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?


1A- acknowledge that the skilled ALT be the primary teacher and the HR teacher assist with the class, providing instruction, clarification, etc, when ASKED for by the ALT.

All too often, I end up being the primary teacher because the HR teachers know I am a professional teacher with English language teaching certification.

Hey Steve

Thanks for commenting. Do you mind being the primary teacher?

I don’t think it’s fair to ask the homeroom teachers to lead English classes at the moment, given the lack of training/guidance they have, which is why I think each school should have an English specialist, be that an ALT or an elementary teacher who is appointed to that position. Either way, that specialist should be part of the school.

The current system where an ALT is parachuted in every so often is not enough in my opinion. Each school needs a permanent English specialist to oversee the program.

Hi Ben,

These are all excellent ideas, all of which have been implemented in various towns (that’s a key distinction) I’ve come across (my town, included). The reason why this has occurred more in small, rural communities is due to the fact that they have fewer students and fewer schools and thus the English specialist (often an ALT) can make regular (often weekly) visits to schools. In larger communities, the sheer number of schools (JH and Elem.) usually outstrips the number of ALTs that can be budgeted for, leaving HR teachers to fend for themselves through the root-canal that is Hi Friends (and it’s woeful teacher support).

As Steve mentioned, in these small communities the ends up being a tacit understanding that the ALT will be the lead teacher. There are several reasons for this, including HR teachers being intimidated by their lack of EFL training (no, it’s not enough that they can speak a few words in English), the ease in which a skilled ALT can bring out the most from a classroom of kids. ALTs I know have stated plainly that allowing HR teachers to dictate the lesson plan, execution and flow of an English lesson often ends up slowing down the lesson considerably and greatly reduces the amount of English production, leading to a lot of boredom for the students (and stress for the HR teacher).

I will say though, that while these suggestions are very good, there is a good reason to never disclose them to Monkashou. Namely, some communities beginning (around 1998) began implementing some excellent English activity and cultural/international education programmes at all grade levels in elementary schools. This was during the mandated “period for integrated study” time and some of these programmes were producing some excellent results.

Then, as the pressure mounted to introduce elementary school English officially, Monkashou decided to implement their watered-down, “English” ‘Eigo Note’ (now called, ‘Hi Friends’) book, dumping it onto schools for free while effectively banning schools from teaching any English to lower grades, lest some students get ahead of others in the country. Their efforts, thus far have been largely ineffective and confusing, and demotivating. Some communities have since created workarounds for the ‘HI Friends’ programme in order to provide a more meaningful EFL experience to their students. If Monkashou were to hear gripes that their plan isn’t working well, they may feel the need to “step in” once again with another, “lowest common denominator”, from Tokyo on high, holy writ to “fix” the perceived problem, when, in fact twhat these progressive communities wish most of all is to be left to their own devices. Like so many things in life, local is better.

Thanks Mark!
It’s nice to see that some schools/communities are doing English in ES well. Is it too much to hope that all schools get a shot at a decent, non-stressful implementation of the program though?
Especially at the moment with the talk of 10 trillion yen to be invested in education, it would be good to have some input from the people doing the actual work for a change. Your voice and the voices of elementary school teachers need to be heard as the country decides where to go next.

Yes, that’s true. I’m an optimist at heart, so let’s throw caution to the wind and come up with a few more ideas.

Assuming we had carte blanche to do as we please to reform elementary English education:

As you suggested:

– A full-time, English specialist* assigned to a school, such that each grade can receive at least one lesson per week. This would mean one teacher at a maximum of two or three schools, depending on the number of classes per school.

*(specialists should come from the ranks of the JET programme and other private equivalents; with proven skills from a minimum of in class experience in a Japanese public school system.)

– a well-rounded curriculum (written and implemented by foreign EFL specialists) with clear goals for each grade, promoting a smooth transition to junior high (which, of course would need its own reforming).

– Cultural lessons interspersed with the English curriculum that are informative, interesting and don’t lead to a chorus of “Yappari, ‘gaikoku’ IS different.”

How about some other things?

Not sure about specialists having to be native speakers -there are some amazing, creative, passionate ES teachers that would be great if they had the time and the training to take charge of English classes…

The cultural lessons sounds good -I’m trying to introduce CLIL (content through English) at the private language school I help with ๐Ÿ™‚

Nice can of worms here Ben. Personally I would prefer that there were less ALTs in the classrooms as typically they are rotated through so often (whats the average length of a ALT stay in JPN?) students are exposed to people with minimal or nil experience in teaching Japanese kids language and awareness of the culture.
Having a native ALT responsible for teaching English can help establish in kids minds that Japanese cant speak English and an ALT who can’t understand Japanese further reinforces the stereotype that Japanese is just for Japanese.
I would prefer to see local Japanese English speakers employed in the classrooms as the primary English teachers and as they are local and are paid at local rates there is much better value for money in terms of hours of education per yen. Calculate an ALTs yearly salary then add in the accommodation allowances and insurance etc and divide by actual class time and you have very expensive classes.
Japanese English Speakers as teachers would (a) lead by example that Japanese speak English (b) understand the culture (c) speak and read Japanese so JES and class teacher communication is enhanced and thus lessons are more productive.
As these teachers gain experience their lessons become more and more productive each year with better outcomes.

Kids should have an hour a week every week and as they progress up the grades more and more English can be incorporated into other core subjects.

Romaji should be taught in Highschool where there is a faint chance that they will use it in the next few years. Teaching it in 3rd or 4th grade just sets up JHS kids for trouble. Oh and make the first 6 years noisy and fun B4 pubety sets in and and shuts down the willingness to actually talk in front of the class.( This happens in any culture) JHS should be a time where writing and reading can come more into play as the kids already will have the ability to speak English cause they practiced it back when they were allowed to be noisy and actually have fun at school.

Oops it’s late and I have to catch some Z’s, hope the foot is getting better. Are you selling your bike? I might be interested if you are.

Completely agree with you there, Simon. Romaji could be much improved by just teaching Hepburn-style romaji from the beginning!

If my bike wasn’t in the scrapyard, I would be riding it once the cast comes off ๐Ÿ˜‰

3 Apr 2013, 1:02pm
by Trevor Lawless


Simon may have a point about a Japanese English speaking teacher being cheaper, and the other benefits he mentions may also be true but the stereotype he paints of foreign ALT’s is not necessarily correct. In Fukuoka (as far as I am aware) all the Public Elementary School ALT’s or guest teachers are hired directly. There are no accommodation costs etc.. Many of the teachers I know have been living here for quite a while and plan to live here for a long time and may be raising families here. The teachers are often pretty experienced in teaching English to Japanese students. (Yes, I am one of these teachers). Most would also have basic Japanese skills. Some teachers are school owners, ETJ contributors etc..

Hi Trevor
I don’t think it matters if the teacher in charge of English is a native speaker or not, as long as they have the skills and experience (and the time) to adequately supervise the program. Right now it seems few teachers have all three ๐Ÿ™‚

3 Apr 2013, 3:07pm
by Trevor Lawless


I agree, and I wish they would implement a program such as the one you outlined in your post. With better goals and results everyone involved may be more motivated to make the time required and gain the necessary skills.

Hi, Ben. Thanks for writing this post. Jumping in a bit late, but, here it goes.

As an elementary teacher, I think the following about your ideas:

1- I agree with 1, though I also think if more universities could send up-and-coming students into schools with professors experienced in teaching elementary school, even more benefit could be seen long-term. Also, it could perhaps make up for any lack in finding qualified or specialist English teachers. I especially agree that specialist don’t have to be native speakers of English. I know many wonderful non-native teachers, from whom I have learned an enormous amount.

2- That’s what we do at our school, except our kids get two hours in 1st and 2nd grade and one hour in 3rd-6th. Our 2nd graders leave that year with sound (no pun intended) phonemic awareness and in 3rd grade we are able to begin blending CVC words. Songs, chants, storybooks (authentic and graded all have a place) should be maxed out. In addition, all manner of language should be introduced in a MEANINGFUL way, aka, not devoid of context or relevance. Simply drilling random vocabulary should be avoided at all costs, IMHO!!!!

3- Agreed. Those songs and chants they got in your “if Ben ruled the world class” at elementary school, should be introduces again in Jr. High as part of learning how to read, how to break down and use grammar and for recycling vocabulary. I don’t think it has to be the first week, but scattered throughout.

If only this were the current situation! Even at our very lucky school #3 is missing and teachers’ abilities are a mixed bag at times. Well, perfect doesn’t exist, but we have a lot of people who care, so I am hopeful we can do better. Thanks for starting this discussion.


Hi Cat

Thank you so much for commenting. It’s great to hear positive tales from the trenches! What kind of elementary school is it? Public? Private?

It seems from people’s comments that there is a fair amount of experimentation going on across the country. Hopefully the successful models will spread organically ๐Ÿ™‚

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