Required English from third grade eyed

by Reiji Yoshida

Staff Writer

The education ministry is considering moving up the starting year of obligatory English-language education in elementary schools to the third grade from the current fifth grade by around 2020, government officials said Wednesday.

The move would force the government to considerably boost the number and quality of English teachers and native-language assistant teachers at more than 22,000 six-year elementary schools with 7.1 million children across the country.

During his daily press briefing, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said children should be given more English lessons and at an earlier age in elementary school.

“(The government) will consider concrete (education reforms), including moving up the starting year from the current fifth,” Suga said.

The education ministry came up with the idea in response to a government education panel’s call for developing human resources needed in this age of globalization. The idea was included in the panel’s policy recommendation report published in May.

Under the current system, a 45-minute English lesson is held once a week for fifth- and sixth-graders in elementary school.

Currently the emphasis is on getting children accustomed to the English language through simple verbal communication, such as singing songs and playing games, rather than teaching grammar and reading and writing skills.

The education ministry is now considering upgrading the lessons for fifth- and sixth-graders to full-fledged language classes, including written English, a ministry official told The Japan Times, noting these classes might take place three times a week.

Right now, about 10,000 native speakers are working as assistant language teachers (ALTs) at elementary, junior high and high schools across the country.

If the reform plan is formally adopted by the central education panel under the government, the education ministry would probably boost the number of ALTs, the official said.

Some experts, however, expressed concern over the government plan.

Goro Tajiri, a professor at Kansai University in Osaka, said teachers in elementary schools are in no way prepared for such a program.

“I don’t think (the plan) is a good idea. (Schools) are not ready at all,” said Tajiri, a noted expert on English education who often observes English lessons in elementary schools.

Tajiri said most teachers handling English lessons in elementary schools have not had specialized language-teaching training, and some end up teaching incorrect pronunciation and grammar.

With just seven years until 2020, there wouldn’t be enough time to retrain them or develop good English-teaching materials for them to use, Tajiri warned.

He said that to develop human resources that can help Japan in the age of globalization, what really counts and needs reforming is English education in high schools and universities, as elementary school teachers, after all, can only teach simple conversational phrases.

  • Steve Novosel

    “3) What are the main issues facing Japanese youth today?”

    I don’t think this has anything at all to do with English language education. 3rd graders, Phil.

    • kyushuphil

      Careful, Steve. Very careful.

      Too much of what passes for English ed in Japan today has become rote, mechanical, passive, robotic, humanly meaningless. Schools could reverse this if educators faced and stressed the human issues everyone faces.

      Even little kids are now targeted by the advertisers for the great American import, consumerism. Even little kids may bear the toxic consequences of that other great American import, nuke poisoning. Even little kids are human, and live in stresses, complications, expectations, and other aspects of the human.

      Or do you believe in teaching language trivialized away from all that’s human — as relentlessly does the status quo now?.

  • Ben Snyder

    Simple question: Why is an official government announcement published in May being reported in late October?

  • Toolonggone

    Narrowed curriculum, common core, test data-based evaluation, ambiguous instructional guidance, no pro-active teaching autonomy, insufficient structural hours, untrained teachers, under-qualified school intendants, and slow, inflexible ministry bureaucracy. These are the problems that Japanese public schools have for so many years. But none of these have ever been fixed. Most of them are not even mentioned in their in-house council meetings at all. Clock is ticking. And their heads are still stuck in the sand.

  • Max Erimo

    Fix the junior high school and high school English language curriculum.
    Train competant (Japanese) English teachers. Have (Japanese) English teachers spend time abroad.
    Have (Japanese) English teacher who can actually speak conversational English.
    Allow native English teachers to teach English classes without any Japanese teacher interference. Allow foreigners a fast track to become qualified English teachers and place them permanently in the education system.
    Just a few ideas from someone with twenty years experience beating his head against the wall of English language education in Japanese schools.

    • Keshu

      This can’t be said enough. Having an ALT is useless when the JTE doesn’t respect or listen.
      I say try and give more control to the ALTs. They want classes entirely in English but leave JTEs in charge who translate everything word for word and who often make mistakes (sometimes argue with the ALTs in front on students about spelling and such).

      About elementary school, bring in foreigners to teach and give them some grading power. Givegrades with a meaning! Currently event failing students with an average of 10% can graduate…as long as they show up for school. No wonder most people think kids these days are getting dumb. Society is changing, it’s time to wake up to the reality and get out of the traditional system that keeps failing.

    • Mark Garrett

      As you said, English teachers should be trained and hired as such and that is all they should do at the school. Teach English all day, every day. They should have their own room that they can dress up any way they like and they should make it fun for the kids.
      Forcing an unqualified Japanese teacher to do the job will never work. There are plenty of good English speakers out there that would jump at the opportunity but the vast majority of them don’t have traditional elementary education degrees, so under the current system they have no chance.

      Why do they need to develop materials? There are myriad choices already available. It’s just an excuse to delay the plan until it fades into the background again.

  • Ricky Kaminski

    Im all about this. Start them while they are still young, and still enjoy having a go at talking. Make it an elective in second or third year high schools to filter out those that have no interest in being part of the global system, travel… or foreign cultures. After all someone has to fill the factories and gasoline stands right? Unfortunately we have once again hit the ” No we cant ” generation of educators; the experts , who are basically unwilling to adapt and change, even if those changes would reap wonderful results. This is the battle we face in this wonderful but often frustrating country. Japans future is hinging on finding some courage to make some much needed changes, not only in education, but across the board. Imagine whats gunna happen if they dont? Gambare Nippon, the ex pat army has your back. Have a listen to what we are up against.

    ““I don’t think (the plan) is a good idea. (Schools) are not ready at all,” said Tajiri, a noted expert on English education who often observes English lessons in elementary schools.

    Tajiri said most teachers handling English lessons in elementary schools have not had specialized language-teaching training, and some end up teaching incorrect pronunciation and grammar.

    With just seven years until 2020, there wouldn’t be enough time to retrain them or develop good English-teaching materials for them to use, Tajiri warned.”

    Yeah mate, how could you possibly be ready in only 7 years??? that’s asking way too much. Ya knobs.

  • Chang Hong Lin

    >Tajiri
    said most teachers handling English lessons in elementary schools have
    not had specialized language-teaching training, and some end up teaching
    incorrect pronunciation and grammar.

    I think so too. Besides, I think merely giving those children classes
    without changing the environment in which they spend most of their time
    or at least the way they use a foreign language would be a useless
    attempt. Including me, many children in Taiwan are sent to cram school
    from an early age, but I don’t think it works well unless the child is
    motivated enough. Strange enough, those cram schools for kids cost far
    more than those for adults, even though they just teach kids to sing
    English songs and some elementary conversations.

    Maybe
    learning through gaming is a better policy haha. In the future, I
    believe those game designers can work out some video games which
    encourage children to learn foreign languages on their own(otherwise
    they can’t get points or make it to the next stage…etc).

  • joe_shiki

    A good plan, maybe.

    Six years from now kids will get a decent education in English, maybe. So, maybe when they graduate, in 10-15 years, their English will be good, and 20 years from now, Japan can catch up to where it should have been 10 years ago.

    No hurry though.

    • Mark Garrett

      This is not a plan.

      • joe_shiki

        Proposal then. Does it matter?

        Anyway, it is getting late for this kind of thing. This is where they should have been 10 years back. They ought to start sooner.

        Can they do it? I think so.

        It does not have to be perfect. It only has to be better than what they have now, which is nothing.

      • Mark Garrett

        See my response above for a proposal. Using words like “considering” and “eyeing” are not by accident. They’re to give the illusion of concern when the reality is that they really aren’t. Seven years to implement? Really?? C’mon. This could be implemented next school year if they really cared about it.

        This is the same song and dance they’ve been doing for at least a decade and by your own words they have nothing to show for it now. The good news is that there are myriad ways for individuals to learn on their own if parents take initiative. And I don’t mean juku and eikaiwa. The internet and TV can provide all the tools necessary to at least develop listening and reading skills. And if parents dedicate an hour or two a day of “English only” at home they can also cultivate some speaking ability too.

      • shakti

        I do not believe ordinary Japanese kids are willing to listen to English programmes when they are in Japan. The internet or TV may sound like humans, but they are not real human beings or kids who Japanese boys and girls can talk or play with. So they must be too boring.

        Kids will learn a foreign language when significant others are speaking to them. But the internet can never be significant somebody. They need true friends or teachers who speak English.

      • Mark Garrett

        Sorry but that’s hogwash. You must not have any kids. All a parent has to do is set a time every day when only English is spoken or heard. You would obviously be surprised at how quickly they learn when it’s their only option.

        “The internet or TV may sound like humans, but they are not real human beings or kids who Japanese boys and girls can talk or play with. So they must be too boring.”

        I chuckled at this.

  • pookie

    Ah, more tax money being wasted. Age is not the problem, plenty of kids have been going to Eikawa once a week, in small classes, since age 2, 3, 4, or 5 and sill can barely speak more than ‘This is a pen’ by junior high. Like someone here said, the parents and managers of these schools (and now the people proposing this) all think that by hearing ‘native pronunciation’ the students will magically be good at speaking. The kids need time to learn how to actually USE English to form their own sentences, they need to build the skills to learn English IN ENGLISH by high school. There is no reason that students should be learning grammar so complicated that they need 90% Japanese instruction after studying a language for 3 formal years of study. They should be studying ing English only by then, and discussing how to carry on basic conversations. Learning how to negotiate language barriers, etc.

  • Jamie Bakeridge

    Get rid of ALTs – it is an utter waste of money. Want better English proficiency in Japan – simply set University entrance spoken, written and comprehension requirements higher. The problem is not the teaching methods, it is the lack of incentive to learn.

    • Mark Garrett

      Nope. Completely wrong.
      While I agree that many ALTs currently are doing very little to help, making entrance requirements to universities higher will do very little to motivate elementary school kids to study English. And that is where you need to start if you really want to make improvements in English literacy.

      Start introducing children to it in Kindergarten by reading stories to them or singing songs. Then have daily classes beginning with the first year of elementary school. There’s still no need for anything too demanding. Perhaps writing the alphabet, but mostly hearing stories and watching videos. Things that kids enjoy.

      By the time they’re 9-10 years old they will already have listening, speaking, and reading skills, and will be ready for grammar and writing.
      Up until junior high school, whether the teacher is a native speaker or Japanese really isn’t that important because there shouldn’t be a lot of “teaching”. Proper pronunciation, learning idioms and collocations, etc. becomes more important in secondary school.