The introduction of English in elementary school classrooms to help improve fluency in later years is bringing to light a problem that has dogged Japanese educators for years — how to provide continuity in teaching the language so that students can graduate from university with a conversant level.
Although English is not a formal subject at public elementary schools, the Central Council for Education will decide by the end of March whether to make it one.
At the same time, the council is looking at how to build a comprehensive language program that would follow students from grade school through university.
A rise in the number of elementary schools dabbling in English lessons has underscored the particular need for public elementary and junior high schools to cooperate in forming an integrated program that provides students with some continuity when they move from grade six to junior high school.
According to the Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Ministry, 88 percent of the nation’s 22,526 public elementary schools had English activities in fiscal 2003.
Since April, Shigeyo Ota, a veteran English teacher at Narita Junior High School in Narita, Chiba Prefecture, has been visiting Nakago Elementary School in the city every Thursday to help teach several of the 20-minute English classes the students take four times a week.
“I wasn’t that familiar with the kind of (English) programs elementary schools were offering,” Ota admitted. “But because we are now trying to hammer out a new curriculum that will provide integrated English education (for elementary and junior high school students), it’s important to know.”
In these classes, a Philippine assistant language teacher teaches English songs, games and simple conversation based on a program designed by the city’s board of education.
Ota and the homeroom teachers help by demonstrating conversations and occasionally explaining in Japanese what the assistant language teacher says.
Educators are particularly keen on an English program encompassing both elementary and junior high schools.
In April 2003, Narita Junior High and Narita Elementary School began work on creating an integrated nine-year English curriculum.
“Academic guidelines are changing to provide programs that enable students to acquire necessary skills and knowledge,” an education ministry official said. “Integrating curricula, including that of English education, from elementary schools to junior high schools to high schools to universities is one of our challenges.”
When the students who studied English at elementary schools enter Narita Junior High, there is some progression in their course work, and they seem to enjoy the classes as they begin to better understand English conversation.
“In elementary school, I was speaking English without fully understanding” the words, said Yuma Yamazaki, a first-year student at the school. “But now I’ve learned how to use a dictionary and can look words up.”
At Narita Junior High, the English course for first-year students includes rephrasing textbook conversations and using the English they learned at elementary school to form their own conversations, said Eiko Suzuki, another English teacher at the school.
She added that the junior high also plans to have the first-year students interview foreign visitors at Naritasan Shinshoji Temple in the city, a project similar to one many of the students did in elementary school.
But some students who once enjoyed studying English begin to lose interest as the lessons in reading, writing and grammar become more challenging, said teachers at Narita Junior High.
Elementary schools focus on speaking and listening skills, but junior high schools are required to teach writing and grammar so students can pass high school entrance exams.
And even for those who work hard, there is another roadblock.
First-year student Ayami Kurashige said there are few opportunities for her to speak English outside of school.
Teachers at the junior high say they are concerned about students’ fluency levels because, while students often only get the chance to speak English at school, the upper grades allocate little time for conversation in class.
To keep students interested in English, the school has taken advantage of its status as a state-designated research and development school to improve its curriculum.
Beginning in April, it altered its curriculum to increase the number of English classes to four times a week from three. In addition, students were divided into three groups based on their English abilities.
“This enables us to provide more opportunities for students at advanced levels to speak English, while allowing others to devote more time to writing and grammar,” Ota said. “We want to create an environment in which students can continue to enjoy studying English.”
But some experts predict a rocky road ahead in trying to create a seamless English program spanning elementary and junior high schools.
Ken Kanatani, a professor of English education at Tokyo Gakugei University, noted that public schools have yet to create an English curriculum that successfully provides continuity from junior high to high schools, despite 40 years of trying to achieve this.
Junior high and high school teachers do not make sufficient efforts to teach in a progressive way so students can build on their existing knowledge, Kanatani added.
The key will be whether schools can construct syllabuses in ways that enable students to develop their skills consistently, he said.
He added that even if a coherent curriculum is introduced, the number of competent speakers will not rise significantly unless junior high school classes are increased from the current three a week.
“We can’t expect much improvement (in English education) as long as the number of classes is so limited,” he said. “I think this is one reason why few Japanese acquire a good command of English.”
Kensaku Yoshida, a professor of English at Sophia University, would like to see more focus on the junior high and high school connection.
He believes high school and university entrance exams obstruct the creation of an English curriculum that links junior high and high school learning.
“If a curriculum from elementary to junior high school can be created, it would also provide more incentive to review current English education programs at the junior high and high school levels,” he said.