Encouraging Oral Communication in the EFL Classroom

Gregory Hadley, Keiwa College


In many EFL classrooms across Japan, teachers begin the year by stressing the importance of class participation.  To strengthen the point, a large number will tell their students part of their grade will be based on their participation in class.  But, how can participation be quantitatively measured?  I have developed a simple technique for measuring and encouraging class participation that I have used for almost two years with excellent results.

Problems with Some Approaches


Often teachers will give points to the students they observe participating by writing it secretly in their notes.  A problem with this is that we as teachers unconsciously focus our attention on the high-achieving students.  Other students who might be participating  remain unnoticed.  Another problem is that students rarely know how they are evaluated until the end of the term.  In other words, their participation is not reinforced in any visible way until the class is over. 

A Different Approach


What I have done is to turn my participation points into a form of classroom hard currency, which the students cash in at the end of each class for participation points.  This year I use poker chips (before I used cardboard coupons), with white chips being worth one point, blue chips two points and red three points.  It really does not matter what one chooses to represent the actual participation points.  For example, one teacher that I taught this technique to plans to use a form of play currency.

Getting the Idea Across


In the beginning of the school year, I pass out a syllabus written both in Japanese and English explaining the participation system.  The students learn they will receive credit in class for speaking English in the classroom language tasks.  There is a limit of four points a day possible per student.  This keeps the more enthusiastic students from dominating the class.  I explain that the two and three point chips are reserved for more challenging questions or tasks.  If a student nominally participates in class activities, she will get at least one or two points per class.  If they choose to give their opinions to the whole class at the end of group discussions, they will get more points.  At the end of each class, the students bring the chips they have received.  I convert them into participation points for that day in my class roll book.  I consider three points per session acceptable participation.  At the end of the term I tally the points per student and give them their participation score, which comes to about 30% of their total grade.  

Putting it into Practice


I use many task-based group and pairwork activities in my classes to supplement the textbook.  I encourage my students to speak as much English as possible during the activities.  I assure them that I am not looking for grammatically-perfect English, but English which expresses their intentions and ideas. 

During classroom activities I filter through the room, giving chips to those who are speaking English.  Even with large classes this takes only a few minutes.  Whenever a student asks me a question in English, he receives participation points.  Students who answer any of my questions in English also receive participation points.  Even if the answer is wrong, I'll congratulate the student for trying, and give her a point.  I do this to encourage students to not worry about mistakes.  Those who do the activities in Japanese or are not participating at all do not receive any points, but I encourage them to try harder.  At the end of each class, students see concretely if they had participated that day in class.  Those who did not participate would see the other students getting rewarded for their hard work.  Usually, students who did not participate began to try harder and spoke more English after only a few class sessions.



Before I started this technique, I could count on only a few highly-motivated students to actively participate in class.  Group or all-class discussions usually were met with nervous or reserved silence.  Now my classes are much more active.  Students immediately throw themselves into the class activities.  If I ask a question, scores of students raise their hands to volunteer an answer.  Some students try to do other tasks in English even when it is not required.    



I administered a survey in Japanese to students at Keiwa College in Niigata Prefecture, to get their impressions of this technique after one year.


Survey Results

169 Surveys Tabulated:  58% Male 42% Female

I think that giving participation points is a good idea.





Using this system made me feel less stressful.





This system made the class fun, like a game.





I felt I had more chances to speak English through this system.





I'm making more effort to speak English because of this participation system.





Thanks to this participation system, I want to speak English more now than before I started this class







What I find significant is that 83% surveyed believe in constant reinforcement for participation.  Not only that, 78% felt they had more chances to speak English, and 75% of the those surveyed were making more effort to speak English.  More than half felt less stressful and wanted to speak more English as a result!



Some have commented how this procedure "is so behavioralistic".  However, all I can say is that it works.  It works not only for my classes, but other teachers who are trying this technique report a positive response from their students as well.  I've seen from experience how this technique makes participation count in Japanese EFL classes.