A government panel on education reform on Tuesday proposed upgrading English to an official course at elementary schools, as part of an effort to better prepare students for an internationalized business environment.
While the Central Education Council, an advisory body to the education minister, will examine the proposals, submitted to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, they will still face challenges, such as how to secure teachers who can teach English at elementary level.
A council directly under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has recommended English become a regular subject at primary schools, as part of efforts to rejuvenate the national education system.
During Wednesday’s meeting at the Prime Minister’s Office, the Education Rebuilding Implementation Council compiled its final proposals, which include reforming university education and making education in Japan more suited to today’s global society.
The proposals will be presented to Abe later this month and then included in the government’s growth strategy to be compiled next month.
The Central Council for Education, an advisory panel to the education minister, will be tasked with coming up with concrete measures based on the recommendations.
The proposals advocate boosting English education at the primary school level to foster people who can work and act internationally.
Currently, English is compulsory for fifth- and sixth-grade primary school students, who take one lesson per week.
The council recommended the government make English a regular subject at the primary level by hiring teachers specialized in English instruction, lowering the grade in which students start English lessons and increasing the number of lessons received per week.
Teachers must give students grades for regular subjects, and official textbooks are also required.
At a press conference Wednesday, Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Minister Hakubun Shimomura said the ministry plans to revise the teaching guidelines for primary schools to move toward making English a regular subject, while also studying similar initiatives implemented overseas.
Asked about when he thought primary school students should start learning the language, Shimomura said it should happen “around the third or fourth grade.”
During the council’s discussions, some members also made the same assertion.
Additionally, the council proposed the prime minister organize a summit to boost the competitiveness of the nation’s universities.
The summit would entail regular meetings of leaders of higher education institutions, prefectural governors and business representatives to discuss the envisioned future of universities.
The council also called for intense support for universities that are outstanding in their implementation of global-minded measures.
Lack of skills, human resources
Teachers have had mixed reactions to the council’s recommendation to make English a regular subject. Some say it would be effective to teach students the language early on in their primary education, while others are concerned about how schools would secure enough specialized teachers.
English became compulsory for fifth- and sixth-grade primary school students in the 2011 school year. In most cases, it is taught by teachers who are not specialized in English instruction. Primary school teachers are required, in principle, to teach all subjects to the students under their charge.
Improving the quality of English education at the primary level remains a major challenge, as many municipal governments have been struggling to recruit native English speakers as assistant language teachers (ALTs).
When The Yomiuri Shimbun recently visited Kasukabe Primary School in Kasukabe, Saitama Prefecture, Yasuko Ikenaga was giving an English lesson to her sixth-grade students. She pressed a button on a recorder and had them sing along with an English song.
Ikenaga, 44, who managed to conduct the lesson purely through gestures, is trained in physical education. “I’m not good at English, so I was really puzzled when I started teaching it,” she said.
The Kasukabe municipal government dispatches ALTs to primary schools from middle schools where they are assigned full-time.
Kasukabe Primary School starts giving English lessons to students in the first grade. “It’s proven effective to teach students English early on,” Principal Masayoshi Nakane said. “However, few primary school teachers are confident about teaching the language. It’s crucial for schools to get support from ALTs and other individuals.”
A 42-year-old teacher at a primary school in Tokyo’s Tama district said many teachers have never taught English, nor do they know how to give lessons on the language.
An official at a municipal board of education said playing a CD is all Japanese teachers can do to expose their students to authentic English when native speakers are not available.
However, gaps among municipalities have been growing in regards to English education at the primary level, as a growing number of local governments–mainly in urban areas like Kasukabe–have started teaching the language from the first grade.
Shigeru Kainose, a member of the government council, said: “It’s necessary [for the government] to make English a regular subject, produce official textbooks and establish teaching methods.”
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