Saturday, October 06, 2012

Are the number of class hours for English study in junior and senior high school enough?

Note: I first encountered this information a few years ago on a blog called on ikuma's log. Since the JHS and SHS curriculum has changed, I thought the information should be updated so I decided to write this post.

According to the Foreign Service Institute in the United States, to gain "General Professional Proficiency" in Japanese, a native English speaker would have to take 2200 hours of Japanese language classes and also live in Japan for a period of time.  Someone with "General Language Proficienct" means that a person can "speak the language with sufficient structural accuracy to participate in most formal and informal conversations of practical, social, and professional topics." Considering that learning English for a native speaker of Japanese would be equally difficult, this number can give us an idea about the time necessary for Japanese speakers to become highly proficient in English.

 Of course, the goal of JHS/SHS English education in Japan is not nearly as high as "General Language Proficiency.". This is the overall goal for senior high school English in Japan:
To develop students’ communication abilities such as accurately understanding and appropriately conveying information, ideas, etc., deepening their understanding of language and culture, and fostering a positive attitude toward communication through foreign languages.
 How many hours do students spend in English class in junior and senior high school? In junior high , students have English 4 times a week for 35 weeks and classes are 50 minutes each. This amounts to about 116.66 hours a year (35 x 4 x 50 minutes) and 350 hours for the whole three years.

Calculating senior high is a little more complicated.
A senior high school student who attends an academic high school (rather than a technical high school) will take the following classes. One credit is 35 class hours.

Basic English Communication  (2 credits)*
English Communication I (4 credits)
English communication II (4 credits)
English Communication III (4 Credits)
English Expression I (2 Credits)
English Expression II (4 Credits)
English Conversation (2 Credits)

Overall, a senior high school students will have 612.5 hours of English class in their three years (21 credits x 35 class hours x 50 minutes = 612.5 hours).

If you add the JHS and SHS hours, it means that secondary school students in Japan will have 962.5 hours of English class. Considering that the Foreign Language Institute is assuming that it will take highly motivated learners 2200 to become high level speakers of Japanese, it seems that 962.5 of English class for questionably motivated JHS and SHS students will not produce fluent speakers of English. I think that when teaching at the JHS and SHS level, we need to have realistic expectations on how well our students will learn how to use English. If a JHS or SHS student is a poor speaker and really labors to express herself, we should perhaps consider one reason to be the lack of time she had to learn English. Japanese are notorious for not being able to communicate in English after 6 years of secondary school study but this criticism might be unreasonable considering how much time it takes to master a second language which is might different from your own.

Post-script:
I am writing this with droopy eyes and am falling in and out of sleep. I hope this post has been readable! I will post now without proofreading, I'm too tired...

5 comments:

David Clayton said...

Dear Jimbo,

You are absolutely right that people should be realistic regarding the expectations of Japanese junior and senior high school students after 6 years of study. They should not be expected to be fluent speakers, but surely it is not unreasonable to expect them to be able to complete some basic communicative acts in English. I know from my own experience that there are students in Japan in their third year of high school who can not count to twenty in English.
Are they stupid? No.
Are they so bad at learning a language that counting to twenty after hundreds of hours of lessons and homework (and tests!) is impossible? No.
Is English that difficult? No.

So what is the problem? Sorry, but responsibility can only be laid at the teachers' door. The simple fact of the matter is that English (and other languages) are spectacularly badly taught in Japan, mostly by Japanese teachers.

I have observed many Japanese teachers' English lessons and had feedback sessions with them after the lessons. What is striking about them is the ritualized, unthinking nature of the lessons. To give an example of this, one of the most commonly utilized techniques (ask any Japanese person you know if they remember this from their English class in school - they ALL did it) is to open a page of prose and start reading from the top. They pause after every sentence, and the whole class repeats the sentence in a drone. It is incredibly boring for everyone involved, no feedback is given (pronunciation, connected speech, sentence level stress are all ignored). The teacher gets to the bottom of the page, any of the class who are still awake repeat the last sentence, then the book is closed and the "lesson" moves on.

After the class, when you ask the teacher, "what was the purpose of that activity?" they look at you like you have two heads. It seems that no one has ever asked them that before, and they have never considered that a classroom activity might have a purpose. It is simply something that is done.

My overall point is that it doesn't matter if you give students 300 or 600 or even 6,000 hours if all of them are spent doing boring useless activities with no thought given to how teachers can help students improve. "All English" lessons in Elementary schools? Yeah, OK. Get them hating the subject even earlier.

David Clayton said...

Dear Jimbo,

You are absolutely right that people should be realistic regarding the expectations of Japanese junior and senior high school students after 6 years of study. They should not be expected to be fluent speakers, but surely it is not unreasonable to expect them to be able to complete some basic communicative acts in English. I know from my own experience that there are students in Japan in their third year of high school who can not count to twenty in English.
Are they stupid? No.
Are they so bad at learning a language that counting to twenty after hundreds of hours of lessons and homework (and tests!) is impossible? No.
Is English that difficult? No.

So what is the problem? Sorry, but responsibility can only be laid at the teachers' door. The simple fact of the matter is that English (and other languages) are spectacularly badly taught in Japan, mostly by Japanese teachers.

I have observed many Japanese teachers' English lessons and had feedback sessions with them after the lessons. What is striking about them is the ritualized, unthinking nature of the lessons. To give an example of this, one of the most commonly utilized techniques (ask any Japanese person you know if they remember this from their English class in school - they ALL did it) is to open a page of prose and start reading from the top. They pause after every sentence, and the whole class repeats the sentence in a drone. It is incredibly boring for everyone involved, no feedback is given (pronunciation, connected speech, sentence level stress are all ignored). The teacher gets to the bottom of the page, any of the class who are still awake repeat the last sentence, then the book is closed and the "lesson" moves on.

After the class, when you ask the teacher, "what was the purpose of that activity?" they look at you like you have two heads. It seems that no one has ever asked them that before, and they have never considered that a classroom activity might have a purpose. It is simply something that is done.

My overall point is that it doesn't matter if you give students 300 or 600 or even 6,000 hours if all of them are spent doing boring useless activities with no thought given to how teachers can help students improve. "All English" lessons in Elementary schools? Yeah, OK. Get them hating the subject even earlier.

JH said...

David, Thanks for the very thoughtful comment. Usually, I only get comments from spammers so it is nice to have someone actually read this!

Are you talking about observing lessons at the JHS or HS level? My personal experience is that JHS teachers tend to use a wider variety of techniques than HS teachers. Also, on surveys, 2nd year JHS teachers have reported using the most English in class and every year after that until 3rd year of HS, the use of English in class decreases.

I do know A LOT of JHS and HS teachers who are always trying to learn new things and are very innovative. For this reason, I wish I could not agree with but I cannot deny the problem that you mention. I also think it is much more than just the teachers, however. Among the factors, which I am sure you are familiar with, are entrance exams, student motivation, no immediate benefit for students to learn to communicate in English, student and teacher identity, English teacher education, teacher overwork, etc...

David Clayton said...

Jimbo,
I have observed JHS and HS lessons, at a prestigious school that is "famous" for it's English programme. I have also seen the results of the JHS and HS English programmes in the thousands of adult students I have taught.

I agree that there are innovative and experimental JHS and HS teachers in Japan. However, from what I have seen they are the exception rather than the norm, and as with teachers in every other subject, the lessons that they teach are at the very bottom of a long list of priorities including meetings, club activities, singing competitions, home room duties and so on. Thus their impact is minimal.
I think you hit upon the fundamental point in this; test washback. The University entrance tests influence every aspect of education from at least Junior High upwards. Because there is generally no speaking and limited listening on the University entrance tests, speaking and listening are not considered important foci for lessons in JHS and HS.
The shame of it is that the MEXT guidelines highlight communicative competence almost as much as they highlight grammatical accuracy, but the Universities choose not to test this, so it is not taught, or if it is, the techniques employed are not effective, with the results described previously.
It is also worth pointing out that although the inability to understand and use spoken English is the most striking consequence of the current state of the English education system, students' ability to read and write is also exceedingly poor. The commonly-held position is that "we study grammar and reading in school, so we don't need to study that any more". Well, they do. Grammatical awareness is stringently tested by TOEIC, so if Japanese students had a good grasp of grammar, this ought to be reflected in their high TOEIC scores. Unfortunately this is not the case.
I do not espouse any particular method or approach, other than one where the teachers consider their students' needs when selecting techniques to use in lessons, and the students take an active part in their learning. If these two conditions were met, I am confident that the results in terms of students' overall language ability would be a significant improvement on the current state of affairs.

JH said...

David,

I could not agree more with your conclusion. That is also exactly what I have seen good teachers do. About university entrance exams, I think that they are definitely contributing to the problem, but not all of them are that bad (some really are). In many cases, if students could read or write English with a degree of competence, they could perform well on those tests. They shouldn't have as big of an influence as they do.

I am of the belief that teachers', learners', and stakeholders' beliefs about language learning and perceptions of the role of English in their every day lives have the biggest influence on how English is being taught. I do not think that the Course of Study is a reflection of the beliefs of most stakeholders in English education. Perhaps the entrance examination is a better reflection.

Thanks for taking the time to write a comment.

Jimbo