Poor English skills and coordination with visiting English speakers are just two of the problems worrying elementary school teachers as the government’s two-year transition period to inaugurate weekly classes in the language begins next month.

“I know just enough English to understand what the foreign teaching assistants are saying, but some older teachers have no idea and they’re worried,” said a 29-year-old female teacher based at a public elementary school in Sumiyoshi Ward, Osaka, who wished to remain anonymous. English classes have been running inconsistently for sixth-graders at her school for four years, she added.

The new classes, officially titled Foreign Language Activities but more commonly referred to as English activities, officially kick off in April 2011 for fifth- and sixth-graders, or 10- to 12-year-olds, requiring schools to run 35 periods a year.

English teaching first began in elementary schools in 2002, but only as a component of “international understanding” sessions sometimes held during integrated study periods, which are now being reduced as the government’s “yutori” (relaxed) education policy reverses course.

Since 2002, about 97 percent of public elementary schools have introduced English classes, with 82.9 percent of them starting in the first grade, according to a survey by the education ministry. But in reality, the frequency varies greatly, and the national average for sixth-graders stands at only 13.5 hours, according to Tatsuya Kitaoka, a ministry spokesman.

The government hopes the new classes at elementary schools take the burden off junior high schools, by introducing speaking and listening earlier than reading and writing, according to Kitaoka.

“Research shows that it is difficult for children to develop all four skills at the same time, and that it is good to start basic oral communication at a younger age,” he said.

Thailand made English compulsory in elementary school in 1996, South Korea in 1997 and China in 2005, thus Japan felt it needed to get with the program, Kitaoka said.

The government aims to introduce the classes with a new style, with teachers putting more emphasis on experience-based understanding, instead of focusing too much on detail or rote learning.

But many teachers at public elementary schools do not appear ready. Critics also say the voluntary nature of the curriculum worries teachers without adequate skills or training.

According to a report by the Japan Institute of Lifelong Learning, many teachers at public elementary schools expressed concerns about instruction methods, with 77 percent saying they needed to improve their language and English teaching skills, while 76.6 percent said they need more training.

Although some 60 percent of municipalities run teacher training for English, according to a survey by publisher Obunsha Co., what is offered varies in frequency and content.

For example, Shinjuku Ward in Tokyo offered six compulsory sessions for one teacher from each school this school year and intensive summer training that 15 to 30 teachers attended, a Shinjuku board of education spokesman said.

Although the program included teaching methods and lesson planning, it did not give specific training to improve teachers’ English skills, he said.

“I cannot comment on how the sessions are being received, but I am aware that anxious voices” have been raised about the new classes, he added.

To provide teaching materials and support during classes, the education ministry created Eigo Note (English notebooks) and will distribute them to schools in April. Aimed at fifth- and sixth-graders, the books cover speaking and listening to basic English through games and exercises, and are dominated by pictures with instructions in Japanese and minimal written English.

Businesses step up with learning tools to cash in on new language needs

The commercial market is cashing in on the burst of interest in elementary school English.

The Jido Eiken test, an English proficiency examination for children run by The Society for Testing English Proficiency, which offers the popular Eiken examinations, saw a 500 percent explosion in elementary school-age participants from 2002 to 2007, a report by the group said.

Notably, the lower grades recorded the most dramatic rise, with registrations of 7-year-olds increasing by two-thirds to over 14,000, and 8- and 9-year-olds each increasing by about 50 percent.

“In recent years, the greater increase in the number of entries is shifting to younger age ranges,” said Takashi Konishi, a spokesman for the company. “Perhaps it’s that the parents are not good at English themselves and want to make their children speak well from an early age, or maybe they think English is necessary in today’s society.”

If tests are not appealing to children, Nintendo DS software aimed at elementary school-age English learners is available from IE Institute Co., a maker of education-related software.

Hideo Kageyama’s repetitive read-aloud DS English, which went on sale in December, was devised by the eponymous learning specialist, a former elementary school teacher known for his mantra of learning through repetition.

“As we approach the transition period of officially providing English lessons at elementary schools, more and more schools are starting English classes. We wanted to release the software now and see the reaction and improve it,” said Atsuo Kido, a spokesman for IE Institute. The game, which is intended for fifth- and sixth-graders but “can be used by all grades as well as by teachers and parents,” Kido said, incorporates reading and writing practice as well as speaking and listening, using fairy tales such as “Three Little Pigs” and “The Wolf and the Seven Young Kids.”

“We chose stories that would be familiar to children,” Kido said. “Although they’re in English, the pictures and story lines are already known to them so practice will be easier.”

The software focuses on repetition, vocabulary and writing, in contrast to the oral communication and cultural understanding aspects that are emphasized by the education ministry.

“The concept of the game is for elementary school pupils to secure the foundations of English learning before they go on to junior high school,” Kido said, adding it is intended to support the teaching of English at schools. (M.K.)

Education ministry officials say these books are not meant to be textbooks and teachers are welcome to use any other resources. But Emiko Izumi, an associate professor at Kyoto University of Education, said not all teachers have the expertise to use these books merely as a foundation.

Prospective teachers also worry about the new classes. To prepare them, the university changed the elementary school teaching curriculum in 2006 to require pupils to take the elementary school English class to graduate. Teacher hopefuls receive training in methods, lesson preparation, intonation and vocabulary, Izumi said.

“We start by explaining why the English classes are necessary for elementary school children, because there are many future teachers who don’t like English and are against teaching it at the elementary school level,” she added.

Nevertheless, there are some schools that have successful self-styled English classes and give teachers adequate support.

One is Shiba Public Elementary School, the pilot school for English in 2006 and 2007 in Minato Ward, Tokyo. The school uses its large World Room for English classes, for which pupils change out of their school uniforms into ordinary clothes. “This setting creates a fun atmosphere,” Principal Takeshi Sakae said.

The school gives every pupil across all grades one class a week with a native speaker, plus three 15-minute sessions, two of them only with homeroom teachers and used for review or special classes given by visitors, including parents, who talk about their experiences abroad, Sakae said.

“This way we avoid lengthening school days or overburdening teachers, while they can build their confidence in the short sessions,” he said.

Teachers at the school receive weekly training from a visiting native speaker, thanks to the fact that Minato Ward invests ¥170 million a year in sending native speakers to elementary schools.

Each school in the ward has two periods for all pupils and one teacher-training session a week with native speakers, according to a spokesman of the ward board of education.

“Many other wards only supply enough for less than half the number of periods,” he added.

In addition to inadequate funds and facilities in supporting teachers in many municipalities, teachers question instruction methods purely based on oral communication.

“Games and songs often seem childish for fifth- and sixth-graders, who get embarrassed and bored,” the Osaka teacher said. “It’s difficult to teach them words just by sound. I think reading and writing are necessary components for making English fun and accessible.”

Some junior high school teachers also criticize the recent government push for English education at elementary schools.

“The majority of my first-year junior high school students said they didn’t like English when they came from elementary school last April,” a 50-year-old female English teacher at a public junior high school in Chiyoda Ward, Tokyo, said on condition of anonymity.

In a survey she distributed to seventh-graders, half of them criticized the experience, saying they had wanted more reading and systematic vocabulary learning and the classes hadn’t prepared them for English lessons at junior high level.

“This kind of elementary school English is a hassle. I have to instill a sense of achievement in the students through lessons and tests, and make them like English,” she said.

Despite the anxiety prevailing over the English classes, teachers say there is no choice but to cope with the new government program.

“We may not be able to play the piano but we have to teach music lessons, and English is the same,” said a male elementary school teacher, who asked not to be named, adding that elementary school teachers should be able to teach various subjects.

“I myself dislike English, but we can’t just refuse to give it a go,” said the teacher, who has 35 years of experience.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.