Offering English language education in an entertaining, communicative way sounds just fine. In theory.

So does having foreign language classes aimed at broadening interest in other cultures.

Elementary school teachers from across the country receive a lesson in English-teaching methods at a branch of the Shane English School chain in Tokyo’s Yotsuya district.

But Kyoko Fukuoka, a public elementary school teacher in Hyogo Prefecture, had one simple question after learning that an Education Ministry panel earlier this year recommended English education at elementary schools:

“How can it be done?”

Fukuoka has been teaching for 10 years.

“I myself do not speak much English,” she said. “Neither have I received any training in English teaching.

“I will be at a loss as to how to conduct class if I am told to teach English to my pupils. I’m worried.”

Most Japanese students start studying English at age 13, when they enter junior high school. By the time they graduate high school, they will have endured six years of English classes.

But the course load has not produced many English speakers.

The Education Ministry will introduce a new curriculum in April in an effort to improve foreign language education.

Under the new framework, public elementary schools will be able to teach English during “comprehensive studies” classes that can be organized at the discretion of individual schools.

The ministry previously conducted a pilot project toward this end between 1992 and 1999, under which 65 elementary schools conducted English classes for three years. The project was successful in nurturing children’s attitudes toward communicating in English and in making them accustomed to English sounds, according to the National Institute for Educational Policy Research.

Based on the project’s results, the ministry recommended that primary English education be provided to familiarize pupils with the language through music, games and other engaging methods.

Like Fukuoka, however, many elementary school teachers are in the dark regarding English language teaching techniques, and are struggling to prepare for the start of the curriculum, which is only 10 months away.

Teaching the teachers

Some teachers have started to attend English schools in an effort to absorb relevant teaching skills, as well as to brush up their own English.

A once-a-month special program offered by the Shane English School chain in Tokyo on methods of teaching English to children has been fully booked since the school jointly started the project with the New English Education Development Society, a business group, 18 months ago.

Since autumn, participants in the free-of-charge weekend program have become more serious about acquiring teaching skills, according to Yukari Yamanoi, public relations manager of Saxoncourt (Japan) Ltd., which operates the Shane English School chain. Often, program participants come in search of advice regarding the selection of teaching materials and the creation of a yearlong class plan, Yamanoi said.

Some come from as far away as Fukui Prefecture.

“A female music teacher in her late 50s came, saying she is responsible for her school’s English program. She seemed to be at a loss,” Yamanoi said.

Ironically, most elementary school teachers themselves grew up in Japan’s embattled English education system.

“I was not good at English when I was in high school and still have little confidence in my English ability,” said Tomoko Suzuki, 32, after a Saturday class at Shane.

She currently teaches at an elementary school in Kawasaki.

“But I hope to tell my students the joy of making more friends and knowing other cultures through learning foreign languages,” she said.

“The trouble is the method. That is why I am here.”

In Gifu Prefecture, the extension program on methods of teaching English to children offered at Chubu Gakuin University has attracted considerable attention.

The program, initially held in January through February, proved so popular that the college opened the weekend course to about 50 people again this month, according to Chubu Gakuin Research and Development Center.

“The number of participants and inquiries was far beyond our expectations last time, so we have decided to hold the class again,” said Isoji Iwahara, the program’s coordinator.

The JET program’s role

One key to holding successful English classes at elementary schools is having teachers capable of organizing classes in cooperation with assistant teachers from English-speaking countries, he said.

Indeed, the Education Ministry’s pilot project illustrated the important role played by assistant language teachers in the classes.

The government has no immediate plans, however, to expand the Japan Exchange and Teaching Program, under which 6,000 ALTs are currently working mainly at junior high and high schools, according to the Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Ministry.

“We would like to increase the number of ALTs,” said Yuji Niiyama, senior specialist on education for international understanding at the ministry’s International Education Division.

“But there are several obstacles to expanding the (JET) program, including financial matters, and it would be difficult to raise the number of ALTs soon.”

In an effort to support elementary school teachers, the ministry plans to publish a handbook on English classes and to provide 600 teachers with training opportunities this year, Niiyama said.

But he admitted this figure is far from adequate, given that there are around 24,000 elementary schools across the country.

“I realize 600 is not sufficient right now, but we have just started the project,” Niiyama said, adding that the ministry will expand the support scheme for elementary school teachers if necessary.

In addition, the ministry plans to send 1,000 part-time teachers to municipal-run elementary schools to help introduce English lessons.

Local people who have a good command of English can apply to be part-time instructors even if they don’t have an elementary school teaching certificate, according to Niiyama.

Getting the timing right

The debate over how and when children should begin studying foreign language continues.

The ministry has been cautious about launching a full-fledged program such as compulsory English study in elementary school.

Some experts, however, have voiced concern over the ministry’s half-measure approach.

Kaichi Ito, a former professor at Tokyo Gakugei University and an expert in foreign language education, said that if English continues to be taught on a noncompulsory basis at elementary schools, it will be difficult to produce qualified teachers.

“Without putting English on the mandatory curriculum, we cannot have official teacher training courses in universities,” said Ito, who chairs an academic group on English education at elementary schools.

Ito believes that if English were taught effectively in elementary schools and there were a system for training teachers, it would be so successful that children would be able to engage in simple English conversation before entering junior high school.

Kanji Watanabe, chief researcher at the National Institute for Educational Policy Research, said, however, that Japan should be careful not to repeat the failures of high school English education by putting the language on the mandatory elementary school curriculum and providing pupils with textbook-oriented classes.

“We should remember that the start of English language classes at elementary school is meaningful because it will nurture children’s attitudes and ability to communicate with other people in any language,” Watanabe said.

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