Fifth- and sixth-graders at elementary schools will get their first taste of English learning come April, setting off on a journey into a world of grammar, vocabulary and pronunciation.

But while some teachers, boards of education and students are in panic mode over the new curriculum, one city that had an early start said it shouldn’t be a problem — as long as the pupils know their ABCs.

“First off, it is crucial to plan a lesson so that the students don’t end up disliking English after two years,” Jiro Hayashi, supervisor of the board of education of Funabashi, Chiba Prefecture, said earlier this month. “Removing the anxiety for the teachers is also important. They should receive as much support as they need.”

Eager to hold English classes in elementary schools and nurture an understanding for international culture, Funabashi, a Tokyo suburb, was chosen in 2006 by the government as a specially designated city for English studies. Under the format, every elementary school student in the city has been subject to weekly English lessons starting in first grade.

Initial reactions to the program echoed the ongoing concern surrounding the nationwide introduction of compulsory English lessons for fifth- and sixth-graders. Some weren’t sure who should be in charge or how the lessons should be taught. Others worried that students will only get frustrated with the language earlier than before.

The Funabashi board of education’s response: Been there, done that — and it worked.

While there aren’t any statistics that show Funabashi children scoring higher in English tests compared with other areas, surveys by the city show its approach has been a success.

A recent poll of 3,000 fifth- and sixth-graders in Funabashi demonstrated that more than 90 percent of the children enjoy their English lessons at school, while 83 percent of teachers in the city’s 54 elementary schools said they were becoming comfortable teaching a foreign language in class.

“The numbers were extremely satisfying for us, much better than expected,” said Toshihiro Kakemura, an officer of the Funabashi board of education.

The trick to making children feel at ease with English is in providing lessons based on a scale of how fun it is for them, Funabashi official Hayashi added.

Learning English sentence structure and vocabulary through songs proved more effective than force-feeding the pupils grammatical rules. Communicating with a native speaker was of more value in cultivating their interest in foreign culture than reading about it in textbooks.

“Whatever is deemed fun by the students is what works the best,” Hayashi said, adding that once the students experience the thrill of corresponding with a foreign national, it appeared the excitement was enough to spark their interest in English.

Eliminating teacher anxiety was a bit more complicated, but Funabashi overcame the issue through close coordination between teachers, native English-speaking assistant language teachers, coordinators and the board of education.

Funabashi official Kakemura acknowledged it took some time for classrooms to get the hang of how to proceed with the curriculum. Teachers had not been trained for extensive English teaching, while ALTs weren’t accustomed to teaching a weekly lesson to a full class. But repeated meetings to discuss some of the concerns “eventually made all sides feel at ease,” Kakemura said.

Yet it could be problematic for other elementary schools to follow Funabashi and successfully carry out the programs.

One concern, Kakemura explained, is that the city generously funded the hiring of 35 ALTs so the children could experience communicating with a native speaker firsthand.

“For some cities, paying the price tag will not be feasible,” Kakemura said.

But Hayashi added that there are other options available, such as working with local residents who are fluent in English.

“There are many people nowadays who have experienced living overseas or speak English smoothly. Asking them to assist the English programs in elementary schools is one thought,” he said.

In fact, Funabashi provided work for such residents and asked them to operate as a coordinator between the school teachers and ALTs, which worked well.

“Bringing the local community into schools gives a sense that we are all together in the effort to bring up our children. That is another positive aspect,” Hayashi said, stressing that teaching English should be a team effort and not conducted single-handedly by teachers.

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