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April 2024 - Year 26 - Issue 2

ISSN 1755-9715

Using Themes to Increase Language Learning Interest in a Casual Environment

Pak Man Au is a Canadian currently working in Japan as an Assistant Professor at Ehime University. His primary interests are teaching intercultural awareness, business English, and geography. Email:



The author of this study teaches at a national university in Japan. At this university, freshmen (first-year university) students take mandatory English courses in the four skills of speaking, listening, reading, and writing. These English courses are meant to reinforce what Japanese students had already learned from their mandatory English lessons during secondary school. However, it should be noted that in Japan, “English is a core subject for entrance exams and those exams have never required an oral element”(O’Halloran,2019,p.110). Thus, although students theoretically studied the aforementioned four skills in secondary school, greater emphasis was actually placed on reading, writing, and to a lesser extent listening, to the detriment of speaking.

However, at the university level, more emphasis is generally placed on delivering a balance so that all four skills are taught in an equal fashion. At the author’s university, students learn a specific English focused skill within each of the four quarters of the freshmen academic year. These courses generally follow a set curriculum but supplementary materials can also be used by professors during classes, depending on student English proficiency levels and/or interest.                

In addition to the mandatory English credit courses, optional weekly English conversation sessions (henceforth, these will be referred to as “sessions”) for interested students are provided by some professors as a supplement to regular classes.


English Conversation Sessions

Students have the opportunity to practice speaking English with native English speakers over the course of an academic year. In these sessions, students can sign up to have casual English conversations without the formalities of a regular university English class.

Whereas more formal methods are used in English classes throughout Japanese universities, Thornbury and Slade (2006, p.20) note “partly because of its spontaneous and interactive nature, and partly because of its interpersonal function, conversation is characterized by an informal style” which “contrasts with the style of more formal spoken genres, such as speeches and recorded announcements” (Thornbury and Slade, 2006,p.20). In this informal environment, students can experience learning about the local English terms and culture of the professor on a casual basis, which is often absent in a mandatory class that follows a curriculum.



Schedule and Participants

The author was assigned a total of 10 sessions from the first semester of April 2023 to July 2023. Each session was 45 minutes long and had a maximum of 6 students participating. Most of the students were either freshmen or sophomores (second-year university students). The sessions ran once per week for 10 weeks throughout the semester. The program was strictly voluntary and no course credits were obtained by participation. The idea was to be a casual forum for students to engage with each other using English only. With students coming from different faculties, it was a good opportunity for them to engage with others with a wide variety of interests and backgrounds. Anonymous Likert scale surveys were provided to students who had attended the author’s sessions towards the end of the semester. 

Choosing Themes

With a plethora of conversation topics to choose from, it was up to the author to determine what students might enjoy conversing about to practice their English conversation skills, especially with a native speaker of the language. Sessions were aimed at being a student-centered activity, with the professor guiding and assisting the students as deemed necessary. 

Due to extensive global travel experiences, the author of this article used “Travel” as the overarching theme, with subtopics spread out over the 10 sessions. From prior experience teaching at other universities, the author of this study recognized that travel was a popular topic amongst Japanese university students and might be a field whereby engagement would be higher, especially for practicing conversations about it in another language.

Session Activities

The author guided each session and did not participate much unless student participation stalled or they did not know what to say next. However, since all of the participating students were there on their own volition, eagerness to participate was hardly an issue, despite some initial hesitancy which is common when joining a new group setting.

Aside from the usual self-introductions, the author started off each session with general comments and personal experiences about the topic. Students were encouraged to give comments or ask follow-up questions at first to break the ice, so to speak. Following this, students would each take turns discussing the daily theme and were encouraged to discuss the topic amongst themselves, with the author only participating, if necessary, as previously noted.

For example, during one of the sessions, the author told the students about his experiences traveling within Japan. Students were advised to freely participate by asking the author open-ended questions, rather than “Yes/No” questions, to expand the conversation amongst the group. Therefore, students would ask the author “Wh-” and “How” questions to gain a greater grasp of the author’s travel experiences. Naturally, most of the students were hesitant to be the first one to ask, but after further encouragement from the author, students came out of their shell, so to speak, and the conversations became less impeded.

Rather than purely a Question and Answer (Q&A) session, the author involved the other students as well about their time in certain destinations to have more viewpoints and opinions shared within the group. As often the case when it comes to travel conversations, the usual suspects, including sightseeing, food, shopping, recommendations, and modes of transport were discussed.

As each session was only 45 minutes, the author made sure not to spend too much time on one topic, to allow individual students to have an opportunity to share their own different travel experiences with the group. Students, especially those that came regularly, were able to practice using the skills they learned from their regular English university classes, in a more informal and relaxed atmosphere.



At the end of the 10-week session, a final survey using a five-point Likert scale, created by the author, was done by the students who had participated in the author’s sessions to evaluate their overall experiences and what they had gained from their attendance. This survey was done anonymously, and informed consent was received from the students prior to its distribution.

Table 1. Survey Statements

Survey Statements

  1. I often attended the English conversation sessions during the 10-week period.

  2. I only chose a session because of the topic.

  3. Because of the topic, it influenced how much I participated.

  4. This theme increased my interest in English.

  5. Using a theme is easier than free talk for English conversation practice.

  6. I feel more confident in talking about this theme in English only, compared to other themes.

Table 1 shows the 6 statements listed on the survey. For each of the statements, students circled the corresponding number that best described how they felt about that statement, from a scale of 1 to 5, whereby 1 = Strongly Disagree, 2 = Agree, 3 = Neutral, 4 = Agree, and 5 = Strongly Agree.


Survey Results

The results of the surveys were collected to determine if the theme chosen by the author had any significant impact on student engagement in the conversation practice session. Generally, the 5-point Likert scale survey asked students to determine how relevant the session themes were to their enrolment in that session and whether the theme had any impact on their ability to communicate that day.

Although the sample size was relatively small, considering that the sessions were usually only attended by students interested in practicing English conversation, the overall student sample size, out of the entire undergraduate student population was already very miniscule to begin with. Therefore, for this study, the survey results were beneficial for the author.

Data were represented in bar charts to accurately display student responses from the survey. The results from each of the 6 statements will be described. Five anonymous surveys were completed at the end of the 10-week session. Most of these surveys were completed by students who had attended the author’s sessions regularly. 

Firstly, when students were asked about general attendance at the weekly sessions, four of the five students noted that they attended on a regular basis. 4 students marked either “Strongly Agree” or “Agree” while only one student marked “Disagree”. It would be safe to say that most of these students were already highly interested in practicing English conversation.


Figure 1: Survey Statement #1

Secondly, the statement asked whether the theme was the sole reason why the student chose that session, or if it did not matter at all. Based upon the six responses, one student marked “Disagree”, two students marked “Neutral”, one student marked “Agree”, and one student marked “Strongly Agree”.


Figure 2: Survey Statement #2

Thirdly, students had to answer whether the topic itself influenced their participation level. Based on the results, the responses were evenly divided, with one response for each of the five categories. 


Figure 3: Survey Statement #3

Fourthly, students answered whether the theme itself increased their interest in English. Of the results, all students agreed, with four students marking “Strongly Agree” to signify their interest increasing because of the sessions.


Figure 4: Survey Statement #4

Fifthly, students were asked if using a theme was easier than free talk for English conversation practice. For this statement, the majority, or three students, marked “Agree”, while the other two students marked “Neutral” and “Disagree”.


Figure 5: Survey Statement #5

Finally, students were asked in the sixth statement whether they felt more confident talking about this theme in English only, versus other themes. For this statement, the majority, or three students, marked “Neutral”. The other two students marked “Agree” and “Disagree”.


Figure 6: Survey Statement #6


6. Discussion 

Of the relatively small sample size, many of the students attended a significant portion of the author’s 10 sessions. Whether this was purely based on the theme, time availability, or the author leading the session is out of the scope of this study, but as the focus on this study was about whether using themes only increased language interest, they will be discussed.

As noted from the second survey statement, less than half of the survey respondents mentioned that the reason they chose a session was because of the theme itself. This could be for other reasons, as mentioned in the previous paragraph. Students might have only wanted to practice English conversation at any available opportunity, regardless of the theme.

The results of the third survey statement were evenly divided so it would be difficult to make an assessment based on the results. Only some of the respondents noted that the topic influenced their amount of participation during the session. Those students might have wanted a chance to talk about different things in English and the theme itself may have been of no consequence when it came to communicating in English.

All of the students agreed that the theme increased their interest in English, with the majority strongly agreeing. It could be said that prior to joining the author’s sessions, the students considered all English topics to be similarly interesting, but when they had a chance to talk about their personal experiences in relation to the theme, they were more eager to participate by sharing their own stories. As noted previously, by talking about a specific place, emotions can be conjured up and although they might struggle to find the right words, they are excited to be involved in the group discussion.

While a theme may increase interest in English, a couple of students noted that using a theme in and of itself was not necessarily helpful to practice English conversation. This may depend on the student’s English ability. In other words, students with stronger English abilities would be more open to free talk situations whereas those with relatively lower levels may opt for a theme to assist them as a theme could provide support. Indirect approaches such as free talk are more “favorable toward stronger students”(Farrington,1981,p.241). In other words, higher level students would not feel encumbered by using themes only and would most likely feel more comfortable changing to completely topics within a session.

Most students noted that the “Travel” theme did not determine how confident they were in speaking in English on an overall basis. Again, students with higher levels of English ability might want the opportunity to talk about different topics, including travel, but at the same time, are also comfortable practicing English conversation on other topics as well.



While Japanese university freshmen students can learn the four basic English skills of speaking, listening, reading, and writing in their required English courses, they can also practice English conversation with a native English speaking professor at the university where the author teaches at.

Although it is common for similar English conversation practice sessions around Japan to consist of free conversation on any topic that comes to mind, the results of this study show that using themes can be useful, particularly for students who need a background theme to assist them during discussions. Students with higher English abilities were more likely to state that themes were not the reason they joined the author’s sessions. However, using a theme can certainly increase students’ interest in a specific area more than they had initially thought.



Farrington, O. (1981) “The Conversation Class.” ELT Journal.45,241-243.

O’Halloran, J. (2019) MEXT Guidelines for teaching English through English: A study of teachers` beliefs and practices, The Bulletin of Okayama University of Science. 55(B,109-117.

Thornbury, S. & Slade, D. (2006) Conversation: from Description to Pedagogy. Cambridge University Press.


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