English: black and white and read all over

by Eriko Arita

“What does ‘abortion’ mean? It’s not a word we often find in textbooks, is it?” Hideharu Tajima, a teacher at Shakujii High School in Tokyo’s Nerima Ward, asked students in his English-language class.

During the lesson for third-graders, Tajima handed out copies of an article from an English-language newspaper about the increasing incidence of sexually transmitted diseases among Japanese young people and the lack of sex education in schools.

Reading the story aloud, Tajima questioned his students about the meaning of words appearing in the story, and asked them to select the most appropriate of several suggested headlines.

English-language education in Japan has long been criticized, not least for its failure to give students a working knowledge of the language. An increasing number of teachers, though, are seeking to rectify this by bringing newspapers into the classroom.

Tajima said that he gave his class the newspaper article on sexually transmitted diseases in an effort to to build on what they had learned in a textbook study unit on AIDS. Students are motivated when they find sentence patterns they have learned in textbooks used in real newspaper articles, he said.

Students tend to find newspaper stories more engaging than textbooks, even though the articles are often a demanding read, Tajima said. His students concurred. “It’s fun to learn the words being used in the real world — they’re often different from those in textbooks,” said student Yukari Yamada.

Not only the vocabulary, but also the subject matter of newspaper articles is up-to-the-minute. That’s why professors at Nagoya University of Foreign Studies are using an English-and-Japanese bilingual weekly as teaching material for an English-language conversation class for freshmen.

Debbie Coleman-George, a professor in the Department of British and American Studies, said that the teachers’ aim is to upgrade students’ English proficiency while also broadening their knowledge of current affairs.

Coleman-George’s class, for example, might use a story on SARS to introduce a broad range of health-related vocabulary. During the war in Iraq, students followed news stories for several weeks, then had discussions on such issues as the role of the United Nations.

Such progressive training, increasing vocabulary and introducing discussions, helps students improve their skill in both speaking and reading English, Coleman-George said.

At the School of Human Sciences at Waseda University, Norio Hozaki is taking an interactive approach to using news media in the classroom. His classes for freshmen aim to get students not only reading but also summarizing and explaining information.

During his lessons, Professor Hozaki reads aloud the headlines from that day’s paper, after which each student chooses a story that interests them. Students study their chosen article, then pair up and explain the content of the story to their partner. They also write a summary and a commentary on the story.

“When students are able to explain a story to others, you know that they really understood it,” Hozaki said.

He added that he encourages students not to look up words in dictionaries unless absolutely necessary. By exposing students to stories on a wide range of topics in which they will inevitably encounter unknown words, he hopes they will develop a readiness to guess the meaning of unfamiliar words and phrases. Student Chie Hosogane confirmed that she had developed the confidence “to read right through a news story to the end,” even when it contained words she didn’t understand.

Many educators agree that English teaching in Japan is badly in need of a change of style. The traditional focus has been on teaching grammar and vocabulary from textbooks, a technique that has been criticized for failing to hold students’ interest or give them a working grasp of the language.

Shigeru Matsumoto, a professor at Tokai University Research Institute of Education, and an instructor of development seminars for public-school English teachers, said most high-school teachers tend to stick to authorized textbooks and shy away from using authentic materials.

In a welcome trend, however, an increasing number of college-level instructors use newspapers in print and on the Web in their classes, said Matsumoto. Such advanced-level teachers believe English is also a tool for keeping up with current affairs.

Although some teachers contend that it is too difficult for high-school students to read newspapers in English, Tajima of Shakujii High School maintains that the principal requirement is that teachers carefully tailor their material to their students’ interests and ability levels.

To counter students’ anxieties, he recommends choosing articles in a format or on subjects with which the students are familiar, such as weather forecasts, TV programs and photo captions.

But before teachers can successfully introduce such material to the classroom, said Hozaki of Waseda University, they must themselves have an interest in the topics they present to their students.

“Unless teachers themselves are curious about the range of issues addressed by the media, it will be difficult for them to teach students using a newspaper,” he said.