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Friday, July 19, 2002

HONING ENGLISH

ELEMENTARY SCHOOL PROGRAMS SPARK DEBATE

English education at early age gains momentum


First of two parts Staff writer Don't worry about grammar; listen more and enjoy speaking.

That is the mantra of newly introduced English lessons at public elementary schools across the country, seemingly poles apart from the goals of traditional English education in Japan.

News photo
Fiona Lavety, an assistant language teacher, conducts a sixth-grade English class at Ariyoshi Elementary School in Chiba.

Beginning with this school year, which got under way in April, some schools began teaching English as a program of international understanding in "comprehensive studies" classes.

The classes are organized at the discretion of individual schools under a new curriculum introduced by the education ministry.

While elementary school teachers who never taught English before have struggled through the semester, teaching without sufficient training and support, some local governments have assigned assistant language teachers from English-speaking countries to handle the classes.

But the way English is taught at elementary schools, and even whether the subject should be compulsory, is a matter of heated debate.

"What sports do you like?" assistant language teacher Fiona Lavety asked.

"I like soccer and basketball!" a boy answered.

"OK, well done!" she responded.

Lavety asked sixth-graders at Ariyoshi Elementary School in the city of Chiba to name their favorite sports, ice cream flavors and animals, while showing pictures relating to these topics. Although a few children were too shy to answer, most spoke out.

Yumiko Yamada, the teacher in charge of the class, was among the students answering Lavety's questions. The pupils also played games and sang in English.

Lavety, from Scotland, said the students are active and not afraid of making mistakes during class.

"I want children to be happy in my class, (to) be able to communicate with each other and express their feelings, ideas and opinions," she said.

Since she started teaching at the school in May, she said, the students have gradually come to understand her.

"Fiona is the main English teacher, and I play the role of assistant," Yamada said.

Only sixth-graders at this school have lessons with Lavety. Students in the third, fourth and fifth grades are taught English by their homeroom teachers.

The Chiba Municipal Government began providing sixth-grade English classes at all elementary schools in May, assigning professional teachers from English-speaking countries as assistant language teachers, or ALTs as they're known in Japan.

"Elementary school teachers had no previous experience teaching English," said Hiroaki Noguchi of the city board of education. "So we wanted ALTs to handle those classes."

With a 56.5 million yen budget, the city contracted two companies to dispatch about 20 native English-speaking assistant language teachers to all 119 local elementary schools so every sixth-grader has an English lesson taught by a native speaker once a week, Noguchi said.

"It is significant for children to listen to 'live' English, and they can learn about different cultures directly from these teachers," he said.

The city of Osaka-Sayama, Osaka Prefecture, is another municipality that has spent taxpayer money to provide young children with an English education.

The city interviewed and hired four assistant language teachers last year, and launched English classes at four day-care centers, 10 kindergartens and seven elementary schools.

"We wanted ALTs who are active and able to enhance the communication ability of the children through English lessons," said Mitsuru Yanagi of the city board of education.

The eight-year English program spanning preschool to elementary school grades is considered a rare move by a local government.

Pilot projects

While there are local governments like Chiba and Osaka-Sayama that entrust native English speakers with language classes, many other public schools are promoting their own teaching methods.

Teacher Kuniko Miura of Seishi Elementary School in Bunkyo Ward, Tokyo, said she and her colleagues began organizing lesson plans in 1998 as part of English lesson pilot projects carried out by the Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Ministry at 63 elementary schools between 1992 and 1999.

The teachers spent dozens of hours discussing lesson plans with different themes, including greetings and shopping, to span 11 months. The plans were later compiled in a 130-page report that is revised on a yearly basis.

"I experienced 'labor pains' creating something from scratch," Miura said.

When creating the plans, she examined the model lessons of other schools and private English schools catering to children, and also junior high school textbooks. She listened to English song tapes and CDs during her daily train commute.

Currently, third- to sixth-graders at her school have 35 hours of English classes a year, and assistant language teachers handle 15 of them, according to Miura.

"Now homeroom teachers have to teach more than half of the lessons. So they're trying hard to fulfill their responsibility," she said.

Although many argue that it is ideal for children to learn English from native speakers, Japanese teachers have played a crucial role in the classes, Miura said.

She referred to a case in which an assistant language teacher who conducted successful lessons at the school side by side with homeroom teachers. Although the assistant tried the same approach at another school, the children did not respond as well to the lessons; the teacher in charge of the class just stood at the back of the room and watched, she said.

"Homeroom teachers know how to get the kids involved," Miura said.

She also noted that not all native English speakers are good teachers, as she heard that one assistant who once taught at another school made the children practice pronunciation over and over until they got it just right, which left the students restless and bored.

At many schools, teachers say they should start with easy and familiar topics to foster comprehension.

In this sense, the English lessons at Sagamidai Elementary School in Sagamihara, Kanagawa Prefecture, are unique. The school, which is also involved in the education ministry's pilot projects, has children study English through the topics they research in comprehensive studies classes.

Fourth-graders are now studying the theme "water" in comprehensive studies classes. Then, in their English classes they learn the names of insects that thrive in water, according to teacher Shigeko Furukawa, who developed the lesson plans.

Although some insect names seem difficult to learn, Furukawa said the students pick up the words relatively easily because they developed an interest in the theme and water insects.

"I want the children to learn English in real situations," she said.

Furukawa's school, which is located next to an elementary school serving a U.S. military base, has more than 50 non-Japanese pupils whose parents are from overseas. She said her school has thus organized various international exchange programs with the cooperation of the community.

Infrastructure said lacking

Amid the heightened zest to teach young children English, however, many critics have come forward to say such classes at elementary schools were launched before a support system was in place.

All the ministry did last year was publish a handbook on English lessons for elementary schools and hold training seminars involving some 600 teachers.

Teachers seeking to promote English education hope assistant language teachers can come more often to their schools. But this is a decision only local governments can make, and it is based on their financial situation.

Most assistant language teachers are in the government-backed Japan Exchange and Teaching Program, under which 5,583 people came to Japan last year.

Although JET participants work mainly at junior high and high schools, the ministry decided that 20 assistant language teachers who have taught in Japan for three years can work at elementary schools this year to help get the newly started English lessons on track.

But with 23,964 public elementary schools as of May last year, there are not nearly enough assistant language teachers to go around. Some local governments, like the city of Chiba, contract companies to dispatch assistant teachers from English-speaking countries, or hire local foreign residents to handle such tasks.

The shortage of native speakers has led many schoolteachers faced with having to provide English lessons to individually seek help from the private sector to accomplish their new task.

Some have attended training courses at private English schools at their own expense. Others rely on lesson plans and teaching aids prepared by publishing houses.

Misako Inoue, editor in chief of the magazine kids com, which features various English lesson plans for elementary schools, said the ALC Press Inc. publication aims at helping teachers.

Supplements attached to the monthly magazine, including English song CDs and picture cards, are instantly made into teaching materials, Inoue said.

"Budgets for English education at elementary schools are limited because it is not yet a compulsory subject," she said. "Therefore, schools cannot buy enough teaching materials."

The magazine said it currently has a circulation of about 80,000.

Playing catchup ball

Elementary school English classes were hastily introduced at a time when boosting proficiency in the language is widely considered an urgent task to help Japan recover its economic power and come out on top amid fierce competition in the global market.

In South Korea, English became a compulsory subject in 1997 for the third through sixth grades. In Taiwan, English was introduced in the 2001 academic year for fifth- and sixth-graders.

Mineo Nakajima, a former Tokyo University of Foreign Studies president who chaired an education ministry panel on improving English education, emphasized the importance of Japanese enhancing their ability to speak the language.

"If Japan does not improve its English communications ability, it will be left behind by other countries," he said at a forum in March, urging that the language be taught at an early age.

Most parents apparently welcome the introduction of English education.

In municipalities where elementary schools have yet to offer English classes, parents are clamoring for them, worried that their children may suffer later when competing with others.

But there are also critics. They question the benefit of English education at public elementary schools as well as the heated desire to learn the language at such an early age.

Yukio Otsu, a professor of psycholinguistics at Keio University and the author of the book "Shogakko de naze Eigo?" ("Why should English be taught at elementary schools?"), pointed out the shortcomings of studying the language under untrained teachers.

"If children learn from a teacher who is eager to teach English but lacks a good command of the language, they would inherit the teacher's mistakes," Otsu said. "Once they learn the wrong thing, it is difficult to unlearn it."

Instead of promoting English education at elementary schools, Otsu said it would be more efficient to concentrate the limited budget on starting such classes at the junior high school level if the government wants to increase the number of Japanese proficient in English.

Children could gain a better understanding of the world's diverse cultures and societies if they are taught such topics in their mother tongue, instead of via English lessons, many of which have little to do with international understanding, Otsu said.

Teacher Tomoko Yoshida, who is in charge of English lessons at Ariyoshi Elementary School in Chiba, also said such classes should be separated from international understanding education, and should be taught by people who have been trained for that purpose.

"English classes should be conducted by professional English teachers as language lessons, not as a part of international understanding education," Yoshida said.

However such classes are arranged, many expect that English will become a compulsory subject at elementary schools in the near future, after an education ministry panel compiled a report to this end in January 2001.



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