Teachers face tests; strict regimen from fifth grade

English education set to get serious

by Atsushi Kodera and Masaaki Kameda

Staff Writers

Junior high school English teachers should conduct classes exclusively in English and be periodically tested on their skills in the language using a third-party proficiency test, and formal English instruction should start in the fifth grade of elementary school from 2020, according to a blueprint for education reform unveiled Friday.

As part of the plan for elementary to high school English education, more assistant language teachers also will be hired, education minister Hakubun Shimomura said.

“We want to raise the standards for English education at the junior high and high school levels by having teachers conduct classes in English in junior high school, and focusing on the presentation and debate aspects of English usage in high school,” he said.

The proposals are part of the “Execution Plan for the Reform of English Education in Response to Globalization,” the ministry’s blueprint for strengthening English-language education from elementary to high school.

Among other factors, the education ministry is hoping to take advantage of heightened interest in the language ahead of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics, which will draw large numbers of visitors to Japan.

“I think this is a welcome development,” said Takaaki Matsuoka, principal of Musashino Dai-Ichi Junior High School in western Tokyo. “I have the impression that we will finally be able to catch up with South Korea” in English education.

Matsuoka, who himself used to teach English, said English-language teachers at the junior high level have already grown somewhat accustomed to teaching in English thanks to working alongside assistant language teachers.

“In addition, classes are more focused on sound (verbal and listening), which should also help,” Matsuoka said.

The blueprint aims to set consistent achievement goals for each level of English education.

Under the blueprint, English teaching would start in the third grade of elementary school in “activities-style” classes conducted one or two times a week, mainly by homeroom teachers, with a focus on laying the foundation for communications skills.

In the fifth and sixth grades, more formal “classroom-style” instruction in three classes per week would focus on elementary communicative skills both by homeroom teachers and specialized English teachers.

The junior high school goal would be achieving the “ability to understand and exchange information on familiar topics, and express thoughts,” with classes “basically” taught in English.

This would be taken over by high school education that aims to bring students to levels at which they can “understand abstract concepts on a broad range of topics” and “converse with English speakers at a viable level of proficiency.”

  • Sho Takeda

    It is obvious that there are problems in English education in Japan; there is no teachers who can speak English even though they possibly can answer some grammatical questions, there is no chance for students to try to use their English practically.
    Maybe it is better to focus on verbal and listening ability rather than traditional all-grammar-education but it WAS obvious to do that. That fact is implying that Japanese government is not considering practical English education as that important.
    Its been said that Japanese traditional insularity is preventing us from making a difference. Now is the time to stop it and to change ourselves. I just hope Olympic can help us do that by showing our children broader, more various world.

    • Brock

      I am 61 now and still only speak one language. I studied French in school for 6 years and passed all my exams here in Canada, but never did learn to speak the language. We spend most of the time on verb conjugation and whether a table was la table or le table, etc…just a complete waste of time…6 months after graduating and while travelling around Europe at the age of 18, I could hardly communicate with anyone in France. More emphasis should have been on simply talking and listening as you say,and much less on grammer. People will not use a language if they are afraid they sound funny, or make some mistakes. Time spent talking even “broken English” is much more productive than spelling and grammer…initially…

      • kyushuphil

        Yes, indeed, Brock. Language is a human experience.

        Teachers in Japan, like teachers too often in other countries, also see language as just another impersonal experience, as most of the rest of school is, too. Not human, just robotic. Maybe a bit logical, but robots crave logic as much as those in the industrial girl pop groups all fake smiles for their robot choreography.

        When Japanese teachers teaching in Japanese begin to show enthusiasm for student writing — kids probing themselves, probing life, as vulnerable, imperfect individuals — don’t worry then about all the idiot grammar exercises aimed at robot priorities.

        But are the non-English-pretending teachers in Japan any more human than those with their English robot busyness as if that were human?

      • Mike Wyckoff

        I totally agree with you. I went through the same thing in Canada. Couldn’t speak a lick of it until I met a beautiful French girl that got me interested in the language. And THAT I think is why it is absolutely essential for students to fall in love with language as opposed to being bombarded with conjugation as is the case in Canada and will be in Japan…sadly

  • Ron NJ

    Never gonna happen or work as intended as long as they’re still teaching to the Center Test instead of teaching for actual proficiency. All this is doing is proving that the MOE still hasn’t a clue what is actually wrong with foreign language education.

  • Toolonggone

    Another pie-in-the-sky idea by clueless, whimsical MEXT. I wouldn’t be surprised at all. It’s predicable since they pulled off the implementation of primary school English in 2011. They already made English instruction as the key agenda for high school English. Everything came from 2003 Action Plan. Funny only a 1/3 of Japanese teachers of English at junior high school nationwide barely meet the minimum requirement in conventional exam (i.e., 730 in TOEIC test or 84 in TOEFL iBT). And the MEXT believes that will make teachers ready for English instruction and teaching debate and discussion in English. Japanese teachers are not given adequate time for workshop and training. Most of training programs in Japan last for 3-5 days. Even National Institute for Educational Policy Research offers their training that lasts no more than 10 days. That is just pathetic, compared to most TEFL certificate programs in English speaking countries or Europe. They have at least 4 weeks minimum for crash program, and 7-8 weeks for expedite, and 12-15 weeks for a semester-long. Even many teachers from notorious TFA (Teach For America) have 6 weeks of training (even though it is insufficient to teach instead of experienced teachers).

    MEXT’s long-term survey indicates that the presence of JET-ALTs does not make any difference in improving language and instructional skills for Japanese teachers all along. Wanna know what kind of people make decisions on curriculum policy

  • jr_hkkdo

    One other issue that is somewhat unique to Japan is that the Japanese language has 3 alphabets, or maybe 4…the 4th one being the kanji on-yomi pronunciation. Young children’s minds are very open and pliable to absorb much (subconscious) learning – more than adults surely – but they are not an infinite reservoir…and their minds are subject to overload at some point. It takes a Japanese student until about age 15 or so (based on my un-scientific survey) to be able to read a newspaper in Japan. It takes them that long to memorize all the kanji needed, including both the kun-yomi and on-yomi. That heavy learning load on young minds does create good memories, but the downside is that it may start to overload their minds when they also have to learn English from the same early age. Some will do it well, but most may struggle with the memorization overload added by having to learn English at the same time – just my opinion and I could be wrong. A long term solution may be to try to move away from the kanji, if it is practical, and use only hiragana and katagana; and add the English study. This solution could take at least a generation or longer to implement. More and more, I see the hiragana written in small font on top of the kangi. This is an (unstated) admission of the difficulty of learning the kanji on top of all the other information and knowledge imparted in a good curriculum.needed in the world of today.

  • WithMalice

    Really? You value having a Japanese English Teacher – proficient in teaching the mechanics but incapable of utilizing English as a communicative tool – over children having access to a native speaker?

    I get what you’re saying – but with imperfect choices, give me the person who can actually speak English every time.

  • WithMalice

    Well… depends what you mean by “teach” I guess.

  • WithMalice

    Until Japanese instructors are able to actually communicate using English (and not just teach it as a scholarly undertaking), then this is all really a moot point.

    Yes, I get that there are some who can speak, but there’s probably an equal number who cannot. At least effectively.

  • Toolonggone

    As you probably know, speaking and listening are different modes of communication from reading and writing. You don’t have to cram grammatical stuff in your brain before you speak out. It’s much easier for ELLs to pick up words and phrases by phonetic sounds and rhythm.

    Speaking of grammar, direct-translation method is simply not effective. It doesn’t help students to read essays without using a dictionary or write logical and coherent sentences in English at all. MEXT and BOEs should know better that rote-learning of grammatical stuff and vocabulary does not help students to understand the rhetoric and composition of English. Teachers should be able to teach grammar by incorporating tangible
    resources and materials into actual instructional practices–especially reading and writing.

  • WithMalice

    In a perfect situation – sure, that’s something to aim for.
    But what experiences have you had thus far with the MOE (and various BOEs) makes you think that this is in any way likely?

    If you HAVE had such experiences, then I envy you. It wasn’t until I worked in a private school did I see anything remotely resembling this.

  • James

    Agreed

  • theotherRJH

    So the Japanese are mandating English to be taught in schools to their students but forcing immigrants to learn English in the US is “racist”? Glad that’s cleared up.