Oxford Owl website

oxford owl

This is another post I have been meaning to write for a while. Oxford Owl is a free website created by Oxford University Press. It has a range of useful resources -I’ll briefly list a few here.

The website has reading and maths¬†sections. I haven’t done much with the maths so far.

The reading section has a range of free ebooks from the Oxford Reading Tree series. Most of the books can be read online, and feature the art, text, and audio. This is a wonderful resource for self-study at home or in the classroom.

There are also a couple of online games and a range of printable resources for students.

Finally, there is a lot of advice for teachers and parents on how to teach reading and support students with reading practice. Although much of this is aimed at native speakers, a lot of it transfers quite well to EFL.

Is anybody using Oxford Owl? Any good features I have missed? Please leave a comment below:

Every Kid Needs a Champion -what a great TED talk

I saw a fantastic TED talk the other day, and wanted to share it with you. I think it is very applicable to all teachers, including eikaiwa and university.

I would love to be half as inspiring as this woman.

If I ruled the world… the JET Programme

dreaming

So the story I wrote about yesterday seems to have caught the eye and the imagination of people I know. I have yet to see a positive response, even among former JETs.

There are various reasons for that, but the most important one seems to be the opportunity cost of this plan -there are probably much more effective things that could be done with the money. I’d like to put all that aside and just focus on what could be done to make the JET Programme and wider ALT utilization more effective.

1. Make JET an up or out program

Almost all ALTs are excited, happy, enthusiastic, and motivated when they first arrive in Japan. That energy and enthusiasm, combined with not knowing anything about Japan, is hugely beneficial for students. However, after a year, depending on how their year has gone, how they have been treated by teachers and schools, and how their particular ALT community is, they will change. Some will pick up bad habits and stagnate in the computer room, some will settle into a comfortable existence, and some will learn as much as they can about teaching and work hard to improve themselves.

At that point I believe most ALTs should move on. JET is, as many have mentioned, an exchange program, a way for Japan to increase its soft power, and a way to internationalize smaller and out of the way communities. I think it works very well in these respects, but most of the benefits are in the first year.

A small number of ALTs should be chosen for promotion, given extensive training and more responsibilities, and put on a career track to become special teachers (with possible tenure, a normal pay scale and benefits, and the ability to teach by themselves). These special teachers would then assist with managing regular ALTs as well as be assigned to schools as English teachers.

This way the current goals of JET programme would be met while allowing it to serve as a source of high-quality native speaker instructors.

2. More oversight

Make schools and boards of education submit plans for how they intend to train and utilize ALTs, and follow up to ensure that they do. Schools that fail to find a useful and productive role for their ALTs should not receive one. The huge variation in how ALTs are treated is probably one of the worst problems with the system, and a lot of it is due to the ‘hands-off’ nature of the ‘recruited centrally, employed locally’ approach currently in use.

3. More training and guidance for schools and teachers

In many cases, teachers and schools aren’t quite sure what to do with ALTs. I would like to see the Ministry of Education provide more training and examples of best practice to schools and teachers. Often, the youngest teachers are assigned to be ALT supervisors, whereas in many cases the head of English would be more suitable.

Many ALTs are stuck in ‘tape-recorder’ team-teaching situations where they basically sit in on another teacher’s class and participate sporadically. This is not particularly useful or fulfilling. Instead, ALTs could take small groups aside for speaking practice (like the Spanish, French, and German language assistants in my own secondary school did), mark and check written work, help with creating written, audio, or online materials, or provide after-school teaching for students.

Having trusted and experienced native teachers as described in 1. above would also help here.

Conclusion

I don’t think the JET programme is all bad. Yes, I would rather see some of the money go towards training Japanese teachers or creating more effective teaching materials (particularly online). However, I think the JET programme provides some very positive results for Japan, and I would be sad to see it eliminated completely.

Finally, one potential positive for this plan is that it may go some way to reversing or even ending the trend towards outsourcing ALTs or teachers, which I think has no redeeming features. It is very possible that the new JET ALTs will not be adding to the total pool of ALTs, but rather replacing assistants provided by dispatch companies. That would be a fine result in my opinion. The sooner the parasitic ALT dispatch companies are driven out the better.

I look forward to your comments!

36,000 JET ALTs a year?

jet programme banner

I saw this mentioned in the news last week, and a post on Mutantfrog Travelogue reminded me of the story just now.

I have a lot of history with the JET Programme. I first came to Sendai on JET, had three great years in junior high schools and an elementary school, then was involved in running the Miyagi program as the Chief ALT Advisor for four years. I think I saw the best and the worst of JET.

The best thing about JET is that it has the potential to take intelligent, educated, energetic, and motivated people and put them in a position where they can interact with, inspire, mentor, and befriend Japanese children and teachers. When this works it works incredibly well, and I have had the pleasure of working with some exemplary JETs in my time.

The worst thing about JET is when teachers and schools are not supportive, don’t provide clear working guidelines or support their ALTs, and host institutions are unwilling to actively manage JETs and provide feedback and discipline where necessary.

Assistant Language Teachers on the JET Programme are assistants. They are able to help, support, and contribute to classes when their colleagues and schools work to make that possible. Like many things in English education in Japan, training and implementation are going to make most of the difference, not spending more money or deciding to put an ALT in every school (whether they want one or not). There seems to be an expectation that ALTs should be radically improving English education in Japan, but to me that is like saying that the new textbooks should magically do that. It’s not going to happen unless the teachers and schools facilitate and allow it to.

In the spirit of my ‘if I ruled the world’ blog posts from last month (on elementary school, junior high school, high school, and university¬†English education in Japan) I am going to come up with some suggestions for the JET Programme on the blog tomorrow.

In the meantime, what do you think about the proposal to double JET numbers? Any good or bad experiences with JET? Please leave a comment below.

If I ruled the world… elementary school English in Japan

elementary school

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.

My Recommendations

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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?

 

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