More thoughts on (elementary school) English

I’ve had a few interesting conversations about this in the last couple of days, so I thought it might be good to summarize some of the ideas here.


Here is a Yomiuri article (in Japanese) that summarises the proposals. Basically the government is leaning towards establishing English as a subject in elementary school years five and six. Being a subject would mean that students would receive grades, use textbooks, have three classes a week, and be taught by specialized teachers.

English (or international fun happy studies, or whatever they end up calling it) would also be introduced into years three and four as an activity: one class a week, no grades or textbooks, sounds like taught by homeroom teachers. Basically what the older kids are doing now.

The Good

  • English in ES will have more legitimacy as a subject.
  • Students will have more contact hours.
  • The government has recognised that specialized teachers will be necessary.
  • Younger students will have the chance to start with English.

The Bad

Basically nothing is bad as such in the announcement, but there are several important uncertainties:

  •  We don’t know how the government intends to recruit/train the ‘specialised teachers’.
  • We don’t know how the curriculum will be developed.
  • We don’t know what kind of materials will be available to teachers.

My Prediction

If we look at how things have turned out in the past with previous educational reforms, we don’t have much to be confident about.

I attended Cory Koby’s interesting presentation yesterday at the JALT National Conference, on the topic of the new Course of Study for Senior High School. He explained that although MEXT can issue recommendations, ultimately it is up to boards of education, schools, and individual teachers to carry them out.

I suspect that schools will not end up with experienced, English-speaking teachers for these classes. I suspect that the materials will be much the same as the ones we see now, and I suspect that the usual companies will seek to profit by offering inappropriate technological solutions.

The disconnect between policy makers and implementation can be particularly wide in Japan, and much as with previous policies (including the current ‘teach in English’ edict) I fear this will not trickle down to the chalkface.

It’s interesting because many boards of education have ALTs who already teach ALL grades of ES once a week/twice a month and have done for the past 10-15 years. There is often a set curriculum lacking which can affect quality.

Slightly off-topic, but one thing I find depressing is the government’s motivation for introducing English at ES level. It’s less about improving communication skills and more about learning how to introduce (and brag about?!) Japanese culture to ‘foreigners’. This is important but shouldn’t be the primary reason for learning English and tends to push the idea that it’s something very different and ‘otherworldy’.

Hi Martin

Yes, when ES English first started up a lot of schools got less English as they were forced to get rid of their existing programs in favour of the government’s new one. Others have continued with stealth programs.

I personally think it’s important for people to know a bit about where they live and be able to talk about it, as it’s probably going to come up in conversation. Agree that it doesn’t necessarily need to be Yamato culture or anything other than what things are like here 🙂

My issue isn’t with learning how to talk about Japanese culture in English. I think that’s necessary and important. My concern is when politicians etc talk about studying English for that very purpose (i.e studying abroad and answering Qs about Japan and promoting the country) rather than English being a useful language to be able to communicate/work in the 21st century global economy. Think this narrow-minded ‘pride’ impacts on curriculum development and textbooks. The textbooks always list native speaker educators in them as advisers but I wonder how much they listen to them when I see strange or archaic English!

Absolutely. Funny how those same politicians can never seem to speak English themselves too, eh?

I suspect that the native speaker advisers for textbooks have a minor proofreading role. That was certainly the case whenever I have been asked to help with exams: I was expected to check the spelling/grammar but my input on the actual test items was less welcome 😉

Most schools I work at have 3-5 classes in each year level. Is every school in Japan going to employ 2 quality full time English teachers?

Hi Trevor

One would hope so, although this is of course just for the fifth and sixth grades. With three hours a week for each, one teacher could probably cover most elementary schools. A few might need two.

Of course, I would be surprised if most schools ended up with one good teacher (I would define this as someone who has a good command of English and teaching experience/ability).

I hope to be surprised.


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