Smith’s School of English, Ogikubo
For sometime now at Smith’s School of English in Ogikubo, I have had the pleasure of teaching high level students. I currently have quite a few normal, powerful, and Man to Man students who are high level English speakers, and each one is unique and a pleasure to teach. Furthermore, I have had success in helping these unique students achieve their individual goals, and as a result they have continued to study at Ogikubo for a long time (the majority more than two years). I believe that the reason high level students enjoy and continue to come to my school is due to the Smith system’s uniqueness within the English teaching business in Japan.
WHERE DO HIGH LEVEL STUDENTS COME FROM?
I believe that high level students are somewhat unique in Japan. Now don’t misunderstand me. This is not to say that there aren’t high level English speakers in Japan. There are quite a few. I mean that there aren’t many high level English speakers who are students, meaning they actively attend eikaiwas. I think a major reason for this is there is a gap between the needs of these students and the service provided by most eikaiwas. High level speakers are much more unique than the average student in terms of their needs and interests for English. Most eikaiwas cannot and do not provide the right environment that meets the needs and desires of these students. This has caused many of them to become frustrated with the eikaiwa system and they often give up on it. As a result, there are a number of high level English speakers in Japan who could be improving their English at an eikaiwa but currently are not.
To provide good service to these students, it is necessary to understand that high level students have obtained their fluency in many different ways. As a result of their diverse experiences, they have very unique needs and reasons for studying English. Furthermore, the needs and desires of one high level student are different than the needs and desires of another.
At my school in Ogikubo, this diversity exists. For example, I have students that have lived and studied abroad, at language schools as well as at universities. These students usually have very good listening skills and can often communicate fluently, albeit with errors. They usually aren’t shy to speak and are very interested in giving their opinions. Other students at my school have gained a high level of proficiency through diligent study while living solely in Japan. They often have a strong command of grammar rules, as well as a large range in their vocabulary. Due to this they often do well when explaining new ideas. However, they usually have a problem when listening to native English speakers speaking at a natural pace. Furthermore they often, due to the fact that they have learned many words but have not had the chance to put them into practice, and are unsure and not confident in their ability. Another type of high level students at my school are ones that have interacted with many English speakers, either at work, through travel, in various hobby clubs, through friends, etc. These students are usually not shy in using their English. Typically, I have found these students to have good listening and speaking skills, although they might have more grammar errors (although they often aren’t as concerned, enjoying the interaction and chance to practice English more than correctness).
The result of this diversity in the obtainment of high fluency in English, combined with the range of the strengths and weaknesses of these students, makes it difficult for most eikaiwas to teach them. It is not easy to create a “blanket” lesson that will cover all the needs of these students. High level students are a diverse bunch and most schools can’t address their needs.
WHAT DO THEY NEED?
So what are the issues more specifically? For one, high level students, having reached a certain level of fluency, have found it difficult to improve. Often the student has obtained a certain level, and then remains there for many years, failing to make any progress. Consequently they find it difficult to “break the barrier” into the next, higher level. They may learn some new vocabulary from time to time, but many things hinder their progress. The lack of daily practice for example. Most students simply cannot practice everyday, being busy with their jobs, family, etc. And in addition, as I am sure we have all heard many times from the students themselves, they don’t have many opportunities in their daily life to use their English. As a consequence, they don’t improve. A second reason is that most students, having been at the same level of fluency for so long, have no idea how to improve and further often aren’t even aware of their weak areas, having lived with them for so long. A final issue is that these students aren’t usually treated as the outstanding individuals that they are. These students have obtained their fluency through hard work and their unique experiences and this needs to be recognized in the classroom.
The culmination of the above is that there are high level students wandering around Japan, seeking to and honestly wanting to improve their English. The problem is that most typical eikaiwas do not provide a solution. These students are looking for something different from the typical eikaiwa experience. They want a school that can address their weaknesses while at the same time recognizing and honoring their achievements. They want a teacher who can recognize that they aren’t a typical student with a passing interest in English, but rather take their English very seriously. Furthermore, they want that teacher to take a real and sincere interest in them and their development. Finally, after having studied with that teacher for some time, they want to be able to realize that their investment of time and money has show results for their English ability. Most schools cannot and do not provide this atmosphere.
This is where we come in.
The Smith school system is an excellent choice for these students. All the unique aspects of the Smith system combined provide exactly the right learning environment for high level students. We have the incentive—as teachers/owners to help our students achieve their goals. We have the tools—in terms of unique curriculum and policies that are ideally suited to many high level students’ weaknesses. And we have techniques—that are highly effective for all levels of students, but are even more ideal for a high level speaker.
We as owners/teachers who have a direct interest in the success of our school have a pride and love for our work that virtually does not exist at other schools. Since the success of our schools and ultimately ourselves is directly correlated to our students’ attendance, we have high motivation to work hard to see our students achieve their goals and keep them coming back. In addition, having ourselves made a significant investment of time and money to establish and build our school, we fully respect and appreciate our students’ investment in us. I know of few other jobs where such a direct and positive relationship exists between effort-in, results received.
We have the tools to provide effective learning for our students. Our curriculum offers a unique approach to English teaching. Smith’s approach to teaching new vocabulary, idioms and phrases is very effective for the student. I have had great success with them as well as with the Routines lessons which focuses on common errors many students make. In addition, our policy of 70%-30% student-to-teacher talk time ensures that that our classes are the most beneficial for the students, giving them plenty of time to formulate their ideas and practice saying them. The effectiveness of the curriculum combined with plenty of chance to practice ensures that the lessons are not just challenging for the student—they are also fun!
The Smith’s training also provides a range of techniques that are useful to high level students. One example of a technique that I have employed well is to be an active listener. When the students are talking, we are taught to pay careful and close attention to what they are saying so that we can catch mistakes and later make corrections. We are also taught to create comprehension tests when we talk to the student, so that we can later check the student’s understanding of the material. Techniques like these ensure that the whole lesson is individualized for and dedicated to the improvement of the student.
The uniqueness of the Smith approach to teaching English provides solutions to the problems high level students have traditionally encountered when trying to find a school that suits them. I believe this is why so many high level students are at my school and continue to stay, some for more than two years. It is the end to their long search for the perfect school.
I would like to write about one high level student who exemplifies how being part of the Smith system and its unique approach has been positive for her English and a success for my school.
She is a high level English speaking student that is also fluent in French, having lived and studied in France. She is very intelligent, studies a lot on her own, has a large range of vocabulary, and understands many complex sentences and topics, although she had never lived in an English speaking country. When she came to me, she told me that she was simply looking for conversation practice because she did not get that in her daily life and that she would study reading, writing and vocabulary on her own. In truth, she believed that an eikaiwa wasn’t good for anything other than simple conversation practice, and that she was responsible for fixing her weak areas on her own. I believe this came from her the general perception most students have of eikaiwas and the usual lack of results.
In her lessons, I am very careful to be an active listener, and make corrections. I often challenge her by introducing new ideas through a variety of topics then test her for comprehension. I have done a lot of Let’s Talk lessons with her as well as newspaper, vocabulary and idiom lessons which were challenging and she enjoyed them. I believe that our lessons, combined with our techniques has been very beneficial to her improvement, and as a result she has had almost perfect attendance since she joined. I have many high level students like her at my school, some that have been coming for 2 years or more, which proves that the system is working
Although I have had great success with high level normal and powerful students, the Man to Man lesson is where I have seen the greatest correlation between the students’ needs and the service we can provide. A private class allows me to fully customize the class to the student in a way that is not always possible in a group class. Private lessons allow me to really focus and hone-in on the students’ weakness and address it in full. I think that the private lesson has had a positive impact on my students’ progress. Furthermore, I have felt that private lessons allow me to build a strong connection with the student and get to know them on a personal level. This allows me to go beyond the typical role of coach/student to a role of friend providing friendly support. This also has had a positive effect on the student and in turn on my school.
The fact that most high level students are so unique in terms of their ability and desire to learn English makes it difficult for most schools to provide an effective learning environment for them. Smith’s is different. We are able to treat each student as the individual that they are, addressing each ones’ needs specifically. It is a very rewarding experience because I get the joy to watch students improve and remain happy with their choice to study at my school. And of course, if they are happy, they stay a student for a very long time which of course means money for me and my school. This is a win-win situation, one that I believe is totally possible for all Smith schools.
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