English big business, and growing

Language firms gearing up for elementary school classes

 

By JUN HONGO and TAKAHIRO FUKADA
Staff writers

When it comes to preparing for the April launch of compulsory English classes in elementary schools, the private sector appears to have a clear lead over public school teachers.

 

News photo
Word game: A teacher conducts a lesson with elementary school students at an ECC Junior English branch in Kobe in February. COURTESY OF ECC JUNIOR

 

“We kicked off our preliminary research group in the beginning of 2007,” Mina Funabashi, who heads the English content management division for elementary school products at Benesse Corp., told The Japan Times.

The publishing giant offers monthly correspondence courses to a whopping 1.77 million children, or 1 out of every 4 elementary school students in Japan. Yet despite having supplied English textbooks for preteens since 1989, their syllabus needed an overhaul since the lessons were designed for introduction to junior high school English courses.

With the government setting a new objective to nurture English communication skills among fifth- and sixth-graders, Benesse gathered a number of university professors, English education experts and teachers from both private and public schools to come up with the perfect textbook. Their goal was simple but hard to achieve: to develop a syllabus that would improve English communication skills while cultivating basic language knowledge.

Whereas the previous textbooks were designed for junior high and required that students learn sentences by repeating them out loud five times, a completely different approach was needed to reach the new goal.

Nurturing children’s interest in overseas cultures was also deemed “crucial for students to continue wanting to learn the language,” Funabashi explained.

What Funabashi’s team came up with is exquisite — a textbook that essentially bridges the gap between what interests elementary school children and what they need to learn, instilling in them not only a larger vocabulary but also cultural understanding and weaving the experience into a fabric of their English knowledge.

Japantimes.co.jp