This is the first instalment of my master plan to improve English education in Japan. I’m going to start with elementary school (I don’t have anything concrete to say about pre-elementary school education, especially given how fragmented and individualised it is) today, with junior high school, senior high school, and university following later in the week.
The Current Situation
My impression of what is going on in elementary school at the moment: English is taught in elementary schools for 30 hours each in the 5th and 6th grades. It is not a subject, but rather part of general studies. The purpose of the classes is not to acquire English per se, but rather to get exposure to language learning and international issues in a light-hearted and fun way. Classes are taught by homeroom teachers and visiting assistant language teachers (both native and non-native speakers of English). The current guidelines state that reading and writing should not be introduced. There is little training for elementary school teachers, and the curriculum is limited to the official textbook series Hi Friends.
My Thoughts on the Current System
I was cautiously optimistic about English classes being rolled out across all elementary schools. I used to work in an elementary school that was a test case for the city -all students had English once a week and the school had a specialist teacher who only taught English as well as a full-time ALT (me)- and I thought maybe the government would implement something like that.
Instead it has been a bit of a waste. The goals are unclear and vague, there has not been anywhere near enough training (I have done training for elementary school teachers, and it was discouraging to see how stressed and scared they were about conducting English classes), the content of the classes doesn’t match the students’ developmental levels, and there is little to link the elementary school and junior high school curriculums.
I still believe it could be very beneficial for students to start English earlier than junior high school, but it has to be done properly. If not, it might not be worth doing at all.
I would like to make several suggestions as to what the government could do to improve English education in elementary schools. I have tried to make them as specific and concrete as possible.
- Assign an English specialist teacher to each school
This teacher would be responsible for leading English classes alongside the homeroom teacher. The teacher could be an elementary school teacher or an ALT. This would take a lot of pressure off regular homeroom teachers, as well as allowing English specialists to develop their expertise.
- Implement English throughout elementary school
I would recommend five minutes per day for first and second graders, based around songs and short chants. Third and fourth graders could learn vocabulary thematically and practice simple phrases, again in daily short sessions. Fifth and sixth graders would learn basic phonics.
- Link the elementary and junior high school curricula
Students can do a quick review in the first weeks of junior high school before continuing to build upon what they have already done. By covering basic phonics as well as learning vocabulary in elementary school, students could concentrate on learning how to use the language in junior high school.
I think the three proposals above would be a good beginning for making English instruction in elementary schools more effective. Any thoughts? What would you add or take away from that list?