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No time for free reading? You can make it up at university

by Louise George Kittaka

Special To The Japan Times

I hope 2014 has started well for all our readers. Lifelines kicks off the Year of the Horse with an email from overseas reader Hannah, who has several questions about the Japanese education system:

How often do English teachers administer dictation to their students? And how useful is dictation in teaching students how to listen, transcribe, spell and comprehend English words?

Although I have observed a lot as a parent about the system here, I called on a number of experienced teachers, both Japanese and native English speakers, for their input. (Note that the opinions given here are those of individual teaching professionals and may not reflect the situation at all schools.)

Dictation seems to be a standard tool for English learners, from junior high through to university level. The Japanese teachers agreed it was useful for testing a student’s ability to process what they have heard and to see if they can make a fair attempt at writing it.

“Students might be fairly good at reading and copying words from their textbooks, but dictation forces them to rely on their ears to get the message,” explains high school teacher Nobuhiko.

The native English teachers were less enamored of the merits of dictation. Anita, who works as an ALT (assistant language teacher) at a public high school, thinks dictation is “rather old-fashioned” and that her time is better spent on interactive conversation games and exercises with her students. If they do have dictation in English class, it is with the regular teacher on the days Anita doesn’t come in.

Susan teaches a core English conversation class to freshmen in university and says dictation has its uses.

“For kids who aren’t confident about speaking up in class, dictation is a chance to test their listening ability in a non-threatening way,” she says. “My students are a passive group on the whole, so we do dictation a couple of times a week.”

Are elementary/junior high school children required to read books during class time and to read leisurely?

Not in English, unless perhaps they are in a special course for returnee students with exceptional skills. Currently, elementary school students study English from fifth grade, but it is mostly games and simple conversation. Reading and writing are introduced from junior high school.

“Regrettably, most of them don’t yet have the skills to enjoy reading for pleasure at this stage. Many are busy just keeping up with homework and their school clubs,” says junior high school teacher Akiko.

When it comes to reading in their native language, however, things are a little more hopeful. Many schools have a set time, daily or weekly, when the children are supposed to bring in a book of their choice and read silently. My seventh grader’s school has the kids read for 10 minutes three times a week during morning homeroom. Elementary schools often have a “reading week” during the term, when kids keep a log of all the books they’ve read and compete to see who can read the most.

The concept of free reading for pleasure during the equivalent of a language arts class doesn’t seem to exist here, however.

“The complexity of Japanese writing means that kids are so busy learning all the kanji characters that there is never time for all the other things we would like to offer,” says elementary school teacher Satoshi.

Incidentally, there is no such thing as dividing kids up into groups based on their reading ability in a Japanese elementary school classroom. Everyone reads stories from a government-approved textbook, which is standard for all the schools in the same area. It seems that kids who really love to read have to get their fix during lunchtime or after school.

Are the Japanese universities’ curriculum and graduation requirements just as rigorous as those of the U.S. or European universities?

The native English teachers were unanimous with their response to this — “No!”

While of course things vary by institution, in general it is safe to say that requirements are less stringent in Japan across the board. At the private university where Pat teaches, students can get away with skipping classes at will.

“If they don’t show up for the minimum number of classes, all they have to do is write an essay to say they are ‘sorry’ and they are allowed to pass. Crazy!” Texting or sleeping in class are common complaints from the native teachers, too.

Getting into university is the tough part, and many people say that the third and final year of high school is one of the most stressful periods in a Japanese person’s life, cramming for college entrance exams. Once you are safely admitted, however, the college years are typically seen as the last chance to kick back a little before the rigors of job searching and entering the workforce.

For more details in English, check out the informative Education in Japan website run by Aileen Kawagoe at www.educationinjapan.wordpress.com, and the related Yahoo group, groups.yahoo.com/neo/groups/edn-in-jpn/info.

Send comments and questions to: lifelines@japantimes.co.jp Kiwi Louise George Kittaka has been based in Japan since she was 20. In the ensuing years she has survived PTA duty for three kids in the Japanese education system and singing live on national TV for the NHK Nodo Jiman show, among other things.

  • kyushuphil

    For most, interest in reading begins with adults who model that interest first.

    If adults — especially teachers — often mention books they have read, kids will take note. If the adults have the skills rhetorically to connect to outside books in ways that nicely illuminate the lesson at hand, kids can that much better warm to how many, many books await with larger, more human perspectives for all.

    If teachers don’t feel free to connect to books they’ve read, they may suffer from the disease Natsume Sōseki traced in 個人 — his novel translated in English as “The Wayfarer.”

    In this, the character Ichiro has the crushing problem that he doesn’t know how to be human — only to be rationalist, yet even by abstractions and rationality never able to free himself from being swept along by prevailing traditions. He’s jealous of his wife, jealous of his brother — constantly stewing in suspicions of his own inadequacy to live himself more humanly, more freely.

    Check it out. Are most teachers free and skilled to make connections by a larger literacy they model, or are most being swept away in the conventionalities that reduce them — and thus reduce their students as well?

  • Jeff Hurvitz

    Dictation is a very factory-type approach to learning a language.

    • Ryan Huang

      Rote learning is another one too.