A less-than-desirable ALTernative

An increasing number of primary schools are using assistant language teachers to teach English to children ahead of new regulations [making English education at primary schools compulsory] that go into effect in spring.

However, most of these ALTs are supplied by third-party businesses, a fact that can lead to less-than-desirable situations in class.

In Kashiwa, public schools do not directly employ foreign teachers, instead contracting third parties to supply them. One reason for this is cost-cutting.

However, when using such ALTs, teachers are not permitted to directly instruct their assistants.

In April, a teacher asked an ALT to place cards on the blackboard. Though on the surface this may seem a harmless request, the Chiba Labor Bureau demanded the school instruct its teachers to not ask anything of the ALTs, as it would be considered an order, and making the use of a third-party appear as mere camouflage.

Following the order, the school opted for the safest approach: banning all conversation between teachers and ALTs during class.

“This was the best way for us to give our children the opportunity to hear and use natural English,” said one Kashiwa City Board of Education official. The city says it plans to improve the situation after the next school year.

Kashiwa is not alone: Many local governments use third-party ALTs. Other local labor bureaus, too, have cited problems regarding the system.

Starting next spring, English will be compulsory for fifth- and sixth-graders, though they will not be graded on their performance.

The Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Ministry recommends that schools use ALTs whose mother tongue is English so students can improve their communication skills by familiarizing themselves with natural English.

Few schoolteachers are considered proficient in English, a situation that has increased the desire for native ALTs.

Throughout the country, local education boards are working hard to secure a sufficient number of ALTs.

A spokesperson for one intermediary said: “We receive requests for ALTs, but the fact is, sometimes we have to turn the request down because we don’t have enough.”

Compounding the situation is the fact that ALTs are not required to have teaching experience or qualifications, meaning the quality of ALT depends entirely on the company through which they are contracted. And few ALTs are proficient in Japanese.

Tokyo’s Adachi Ward Board of Education stopped using ALTs at primary schools last school year, but began employing Japanese teachers who speak fluent English.

“Even if [an ALT] is a native speaker, it’s difficult to teach if they can’t communicate. We can’t get enough ALTs who are good at Japanese,” one board official said.