Come April, English classes will become mandatory for fifth- and sixth-graders, but a 29-year-old elementary school teacher in Tokyo has heard the concerns of her overwhelmed colleagues, especially the older ones, who have neither taught the language nor studied it since their university years decades ago.

Preparing for the English classes is a new burden for teachers. Some believe they must teach detailed rules of grammar and demonstrate proper pronunciation, even though this isn’t required.

“Many teachers are considerably repulsed. They feel they can’t make mistakes and fear they may speak incorrect English” during the lessons, said the Tokyo teacher, who did not want her name used.

Starting with fiscal 2011, the government will require all elementary schools to introduce compulsory foreign-language lessons — basically English — for fifth- and sixth-graders. All kids in this age group will have at least one lesson per week.

While many parents and other Japanese welcome the government’s move to provide English education at an early age, some experts are concerned that most teachers are being forced to venture into uncharted waters with little preparation. In addition, devoting just one period a week to English won’t be near enough to nurture children’s language ability.

“With one lesson a week, it’s like pouring water onto a desert. It will immediately evaporate — not create an oasis,” said Haruo Erikawa, an English-education professor of Wakayama University.

Japan has lagged behind its neighboring countries in introducing English lessons at an early age, and its impact is obvious in various statistics.

TOEFL data for 2004-2005 put Japan next to last in Asia, with an average score of only 191 points — just one point higher than North Korea. Afghanistan exceeded Japan by seven points, while Singapore had the top score at 254.

“To further internationalize the Japanese people and nurture human resources who can work competently in international society, it is necessary to bolster English education as a national strategy,” the education ministry said in a 2006 report on the language.

English education has long been mandatory in junior high schools, but such classes are not totally new to a majority of elementary schools because of the “integrated learning class” concept, which was introduced in 1998.

Though this class was not specifically designed for learning foreign languages, many elementary schools decided to use it for English conversation lessons. In fiscal 2009, 97.8 percent of elementary schools nationwide were planning to have language lessons for fifth- and sixth-graders, the education ministry said.

Owing to the lack of a unified English teaching program at the elementary school level, gaps in quality among regions emerged as some schools offer two to three lessons per week, while at other schools they are much more infrequent. The material being taught also varies, with some schools teaching the alphabet and others providing opportunities to speak with native English speakers.

To narrow these disparities, the ministry introduced a uniform curriculum. The move appears to have wide support.

According to a nationwide survey in December conducted by the Japan Public Opinion Survey Association, 87 percent of 1,924 adults supported compulsory English education for fifth- and sixth-graders.

Education ministry officials stressed that the new English lessons, Gaikokugo Katsudo (Foreign Language Activities), will be different from English lessons at the junior high level, and students won’t be drilled on comprehensive grammar rules or vocabulary.

The goal of the new program is to help children experience and understand other languages and cultures, motivate them to actively communicate with foreigners and become familiar with the sounds and basic expressions of another language, the ministry says.

It already distributed teaching materials called Eigo Note (English Notes), as well as CDs and other supplemental instruction materials, to teachers and students nationwide. Eigo Note includes lessons in greetings, games, self-introduction and town guides.

Despite high expectations among the public and government officials, some experts and teachers say the curriculum is full of problems that need to be fixed.

To begin with, many argue that training for teachers is far from sufficient.

According to a survey last July and August by the think tank Benesse Educational Research and Development Center on 4,709 elementary school teachers nationwide, 68.1 percent of classroom teachers said they don’t have much confidence or they have no confidence in teaching English.

A 27-year-old male teacher at an elementary school in Kanagawa Prefecture said many teachers aren’t yet at the stage where they can comfortably teach the language.

The teacher, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said one of his colleagues told him he was afraid of giving lessons with his broken English, while another pointed out the possibility that this will merely cause children to dislike English.

To help teachers, the education ministry has put together a guideline and offered a training program since fiscal 2007.

The ministry and other specialists teach education officials at the prefectural level how to proceed with lessons. Those officials then train representatives from each school. Both training programs last about five days. After that, the representatives of each school are supposed to train their colleagues for a total of around 30 hours over a two-year period.

However, the survey by Benesse suggests the reality has turned out rather different.

According to the survey, classroom teachers received an average of 6.8 hours of training at their schools between April 2009 and last August, and more than 20 percent said they participated in “zero” hours of training.

On problems that they face, 57.9 percent of curriculum coordinators said the time is very limited for developing teaching materials and preparing for lessons.

More than 75 percent of curriculum coordinators even suggested English should be taught in classrooms by specialist instructors.

Wakayama University’s Erikawa said it is hard for many schoolteachers to teach English because they haven’t studied the language in a long time.

“For example, the average age of elementary school teachers in Osaka is around 50. This means they haven’t used English for almost 30 years since graduating from university,” he said.

According to Erikawa, this isn’t the first attempt at teaching English at the elementary school level. English lessons were introduced around the middle of the Meiji Era (1868-1912) at some elementary schools. But the poor ability of the teachers at that level led to junior high school teachers saying the elementary school curriculum was worthless and should be abolished.

“I am extremely worried (that) we will repeat the same mistake,” he said.

Although there are many hurdles to overcome, teachers have to face reality and move forward. And experts suggest more can be done in the long term.

Mitsue Allen-Tamai, an English-education professor at Aoyama Gakuin University, said the government should eventually introduce English education in earlier grades as young children can easily recognize and learn the unfamiliar sounds of a foreign language.

Frequency of lessons should also be increased to at least three times a week and more material should be taught so children won’t panic when they get to junior high, where the curriculum is heavier, she said.

The government should continue to work harder to reinforce English education at public schools so there won’t be a wider gap in English proficiency among children, she added.

“Otherwise, while rich kids can get sufficient (English) education, those who are not will be left out,” she said.

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