A reform plan released in mid-December by the education ministry looks to bolster English study from elementary to high school from the 2020 academic year to pursue globalization.

Education minister Hakubun Shimomura said he hopes the reforms transform English education in a practical way, not just as a tool for entrance exams.

“I think children would like to acquire communicative skills by learning English. We have to transform the education system to serve that purpose, which I think is sought by the public,” he said.

According to the execution plan for the reform of English education in response to globalization, which is in line with proposals submitted by a government education panel to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in late May, English will be taught from the third grade in activity-oriented classes once or twice a week, mainly instructed by homeroom teachers, to “lay the foundation for communication skills.”

By the time students reach the fifth and sixth grades, English will be an official subject conducted three times a week by qualified homeroom teachers or specialized language instructors with a focus on “fostering elementary command of English.”

The blueprint also calls for English classes in junior high schools to be “basically” taught in English with the goal of nurturing the “ability to understand familiar topics and exchange simple information as well as express simple thoughts.”

The history of teaching English at public elementary schools does not go back very far. “Comprehensive studies” debuted for third-graders in the 2002 academic year and focused on English activity classes, including speaking and listening, as part of “international understanding.”

But schools had the discretion in how and when to hold the classes, leading to widely varied content and hours. This prompted the education ministry to set guidelines and launch mandatory “foreign language activities” — basically English — once a week for fifth- and sixth-graders since the 2011 school year, according to Helga Tabuchi, director of the office for promoting foreign languages at the ministry.

Tabuchi said the aim of the foreign language activities classes is to nurture active communication.

“Pupils are given lessons mainly focused on speaking and listening, using such as greetings and certain common expressions. They also engage in hands-on learning, including singing songs and reciting plays,” Tabuchi said.

“A certain ratio of English teachers at junior high schools said they saw a positive transformation among the students” who had engaged in various English-language activities during elementary school, she said, citing the results of a 2012 ministry survey.

In the poll, 77.8 percent of junior high school English teachers indicated they felt some accomplishment from the English activities students were introduced to in elementary school.

Among the accomplishments, 72.9 percent of the teachers said they noted positive attitudes from students seeking to actively communicate in English, and 65.1 percent said students’ listening ability improved compared with past students who did not have the same language activity opportunity.

Another ministry survey, released in August, found that 76 percent of elementary school pupils liked studying English.

“We feel positive results (through the foreign language activities) in that many students said they like English,” Tabuchi said, noting it’s important to ensure students don’t reject the language, and hence the motivation to learn it.

Moving up the activity-based lessons for third- and fourth-graders is reasonable considering the developmental stage of pupils, she said.

“Hands-on learning is more suitable to earlier stages, for example, third-graders. Pupils in the fifth or sixth grade come to develop intellectual curiosity toward topics such as sentence structure,” Tabuchi said.

If, as the blueprint suggests, English becomes a formal subject, several changes are possible, including teaching the language through structured learning content via textbooks, she added.

The ministry hopes the transition in junior high school will be smoother if pupils pass “activities” and introductory English lessons in elementary school.

Experts, however, expressed mixed views on the scheduled plan to enhance students’ English skills.

Shizuoka University professor Tomohiko Shirahata, who is versed in English education, said it’s impossible to gain enough English communication skills from a weekly class.

“It’s not that pupils are not smart, it’s just that the hours (of learning) are way too short,” Shirahata said, adding proper language lessons, not activities, are necessary to attain communication ability.

It is important to set a realistic goal from the start in language education, he said.

“We can’t be native speakers of English. As we’re Japanese, we have to regard English as a second language after Japanese. I think we can aim for possessing skills for comprehensible English, even if we have our own accent, grammatical errors.”

Ritsumeikan University professor Emiko Yukawa endorses the ministry’s move, including moving up the activities.

“Self-consciousness gradually developed in fifth- and sixth-graders. I’ve heard from teachers that it’s hard for them to conduct activity-based classes for those age groups,” thus it makes sense introducing the activities in lower grades, according to Yukawa.

She said it’s good for pupils to advance to junior high school after having confidence and experience of being able to use and communicate in English through various activities.

Yukio Otsu, a Meikai University professor on the cognitive science of language, meanwhile said he was against the move, including the introduction of English as an official subject, arguing children need to develop a firm foundation in their mother tongue before thinking about acquiring a foreign language.

The Japanese language skills of college students these days have deteriorated remarkably, Otsu said, wondering why people think they could communicate in a foreign language if they can’t do so in their native tongue.

“Pupils at elementary schools should receive a proper education in their mother language,” Otsu said.

“It might take time and possibly cost as well, but that’s the way to nurture Japanese who can have a good command of English,” he said.

Shirahata of Shizuoka University noted that curriculum coordination between elementary and junior high school is key to achieving the goals of the proposed reform of English education.

“It’s not right to separate the curriculum of elementary and junior high schools. If we have a consistent direction, including textbooks, we can expect general improvement of communicative skills,” Shirahata said.

Ritsumeikan’s Yukawa echoed that the reform will bear fruit if a curriculum connecting elementary and junior high schools is put in place and teachers are properly trained.

But Otsu raised concerns about human resources and budgetary aspects.

“There are some 22,000 public elementary schools nationwide, about twice the number of junior high schools and four times that of high schools. I wonder whether it’s possible to ensure enough human resources,” he said.

“Considering the fiscal situation of Japan, I don’t know whether it would be possible to secure enough money to realize the planned reforms. In addition, it will be troublesome if not enough financial resources are allocated to junior high and high school education, even if they were allocated to elementary schools,” he added.

Training teachers will be an enormous task that needs to be addressed properly if the reform is to yield results.

“Elementary school teachers have resources for the activity-based classes now since they were introduced some 10 years ago. But if (English becomes an official subject) with lessons three times a week, they need to do different tasks,” Yukawa said.

“English would be more difficult and proper allocation of teachers would be necessary, such as dispatching English teachers from junior high schools as a transitional measure,” Yukawa said.

Even if teachers are dispatched, that doesn’t mean junior high school teachers can instruct elementary school pupils properly, Yukawa noted. “So a huge amount of training would be necessary for teachers.”

Shirahata of Shizuoka University pointed out that teacher-training courses offered at universities need to be revised to arm educators with the necessary skills to teach elementary schoolers.

Meikai University’s Otsu cited another issue in training teachers for English at elementary schools.

“In the first place, there are a limited number of people who specialize in elementary school English,” he said, arguing it’s not right to go forward with any reforms without first setting up a proper teaching environment.

“Maybe the education ministry says junior high school teachers of English can cooperate, but it’s not necessarily the case that teachers who can teach well at junior high can also teach well at elementary schools,” he said.

“Entry-level instruction of a foreign language is the most important, and at the same time, the most difficult,” he said.

The ministry plans to set up a panel of experts this month to look into the plan further, including educational goals, study materials and the teaching environment, and it is slated to compile its proposal next summer.

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