|

Readers speak up about the obstacles Japan faces in English education

Letters in response to the Jan. 6 Learning Curve column by Teru Clavel, “English fluency hopes rest on an education overhaul.” Letters have been edited for size.

Renew the licenses

I have been an ALT/AET [assistant language/English teacher] in Japan for 15 years having taught at the same school with successive teachers. Very few of them can actually speak conversational English.

If MEXT [education ministry] is serious (what a joke) about teaching conversational English then all teachers should be able to converse in English with natural English speakers who have no or very little grasp of Japanese.

It’s almost too late for the teachers already in the system, but all new English teacher graduates should face a very tough interview exam as part of their exams for full time employment. As for current English teachers, they could be given three to five years to become fluent in English and if they don’t, then their teaching licence is not renewed. Because we all know that Japan has a great system where teachers have to renew their licences.

Some of the current teachers have only a basic grasp of English grammar, and do a disservice to the students.

Being an AET/ALT in Japan who understands the system and all its failings, I’m caught between a rock and a hard place.

When will MEXT get serious about not only English but education in general?

Japan needs an education system where if the children haven’t learned what they are supposed to, then they repeat the year.

Grading of classes is also needed. Forcing all students to learn the same curriculum is, to put it bluntly, quite impossible and stupid. Have textbooks and classes that cater to the students’ level. The education system now has only two levels: those of the “normal” student and special-needs students.

The range of normal students is too great — from those who score 100 percent in a test to those that score single digits. These students should not be in the same classes. I have seen so-called normal students join the special-needs classes just to get away from the grind of “normal” classes, which don’t meet their needs or level. The special-needs classes don’t meet their needs either.

Nothing will change. This is Japan. I know that. But I feel a lot better for getting this all of my chest.

MATT ERICKSON

Kuromatsunai, Hokkaido

Feasible solutions

I am undertaking TESOL [Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages] for young learners on a distant-learning course at Aston University [Birmingham, England] and at the same time I have become an ALT, hired by the board of education in the city of Kunitachi last May.

In the city, I’m one of the first bilingual ALTs to be hired. As a Japanese who learned English as a foreign language like those students I teach, I wished to be one of the role models they can follow by implementing communicative, meaningful and pleasurable activities based on various storybooks as supplemental materials for the supplied textbook.

However, it’s been quite a challenging path to realize my goals because there isn’t sufficient time to discuss teaching with the homeroom teacher. For team-teaching, having regular meetings in order to reflect on what we have done and what we could do in the future is essential, but I have only a few brief meetings with teachers during the first and second semesters. I had a year-end meeting with staff of the board of education and suggested some crucial points to consider in order to improve the practices of both the ALT and the teachers.

There are constant and numerous teacher meetings at work. Therefore, the lack of time or excessive workload that homeroom teachers face can not make convincing excuses; that is, if our nation sees the necessity in taking part in a global society via acquiring English as the global language.

If not, all the effort and money spent for the reforms is just a joke, and the current situation in English classrooms must be informed accurately and addressed immediately by stakeholders including all taxpayers. We can’t afford idealism but realistic and feasible solutions for this issue.

Via more than 20 years of experience as a language teacher and a researcher in the TESOL field, my additional suggestion for radical reform of English education is a syllabus on top of suggestions that were made in the article, such as providing more resources.

In order to bridge the gap between English as a subject and as a means of communication, a Story-based approach should be implemented (Ellis and Brewster, 1991) with an extensive reading program.

CHIYUKI YANASE

Here we go again

Ms. Clavel’s article was well-written and well-sourced. She detailed nearly every single issue that faces language education in Japan. Unfortunately, such articles have also become an annual tradition.

Education is an easy topic for politicians to appeal to. After all, who doesn’t support improving the future of children? However, after eight years teaching in public schools here (and two more in eikaiwa [English conversation schools]) and having had discussions with those who’ve been here two decades or more, it is painfully obvious that this is nothing more than lip service.

When a goal is truly desired (postal privatization, the state secrets law, buyout offers for foreign labor to leave the country, the Olympic drive), legislation can move like greased lightning here. However, comprehensive reform of language education has not, nor will it ever, actually be a priority beyond a minor pet project of a government official here and there.

Entrenched habits contribute to an overall failure of the system: Profit-driven dispatch companies are solely interested in keeping lucrative deals with municipal and prefectural boards of education (meaning ever-declining salaries, to the point that the average monthly salary for a native teacher in a public school is ¥70,000-¥100,000 below that of their colleagues, despite a higher cost of living); boards of education lack the willingness (or funds) to deal with native teachers directly, and are hence more than willing to foist responsibility onto such companies; many teachers (both native and Japanese) lack the experience (or opportunity) to actually work together to integrate a cohesive elementary-junior high-senior high plan of action; and the educational philosophy provides absolutely no repercussions whatsoever for failure (a student who scores 100 on a test here is treated virtually the same as one who scores a 1, for many purposes).

I have remained here because despite all of the above, I have been fortunate to work with some truly wonderful teachers who have struggled mightily in the face of madness. It has often been discouraging, to the point of depression (I have seen far too many good English teachers, native speakers and Japanese, leave the profession in disgust and frustration). I do applaud The Japan Times for bringing such issues to the fore. However, until concrete, comprehensive action is taken, it seems that the deck chairs on the Titanic are simply being rearranged year after year.

WILL TAYLOR

Nagoya

Blame lower expectations

As deputy headteacher at the school referred to in the recent article on challenges facing educators in meeting the expectations of the new national English syllabus, I would like to thank your paper on discussing this very important issue facing Japan as we move into an increasingly globalized world.

We have found that our students from junior high schools all over the Tokyo region have been quite capable of facing the challenges of a rigorous curriculum, and suggest that sometimes lowered expectations can have a far greater influence in disappointing performance than the students’ actual capacity for learning the language.

Aim high and let your students show what they can achieve!

JAMES HARMAN

Kanto International Senior High School

Tokyo

  • Jeff Hurvitz

    Will Taylor’s account resonates with me. I fear these for-profit initiatives that really don’t care about teaching students English. Also, as he writes, there is no clear plan of action. One area where we differ slightly is accountability. Japanese students, in some ways are more accountable than American students, for example, the high school entrance exam is one area. The main issue is that students have no idea what is really required to pass this exam, it’s a complete mystery for most students. Further, it’s so off into the distance that there is no way to ensure that adaquate steps are taken to master concepts along the way. There really are very little entrance exam related checks for understanding. Will Taylor’s account, unlike the others that focus on how miserable the English skills are of JTEs, is a better explanation. After all, it’s the students that should be speaking, not the teachers. I know that’s a generalization, but in my experience, teachers here do 99% of the talking, and that’s right at the heart of the issue. Give the class back to the students, it’s way too teacher-centric!