The education ministry has embarked on reform of the English education system as part of efforts to develop a generation of skilled workers who can play an active role at a global level.
The Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Ministry has mapped out the reform plan to be implemented in 2020, the ministry source said.
The reform includes plans to start English studies at an earlier primary school grade and allow some middle school classes to be taught in English.
The ministry also hopes to have high school students acquire the ability to express themselves fluently through discussions and presentations, according to the source.
While classes taught entirely in English have just been introduced at high schools this fiscal year, there are mixed feelings about the reform—including anticipation and confusion—among teachers, observers said.
“Form pairs,” Sho Kobayashi, a teacher at Tokyo Metropolitan Hakuo Senior High School, said in English during his English class. He delivered instructions in rapid English to first-year students. “Time is up,” he said.
Since the school in Taito Ward, Tokyo, introduced classes taught only in English in April last year, it has struggled to make the full switchover.
Kobayashi majored in English pedagogy in university and graduate school. As he has no experience studying abroad for an extended period of time, he teaches students by visiting English classes at other schools and practicing accurate pronunciation using a CD included with a textbook, among other means.
During the Dec. 20 class, Kobayashi used no Japanese. Under his instruction, the students read a textbook, and discussed their ideas in English in pairs and groups.
“At first, it was hard to follow, but I’ve gradually gotten used to hearing English,” a student said.
Kobayashi said students consulted with him one after another about the class by around early May. “The students told me, ‘It’s hard to understand what’s being said,’ or ‘I’m worried that I might not be able to keep up,’” he said.
In response, Kobayashi tried various methods to help them understand what he was saying by changing his words and expressions to simpler English. He also designed his lessons to follow a recognizable flow. Eventually, his class started to run more smoothly.
During each lesson, he still moves from seat to seat, checking students’ pronunciation, marking beats by playing castanets.
Kobayashi said he supports the government’s reform plan to conduct English-only classes from the middle-school level.
“It’s important to become accustomed to English earlier in life,” he said.
Meanwhile, right after entering high school, many students speak English with Japanese accents.
“There are great differences among teachers in terms of conversation and pronunciation lessons. It’s necessary to raise the performance levels of teachers as a whole by providing training programs for them,” he said.
Teachers’ proficiency key
The government’s reform plan also seeks to raise teachers’ abilities to teach English.
The ministry plans to study requiring teachers to accomplish a certain level of results of English proficiency tests including the Test in Practical English Proficiency (Eiken) and TOEFL.
A private English conversation school said an increasing number of teachers have been taking lessons.
Aeon Corp., which operates English conversation schools nationwide, said there has been a substantial increase in the number of primary school teachers who enroll in its courses.
Primary school educators have been teaching English to fifth- and sixth-graders as a “foreign-language activity” class with a native speaker serving as an assistant language teacher. The main activities in the classes are singing songs and playing games in English.
After the starting age for “foreign language activity” is moved up to the third grade, instructors will be expected to teach basic reading and writing of English to fifth- and sixth-graders as a full-fledged subject.
Many primary school teachers said English has always been a tough subject for them.
“I can’t have a conversation with ALTs, so I communicate with them by writing. I can’t even consult with them about the lesson,” Aeon quoted a teacher as saying.
A 23-year-old high school teacher of Chiba Prefecture who was taking lessons said, “I’m paying to attend private lessons with my own money, but it’s not a training program for instructors of English.”
“The bottom line is high school entrance examinations. Entrance examinations primarily focus on reading comprehension and grammar. If the exam style doesn’t change, it’s hard to change the way we teach,” said a English teacher of a public middle school in Saitama.
The education ministry was spurred to compile a reform plan for English education by experts’ advice that the current system does not instill sufficient speaking ability, which will prevent students from fully adapting to globalization.
“After six years at middle and high school, students should be able to hold a conversation in English, but it doesn’t work that way in this country,” said Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Minister Hakubun Shimomura when he announced the reform plan. “We are switching from English for entrance examinations to English that will let us communicate with people in foreign countries.”
There have been many similar suggestions in past years, leading to such countermeasures as the introduction of high school English classes taught only in English. However, there were reports of cases in which only the teachers spoke English, with no response from the students.
“The objective of emphasizing communication is not being realized. We thought further strengthening was necessary,” a senior official of the ministry said.
Concerning entrance exams for high schools and colleges, which currently focus on translation, reading and grammar, the ministry plans to ask schools to place more importance on communication. It believes that changes in entrance exams can promote reform in classes at middle and high schools.
The greatest challenge to realize the reform plan is nurturing competent teachers. It will be difficult to secure the 73,000 English teachers needed to cover all primary schools nationwide.
The education ministry plans to staff more schools with native English assistant language teachers (ALTs) and to utilize private citizens who can teach English, in addition to carrying out training courses for teachers.
Whether the reform plan can be successfully carried out by the initial goal of 2020 depends on how many competent English teachers the ministry can cultivate.
“If students learn English from primary school as an official subject, they can have more practical English classes at middle and high schools. That would be very effective,” said Prof. Kensaku Yoshida at Sophia University, an expert on English education.
However, “some students become to hate English as soon as they start learning English grammar at middle school,” Yoshida said. “If primary schools simply teach what middle schools currently teach, that would only cause ‘English allergies’ at an earlier stage. It’s necessary to nurture competent teachers who can teach in ways suitable for different ages.