English to get 2020 push but teachers not on same page

Exposure to start in third grade for basic communication ability by junior high


Staff Writer

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.

  • phu

    If the way Japanese people express themselves and their intentions in this article is the way they plan to teach their children to express themselves in English, they might as well give up. I’ve never seen such a collection of noncommittal weasel words.

    I understand the Japanese propensity for hedging your bets and never actually committing to anything (and never assuming others actually mean it until there’s something written in blood on the calendar), but this is not how English-speakers work.

    The aversion to change, work, and training here — mostly to change — is positively palpable. While it comes almost entirely from Mr. Otsu, though, it seems a lot more likely to reflect the reality this proposal will face. And while I agree that REAL English education needs to be made a bigger priority, I can’t help agreeing that this proposal, with all its “about” and “generally” and “basically,” is a limp-noodle waste of time that will be just as effective as the current teach-to-the-test approach.

    It’s not just a matter of learning to speak English. It’s also a matter of learning how fundamentally different every English-speaking society in the world is from Japan. If you teach Japanese kids to express themselves in a Japanese way using English, all you’re preparing them for is embarrassment and confusion: I hire people, and even though I understand Japanese deference and humility, a Japanese applicant who speaks perfect English but downplays his skills on his resume won’t get an interview, and a Japanese interviewee who stares at his shoes and keeps apologizing for his inadequacy absolutely will not get hired.

    So yes, English language education does need more attention from a younger age, and that does mean change, training, and hard work for teachers (who are already overworked). All this is difficult, especially in a culture that desperately resists change and foreignness. But people like Mr. Otsu need to realize that not only is this just the tip of the iceberg, it’s time to start pushing for good English education, whatever you believe that entails, and not simply disagreeing with the parts of current proposals you don’t like. Otherwise nothing will continue to happen and Japanese kids will continue to be ill-prepared to live and work in a global economy.

    • WithMalice

      Spot on. English study needs to be communicative, and not simply a scholastic undertaking.

  • WithMalice

    “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.”

    When guys like this are part of the education process, the nation’s striving to become better at communicating in English are going to be akin to pushing pudding up a hill with a toothpick.
    Otsu (and I’m not going to use the honorific *professor* with this person of questionable beliefs)… I guess all those nations in Europe (amongst others – including here in Japan) who have bilingual children are doing it wrong.

  • Hanten

    Effective English education goes on in dozens of countries around the world starting way earlier than in Japan and they don’t have a lot of money either. What they do have is a desire to communicate with the world. Can we say the same about Japanese children? Nowhere in the article can I see that anyone asked the kids what they want for their future.
    Yes, English teachers in Japan will need re-training and Japan can do that. These so-called experts are busy saying how hard it will be to change the system because they don’t want to admit that as it is the system isn’t working very well. At the moment, the majority of Japanese people leave high school having done thousands of hours of English lessons but can’t understand the simplest of things said by a foreigner let alone being able to say anything in reply.

    Otsu, an apparent expert at languages, seems to think that no-one can learn a second language until they’re proficient in their first, ignoring the mountains of research results showing otherwise. Almost every study into language acquisition shows that the earlier children are exposed to foreign languages the easier it is for them to learn to use them more like native speakers.

  • Chris Broad

    I work as a teacher in Japan and the problem is the same one I had back when I was a student, which is that students are not taught the importance or benefits of learning a foreign language.

    Students should be motivated to learn that they’ll be able to comfortably travel to any country in the world and make friends, appreciate incredible movies and music in native English, open up job and business prospects outside Japan, read 90% of scientific articles and journals and develop an international perspective to enhance their lives and understanding of the world.

    Instead of this, they’re constantly told “English is difficult.” And so every day about 4,000 times I hear “I dont understand. English is difficult” as students give up. There is a huge reluctance to become good at English because there seems to be a belief it will erode Japanese culture.

    I enjoy teaching the students and they’re all really pleasant and fun, but I often feel sad that they see such little benefit in learning English. Especially when most Japanese people I know over 20 years old really wish they’d learnt it properly at school as they suddenly realise how important it is.

    I wish there was something more I could do but to myself and many other people I know, there’s often a sense of hopelessness.

  • disqus_OYJ7gPZj7l

    One thing that all non-English speaking countries should do is teach children English phonology as soon as possible, maybe even in kindergarten. Not English grammar or vocabulary, but phonology.

    This is especially crucial in Asian countries that have very different phonological systems. It is very hard for an Asian teenager, let alone an adult, to learn certain consonants and vowels that do not exist in their native language.

    But were they to be taught at an early age, things would be much different.

    Of course, the Japanese must improve their overall English knowledge as well, but what’s the point of having perfect grammar and vocabulary wen yuu spikku laik disu?

  • Kazuhiko Fujiwara

    I’m for Prof. Ohtsu. Although I’ve studied English since a junior high school student, I work as a teacher of English at present. I suggest the pupils for elementary school don’t have to study there. Even if they studied english at elementary school , the achievement is the same when they start to study it at junior high school. And there’re many problems in doing it at elementary school.
    First , the teachers at elementary school are ‘amateur’ . Second , there’re many pupils who don’t understand the calculations like ‘decimal’,‘fraction’ and ‘kanji’ gradually year by year. We must overcome these problems. Nevertheless the administration has reinforced the policy for English. It’s wrong! There’re many bad Japanese words (slang) in Japan recently. We can’t afford to learn English to sacrifice on other subjects. I believe that to master languages is like ‘sports’. If we continue to use them through ‘daily life’ , it’s impossible for us to master them.
    I don’t think their ability doesn’t develop suddenly by studying only two or three hours in a week. In the achivement for speech recognition , it’s true that the pupils are very early to absorb the difference for sound. But it’s useless if they go on using every day in daily life. I believe it’s not the benefit to reinforce the ability for English in Jpan at present. We have a lot of things to do except English now.

    • Christina Gmiterko

      It’s this kind of thinking that us why English education has so many problems in Japan. Students are speaking in slang? Math/kanji whatever ability is going down? What does that have to do with English? Every other developed or even undeveloped country in the world has educational problems like that. It’s not rare. Yet every other country has English since kindergarten! And every other country can speak it better than the average Japanese person by the time they reach adulthood. If ALL subjects are declining, that is due to a cultural change in the way of thinking and the educational system needs to change as well along with the changing attitude of the citizens.

    • Christina Gmiterko

      Too expand: you say that English education should start at Junior high? Then shouldn’t the entire country be fluent in English now? Learning from a young age is soooo important. I’ve been in Japan for nearly 4 years, but I speak better Japanese than most foreigners I have met who have been here 10+ years. Is that because as an adult I studied Japanese harder than them? No. Absolutely not. I’m sure they all study much more than me. The reason is because I lived on a USA military base here for three years as a child. I only learned very basic Japanese at the time, but I was immersed in Japanese everyday. That made it much easier to pick up the language as an adult.

      Also your comment about elementary teachers being amateurs….maybe a couple of years ago. Nowadays, the majority of schools (at least in Tokyo) are primarily taught by the ALTs-not the home room teachers. I have taught solo at the same elementary school for two years. When I came in, the only students with English ability had lived abroad or were in eikawa. Now I’m proud to say that the 6th graders at the school have a higher English level than the curriculum of 1st year junior high school. Wherein lies another problem – there is no continuum of the curriculum between elementary and junior high. It is ABSURD that junior high school students start learning from the alphabet. I actually feel bad for my 6th graders because they will probably be bored and lose interest in their English classes next year.

  • Kazuhiko Fujiwara

    I’m for Prof.Ohtsu.

  • happyjapan

    Everyone’s dancing around the problem of English education in Japan. The big problem is that non Japanese teachers are racially discriminated against. They are not employed as teachers with full rights/responsibilities for curriculum development. Japan is racist and as long as the boards of education continue to blatantly discriminate against non Japanese teachers and lecturers, language education will remain awful. Let’s be honest here, the whole JET program is basically racist. It allows the Japanese to say they employ NJ English teachers without actually treating them as teachers.

  • sam

    Great teachers produce great students. Unfortunately, just like any other job or sport, there are only a few superstars. Teachers are born and not made. I am a superstar teacher and i am not even proficient at English.

    • Bruce Chatwin

      “I am a superstar teacher” and modest too…

  • Drew Sure

    I am sure I will be accused of over simplification in this comment but none the less – here goes!

    From my experience as an English Teacher working full-time in the Japanese education system – my first and overall response to this article is that we are talking about “shooting arrows at targets without the quivers or bows”.

    I believe there are 4 issues to address in order to achieve correct targeting:

    1. A belief that English (and therein Internationalism) is synergistic to present and future knowledge pursuits. Put simply – that students see a plus or benefit of having the skills of English communication in their quiver for present and future opportunities. (Quivers)

    2. A lack of Teachers with competency to equip students with the skills of language development and knowledge. This goes so far as to address the issue of licencing/ permanence / equal pay/ etc, for foreign English teachers in Japan. This also addresses issues such a phonetic and communicative based curriculum. (Bow)

    3. A classroom cultural overhaul by the western insurgence of praise. Students overcome defeatism / loose the chains of Senpai (先輩?) and kōhai (後輩?) roles (I call – senpaism) / feel safe to experiment and proudly become good at something. All the while receiving accolades of praise from the teacher and fellow students. (Bow)

    4. Finally and perhaps most crucially. A point that I believe addresses not just the issues raised in this article about English shortfalls but also Japanese language failings such as a decline in Kanji skills, etc. Japan may do well to introduce competency based educational ladders where simply stated – IF A STUDENT DOES NOT PERFORM TO THE COMPETENT LEVEL REQUIRED THEY DO NOT GO UP A GRADE! I am not talking examinations – I am talking communicative competencies! But not just communication – all things! If you fail – you stay down a grade. If you perform to the level required you progress. The idea that a student is of this age and therefore in this knowledge range is erroneous.