Japan experiments with Super English Schools

by Eriko Arita

Principal Katsutoshi Wakabayashi gives a speech in English through the school’s public address system at Gunma Prefectural Chuo High School every Wednesday morning, and all notices around the school are now in English.

The intention is to expose the students to as much English as possible.

“By turning the entire school into an English environment, students have the maximum opportunity to use the language,” Wakabayashi said. “This is what they need to learn a foreign language.”

The school has held a symposium involving professionals who use the language in their daily work to motivate students to study. The immersion was introduced when the government designated the school as one of its Super English Language High Schools.

The Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Ministry named 18 Super English Language High Schools (SELHi) in April. They have been assigned to develop effective English teaching methods and curricula within three years, free from the ministry-set regular courses.

The 18 were selected from more than 50 candidate schools based on English education plans submitted by each institution. The schools have been granted a total of 81 million yen for fiscal 2002 to work on their projects, according to the ministry.

Their plans vary, but include teaching subjects such as science and math in English, utilizing the Internet and collaborating with sister schools abroad.

The SELHi project has been a focus of attention from those in the field of education, who want to know whether the selected “super” schools can find a way to improve Japan’s English education, which has been criticized for failing to produce English speakers.

Wakabayashi said the 3.5 million yen allocated to his school for the SELHi project this fiscal year is not much, but the designation has encouraged teachers to seek more effective approaches.

“I have long hoped that students can enjoy learning English and gain motivation to study the language,” Wakabayashi said. “We want to realize that through this project.”

Chuo High School will be reorganized into a six-year secondary education school in 2004, when it is integrated with a junior high. The new school plans to instruct students in basic English for the first three years, arming them with the ability to pursue other subjects in the language in the following three years, the principal said.

Shibuya Kyoiku Gakuen Makuhari Senior High School, in the city of Chiba, another SELHi school, will use multimedia and push students to learn English by studying various topics in the language.

Tomio Uchida, an English teacher at the private high school, explained that in lessons, students research topics such as mad cow disease in one class and then discuss the theme in the following lesson in English. They use the Internet to carry out research and the school is linked to a high-speed fiber-optic communication system.

“By utilizing the Internet, students can read as much information as possible in English,” Uchida said.

After three weeks of discussions and research on the topic, students write essays and submit them to teachers from an English-speaking country.

“Japanese teachers, native English teachers and the multimedia system work together to create an effective learning environment,” Uchida said.

At Mejiro Gakuen Senior High School in Tokyo’s Shinjuku Ward, English has been taught in English except grammar lesson since 1995. As a SELHi designate, the school will teach other subjects in the language.

In a recent “Speaking Out” class, second-year students played out various roles.

“Excuse me, may I help you?” one asked.

“We’re looking for dresses,” a girl replied.

“What color would you like?”

“I want a black one, please.”

The theme was shopping. The students wrote the dialogue and acted out their roles in front of the class.

“The idea is to give people a chance to use English in a natural way rather than repeating sentences,” said Mark Linnane, the teacher.

Hiroshige Sudo, vice principal of the private girls’ school, said classes are divided into two groups of up to 17 students for English lessons.

To give students the opportunity to pick up English through firsthand experience, the school also arranges overseas study programs, including a course for second-year students in which they can stay at the homes of students of a girls’ high school in Britain for two weeks, Sudo said.

The ministry earlier this month said it plans to raise the number of SELHi schools to 100 in three years.

“We believe the project is significant because the programs to be developed at SELHi will be put to use at other schools,” said Yuji Niiyama, a senior specialist of the ministry’s International Education Division.

Going to head of the class

Tetsuo Tamura, the principal of Shibuya Kyoiku Gakuen Makuhari Senior High School, emphasized the importance of enhancing the English skills of talented students.

“It is unrealistic to believe that everyone can become fluent in English immediately,” Tamura said. “But if a limited number of students attains proficiency in the language first, this will have a ripple effect on the rest.”

But Takeshi Kudo, vice chairman of the Japan High School Teachers and Staff Union, said the project is only likely to produce a small elite and cause inequality in secondary education.

“I think the government should first establish classes of up to 30 students (in public schools) and provide more thorough teaching in smaller classes,” Kudo said.

In tandem with the plan to increase the number of special schools, the ministry plans to address a number of problems in the way English is now taught in Japan.

In the plans, released July 12 and titled “Strategy to bring up Japanese who can use English,” the ministry said it will provide intensive training programs for all 60,000 English teachers at junior high and high schools nationwide from 2003.

Under targets set by the ministry, all English teachers are to have a proficiency in the language equal to pre-first-grade of the STEP test, a TOEFL score of 550 or a TOEIC level of 730.

Some teachers have relatively poor English abilities at present, said professor Shigeru Matsumoto of Tokai University’s Research Institute of Education, and many rarely use English in daily life.

Matsumoto, a lecturer in training seminars conducted by the National Center for Teacher’s Development, said many teachers are not qualified to teach the language, judging from what he has heard during participants’ debates in English in the annual three-week seminars.

“Although they manage to teach English in Japanese, I feel many of them are not able to teach it in English when I see the performances of about half of the teachers (who attend the seminars,)” Matsumoto said, adding that such training opportunities should be increased.

Niiyama said the ministry and local governments have jointly hosted training programs for teachers at universities abroad since 1979.

Niiyama said 15 teachers take the one-year program, while 87 are involved in a half-year program this year. Because half of the costs are covered by municipalities at a time when local governments are facing financial strains, the number of teachers taking advantage of the programs is not increasing.

In addition to training teachers, making use of assistant language teachers from English-speaking countries is crucial to improving students’ language skills, experts say.

At present, about 8,400 assistant language teachers work at junior high and high schools, the majority of them participants in the Japan Exchange and Teaching Program, which is supported by the government.

Under the ministry’s strategy, their number will be increased to 11,500 in the near future, giving each junior high and high school class a lesson with an assistant language teacher at least once a week.

The ministry stated it intends to promote the use of teachers from English-speaking countries by hiring 1,000 foreigners as regular teachers, not as assistants.

The ministry plans to boost listening comprehension and speaking ability. Thus, listening tests will be incorporated into the National Center Test for University Entrance Examination.

Catering to exams

Last year, the Foreign Language Research Institute at Gunma Prefectural Women’s University compiled proposals on improving English skills that included urging a review of the practice of having entrance exams based on reading and writing ability, and a call for candidates to undergo interviews to gauge their ability to communicate in the language.

Ichiro Minekawa, vice director of the institute, said more exam reforms are needed, although the current tests are a major improvement on previous ones.

“We are certain that face-to-face interviews should be incorporated into entrance exams,” Minekawa said. “But in reality, it is still difficult to interview all 20,000 students (who apply to high schools in the prefecture each year).”

The ministry-designated regular course of study has gradually increased its emphasis on practical English, including the introduction of “oral communications” as a new subject in the high school curriculum in 1994.

In reality, however, many schools still teach grammar during the oral communications hour, to help students prepare for college entrance exams, said Wakabayashi of Chuo High School.

Meanwhile, many believe students cannot progress significantly as English speakers unless they are skilled in their mother tongue.

As a result, the strategy also calls for Japanese-language abilities to be improved. This recognition is the first time the ministry has emphasized Japanese comprehension and communication ability as the foundation of English competency.

Matsumoto of Tokai University said critical thinking skills should also be incorporated into both English and Japanese education.

“It is not just that they are shy, but Japanese students cannot ask questions in a discussion because they are not trained to think on their feet,” Matsumoto said. “In addition to understanding what is being discussed, people should learn to analyze issues critically.”

Matsumoto said debates help nurture English communication skills, because students must listen to their opponents, understand their opinions and think how to counter them.