The level 2 book has seemed appropriate for the 2nd year classes, and the level 3 book for 3rd year classes.

Another text which has been used successfully is the three level Streamline series, written by Bernard Hartley & Peter Viney and published by Oxford University Press. The Departures level is designed for beginners, the Connections level for pre-intermediate students, and the Destinations level for intermediate students. The first two have been used successfully with the freshman and sophomore students in both universities and two-year colleges; the third level moves away from the dialog format, and thus is less appropriate for this classroom technique.

Another Oxford University Press book, Carol Cellman's On Course is also a dialog-based text, with numerous illustrations provided to support student language manipulation. This text also has two levels, and has also been found to work successfully at the freshman level. A new publication, the Communicate series by David Paul, and published by Heinemann, has levels 1 and 2, and is appropriate for freshman university and two-year college students. However, it moves away from the dialog-centered format to use dialogs to introduce a grammatical structure.

For more advanced students,Talk Your Head Off, by Brana Rish West, published by Prentice-Hall Regents, has been used successfully. This book has a variety of topics, graduated from easy to difficult, with dialog patterns and questions to discuss.

All texts noted above are graduated in level of difficulty of dialogs, with longer and more complex dialogs by the end of the text. There are numerous other texts that any instructor may find appropriate; alternately, the instructor can create and develop her own dialogs, although it may be time-consuming.

The Instructor's Role

The instructor's role is based upon defining class goals, and facilitating cooperative learning and communicative learning.

There is a strong need in the classroom for clarity of goals: the goals themselves, the means of achieving the goals, and the means of assessment. Non-English majors in a required English Conversation class seem to function best when goals are clearly articulated and attainable; this is in contrast to English majors, who are more interested in and capable of determining their own English study goals. The instructor in a required English conversation class for non-English majors is better equipped to determine class goals, their means of achievement, and their assessment. The student still retains the flexibility to manipulate the language freely, as they see fit.

Cooperative learning is centered on students working together in class, and is based upon small-group work.

Teachers can facilitate cooperative learning by (adapted from Hill and Hill (1988)):


Contemporary EFL assessment can be two-dimensionally expressed along a spectrum from traditional to communicative. The traditional assessment is the paper test, which involves usually rote memorization, application of strict rules, and (frequently) only one acceptably correct answer. The advantages of this assessment method are: students are familiar with it, the grading is explicit and relatively easy, and the results are easy to interpret. The disadvantages of this assessment method are: students are graded against each other in a competitive atmosphere and grading takes no account of students' real communicative ability. The communicative assessment, or interview assessment, involves a short conversation between the teacher and the student either at the end of each class (continuous assessment), or only at the end of semester. This periodic assessment shows a "snapshot" of the student's communicative abilities. The advantages of this assessment method are: students use their English abilities in a "real English" situation to reflect and encourage their communicate ability, and teacher and student have a greater chance to bond. The disadvantages of this assessment method are: it takes a fair amount of time to do individual interviews, and the results are not always easy to quantify.

With this technique of developing communication strategies through interaction, the assessment method can be varied according to a teacher's individual teaching style and situation; although obviously a communicative assessment approach is the most appropriate. The assessment should not be norm-based--comparatively assessing the groups along a bell-curve--but criterion-based--comparing the student to a pre-determined standard. This encourages the students to improve to that standard. Mastery of the basic text plus change one line should receive a "C" grade (3 of 5 points, or 5-6 of 10 points); substantial modification/extension of the basic text should receive an "A" grade (5 of 5 points, or 10 of 10 points).

Optional Extension Activities

Periodically, optional extension activities are useful to review dialogs previously performed, to synthesize dialogs, to create other contexts and opportunities for student interaction and communication, and to provide a varied and stimulating learning environment.

The most basic extension activity is to require the students periodically to create a new dialog, synthesizing dialogs previously studied, either freely or based upon situations determined by the instructor. This requires the student to manipulate and explore the language. This can be set for homework, or done as a classroom activity, and can be done individually or in a small group. These can be optionally graded, by paper marking, or by performance.

A more advanced optional extension activity is to ask students, individually or in pairs or small groups, as homework or as classwork, to write a mini-play. The students are free to use any English, but must include some of the studied dialogs. The students perform the plays in front of the class, and they are assessed as a group. The mini-plays challenge the students to synthesize their English knowledge, and increase the awareness of strategic competence. They are an advanced form of dialog.

The most advanced optional extension activity is to require some degree of student improvisation, guided by the dialogs. This is designed to develop strategic competence. The students are given a functional situation in which an appropriate dialog has been covered in class. They are required to select the appropriate language to communicate authentically. This can also be an effective means of assessment, particularly at the end of a semester.

Notes for classes larger than 40

For very large classes (over 40 students), class management becomes a problem. Keeping the rest of the class quiet while listening to one pair perform is difficult. In that case, the assessment system is different: the performance occurs only in front of the teacher. The teacher can sit in a corner of the classroom. When a pair of students has memorized their dialog & variations, they come to where the teacher is, and perform the dialog. The rest of the students continue to practice, and perform when they are ready. This variation on performance time allows the more confident students to complete their task and return to their seats to write up their dialogs and begin their homework tasks, to update their student portfolios, and even begin preparing for the next class. The less confident students have the extra time they need to perfect their performance.

Advantages and disadvantages

The advantages of this approach mirror the classroom activities that are associated with communicative competence:

The disadvantages of this classroom technique include:

Student Reaction and Feedback

Initially, many students are apprehensive about performing in front of the class. As time goes by, and the practice/performance continues every week, students begin to have a great deal of fun with the performances. The dialogs become more and more meaningful and creative. Students try to make their classmates laugh, but a number of social concerns also show up in the dialog performances. Students have discussed unmarried pregnancy and abortion, curfews (still widespread in Japan), AIDS, sexuality, political events and 'protection societies' of high-school girls and older men. Students have also done wicked caricatures of each other and of their teachers. The learner-centered aspect of this technique taps into both student learning styles and student creativity.

Students' general reaction to this type of class is positive:

From anonymous student feedback at Nagoya University of Foreign Studies (1992-97), Trident School of Languages (1989-92), Aichi Prefectural University (1994-97), Kinjo University (1993-7) and Aichi Gakuen University (1997).

Suggestions for further research


Teachers and students alike generally enjoy and learn from this technique. It solves the problem of how to work with a very large class, yet allows the teacher to interact with individual students. Students work in English to their own level of interest and ability in a learner-centered classroom. Communication strategies are practiced and reinforced. The language used in class is meaningful and communicative.


The Internet TESL Journal, Vol. V, No. 3, March 1999