Japan: Education: Elementary schools getting ready for English

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at gmail.com
Sat Jan 17 15:59:15 UTC 2009

Weekly Report/ Education: Elementary schools getting ready for English

English, for the first time, will soon be part of the nation's public
elementary school compulsory curriculum. Beginning in 2011, one
English class a week will be compulsory for fifth- and sixth-graders,
according to a revision to Ministry of Education curriculum
guidelines.  Officially regarded as foreign language "activity" rather
than as foreign language instruction, the classes will be taught not
by language specialists but by homeroom teachers.

Schools in some Tokyo districts are well ahead of the Ministry of
Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology. On their own
initiative or at the behest of municipal governments, they have
already introduced English language instruction, in some cases as
early as first grade. Schools in other areas will have to start from
scratch.  Shinjuku Ward is especially proactive in this regard. Each
of its 29 schools has on staff an assistant language teacher (ALT), a
native English speaker who does most of the talking in class though it
is the homeroom teacher who draws up the lessons. Since 2000,
elementary schools in the ward have been experimenting with English
instruction. A measure of their success is the fact that the education
ministry studied the resulting programs closely through the 2007 and
2008 academic years while drawing up the revision.

One day in early December in the "World Room" at Shinjuku Ward's
Totsuka Daiichi Elementary School, Asif Azam, an ALT from England,
leads a sixth-grade class through alphabet songs and card games
involving English words. The homeroom teacher presides. Children
having difficulty can get extra help from back-up teacher Yumiko
Manabe, the third member of the teaching team. Her salary is paid by
the ward office.

Shinjuku Ward education policy calls for 15 English classes a year in
the lower grades of elementary school, 25 classes in the middle
grades, and 35 in the upper grades. The younger children pick up
natural English pronunciation and rhythms through songs and games;
older children focus on actual communication. In each class is an ALT
and a teacher paid by the ward office--but the homeroom teacher is in

The homeroom teacher strives to create an atmosphere in which the
children will speak English as a matter of course. For example, at
Totsuka Daiichi Elementary School, a homeroom teacher brought in
college students from a university in the ward as well as foreign
students studying Japanese, then had the sixth-grade class show them
around the school grounds. The idea was to have the kids
spontaneously, in a true-to-life situation, use phrases they had
learned in class.

"By coming into contact with a foreign language, the children
naturally become more aware of their own language," says Totsuka
Daiichi principal Yasunobu Shimoda. "They become more aware of
language in general. Learning English and improving your Japanese go
hand in hand." At the other end of the spectrum from Shinjuku is
Hachioji. The western Tokyo municipality has 70 elementary schools
but, owing to budget problems, very few ALTs and comparatively little
English instruction. "We're just starting now to prepare for English
becoming compulsory in elementary schools," says Wataru Sugiura,
principal of Hachioji Daisan Elementary School.

Strengthening links with local junior high schools is one strategy for
jump-starting the process. Most of the Hachioji Daisan Elementary
graduates move on to nearby Dairoku Junior High, whose English
teachers since September have been visiting Daisan Elementary to teach
English to its sixth-graders on a trial basis. On each visit the
teacher is accompanied by five or six junior high school student
volunteers acting as assistants.

On the day of the first lesson, the roughly 90 sixth-graders are
divided into two classes. They play games and exchange simple
greetings. "Put the textbook under the chair," says the teacher in
English. Other instructions follow. The children at first seem
embarrassed, but when the lesson is over they laughingly call out in
unison, "Thank you!" "Getting lessons from teachers at the junior high
school most of the kids will be going to is stimulating not only for
the kids but for the teachers, too," Sugiura says. "Even after English
lessons become compulsory I hope elementary and junior high schools
can keep on working together."

In view of the change making English mandatory at the elementary
school level, the municipal school board, which until recently had
pretty much left matters up to individual schools, began talking about
how best to support foreign-language classroom activities. From the
2009 school year the board intends to have ALTs teaching fifth- and
sixth-graders 10 classes a year at all 70 Hachioji schools.

Easing confusion: Why it't a good idea to make English mandatory

It's compulsory and yet there are no textbooks; it's English and yet
the teachers will not necessarily know the language. Many parents are
uneasy and confused about revised Education Ministry curriculum
guidelines making English instruction mandatory in grades five and six
of elementary school. We asked the ministry's curriculum specialist
Masataka Kan about the new policy's background and purposes:

Broadly speaking, there are three reasons for making English
compulsory in elementary school. First, with each school setting its
own agenda, the content and number of class hours has come to vary
widely from school to school. We want to correct that and set minimum

Secondly, children in the upper grades of elementary school are at
just the right age to grow properly attuned to English sounds and
English expressions. If we want to instill in them a positive
attitude, a real desire to speak the language, that is the best time.

Thirdly, learning English will improve students' all-around linguistic
skills, their ability to communicate. A central pillar of the new
curriculum guidelines is fostering language skills. English language
instruction is part of that. If schools do no more than teach
elementary school children junior high school English material a year
or two early--or, alternatively, if they focus exclusively on the fun
aspect of it--they won't be meeting the standards set in the

For example, there is a tendency for children in the upper grades of
elementary school to talk only to a limited circle of friends. But
with English-language activities they'll have to talk to classmates
they ordinarily don't talk to. I'm hoping teachers will think of this
as a way of using English to teach word skills and communication

The point is not that if you start teaching English in elementary
school the kids will necessarily be able to speak English. It's also
not true that teachers who can't speak English themselves can't teach
it. I would ask parents to duly take that into consideration.

Teachers who learn English as they teach it have a chance to show
students what learning is all about. The teacher becomes a model
learner. There is potential here to change the way lessons have been
structured up to now. Junior high school teachers, too, facing
students who have gone through English activities in elementary
school, will have to ask themselves whether what they've been teaching
to date--mainly grammar and oral translation--is adequate. In that
sense, English instruction in elementary school can help change the
way English is taught in junior and senior high school.(IHT/Asahi:
January 17,2009)


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