Boosting English education

Under the new draft guidelines, the number of English words studied through high schools would be increased to 3,000 from the current 2,200. This increase of about 40 percent might leave some students nonplussed.

However, a 41-year-old teacher of a Tokushima prefectural high school said: “To prepare for university entrance exams, we presently teach 5,000 words. It’s difficult to teach [properly] as [the reality] is far removed from the teaching guidelines. [With the revisions], it would become easier for us to teach [more effectively].”

Since the course of study was revised in 1978 following criticism of cram-style education and extremely competitive entrance exams, the number of English words studied at schools has continued to decrease. In the early 1970s, more than 4,000 English words were taught at many schools, with a higher rate of students going on to higher education. But a 1989 revision slashed the number of English words to 2,400, and another 200 words were cut in a 1999 amendment.

The ministry’s attempt to significantly boost the number of English words was apparently prompted by an increased focus on English education in South Korea and China.

“With the 3,000 [English] words, we can stand on an equal footing,” a ministry official said.

For the first time, the draft guidelines have asked teachers to conduct English classes in English. However, this has sparked concerns in the field.

“I’m not sure if this is doable. It’ll depend on the teachers’ skills,” a teacher at a Saitama prefectural high school said.

The nation’s English education has not focused on verbal skills, instead stressing grammar and reading. This is a reflection of the entrance exams, most of which previously did not test speaking skills.

One public high school teacher said, “Unless the entrance exams system changes, we can’t respond to a call to suddenly start focusing on speaking.”

Teachers’ verbal skills would be an issue as many have no experience of studying abroad and are not accustomed to communication in English. With the new guidelines, both public and private schools are likely to seek new teachers with higher levels of spoken English. But such a move likely will affect the recruitment of teachers.

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Excerpted from “Govt rethinks cram-free system / Draft education guidelines advanced content, higher standardsJan 8, 2008 Yomiuri Shimbun

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