National

Junior high students rip elementary English as ‘useless’: survey

by Magdalena Osumi

Staff Writer

Around half of junior high school students have called the English skills they acquired in elementary schools “useless,” according to recent findings by education services provider Benesse Holdings Inc.

Researchers with the firm’s think tank arm analyzed the grammar-oriented programs in junior high schools and said the programs were likely discouraging students. The researchers called for a number of reforms to keep young people motivated once they reach higher levels of English-learning.

Earlier in June, Benesse released results of a survey conducted by the think tank, the Benesse Educational Research and Development Institute, aimed at evaluating English education in elementary schools and gauging children’s views of English and foreign cultures.

In March and April 2016, Benesse surveyed 1,170 first-year junior high students, including 583 students who also responded to the think tank’s 2015 survey on English education in elementary schools during their sixth and final year.

The research showed that while 82.6 percent of the students surveyed as sixth-graders were convinced of the benefits of English education, that figure plunged to just 53.9 percent after they entered junior high.

In particular, 50.8 percent of sixth-graders strongly agreed that English skills acquired in elementary school would be useful in junior high. However, after entering junior high, a mere 19.6 percent respondents expressed such a belief.

“We believe the biggest problem is that the programs in elementary and junior high schools aren’t linked,” researcher Yumiko Fukumoto said.

She stressed that the emphasis on reading and grammar in junior and high schools is a major reason why children lose confidence in their abilities and interest in using the language.

“In junior high schools, children don’t spend much time on speaking or writing and the program is mostly based on translating, memorizing or grammar exercises,” Fukumoto said, adding that the findings also show a decrease in motivation for learning English and a loss of interest in other languages and foreign cultures.

Fukumoto laid the blame squarely on the junior high school curriculum.

“The junior high school program fails to cultivate children’s interest,” she said.

The study showed that both groups of children feel happy when they are able to communicate in English, with over 82 percent saying so in the first and second study.

The research also showed that children cared less about English pronunciation after entering junior high school, with 50.4 percent saying clear pronunciation was important when they were in elementary school but only 29.0 percent saying the same a year later.

Fukumoto proposed that English education programs for junior high schools be redesigned to put a stronger focus on more practical skills.

She said that the current evaluation system disregards students’ practical skills as the English education system has been too heavily influenced by entrance examinations, which mostly feature written tests.

English has been taught in elementary schools as a “foreign language activity” since 2011, with the main focus on giving fifth- and sixth-graders a chance to familiarize themselves with English through games, listening and singing.

In fiscal 2020, the education ministry plans to introduce English as a mandatory subject for fifth- and sixth-graders and double the annual number of English classroom hours to 70 from the current 35 while also introduce reading and writing activities.

Fukumoto, however, said the new policy has triggered concerns among elementary schools over whether staff will be adequately prepared for the shift by the deadline.