Friday, April 04, 2008

Japanese Elementary Teacher TEFL Training Needs

This year the Ministry of Education, Sports, Culture and Science (Monbukagakusho) reported it plans to make English activities complusory in the 5th and 6th grade for all elementary schools in Japan beginning in 2011(?). Under this reform, English activities would be held once a week and they would focus only on speaking and listening. Although most elementary school teachers have little to no formal education on how to teach English and little command of the English language, they will be the ones in charge of leading these activities.

As a result of this reform, university teachers will be asked to give more English teaching workshops for elementary school teachers. So I thought I would use this post to consider what skills/ knowledge elementary school teachers need to be able to faciliate English activities that encourage language learning. I will review two articles I have read. One is a mammoth report by Curtis Kelly on the training needs of Japanese elementary school teachers and the development of an on-line training website to address these needs and the other is a 2004 article in TESOL Quarterly by Dr. Yoko Goto Butler about the level of English proficiency that teachers in elementary schools in Japan, S. Korea and Taiwan need to attain to teach EFL. I will only introduce the points in the articles that are relevant to identifying the TEFL learning needs of Japanese elementary school teachers and not summarize all the findings.

A word of warning, I am writing this after a big dinner and a couple of glasses of wine and there will most likely be some inaccuracies below.

Study 1

Butler, Y. G. (2004). What level of English proficiency do elementary school teachers need to attain in order to teach EFL? Case studies from Korea, Taiwan, and Japan. TESOL Quarterly, 38(2), 245-278.

Butler gave a survey to elementary school teachers during an English teaching workshop in Japan. Approximately 112 teachers returned the survey and 105 were analyzed for her study. The following are her research questions and their answers:

1) What do the teachers perceive the goals of English language education at the elementary school level?

Japanese teachers emphasized listening, learning various greetings, and cross-cultural understanding. They did not empahize learning the written language.

2) Does a gap exist between the perceived and desired (English) proficiency levels (of elementary school teachers)?

Yes. "Desired proficiency level" was described to the respondents as the minimum level necessary to teach English. 85% of Japanese teachers responded that their current proficiency level did not reach the minnimum (p.258).

3) What differences exist between the perceived current and desired proficiency levels in each of the four skill domains?

The survey asked the teachers to rate their English proficiency in the following areas: Oral fluency, oral vocabulary, pronunciation, oral grammar, reading, writing and listening. The Japanese teachers rated their proficiency in receptive skill domains (reading and listening) higher than their productive skill domains. Among their productive skills they rated their oral vocabulary as the lowest. In terms of their desired levels of proficiency, Japanese teachers tended to rate listening the highest and writing the lowest.

4) What differences exist in the size gaps of the domains?

The gaps were wide, the gaps between the productive areas were greater than the receptive areas.

What does this mean?

These results are not very surprising. First, the goals of English education perceived by the teachers mirror the goals of English activities established by Monbukagasho during that period. Second, the teacher's low assessment of their own English ability probably reflects the fact that when they got their education degree, English education was not a requirement and thus they had little experience studying TEFL or using the English language. Third, the English skill areas where teachers most desire to master seemed to mirror the goals of English actitivies at the time of Butler's study; these goals emphasized the spoken language over the written language. Thus, it seems that the objectives of the national English curriculum will have a substantial impact on the areas of English that teachers want to improve in.

Study 2

Kelly, C., Ishitani, H. & Nakamura, H. (2003). Development and Evaluation of a Prototype E-Learning Site to Train Japanese Elementary School Teachers How to Teach English to Children.
Retrieved April 7, 2007 from <>

This is a report of a 2 year-long project funded by Monbukagakusho for desgining a TEFL e-learning website for elementary school teachers. I think that anyone who finds themselves having to assist in this kind of large-scale project should read this report as required reading. Kelly et. al's systematic and thorough approach to identifying teacher's needs and developing a website to address them is a good example on how to see a project through to beginning to end.
This report had a total of 7 research questions it attempted to answer but I will only focus on the first:
What are the educational needs, both perceived and predicted, of Japanese elementary school teachers preparing to teach English to children?
The researchers used three sources of information to answer the question:
1) Previous literature
2) Focus groups of elementary school teachers
3) Interviews with experts on teaching English to children
Some of the conclusons were
1) The teachers generally agreed that English classes are good for students (But even in a focus group, could teachers really say they thought the classes were bad. I think that it is difficult for teachers to answer truthfully to this question if their answer is negative
2) The teachers do not know what to do in their English classes
a) They did not understand the purpose of English activities
b) Teachers did not know what to teach
3) Teachers believe that their own ability in English was a key factor in teaching effective English lessons and many teachers lacked confidence in their ability to teach English. (In a pilot questionnaire conducted in Iwate, it was also found that a lot of teachers lacked confidence in their own English ability.)
4) Teachers are unfamiliar with teaching theories, methods and means of lesson planning and they are likely to use inappropriate methods like mechanical listen and repeat techniques.
5) Teachers are not being properly supported by training and do not have sufficient access to needed materials and curricula.
6) Teachers were unable to assess their own training needs.
What does this mean?
Monbukagakusho has worked hard to change education policy to incoporate English education into the curriculum but as Kelly et. al state, they have done very little to help the practitioners carry out the new currculum (The most recent reform,though, has provided an English curriculum for elementary school English teachers to follow). To be honest, most teachers are not highly proficient in English and never will be. Think about it, given that they are working full time, it is too much to ask of them to master a foreign language. Even after the new reforms, though, teachers will be teaching very basic English, English that they should know well after completing junior high school and high school English courses. Taking this into account, I think that TEFL teacher training workshops for elementary school teachers should focus of effective teaching methods and lesson plans rather than trying to raise teachers' proficiencies.


Anonymous said...

I agree with you that it's impractical to try to raise elementary school teachers'English proficiencies now. But, in a long run, we have to have teachers who are proficient in English. How can those who cannot swim can teach how to swim to pupils? I think our another crucial mission is to educate university studnets who want to be an elemetary school teacher to be proficient in English. I'm going to teach students keeping this in my mind.

JH said...

Hi Rintaro,
I agree with you. 75% of the students in the English department here are actually in the elementary school course so I like to think that we are helping the future elementary school teachers become more proficient in English.

Anonymous said...

I, for one, agree with Tom Merner, that a fair degree of language proficiency in elementary education is NOT the primary need. Knowing how to make activities for and cause learning in children is. In my research I saw a number of cases where elementary school teachers with poor English abilities were teaching far better classes - in terms of outcomes - than some being taught by English experts and even native speakers.

Also keep in mind that raw English proficiency in not the primary objective of most elementary English classes. Building an international perspective and positive attitudes towards English and other cultures is.

Thanks for this site.

JH said...

Wow, it is an honor to have the author of a study I cite read my blog. Thanks!In my experience working with junior high school teachers I have met great teachers with not so advanced English skills and poor teachers with great English skills. I have also met elementary school teachers who are not so proficient in English but are fantastic at leading English activities.