Matthew's Classroom

I have been teaching English to kids in Japan for more than 20 years: public elementary schools in Tokyo for 11 years, and Hello Kids Komazawa for the last 9. For 3 years I have been teaching weekly lessons to students at Tsutsujigaoka Kindergarten. As I tend to stay at the same workplace for a long time, I've been able to see the long-term results of my work. Being able to really see children's English communication ability grow has been very rewarding. I mainly use APRICOT materials in my classroom. They best suit my goal of having students use as much English as possible while developing confidence and self-esteem. I enjoy teaching development, and I love discussing English education with other teachers!

    A couple of questions for you regarding the development of students’ reading ability:

    ・What’s your strategy for improving your students’ reading?

    ・At what point do you engage your students in a reading activity for the very first time?

    ・What’s the nature of this activity?

    ・Do you bring reading activities to your classes on a regular basis?

    ・How much time do you spend on reading activities each lesson?

    ・What’s the nature of these activities?


    As a general rule, I try to conduct reading activities in all classes – regardless of age – once the students have shown me an understanding of what I believe are the basic fundamentals of verbal communication in English:

    • Students are able to focus their eyes and ears on the teacher in the course of interaction
    • Students are able to know when a response is required in the course of interaction

    In other words, I don’t want to start students’ reading development if they are as yet unable to participate in face to face communication. When the above conditions are met, I feel comfortable with bringing students’ attention down to a page and to the written script of the English language.



    Firstly, I familiarize students who have no reading experience with the sounds of the alphabet using APRICOT’S Click-on-Phonics flashcards.

    matthew-1ABCDchants   4899910665


    Sounds are then put together into three-letter-words, again using the flashcards from Click-on-Phonics. Throughout this process, I regularly read storybooks to them, with the aim of delivering the message that letters put together in words actually carry meaning.



    Usually by the time students can read Click-on-Phonics’ 3-letter-words, they’ve attended my classes long enough to be familiar with most of the vocabulary found in each book of Level 1 of the SPRINGBOARD series of books.


    So, in all classes longer than 50 minutes (I teach 50 minute, 80 minute & 180 minute lessons) I have implemented a formal reading program using SPRINGBOARD.




    • There are 16 levels with Level 1 being the easiest.
    • The challenge level increases with each level.
    • There are 8 books in each level.
    • The challenge level is the same in each book within a level.
    • Each book in the early levels has 8 pages, with 1 ~ 3 simple sentences on each.


       ⇒⇒⇒SPRINGBOARD information






    • All students receive a personal “Reading Card”.

    matthew-3originalsheet   IMG_1909


    With it students know what level they are currently on and which books they have read within that level.

    • All students start at Level 1. Even those new students to the class who perhaps have had experience with English at another school start at Level 1. Put simply, everyone starts at Level 1.
    • Students read every book within each level. My signature on their Reading Card lets students know which books they have completed. After they have read each book in the level, they receive a new paper for their Reading Card and progress to the next level.
    • Between 20 ~ 30 minutes is spent each lesson on the program.
    • Occasionally at the end of the session there is a Sticker Challenge. Students can get a sticker on their Reading Card if they choose to read a book to the whole class. The book they select must be one that I have signed on their Card.




    1. Each student gets their Reading Card, then students select a book from the SPRINGBOARD collection within their current level.

    2. They begin individually reading. If they come across a word that they cannot read, they ask a classmate for help:

         “What does this say?” “What’s this?” or “Help me, please”.

    If no classmate can help, students ask me. I am in the meantime observing and offering help and support.

    3. When a student feels comfortable that they can read their current book, they come to me:

         “Matthew, I’m ready”.

    We sit together and the student reads his/her book to me. Through questioning and

    other interaction I check the student’s comprehension of the text throughout the reading

    or at the end of the reading.

    4. I give an evaluation on the student’s reading. If I’m satisfied that they were able to read

    every word, I sign my name on their reading card and they move onto another book in

    their level. If the student struggled somewhat during the reading, I’ll sign “half” my name

    on their card, give help on the problem areas and have the student spend more time on

    that book. To confirm the student’s ability to read each word, I may randomly write words

    from the book on the whiteboard for the students to read to me.


    Here’s a short video of the program in action in class. The students have only recently begun the program and so are on Levels 1 and 2. The girl reading to me is 7 years old.

    ■VIDEO :”SPRINGBOARD” ーHow it works in class


    The girl reading in this video is 9 years old. She has nearly 3 years of English experience. She began the SPRINGBOARD Program 2 years ago. She is on Level 5.



    I like the SPRINGBOARD Series because:

    • it’s well structured.
    • the text and pictures are not on the same page.
    • students like the stories.
    • students feel success reading the stories.

    Read on!

    4. What did you do in your summer vacation?

    Every year at this time I’m always frustrated by my inability to create an interesting ”What-did-you-do-in-your-summer-vacation” lesson. The difficulty with these types of post-vacation lessons is that the content depends entirely on the students, and no two vacation experiences are exactly the same.

    It’s not easy to have beginner students speak in English about their summer vacation in a meaningful way because they lack a lot of the vocabulary and expressions that they need in order to do so.

    Perhaps “I went to ~” is a nice and simple expression to build a lesson around, because most students went somewhere – often to interesting, faraway places. But then what do you do with those students who are convinced that they absolutely didn’t go anywhere? A lesson involving “I went to ~” lesson requires all the students to have gone somewhere in order for the lesson to work, so we as the teacher simply decide for some unlucky and understandably unenthusiastic students that they have to say “I went to the park” or “I went to the supermarket” just so that the lesson can proceed as smoothly as possible…

    And within such a lesson, even when students have announced “I went to Guam”, the more interesting information about what they saw, ate, and did there isn’t forth-coming.


    Again this year, I’ve been confronting these frustrations – and to my surprise, I’ve been getting a fair amount of positive results with this year’s lesson idea. So it might be worth sharing with you here.

    I realize of course that by the time you read this, your “summer vacation” lessons are probably finished, and you’re well back into your textbook. However, winter is not far off. The same idea can very well be applied to winter vacation.


    This idea involves: drawing, speaking, simple one-word reading, simple one-word writing (i.e copying), gluing and individual presentation to the class; it’s suitable I believe for your elementary school students, and younger students with experience.


    ●STEP 1: On A4 paper, have students draw a picture/pictures of their summer vacation.

    summvacpic-1     summvacpic2

    Allow a good amount of class time for this – perhaps 10~20 minutes. The more time you allow, the more ideas students can express.


    ●STEP 2: Some students will finish before others. Take students who have completed their drawings aside on an individual basis – a couple of minutes each – and get information from them about what they drew. Make notes for your reference. 


    These notes were made during each brief conversation I had with each student. You can see the students’ names and their answers to such questions as “What did you draw?” “What’s this?” “Where is this?” “Who is this?” “Is this ~?” Get as much information from each picture as possible.


    It’s important that your conversation with each student is done away from other students because:

    – you don’t want other students to get too many details on their classmates’ vacation just yet.

    – some students may express less information if they know other students are listening to their conversation with you.


    ●STEP 3: Once all students have completed their pictures and have spoken to you in private about their drawing, have them present their drawing to the class.


    The conversation they had with you in private should be enough practice for students to present the content of their summer vacation to the class. Encourage other students to ask questions – the same questions you did: “What’s this?” “Who’s this?” etc.


    ●STEP 4: Write all of your notes of your earlier conversations with students onto 4-line paper – with a free line for students to copy your handwriting.


    Depending on the size of your class, you may need to complete this step during your preparation for the next lesson. That’s OK. This activity idea can be spread over two lessons.


    ●STEP 5: Scatter the paper on the floor. Students need to find their papers, and bring each one to you for confirmation with the English “Is this my paper?”

    sumvacscatterfind  sumvactable1

    The written English is English that the students produced for you during your conversation. Students with even the most basic phonics experience should be able to find their papers without the need for help.


    ●STEP 6: Students copy the English on their papers, cut away your English with scissors, then glue their English onto their pictures.



    sumvactable3 sumvactable2


    ●STEP 7: Students present their summer vacation pictures to the class one more time, this time reading the English that they wrote and glued.



    I found this activity positive because:

    • it can cater for all the students, regardless of their experience.
    • it can cater to a variety of vacations. Students don’t necessarily need have “gone” somewhere.
    • it involves a variety of skills.
    • it involves student-to-class presentation.

    By all means, give it a try after the winter break!

    3. Ah… Summer!

    ladybug1 ladybug3 ladybug2

    Here are ladybugs made of felt. They are very nicely completed.

    As a teacher, would you accept a child’s work if:

    -the legs were placed on the opposite sides?

    -the dots were not symmetrical?

    -the eyes were lower?


    Ah, summer…! Not my least favorite season. While for me the best food options are during the Japanese winter, nothing quite beats the excitement of this country’s summer! The festivals, the fireworks…!

    For our students too, summer holds a special magic unlike any other season. Do you remember the feeling of youth and summer? I do, with crystal clarity. 6th grade. A vacation to an aunty’s house by the beach. A neighbor girl the same age. My first love… totally unreturned!! I returned home devastated, but a little wiser. Kids tend to do a bit of growing up over the summer.


    The school I work at has a 14-day summer program. Regular classes are on hold, and students instead can come any day or all days for several hours of games, arts & craft, water fun in the park, and a school-made snack. The teachers are paired up for the duration of the program, and together we maintain the all-English environment. Students are encouraged to bring friends as it’s a good way for the school to obtain new students. I like the program. It’s interesting to see my students outside the formality of a 50 or 80 minute weekly lesson. It’s fun to see them enjoy activities that we don’t usually do in our lessons. And at the school’s request we teachers are able to put away our “English-teacher” hats, and put on our “simply-relax-and-have-fun” hats. After all, the summer program itself has little to do with “English education”, and is geared mainly towards giving the students a fun-filled day.


    The crafts are always quite interesting, and are entirely the ideas of the Japanese staff at the school. One of the crafts
    involved sticking pre-cut felt pieces onto a canvas bag. Put together the pieces formed simple, pictures of summer: a watermelon, a whale, morning glories, and a beetle. Now, the beetle’s felt pieces were a little complex, particularly the legs which if care was not taken could easily end up stuck on backwards/back-to-front/upside-down. And for many of the kids, that’s exactly what happened…

    The child-like charm of the slightly ‘deformed beetle’, and the resulting unique expression of each one, for me easily overcame any temptation to “fix” the picture. But not all teachers see the same things. “Charming” to one teacher might be “messy” for another. “Unique” to one teacher might be “incorrect” to another. “Expressive” to one teacher might be “noisy” to another. When the craft was finished, and the students all went to wash their hands, my partner-teacher to my dismay went from bag to bag fixing all the beetles so that they were presented on the bags uniformly.


    In the classroom, it’s not just what a teacher sees that’s important, but how a teacher sees it that determines their course of action. If teachers who work together don’t see the same things in the same way, they will inevitably feel disagreement about each other’s actions. If teachers team up together in the classroom on a regular basis, they should spend a good amount of their teacher development time on learning how their partner sees things in order to understand each other’s actions. This is what I learned by this experience.


    “I returned home devastated, but a little wiser…” It’s not just the kids that tend to do a bit of growing up over the summer!



     Of all the experiences our students go through in the English language classroom, this is arguably the MOST important: Student-to-class presentation. Allow me to explain why – but not now. The “why” will become self-evident after discussion of other issues of student presentation.

    Firstly, what is student-to-class presentation? In short, this is where one student in class briefly becomes the focal point of every student in class.

    That one student gives a short oral presentation, which may typically be accompanied by something visual like a picture.
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    1. ALL students at some point must have their moment “up the front”.

    2. While the content of students’ presentations should relate directly to recently studied English, they must also contain in some way the result of students’ own creativity. Put another way, the English that students study in class should eventually be presented by them in a way that has them input additional, original ideas.

    3. Students don’t need to memorize what they say in their presentation. They can say what they are showing, and they can show what they are saying.


    4. Students should prepare well for their presentation, both the oral and visual content. Students should be prepared to speak in a voice that’s loud enough to be heard by everyone else in the room. Most importantly, they should be prepared to present themselves as a valuable individual with original ideas worthy of their classmates’ attention. They should be given the opportunity to practice – either alone or in pairs (not in front of the whole class). Students should practice what they’re going to say and they should practice holding their visual work in a way that guarantees everyone will be able to see.

    5. All students should know that courtesy, respect and support for the presenter is expected from the classmates listening.

    6. After each presentation, we as teachers should find as many aspects of the presentation as possible to praise.


    Now with that said, has the “why” behind student-to-class presentations become apparent?

    The objective behind having students present to the class is to foster something that I believe is very much lacking in regular Japanese education: self-esteem.


    Self-esteem is vital to effective English communication. Even if a student has many years of English study behind them, if he/she lacks self-esteem, there will be communication difficulties. A major part of the development of self-esteem is self-recognition of the value of one’s original ideas and the value of presenting them to others. It’s very much my belief that in class, if students are given an opportunity to present their original idea within a frame of recently studied English, are well-prepared, are well-practiced, and there’s an environment of support from classmates and teachers, the experience may help cultivate self-esteem, and ultimately assist in students’ English communication.

    Nakamoto-sensei too when creating LEARNING WORLD placed huge emphasis on individual presentation to the class for the same reason, and opportunities for this are right through each text, appearing on nearly every right-hand page!


    I strongly encourage all of you who are reading this to put opportunities for student-to-class presentations into your lessons!

    1. Hello, everyone!

    Good days, not so good days. Rewarding moments, awful moments.
    Successful classroom activities, disastrous classroom activities.
    We have experienced all of them, and will no doubt experience many more.
    On reflection however, in my case it would seem that the positivity of this work far outweighs the negativity. If it didn’t, it’s unlikely that I would still be here 20 years after I gave my very first English lesson still doing and enjoying what I do.

    And here’s another first: my very first entry in my very first blog.
    It was quite recently suggested to me that I start a blog, the reason being that my classroom experiences, both positive and negative, may be helpful to other teachers. The workshops and seminars I have conducted in the past have all been based on my classroom experiences, and have apparently been useful to other teachers, so a blog can serve a similar purpose: teacher-development – that’s ongoing.
    I decided to name the blog “Please get what you need” because I use this English with my students most lessons. Hopefully you too can “get what you need” from reading my blog entries.


    It’s a new challenge for me, and one that I am committed to continuing.
    Being entirely new to this, I wasn’t aware that readers’ comments can’t be left on blog entries! What a shame! I would love occasional feedback and questions! Please feel welcome however to reach me through the APRICOT e-mail address.
    Classroom, here I come!


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