Limitations of English education in elementary schools

The special feature at Daily Yomiuri posted below offers insights on some limitations on English education in elementary schools. It points out that the goal in elementary schools is not for children to enjoy learning English, and not the mastery of grammar (reflecting the new focus on verbal skills in recent policy changes). It also points out that the diverse approaches to language learning, the different materials used by different schools and the different stages of readiness of schools to teach English in elementary schools poses problems for middle schools.

Seeds of English learning / Primary classes aim is for children to enjoy language

Many parents have high expectations about the fact that English is to be made compulsory at primary school level, as stipulated in the revised teaching guidelines that will be implemented in 2011. Under the guidelines, fifth- and sixth-graders will have lessons on what the guidelines call “foreign-language activities” once a week.

A transition period for the revised guidelines began last month, during which primary schools can implement them in advance at their discretion. Therefore, many schools have already started offering such lessons.

However, it seems that many parents do not clearly understand what English lessons are like at public primary schools, so I am going to take this opportunity to discuss them a little further.

The revised teaching guidelines will make English compulsory for the oldest primary school students, but it should be noted that the language will not be treated as a regular subject. This means that English lessons will not be taught by specialized teachers, and will not use the official textbooks that are subject to screening. Nor will the children be given graded numerically during these lessons.

“English activities” lessons are supposed to be conducted by homeroom teachers with help from native speakers of English or community members who are fluent speakers of the language. Homeroom teachers are encouraged not to teach in advance what students will study at middle school level–therefore, writing English letters is discouraged–but rather to “plant the seeds within the students for developing communicative competence.”

English was first introduced at the primary school level under the current teaching guidelines, which have paved the way for schools to feature the language during general studies classes as a means of promoting international understanding. However, different schools have different approaches regarding how often English lessons are offered and what is taught.

Because of this, the revised teaching guidelines will make the language compulsory so as to guarantee a certain standard nationwide. With this aim in mind, the Education, Science and Technology Ministry has produced the Eigo Noto (English Notebook) workbooks to be used during these lessons.

However, it is up to individual schools whether or not they use the workbooks, as they are treated as “teaching aids,” not official textbooks. Therefore, some local boards of education have opted not to have schools use the workbooks, while schools in other areas plan to use them selectively. Therefore, it will likely be difficult to iron out differences in teaching approaches among schools nationwide.

Facing such a situation, it is middle schools that surely will be confused about how to deal with incoming students.

It has long been standard practice that the first year of middle school is the starting point for students to learn English, but primary school graduates already have different degrees of exposure to the language: Some primary schools offer English lessons starting with their youngest students, while others feature such lessons every day but in short periods.

Considering such discrepancies, deciding how to start teaching English to new students is becoming a serious issue for middle schools.

On the other hand, some publishers have developed similar workbooks for compulsory English lessons at primary school level that are linked to the official English textbooks they produce for later use in middle schools.

More and more schools and education officials are now realizing the importance of smooth linkage in English education from primary to middle school, but this is an issue that they have just started to address. Now we are going through a phase where neither the central government nor local governments are really sure about what to do regarding primary school English, while schools are proceeding by trial and error when preparing lessons.

Considering such a situation, what role should parents of primary school students be encouraged to play?

First and foremost, it is important for them not to place excessively high hopes on English lessons at their children’s schools. Primary school English is centered on games, songs, dances and exchanges of short dialogues, and it is unreasonable to believe that such an approach would enable them to become fluent speakers of the language.

In other words, it is appropriate that primary school students enjoy English through these activities. These lessons should expose the students to English in a fun way, working as a bridge to motivate them to learn the language in the near future.

Parents should be discouraged from placing their children under unnecessary pressure by telling them how important it is to study English. If children think that they will be scolded if they don’t work hard with English, they might come to dislike learning the language as middle school students.

Unfortunately, an increasing number of children already feel that they are no good at English soon after they enter middle school, and it is difficult for us to expect that students with such feelings will become motivated to learn English in the future.

How much real communicative competence we acquire in English will be tested only after we start our professional careers. Toward this goal, all we need to develop is the autonomy and motivation to enable us to keep studying the language on our own.

I really hope that parents will take a generous and long-term view of how well their children are coming along in English.


Torikai is a professor of Rikkyo University in Tokyo and the president of the Japan Association for Interpretation Studies.

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