Monday, April 07, 2008

Recent Reforms on English Activities in Japanese Elementary Schools

On January 26, 2008, I attended the 第4回全国小学校英語活動実践研究大会 (The 4th Annual All-Japan Conference on English Activities in Elementary School [Note: the translation is my own]) in the city of Omuta in Fukuoka Prefecture.

The first day consisted of demonstration classes at Omuta shi ritsu Meiji Shougakkou and the second day was an all day conference which consisted of speeches and panel discussions from 9:50 - 16:30. It was a little ironic that a conference that advocated learner-centered English activities would keep the participants in their seats listening the whole second day. Nevertheless, I got a lot of good information about the future of English activities in Japanese elementary school (when I managed to stay awake) and I would like to share some of that information in this post.

In the morning Masataka Kan who is one of the key planners of the current English education reforms which will take place in 2011 gave a speech outlining the plan for compulsory English activities in elementary schools and discussing its rationale. Here is what he said.


First, almost all elementary schools in Japan are conducting English activities but because there is no standard English curriculum, there is a lot of variation in the quality and quantity of English activities conducted in primary schools throughout the country. In order to address this problem, it was proposed to make English activities in primary schools compulsory. Under this reform, English activities would be held once a week for fifth and sixth graders (35 hours a year). Monkasho (The Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology) has also produced a teacher's handbook called eigo no-to or English Note as well as a national curriculum. In the 2008-2009 academic years, pilot schools (拠点校) will begin using and testing the teaching materials and curriculum.

The Necessity of English Activities
Mr. Kan gave 3 reasons for this.
First, he said that English activities can take advantage of children's ability to adapt to different situations. I will add an example. One thing that has surprised me about the CCUP project is primary school children's willingness to listen to a story in English and use any means necessary such as the pictures and the expressions of the reader to work out the meaning. When older children are place in situations where they do not understand a lot of the language that is being spoken, they seem to be more likely to give up. In my experience, younger children appear more willing to make sense out of an ambiguous situation.
The second reason was to respond to globalization. Kan talked about other country's, such as Korea's, English education and also how children from other countries are more willing to communicate in English than Japanese.
The third reason was to ensure that all children have the same educational opportunities. As discussed in the introduction, some schools have much more comprehensive English curricula than others.
The Goals of English Activities
1. Improve children's' communicative competence.
In my opinion this goal is problematic in that most teacher's do not know what communicative competence is nor do they know how to evaluate it. Looking at the notes I took and searching through my recollections of the speech, I cannot remember Mr. Kan offering a layman's definition of communicative competence nor were there any examples given as to how one assesses whether or not children have developed "communicative competence." At the book exhibition, there were various communicative competence assessment instruments for sale but I was surprised that the policy makers or practitioner panelists did not discuss this issue so much. Maybe I slept through that part. Anyway, I think that teacher's need an easy definition of what communicative competence is (would Canale and Swain, 1980's theory be reasonable?) and simple ways to observe it or encourage it.
2. Increase children's understanding of language and culture
3. Become familiar with (nareshitashimu) English expressions and pronunciation.
Mr. Kan added that the goal of English activities is not for children to acquire skills in English but rather to raise their English ability in general and this also includes their ability in the first language. He also said that children would not receive any kind of numerical evaluation for English activities. He made a very interesting analogy, he said that listening and speaking English are like riding a bicycle, once you learn you never forget.
Jimbo's Analysis of the Goals
My analysis of the goals is that Monkasho wants to encourage children to become more active speakers and listeners. Mr. Kan talked about elementary school English as being a base from which jr. and sr. high school English will build off. Monkasho wants students who will work hard to make sense out of an ambiguous L2 situation rather than ask for a translation. They also want students who will not be shy to use the language. I think that any sane EFL teacher would want students like this. I think, though, that elementary school children are already endowed with the aforementioned traits. I believe that if one wants jr. and sr. high school students to be more active participants in class, then one has to change the nature of jr. and sr. high school English education (the reforms do make changes to middle and upper school English education). I am not opposed to English activities in elementary school but I am opposed to giving elementary school teachers, most of whom have no formal training in teaching English, the reponsibilty of reforming English education in Japan.

Training Teachers, Developing Teaching Materials
Mr. Kan emphasized that Japanese home room teachers would lead the English activities and receive assistance from ALTs, exchange students or local volunteers. He said for this to happen, it will be necessary to implement more professional development workshops for elementary school teachers. Here in Iwate, from this year we are expected to give more workshops to local elementary school teachers.
In terms of teaching materials, he discussed the English Note as well as more use of ICT (Information and Communication Technology).


David Ochi said...

This was an enjoyable read. Would it be possible to speak with you regarding the English Education market in Japan. I am currently visiting Japan from the US doing some research on the marketplace. Your insights would be appreciated.

Thank you! Keep up the good blogging!

Anonymous said...

This is a nice post.This is a good step of japan.Teaching to student is in benefit of Japan.Japanese are doing well. keep it up

Anonymous said...

A very good read. I agree with your assessment that many of the problems lie at the middle and high school levels, where English is not taught in order to create English speakers, but rather simply to pass written entrance examinations. While this system stays in place, nothing will change. I see this mandatory introduction in Elementary school actually making English education worse in Japan (I wouldn't have thought this possible 5 years ago), as asking people who do not speak English to be English teachers is absolutely ludicrous.

Bill R said...


I'm an ALT in one of those pilot schools and have been using Eigo Noto since last year. Despite how often you may here it called an English class, it really isn't. It's a lot closer to cultural studies. At our school, it isn't even called English but rather foreign language study. If you take a look inside Eigo Noto, you'll find not just English but, French Korean, Chinese, Swahili and other languages.

The idea of having "English" in elementary school stems from a study published by the Min. of Ed. which showed that children introduced to English in jr high school quickly lost interest after their first test, while children introduced to "English" in elementary school held their interests beyond their first test in jr high school.

Cost is another factor. In Japan, there are 23,000 elementary schools. Considering that the average elementary school has 4, 5th grade classes and 4, 6th grade classes, hiring ALT's at the lowly salary of 2100 (my salary...sigh) yen per 45min class would nearly $4,000,000 per week on a reoccurring basis.

One thing that I hear again and again, is the concern about how learning a foreign language might somehow corrupt learning Japanese (especially reading). If Japan truly wanted to teach English in its schools then it could simply look at successful programs in countries like China or South Korea or wherever, and model them. The fact is that they don't really want to do that and that's fine with me. I get paid to teach cultural studies stuff, not to solve Japan's big English in public schools reform problem. I'm not defending or bashing Eigo Noto--it is what it is.

Eigo NotoBill Ralens