Naoyuki Shiomi / Yomiuri Shimbun Staff Writer
The following is an excerpt from The Yomiuri Shimbun’s Educational Renaissance series. This part of the series, the first of a four-week subseries, focuses on teaching English at the primary school level.
Daily Yomiuri (Nov. 12, 2009)
NARITA, Chiba–Narita Primary School is a pioneering public school in terms of teaching English to students the primary school level. When it was first designated as a pilot institution in 1996 by what was then the Education Ministry, the school started two 20-minute lessons every week for all its students.
In 2000, the school increased its number of English classes, and now its students take these lessons four days a week.
On a recent visit by The Yomiuri Shimbun, about 30 second-graders were studying the English names for fruits with their homeroom teacher and an assistant language teacher.
“It’s red. It’s round. It’s sweet. What’s this?” the ALT asked the children, holding a card bearing an illustration. “Apple,” the children replied in loud voices.
The school’s English lessons are conducted mainly in English using a team-teaching approach with homeroom teachers and ALTs.
“Some [children] can already distinguish when to use ‘a’ and ‘the,’ and many others are eager to exchange greetings in English before and after lessons,” Vice Principal Yukinobu Takemura, 47, said. “We’ve been surprised [to find how many things our students can do well in English].”
Narita’s status as a ministry pilot school ended in March, the end of the last school year. Since then, it has been focusing on how to forge links between primary and middle school English education in a collaborative effort with four other of the city’s primary schools and nearby Narita Middle School.
Although Narita Primary School has been studying ways to teach English to its students for more than a decade, not all of its teachers are used to speaking or teaching in the language. The current teaching certification system does not require prospective primary school teachers to study how to teach English while at college.
To help its teachers better handle English lessons, Narita sets aside time for them to huddle with ALTs after school on Thursdays to work on lesson plans.
In these preparation periods, they gather in the staff room and divide into groups based on grade. They spend nearly two hours going over how to conduct lessons the following week and the lessons’ target English expressions.
On the day of The Yomiuri Shimbun’s visit, the third-grade teachers, for example, were discussing a set of lessons in which students were learning how to welcome guests in English while holding a tea party.
“Instead of using cards, how about featuring real sweets and tea in the classroom?” one teacher suggested.
“When dividing my class in half between the hosts and guests, I found some of them had nothing to do for a while,” another said. “Therefore, it’s better for us to divide the whole class into four groups for conversation practice.”
During the period, the homeroom teachers also have the ALTs teach the students the correct pronunciation of the target expressions, as well as some useful instructional phrases in English.
According to Masatada Kishi, 41, the teacher in charge of developing English lessons at the school, students show different tendencies every year regarding what they are interested in and what kind of English words they find difficult to understand.
“We should tailor our English lessons by looking at how our students are reacting,” the teacher said. “By spending enough time preparing for lessons, we can lead the lessons according to how well the children can keep up with them.”
It is not easy for primary school teachers to discuss how to teach English lessons every week with their colleagues because they also have to cover many other subjects to teach on their own.
However, Narita sticks to the Thursday preparation period for its homeroom teachers, designating it “a crucial teacher-training program for English lessons.” To secure the time, therefore, it tries not to arrange other school events on Thursdays.
In addition, the school holds meetings about once a month so that its teachers and English teachers from Narita Middle School can have discussions on English lessons and related issues.
For primary school teachers, there seems to be great potential in teaching English to their students, Kishi suggested.
“When learning other subjects, there are some students who are too shy to speak out in front of their classmates, but we’ve found that even such children speak out clearly during English lessons,” he said. “One of the exciting things about developing English lessons is that we can inspire our students to display their lesser-known skills.”