This is the second of four posts on how I would improve English education in Japan. Today I am going to be looking at English in junior high school. You can see my thoughts on elementary school English here.
The Current Situation
Junior high school is where serious English study begins. The course of study starts off reasonable (most students can use the English they learn in the first year) but by the middle of the second year the learning curve is too great and it becomes an academic exercise instead of learning to use the language. Many teachers just go through the textbook page by page, with the occasional activity or worksheet thrown in for variety. Classes are large (35-40 students) and passive: students listen to explanations and take notes a lot of the time.
My Thoughts on the Current System
Junior high school English has a bad reputation in Japan. Some of the problems at elementary school (particularly the guidelines against teaching reading and writing) are a direct result of MEXT trying to make sure that classes there are not in the same style as JHS English. Some of this is structural (the large classes, the high school entrance tests) and some situational (overworked teachers and unimaginative materials). Many students start off excited to be learning English, but by the end of the second year the increasingly difficult classes mean that a large number of them are lost and frustrated.
I want to focus on specific measures that could be implemented fairly easily. Here is my list:
- Improve teacher training
Many teachers at junior high school mean well but did not receive sufficient training pre-service and are not incentivised to pursue further training after they start working. There is a real need for both incentives and opportunities for teachers to develop their teaching skills and their language skills. This should include local training within schools and local areas and internationally, with some teachers being sent on teacher training and language courses abroad. These teachers should then become trainers to spread the new knowledge within their school and local areas.
- Hugely increase understandable input
At the moment junior high school students get very little English input (often just their textbooks and the odd handout). Introducing extensive reading and listening, both on- and off-line, would make a big difference to students’ skills and motivation. Students should be listening for meaning from the first grade, and reading for meaning from the middle of the first grade. A large amount of comprehensible input would allow students to use the words and grammar they study, and cement their knowledge of them. Graded readers and online listening (accessible through mobile phones or computers) would not cost very much compared to the potential benefits.
- Have students work on productive skills
Students also need to produce language, both spoken and written. Currently students have few chances to speak, and even fewer to write. If students have a chance to try to produce personalised language they are much more likely to be able to use it later. Students should be producing short dialogues, presentations, and writing assignments regularly.
- Teach students how to learn
Most students do not know how to learn a language, and few schools specifically instruct them on this key aspect. At the start of English classes, and regularly throughout the three years, students should have the chance to learn about and practice key language learning skills, such as how to use a dictionary, how to learn vocabulary using flashcards, how to learn vocabulary in context, how to find English content online, etc.
- Reduce class sizes
With the falling population many schools are finding they have extra classrooms and teachers. Instead of merging schools and closing them, the government should seize this chance to reduce class sizes from the current standard of 40 to something more in line with the rest of the OECD: 20-30 students per class.
What do you think? Would the five suggestions above be enough to improve English education in junior high school? Have I overlooked anything?