When it comes to preparing for the April launch of compulsory English classes in elementary schools, the private sector appears to have a clear lead over public school teachers.

“We kicked off our preliminary research group in the beginning of 2007,” Mina Funabashi, who heads the English content management division for elementary school products at Benesse Corp., told The Japan Times.

The publishing giant offers monthly correspondence courses to a whopping 1.77 million children, or 1 out of every 4 elementary school students in Japan. Yet despite having supplied English textbooks for preteens since 1989, their syllabus needed an overhaul since the lessons were designed for introduction to junior high school English courses.

With the government setting a new objective to nurture English communication skills among fifth- and sixth-graders, Benesse gathered a number of university professors, English education experts and teachers from both private and public schools to come up with the perfect textbook. Their goal was simple but hard to achieve: to develop a syllabus that would improve English communication skills while cultivating basic language knowledge.

Whereas the previous textbooks were designed for junior high and required that students learn sentences by repeating them out loud five times, a completely different approach was needed to reach the new goal.

Nurturing children’s interest in overseas cultures was also deemed “crucial for students to continue wanting to learn the language,” Funabashi explained.

What Funabashi’s team came up with is exquisite — a textbook that essentially bridges the gap between what interests elementary school children and what they need to learn, instilling in them not only a larger vocabulary but also cultural understanding and weaving the experience into a fabric of their English knowledge.

One chapter of the new textbook, for example, shows an American girl visiting Japan and trying wasabi-flavored potato chips. A Japanese boy warns that the chips are spicy, but the girl takes a bite anyway and is surprised by the zesty taste.

The story is accompanied by colorful manga of the scenes, but does not include any Japanese translations. On the next page, there are illustrations of cookies, chocolate, gum and popcorn to further augment vocabulary.

According to Funabashi, a trial edition of the textbook received mixed reviews from parents. They were worried that the vocabulary was too undemanding, and some were taken aback that the book didn’t have the Japanese version of the conversation.

But that was exactly Benesse’s goal — to grab kids’ attention and implant new knowledge.

“It is said that there are approximately 1,200 (English terms) frequently used by an elementary school student in Japan” whose meanings are understood, Funabashi explained, such as potato chips, chocolate and popcorn. Those terms were used in the textbook on purpose to work as a “bridge,” or to stand out and get a student to pay attention to English dialogue.

Because potato chips is an English phrase they are already familiar with, students are more likely to be able to connect the dots into a sentence. The conversation becomes comprehensible as they pick up the words they know and digest them, Funabashi said.

“They don’t need to have a translation,” Funabashi said, adding that in the long run, this nurtures the students’ ability to absorb vast amounts of English and ultimately enable them to converse.

Benesse’s new English textbooks have been in use by fifth-graders since April 2009. A survey by the company revealed that the number of pupils interested in the course is on the rise, even among those who score lower in school. Calls from mothers inquiring about English studies are also growing, Funabashi said.

“We tell them there is nothing to worry about with the upcoming change in English teaching. We are ready to answer the needs of our customers,” said Kaori Sakamoto, a manager at Benesse’s corporate communications department.

All systems are also go at ECC Junior, where approximately 200,000 elementary school pupils — more than any other language school — are enrolled. The chain operates about 10,000 classrooms across the country, and has expertise in teaching English to youngsters, some only 2 years old.

Kuniko Tsukada, deputy general division manager of ECC Junior, said tutors in the company have already undergone training to learn the new curriculum at public elementary schools.

Offering enjoyable classes with quizzes and story-reading has been and will remain a core part of the program, but ECC will push for what it calls teaching “global-standard English skills,” or the required level of English for studying and working abroad by the time a student graduates from high school, she said.

“What stands out in our new program is the volume of reading and writing that a student goes through,” Tsukada told The Japan Times. The company went this route after examining what interests most preteen elementary school children, ECC Junior said in a statement, explaining the idea behind its super-learning programs, which include extensive reading and writing.

The shift was an effort to maximize a student’s exposure to new English expressions.

“Dancing and singing could work, but only for younger kids,” Tsukada said. Instead, the sense of being able to communicate beyond illustrative sentences such as “I like apples” and “this is a pen” is what appeared to be most stimulating for the older students. ECC Junior concluded that it becomes essential for fifth- and sixth-graders to push themselves harder to acquire basic English skills, including learning more words and phrases.

That is how the Vocathlon program was developed in 2004. It has been effective in maximizing students’ capabilities, ECC Junior said.

While previous vocabulary lessons involved teachers holding a drawing and students reciting the name of the item shown, the new method is operated in a completely different manner.

In the Vocathlon program, each student opens a page in a textbook where random items are illustrated, and then repeats the corresponding English term.

“Some fifth- and sixth-graders can go beyond 160 items, which is amazing because even an adult would have difficulty doing that,” Tsukada said, adding that speed training and a rich vocabulary ultimately enhance English communication.

Many students surprise the teachers by going beyond their expectations, learning quickly once they are led in the right direction, she said.

“The new compulsory English classes will boost the number of people interested in learning English. In fact, we’ve been receiving a number of calls from mothers about our lessons,” Tsukada said.

“I believe we are in the final stage of creating a system that can answer their needs.”

Meanwhile, a growing number of children are taking the Eiken (Test in Practical English Proficiency) — Japan’s most widely used English-language testing program.

More than 100,000 elementary school pupils took the tests in 1999 and the number rose to about 160,000 in 2009, according to the Society for Testing English Proficiency Inc., a nonprofit foundation in Tokyo that administers the tests.

Eiken’s junior version — Jido Eiken — which stresses listening comprehension skills designed for young children, attracts around 90,000 takers a year, STEP said.

Many children start learning English at a young age, according to an October STEP survey of 215 Jido Eiken takers and 114 guardians. More than half of the takers started learning English before entering elementary school.

STEP said most elementary schools have already introduced foreign-language lessons, which may have prompted children to learn the language from an early stage.

STEP is also planning to publish free papers from May for elementary school teachers. The papers will offer content the teachers can use as reference, including what games to play and songs to sing in their English lessons.

“We hope these publications help foreign-language activities get conducted smoothly,” said Mayuko Hamada, a STEP official. “And it will be good if students can graduate (from elementary school) and start junior high schools liking English.”

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