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Introducing Discussion Skills to Lower-Level Students: Can It Be Done?

Robert W. Norris

1996. In Bulletin of Fukuoka Women's Junior College Vol. 51: 21-32


"You must be crazy!"

"How can you expect them to have discussions when they can't even answer simple questions?"

"I wouldn't get my hopes too high."

"Getting them to engage in pair work, information-gap, and task activities is one thing, but discussion...?"

"You're doomed to failure."


These are a few of the reactions I have received from colleagues whenever bringing up the topic of introducing discussion skills to lower-level students. Many teachers of conversation classes at Japanese colleges and universities see their classes as a game of survival in which getting students to speak English is similar to extracting teeth. On the surface, getting students to carry out discussions in English may seem an impossible task, but an understanding of the characteristics of Japanese communicative style, an awareness of current Communicative Language Teaching (CLT) research, and effective lesson planning can go a long way toward helping students make the transition from reticent bystanders to active participants in English discussions.

The first part of this paper looks at some key characteristics of Japanese communicative style that native speaker English teachers should be aware of in order to be more culturally sensitive and understanding of their students' classroom behavior. The second part summarizes the current state of CLT research. The emphasis is on the concern being voiced regarding the need for more focus on form within CLT curricula. Included is a discussion of the indirect and direct approaches to teaching conversational skills. The direct approach--with its elements of adding specific language input, increasing the role of consciousness raising1, and sequencing communicative tasks systematically--is seen as the more effective for dealing with Japanese learners and their particular communicative tendencies.

Based on the first two parts, the third part of this paper describes a step-by-step way of planning lessons that introduces discussion techniques to lower-level students and helps them go beyond single-sentence utterances to longer expressions of and reactions to opinions, thoughts, and feelings. The conclusion restates the importance and effectiveness of the premises outlined in this paper.

Characteristics of Japanese Communicative Style

There are many generalizations, often supported by empirical or anecdotal evidence, of the communicative style of Japanese learners of English. Among them are the need to keep a conversation "pleasant" by behaving smoothly and avoiding disagreement (Barnlund, 1984); the avoidance of talking about personal feelings or making direct statements (Loveday, 1982); the preference for conversations that stress intuitive understanding and mutuality of feeling in social interaction (Loveday, 1982); and the tendency to talk less than native speakers of English, or at least engage in less "small talk" (Hill, 1990). LoCastro (1987) notes the common use of various verbal and non-verbal backchanneling devices (called aizuchi) in native Japanese conversations, and reports that Japanese often feel uncomfortable when speaking English because they are unable to use the appropriate aizuchi.

In summarizing these and other generalizations, Ellis (1991: 116) says the following picture seems to emerge from the literature:

    In comparison to native speakers of English..., the Japanese:
  1. are less verbal, more inclined to use silence in intercultural interactions;
  2. are inclined to use more backchanneling devices;
  3. can be more direct in some situations, in particular those where a lower-status person is being addressed, and less direct in others;
  4. may lack the politeness strategies needed to successfully perform face-threatening speech acts such as invitations and requests;
  5. are less explicit in giving reasons for their verbal behavior;
  6. tend to be more formal
  7. tend to give recognition to status relationships between speakers rather than to the level of familiarity.
Ellis (1991) is also very clear in stressing that great care must be taken in arriving at generalizations, and that most of the empirical studies to date have made use of elicited rather than naturally-occurring data. Ellis (1991) adds that the above list is an incomplete picture and there are occasions when these general characteristics are not observed.

The one generalization of primary concern to teachers of conversation classes is that of the Japanese inclination toward silence. Many teachers seem to think that little can be done to help students overcome their reticence and come out of their shells. Anderson (1993: 102) blames this perception on western2 instructors' "failure to see beyond their own cultural bounds." Anderson (1993: 102) says the question is "not simply why Japanese do not talk in class, but rather in what situations do they talk and why?" It is the teacher's responsibility to know something about the cultural codes that determine the way Japanese interact.

Anderson (1993) identifies four key characteristics of Japanese communicative style that differ from those prevalent in the West and are related to classroom behavior:

  1. group-mindedness
  2. consensual decision-making
  3. formalized speechmaking
  4. listener responsibility
Group-mindedness is the concept that the group takes priority over the individual. The identity of individuals in Japan derives from the groups to which they belong. Expressions such as "harmony," "mutual dependence," and "social relativism" are often used to describe this phenomenon.

Group-mindedness is developed in early childhood. According to Clancy (1990), studies in child socialization have found that Japanese mothers are more likely than their western counterparts to train their children to be sensitive to the needs and desires of others, but also to fear their criticism and disapproval. Ito (1980) points out that familial approval is dependent upon a more general social approval, upon children's behaving in a manner that will uphold the family's good name. Ito (1980) says that Japanese mothers often threaten a misbehaving child with the ridicule of other people. This strategy locates the source of disappointment and constraint outside the mother and into society at large.

Schools probably play a greater role than parents in cultivating group-mindedness. Anderson (1993) says that from the pre-school years through the elementary school years activities stressing teamwork are central to each child's education. Cooperative tasks are also a feature of classroom lessons.

Consensual decision-making is closely related to group-mindedness. One example of consensual decision-making is the tendency of Japanese students, when called upon individually to give an answer, to consult in Japanese with neighboring students about the response. Native speaker teachers often find this tendency very irritating.

Another example of consensual decision-making can be seen in the phenomenon of nemawashi, or the laying of the groundwork for obtaining objectives. In order to achieve the desired results from a meeting, Japanese group leaders often meet privately with those who will be attending the meeting and talk with them about their opinions in order to be able to be sure of what responses will be made at the meeting. Mizutani (1981: 72) explains:

    ...the talk at the meeting is formalized; one can say that it all goes according to the predictions of [the group leader] or, rather, that of the [group leader] and almost all of the other participants. The function of the meeting is simply to confirm each other's intentions and wishes through putting into words what is already understood.
Formalized speechmaking contrasts with the western expression of original ideas both in public and private interaction. In Japan many formal and informal events include speeches that are marked by honorific language and formulaic phrases. Anderson (1993: 106) cites the work of Merry White (1987) in explaining how this characteristic also has its roots in early education:
    Merry White..., an educational anthropologist with expertise on Japan observes that while to a westerner this emphasis on public performance from early in the children's school life may appear to be an encouragement of individual thought, the fact that it is ritualized and predictable removes the children from responsibility for their own pronouncements. While the young pupils may later go on to recite their own work, White notes that a personal response is not offered until after they have acquired confidence in their skills as performers. In contrast to the West, ritualized performance in Japan appears to be prerequisite to personal expression.
Listener responsibility is also important for westerners in understanding cross-cultural interaction. In western cultures it is usually considered the speaker's responsibility to make sure a message has been stated clearly. In Japan, the main responsibility for interpreting a message is often said to be that of the listener, who often may be too embarrassed about not having understood what was said to request clarification. Anderson (1993) says this embarrassment plays a major role in the reticence of Japanese students in foreign language classes.

In addition to the four key characteristics of Japanese communicative style listed by Anderson (1993), Mizutani (1981) notes two more that are important for westerners to understand: (1) the Japanese attitude toward persuasion and debate and (2) the low expectation Japanese have for words.

Mizutani (1981) says that the average Japanese speaker feels a strong antipathy toward using words to convince others of some matter and cause them to act in accordance with the speaker's will. The speaker can usually accept the necessity for persuasion in certain limited instances, but in general the experience is unpleasant and distasteful. This aversion toward persuasion and debate can also be seen in the nemawashi phenomenon mentioned earlier.

Mizutani (1981) believes that in Japan there is a strong attitude of consideration toward others and concern about what they are thinking. This is indicated by the existence of a special system of honorifics and respect language. Mizutani (1981) cites the Japanese equivalents of such sayings as "It should be understood without putting it into words" and "It's something that can't be understood even if put into words" as showing the philosophy underlying the low expectation Japanese have for spoken language.

Communicative Language Teaching in Japan

The teaching of conversation classes in Japanese colleges and universities in recent years has leaned more and more toward a CLT approach. This seems to reflect the popularity of CLT worldwide as an alternative to the traditional grammar-based and audio-lingual methods of the past.

The CLT approach, however, is not without its critics. Some are concerned about the grammatical, sociolinguistic, and discourse competences3 of learners, and whether, in focusing solely on meaning, teachers have forsaken all concern for form. These concerns are the basis of the Proficiency Movement (Higgs & Clifford, 1982; Omaggio, 1986).

Others--including such supporters of CLT as Celce-Murcia (1991), Ellis (1993), and Long and Crookes (1992)--stress the need to reexamine the issue of form-focused instruction in classrooms where the main focus is on building communicative skills. This need for reexamining the content of CLT classes has particular relevance for Japanese college and university students whose English language education has been dominated by teacher-centered classes, passive learning strategies, and traditional methods and materials (Hyland, 1994).

Conversation classes that use the CLT approach at the college and university level demand that these students jump into activities that require spontaneous communication for which they may not be prepared linguistically, sociolinguistically, or even culturally (Ellis, 1991). Teachers are often unsure what topics or activities to use. The classes tend to be characterized by a random selection of general communicative activities such as information-gap, tasks, pair work, etc. (Dornyei & Thurrell, 1994).

The result is often that the students may come to see English as something more meaningful and enjoyable than their previous exposure had shown them, but without the familiar formulas and guidelines to follow and rely on they become lost and unsure of themselves. The English they produce is often ungrammatical, as well as sociolinguistically and culturally incorrect or inappropriate (Ellis, 1991). Students need to be introduced to discussion and conversational skills in a transitional period that involves a focus on form within a communicative approach.

What exactly is the best approach to take in introducing discussion and conversational skills? Currently in the field of CLT there are two major approaches: the indirect approach and the direct approach. The indirect approach, according to Richards (1990: 76), sees conversational competence as "the product of engaging learners in conversation interaction" such as situational role plays, problem-solving tasks, and information-gap exercises. The indirect approach was the main course of CLT in the 1980s and, according to Williams (1995: 12), was characterized by the following features:

  1. emphasis on using authentic language, including rich, varied, and unpredictable input
  2. emphasis on tasks that encourage the negotiation of meaning between students, and between students and teacher, presumably with the goal of making input comprehensible to participants
  3. emphasis on successful communication, especially that which involves risk-taking
  4. minimal focus on form, including: (a) lack of emphasis on error correction--if it does occur, it is likely to be meaning focused--and (b) little explicit instruction on language rules
  5. emphasis on learner autonomy and choice of language, topic, etc.
One of the hazards of this type of teaching is that the learners in these programs, despite their improvement in language development, fail even to come close to native speaker standards of accuracy, particularly in second language morphology and syntax (Harley & Swain, 1994; Swain, 1985).

The second major approach, i.e., the direct approach, "involves planning a conversation program around the specific microskills, strategies, and processes that are involved in fluent conversation" (Richards, 1990: 77). Dornyei and Thurrell (1994: 41) say the direct approach "handles conversation more systematically...and aims at fostering the students' awareness of conversational rules, strategies to use, and pitfalls to avoid, as well as increasing their sensitivity to the underlying process."

Dornyei and Thurrell's (1994) interpretation of the direct approach is based on an explicit conceptualization of what conversational skills and subskills involve. Dornyei and Thurrell (1994) provide a list of conversational rules and structures, conversational strategies, functions and meanings in conversation, and social and cultural contexts to serve as a menu for teachers as they design a syllabus for their classes. According to Dornyei and Thurrell (1994), the direct approach is not in opposition with the indirect approach, but rather an extension and further development of CLT methodology. In addition to the main activities used in the indirect approach to CLT classrooms, the direct approach adds to CLT more conscious elements such as (a) including specific language input, (b) increasing the role of consciousness raising, and (c) sequencing communicative tasks systematically.

This type of teaching is well suited to the type of learning background most Japanese students bring with them to college and university conversation classrooms.

A Systematic Approach

By taking into consideration both the empirical evidence supporting the existence of several Japanese communicative style characteristics and the suitability of the more systematic direct approach to CLT, we now have a solid background for providing strategies to deal with the problem of how to introduce English discussion and conversational skills to Japanese learners at the college and university level.

One key strategy is what Anderson (1993: 108) calls "blending in." By identifying the contexts in which Japanese feel the most comfortable talking, and how language is used in those settings, the teacher can simulate those situations in the classroom. Anderson (1993) recommends pair and group work with tightly controlled tasks as being effective. Group members should be assigned specific roles such as "leader," "secretary," and "spokesperson." The leader coordinates the discussion, the secretary records group decisions, and the spokesperson reports back to the class. Because each member is representing the group, there is little individual risk involved.

Anderson (1993) also recommends using games that combine inter-group competition with intra-group cooperation. Another strategy for making the transition from the formalized speechmaking that Japanese students have been reared on to the more spontaneous expression that marks western discussion is to have students refer to pre-prepared scripts when discussing an assigned topic4. After a few changes of partners, the scripts are put away and the students have to rely on memory and imagination.

In my own conversation classes with first- and second-year women's junior college students I have devised a systematic approach to introducing discussion skills that involves four stages: (1) initial practice of grammatical patterns commonly found in the expression of opinions, agreement, and disagreement; (2) introduction of expressions that signal turn-taking and show the speaker is finished for moment (also demonstration of how this contrasts with the Japanese aizuchi characteristic); (3) short, cued dialogues that recycle (1) and (2) and involve the students in simple exchanges of opinion, agreement, and disagreement; and (4) longer, cued dialogues that recycle (1), (2), and (3) and lead students toward weighing both sides of a topic and learning simple ways of compromising.

In the first stage I usually concentrate on using activities that have the students practice comparisons, present tense usage, and conditionals. Comparisons, or the use of the comparative and superlative forms of adjectives, are frequently found in initial expressions of opinion. They are extremely important for students to have mastered as they form the basis of topics to be discussed.

The present tense, as it is used to describe facts and routines, is useful in giving reasons to support opinions. The same can be said for practice of the simple past and the present perfect tenses. Conditionals, particularly the first conditional describing future possibility and the second conditional describing present hypothetical situations, can be used for giving reasons for one's opinions and pointing out weaknesses in another's opinions and reasons. The first conditional is also useful in making compromises.

The second stage is designed to give the students a basic awareness of the differences in the rhythm of discussion in Japanese and English, as well as to introduce new vocabulary connected with such discussion functions as stating opinions, agreeing, disagreeing, and turn-taking. The main point here is to impart to the students that although English contains such aizuchi equivalents as "I see," "Is that so?" "Really?" etc., they are not used as frequently as their Japanese counterparts. Overusage of these expressions can lead to misunderstandings and impressions of rudeness.

The third stage of using short, cued dialogues seeks to take advantage of the Japanese penchant for formulaic speechmaking and patterns of interaction. This stage follows Littlewood's (1981) suggestions for increasing students' sense of performing in a meaningful social context (as opposed to responding to teacher prompts) after first having learned to link language forms with (a) communicative functions and (b) specific functional meanings that correspond to aspects of nonlinguistic reality.

Littlewood (1981: 12) says that an initial step in this direction is "to free the activity from dependence on the teacher or tape, so that learners begin to interact as equal partners in an exchange, rather than merely reacting to stimuli." For example, after an initial period when the students learn to express simple opinions and agree or disagree with those opinions under the teacher's control, they are put into pairs to interact with each other. One student has a list of items to express an opinion about, while the other simply agrees or disagrees. They are not required to discuss the topic in detail or to compromise. This type of practice is then extended to having the first student express an opinion, the second asks why, the first gives a reason, and the second agrees or disagrees.

The fourth stage carries the third stage further and provides the students with a task to complete: i.e., compromising on a plan, listing preferences, ranking items, etc. By providing students with a goal or task to achieve, the exchange now has a beginning and an end and "becomes a coherent dialogue in a recognizable setting" (Littlewood, 1981: 13).

The fourth stage, while still being cued and providing the students with a formulaic method of interaction, allows the students more independence, flexibility, and creativity. Littlewood (1985) says that at this stage students will be moving from the initial learning of new language to the point where they are starting to integrate it into their repertoire and using it in more independent forms of interaction.

An important part of this stage is to expand the paired interactions into small group discussions. Hirose and Kobayashi (1991) suggest incorporating the three basic principles of Cooperative Learning: (1) positive interdependence, (2) individual accountability, and (3) collaborative skills related to small group interaction. Hirose and Kobayashi (1991: 63) say that for positive interdependence to occur in a group the learners must "perceive that they sink or swim together." This can be done by utilizing Anderson's (1993) suggestion of assigning roles to each of the group's members.

Individual accountability means that each member is responsible for her own learning. According to Hirose and Kobayashi (1991), this requires the teacher's frequent monitoring of the group members' participation and progress on a given task. One way to do this is to have each member of the group sign a summary sheet that explains the group's opinions and reasons. The teacher can ask any member to explain the group's position. If she is unable, the other members can help. This encourages all members to help one another.

Hirose and Kobayashi (1991) claim that collaborative learning requires that learners develop social skills and use them effectively for collaboration. These skills include encouraging others, requesting clarification, and pursuading others. Time can be taken in each class to introduce and practice expressions for such functions as greeting, encouraging, and thanking, as well as those relevant to the discussion (e.g., clarification, confirmation, disagreement, compromise, etc.). Learners are then encouraged to use those expressions in the discussion themselves.


This paper has proposed that discussion skills can be introduced to Japanese learners of English even at a lower level of proficiency, but it must be done with an organized and systematic approach. Initial planning should include an understanding of Japanese communicative style and an awareness of current CLT research, particularly how the direct approach to teaching conversational skills is more suited to the Japanese learner.

Implementation of classroom activities can be carried out in four stages that start with a review of grammatical patterns commonly used in discussions, proceed to linking those forms to discussion functions, then to having students perform initially in shorter, cued interactions and later in longer, cued interactions that allow for more independence and creativity. During the later stages students are encouraged to incorporate the basic principles of cooperative group learning.

The overall goal here should not be seen as an attempt to turn students into performing monkeys capable of engaging in debates about difficult topics beyond their level of proficiency, but rather to introduce students to the mechanics and rhythm of English discussion and to pave the way for a smoother transition to higher levels of proficiency in the future. A second paper will follow with detailed lesson plans and activities that are effective in achieving this goal.


1. Consciousness-raising refers to drawing the learner's attention to grammatical features by giving descriptions that are tailored to specific learning situations. The descriptions may be brief or highly structured and are used as aids to learning, not the object of learning. Consciousness-raising does not require the learner to verbalize the rules she has learned. It is seen as a facilitator of language learning.

2. Usage of the words "western" and "West" is not meant to imply any ethnocentric point of view. The words are used to indicate countries where English is the native language--e.g., New Zealand, Canada, Australia, England, and the United States.

3. In Canale and Swain's (1980) model of communicative competence there are four components of the knowledge system: (1) grammatical competence, (2) sociolinguistic competence, (3) discourse competence, and (4) strategic competence. Grammatical competence refers to knowledge of the language code (i.e., the features and rules of language including vocabulary, word-formation, sentence-formation, pronunciation, and spelling). Sociolinguistic competence refers to knowledge of the rules for using language in different sociolinguistic contexts; it includes both knowledge of what is appropriate in meaning and what is appropriate in form. Discourse competence refers to knowledge of the rules involved in the understanding and production of continuous text, spoken and written; it is achieved through mastery of the devices required for cohesion (i.e., the way utterances are structurally linked) and coherence (i.e., the way utterances are functionally related). Strategic competence refers to knowledge of the verbal and non-verbal strategies such as paraphrase and ostensive reference that are required to deal with communication breakdown or to enhance communicative effectiveness.

4. The topics that are assigned should be within the realm of the students' interests and vocabulary level. Lower-level students are more capable of expressing simple opinions about music, sports, food, and entertainment than they are of conducting detailed discussions about politics, science, and religion.


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Copyright (c) 1996, 1998-2010 Robert W. Norris. All Rights Reserved