Current concerns (16): The state of English language instruction

The Education, Science and Technology Ministry unveiled late last month a draft version of new teaching guidelines for high schools, requiring for the first time that English classes, in principle, should be taught in the language. With the revised guidelines to be implemented in 2013, the proposed policy has been causing anxiety for many English teachers.

Some schools have already been trying to teach their English classes in the language, with Yamato-Nishi High School in Yamato, Kanagawa Prefecture, as one such example.

When The Yomiuri Shimbun visited a recent class for second-year students, Ryoji Murakoshi, 43, placed photographs of a bat, a leech and a mosquito on the blackboard, before asking: “Which are you the most familiar with?”

However, most of his students did not respond, apparently because they had not yet learned the word “familiar.” Recognizing the puzzlement on their faces, Murakoshi repeated the question, but this time used words the students had already learned: “Which do you know the best?”

The rephrased question invited feedback from his students, leaving the teacher confident he had been able to help them grasp the new term, “familiar.”

Murakoshi spoke English during almost all of the 90-minute class, except for when he discussed grammatical issues in Japanese.

The publicly run institution was designated by the ministry as a Super English Language High School (SELHi) in 2006. Even before the designation, some of its English classes were conducted almost entirely in the language, but the pilot-school status has driven all of its English classes to follow the approach.

“I felt embarrassed when I first took classes taught entirely in English, but now I’m used to them,” a second-year student said.

For the school’s teachers, who as students took lessons that focused on grammar and direct translations into Japanese, it has been a huge challenge to shift from the more familiar approach.

However, Murakoshi said, “It’s not too hard to teach this way if we use easy vocabulary.”

On a different day, Tokyo metropolitan Kamata High School in Ota Ward was offering an English class to some freshmen who found it difficult to keep up with their regular classes.

The teacher was slowly writing on the blackboard sentences in English to review what the students were expected to have learned in middle school. “When translating English into Japanese, you should usually start at the end of the sentence,” he said.

The teacher worked slowly through the teaching materials, also introducing review, in an attempt to keep his students interested in the subject matter.

“I used to get bored in English class in middle school,” said a female student taking the class. “But now I understand it a little better.”

It seems to be quite difficult to teach English only in the language in classes like this one. Also at issue is whether most high school teachers are really capable of adopting the approach.

A ministry official says “70 percent” of them can do so because they are professionals in English education. However, Prof. Minoru Kurata of Poole Gakuin University in Sakai, Osaka Prefecture, is not so sure.

The expert was once invited by a prefectural board of education to train local high school teachers. “Considering the level of English they have right now, I don’t think we can expect them to offer quality classes [when they teach them in English],” Kurata said. “Some of them should start from scratch in terms of their speaking skills. We should offer them training programs designed to help them teach English classes in the language.”

Do standardized tests imply objectivity?

Dr. Kurita was the head of the Committee for Educational Planning Reform, one of those university committees whose function Willard had never quite understood. Kurita was an affable type, so when Willard got the message to meet in Kurita’s office he entered without trepidation.

“Ahh, Mr. Willard. Good morning. Have a seat. Your Japanese is better than my English so is it OK if I speak Japanese?”

“Fine.” Willard was happy to see his efforts in Japanese recognized. Kurita seemed upbeat. “Mr. Willard, we’re very happy with what you are doing in the English section. But we have a suggestion to make it even more successful.”

Willard had an inkling as to what was coming. He had heard rumors. “We’re going to add an e-learning element to the English curriculum. It will function something like a TOEIC preparation course, with a test at the beginning and at the end to measure the students’ progress.” Kurita proffered some glossy advertising materials.

“How will this affect my current classes, Dr. Kurita?”

“If anything, it will make them easier! The tests and study materials are already written. Students will study and practice online using the practice quizzes. So, in your classes all you’ll have to do is explain to students the items they don’t know well and answer their questions about them.”

Willard felt sheets of frustration wave through his chest. He hadn’t expected it would mean this. “Uh, what exactly is the purpose of this new e-learning course? What are the goals?”

Kurita was confident in his reply. “As you know, a lot of university students don’t really improve their English after taking the entrance exam. But we want them to graduate from this university with the ability to collaborate with their peers in other countries, to give presentations in English, to move on to higher research in English if they want. With e-learning study materials, through pre- and posttesting, we have an objective way of measuring their achievement. We can show this to high schools, or the education ministry, so they’ll see objectively that our students are improving.”

Willard stayed quiet for a moment. Kurita sensed his unease.

“What do you think, Mr. Willard?”

Willard hoped to stifle the urge to sound whiny or like a know-it-all. He had seen other teachers lose battles by taking this tactic, yet he couldn’t just let this slide by.

“Well, I think this type of study is fine as supplementary material. It can never really hurt any students to practice or study any English. But there are several things I don’t quite understand.”

“Go ahead. Please tell me.”

“First, I don’t see the connection this program has with the goals of students doing presentations or international collaboration. Look at the practice questions on the sample. This one, for example, is a multiple choice about which of the four situations described call for a transitive verb. The next one is about vocabulary, ’cause for’ versus ‘reason for.’ The next one focuses on forming reflexive pronouns. These are all discrete items. There’s no context and also no connection with using these forms productively. So, even if the students answer these test questions correctly, how do we know they’ll understand the underlying principles for usage or even remember them after the test is done, let alone that they will be able to apply them appropriately in real-life, real-time situations such as international meetings or presentations?”

“You can explain the principles in more detail in your classes to help them remember.”

“Excuse me, Dr. Kurita, but please think of my actual classes. Imagine, 35 students who have done a section of the e-learning as homework. I wait for students to ask questions–which is unlikely to happen because almost no student volunteers a question anyway–but even if one or two do, maybe the other 34 students already know or don’t care about that item. So basically, I’d be explaining some discrete point of English to one or two students. And these test items are all just individual shards of English. Even if they somehow master these particular forms from e-learning there are millions of them to cover–and that’s before they are actually applying language in real, meaningful contexts. It would just be explaining about the language as opposed to having students trying to use language meaningfully. Knowing some details about English versus cognitive engagement. That methodology doesn’t produce competent English users when used in high schools for entrance exam preparation so why would it work any better at universities? It would be very boring for both me and the students and, in my opinion, it’s unsuited to a university setting.”

“But Mr. Willard, this new system is objective. We can measure the students’ achievement!”

Willard was finding it hard to hold back now. “But how is this ‘objective’? Just because a score is produced? What does that number actually represent? The students don’t even do the same test at the end of the course that they take at the beginning so it’s not measuring any kind of achievement. It’s a random checking of arcane points of English, not a holistic view of English skill development. It’s a collection of discrete points chosen by a commercial interest from outside our university who does not know, or even care about, our students’ learning goals. And to be perfectly frank I don’t feel good about people from outside telling me what the content of the courses should be and what it takes to improve students or how success or achievement can be measured. Why are outsiders determining our educational policy, my classroom policy?”

“But Mr. Willard, how do you know your students are improving now? Do you have any objective proof of their improvement?”

“In my classes, the process is just as important as the product. Students use all four skills to do tasks and projects, like role-plays, poster sessions, replicating various types of communication with English speakers. In carrying out these tasks students are trying to apply English in context, a kind of hypothesis testing. I provide hints and guidance both before and during the tasks. As they negotiate the task they may notice something isn’t working well, and this is where I can offer suggestions and guide them until they can perform the tasks better. This way, language forms that they have learned in high school, forms which they understand only in a superficial way, can be challenged and applied as productive skills. So, I’m teaching skills, Dr. Kurita, not information about English.”

“But again, how do you know that they are improving? Where is the objectivity?”

“With all due respect Dr. Kurita, you are an engineering professor, right? Well, I’m trained in language acquisition and education and I’m a veteran. So, when my students produce appropriate language while carrying out these tasks and projects, when I see the efforts that they make and their ability to achieve certain language functions that they were not able to carry out previously, I am confident that I can give them a suitable grade. I assume that when I was hired and entrusted with the students, like any teacher, my ability to measure and grade the students appropriately was implicit.”

“Yes. I see. So you don’t really test the students, do you? Their grades are based upon your subjective feelings. We need results to be more accurate. And that’s why we’ve bought these well-packaged materials made by professionals. We’ve already finalized the contract with the company, so we ask for your cooperation.”

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