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Using Technology To Teach English In Japan by Paul Raine

by Paul Raine

Bio: Paul Raine (MA TEFL/TESL, University of Birmingham 2012) is an award-winning teacher, presenter, author, and developer.

His books include the best-selling 50 Ways to Teach with Technology and the innovative multi-path graded reader Journey to Mars. He has also developed his own website for teachers and learners of EFL ( He has published numerous research articles on the teaching and learning of English as a second language, and is particularly interested in Computer Assisted Language Learning (CALL). 
He currently teaches at two universities in the Tokyo area.

A nation of innovative technophiles or conservative technophobes?

Japan generally seeks to project a highly technologically advanced image on the international stage: bullet trains, capsule hotels, the giants of the video gaming industry, and electronic consumer goods for every conceivable need.

However, anyone who has visited Japan knows that there are two sides to the country: the innovative high-tech side, and the conservative traditionalist side. The latter seems to be especially prominent in the education sector.

The conservative Japanese education sector

As a case in point, when I was working as a dispatch agency teacher at a technology university in Kanagawa in 2008, the person in charge of infrastructure decided that it was a good idea to install blackboards in a brand new wing of the university. Not smartboards. Not whiteboards. Blackboards. As a reminder, blackboards are 19th century technology.

Another case in point. Anyone who has ever ridden on a train in Japan has almost certainly seen Japanese school children learning English vocabulary from books by holding a transparent piece of red plastic (shitajiki) over the page, which can be used to obscure or reveal text written in red ink, and facilitate rote-learning on-the-go.

The right tool for the right job

Now, you may be wondering exactly what is wrong with these techniques? What’s wrong with “chalk and talk”? What’s wrong with “drill and kill”?

There may well be nothing wrong with such traditional teaching and learning techniques used in moderation and in the appropriate circumstances.

And while I’m not going to go into a comprehensive literature review of the relative merits of the traditional versus the high-tech, the important point to be made here is to choose the right tool for the right job.

There are some things that tech-powered tools do better than traditional ones, and some things that can only be done with technology.

When is technology better?

Digital teaching and learning materials can be copied, edited, deleted, transmitted, backed-up, collaborated on, revised, commented on, duplicated, and converted into different formats much more efficiently and easily than traditional paper media.

Of course, some of these benefits also give rise to potential vulnerabilities and drawbacks, including issues of security, which many Japanese educational institutions are notoriously paranoid about.

But there are also many things that can only be done with the use of technology, most notably anything relating to audio or video.

The benefits of using video to teach English have been well documented, and where would the typical English teacher be without their trusty tape-deck / CD-player / MP3-player / audio streaming website?

Tech is the king of task automation

Then of course there is tracking student progress and grading student work.

“Yes! I get to grade fifty exam papers tonight!” said no English teacher ever.

Technology to the rescue. Multiple choice English tests can be easily administered and automatically graded online with Google Forms, and there are a vast plethora of Learner Management Systems (LMS) offering comprehensive solutions to the create, administer, submit, grade, feedback cycle that teachers love so much.

The chances are that your institution already has an LMS, although whether it actually gets used is a whole other matter.

Enabling the cutting edge

So far we have mainly discussed well-established uses of technology for language teaching and learning, but recent advances in Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Machine Learning (ML), have made a whole new range of cutting edge affordances possible.

Automatic Speech Recognition (ASR) systems have paved the way for online Computer Assisted Pronunciation Training (CAPT) solutions, such as EnglishCentral, and Text-To-Speech (TTS) has improved to the point where it is becoming impossible to distinguish computer generated voices from human ones.

Will advances in AI eventually result in ALTs being replaced by blue-eyed blonde-haired English speaking robots?


Some schools in Japan are already experimenting with such solutions.

But robots still find it hard to interact with and inspire English learners on a truly human level.

So until the arrival of the singularity, why not adopt more tech-based teaching practices in your classroom? Of course, you will be limited by your institution’s infrastructure and its (often infuriating) technology policies, but there are usually workarounds for such issues.

For more information about how to use technology for teaching English, check out my book.

You might also want to take a look at my list of over 185 English learning and teaching websites.

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