Japanese Elementary Teachers Take On Teaching English

Lessons to start in grade five, but most teachers lack formal training

Elementary school teachers in Japan are studying up on their English. Come April, English will become a required subject for fifth- and sixth-graders. Preparing for these lessons is a new burden on elementary teachers, many of whom have not studied English since college, much less taught the language.

“These are not English teachers. They cannot speak English and they are being required to teach English,” said an American currently teaching in Japanese elementary schools, who did not want to be named. He calls the situation absurd.

Until this year, Japanese students began English class in seventh grade. From seventh grade through high school, reading and writing through rote learning is emphasized. Students must learn lists of vocabulary to pass high school and college entrance exams. Although all things English are popular in Japan, students often see learning English an impossible chore. Education policymakers hope to pique student’s interest by starting English lessons at a younger age.

“Their main goal is to expose kids to English, to take away their apprehension, to feel that [English] communication is not impossible, and that it is fun. They just want to get them interested in it,” said Matthew Cook, a Japan Exchange and Teaching (JET) Program teacher who is also chairman of the Association of JET teachers (AJET). Cook has taught English in Japan for four years and currently teaches elementary and junior high schools in Osaka.

Japan’s Ministry of Education is not requiring them to teach grammar or a lot of vocabulary. The language program for fifth- and sixth-graders calls for activity-based learning to encourage a positive attitude toward English study. The ministry wants students to build foundational communication skills and become familiar with basic English expressions. English lessons could be as little as one hour per week.

Cook thinks studying English in elementary school is a great idea, but he is concerned that some teachers are not ready for it.

There are “teachers who have been teaching for 30 years and they have not studied English or had any exposure to English since they were in university, or high school even,” said Cook. He says such teachers are apprehensive about teaching English.

“I have materials. … But am I mentally prepared to teach?“ wrote Iwata Masakazu, who teaches sixth grade.

A study by Japan’s Benesse Corporation last summer surveyed 2,326 teachers in charge of fifth- or sixth-grade classes. The study found 68 percent of them were not confident and 62 percent felt it was a burden; 20 percent of teachers said they had received no training. According to Benesse, the results indicate that government teaching materials and training have been “insufficient.”

Teachers have known for at least three years that the new curriculum requirement was coming. However, one complicating factor is that teachers regularly rotate through grades and between schools in their prefecture. So an elementary teacher could be teaching first grade one year, and sixth the next.

The ministry guidelines are fairly general and allow schools to set their own specific goals for the next two years. “Taking into account the circumstances of pupils and the local community, each individual school should establish objectives of foreign language activities for each grade in an appropriate manner and work to realize them over the period of two school years,” reads a ministry document.

To do this, fifth- and sixth-graders throughout the country have been given a text called Eigo Noto (“English Note”). It also includes audiovisual resources for teachers, who, if lacking confidence in their spoken English, can rely on playing recordings for students. Each chapter of the book covers a target sentence, such as greetings, I feel, I like/don’t like, foods, counting, and time expressions. The text also provides activities for teachers to use to engage the students.

In Beppu City, Oita Prefecture, where JET teacher May Schlotzhauer teaches English in elementary schools, they have been using Eigo Noto since last year.

Schlotzhauer said so far, teachers are doing “pretty well” with the textbook. “It’s surprising how easily it can be used by someone who doesn’t speak English,” says Schlotzhauer. She says the text walks teachers through the lessons step by step, and most have good English reading comprehension.

However, some professional educators question the extent to which teaching materials can empower someone with limited English to teach the language well. Certified elementary school teacher Christine Yang of Seattle, Wash., cautions against overreliance on textbook lesson plans.

“What happens when you follow the step-by-step directions and then you have 24 blank faces staring at you because they don’t get it. You are going to have to think of another way to teach it,” said Yang.

Neither Cook nor Schlotzhauer know of any specific English teaching training provided by the ministry to meet the new requirement. However, some individual school districts are training teachers. An inquiry to the Ministry of Education was not responded to by press time.

Hoping to help prepare elementary teachers to teach English, Cook lobbied the board of education to host a training seminar, but was turned down. Later the board agreed to allow his school to offer a voluntary seminar to teachers from three local elementary schools. The seminar will be offered once, lasting no more than two hours.

In Beppu City the situation is different. Teachers there are studying a textbook for educators to teach the teachers more natural English phrases they can use in class. Students can then learn them naturally and become accustomed to expressions like “raise your hand” and “stand up.” Schlotzhauer has been asked to teach a class for the teachers, to help them learn more expressions. She says that teachers and schools in her area have been very proactive about getting ready to teach English.

“All of the teachers I work with are extremely motivated—if not able to speak English,” she said.