Late last month, high school teacher Yoshie Ochi traveled all the way from her home in Ehime Prefecture to participate in a one-day seminar in Tokyo for middle- and high-school English teachers. To make fuller use of her time, she decided to add one extra stop on her visit: NIC International College in Japan.
Since 1988, NIC has been offering one-year programs to Japanese preparing to study at universities in English-speaking countries. While there, Ochi sat in on two of the school’s all-English classes.
Ochi heads the English department at St. Catalina Girls’ High School in Matsuyama. English is among the majors available at the private school, and the language classes are already mostly taught in the language.
“I’m hoping the all-English classes here will give me some ideas I can take back and implement,” she said.
December’s unprecedented announcement by the Education, Science and Technology Ministry that high schools would be required to teach English in the language as much as possible also acted as an impetus for Ochi.
The ministry’s proposal was finalized last week, and the revised teaching guidelines for high schools are set to be implemented beginning in 2013.
In response to the revised teaching guidelines, NIC opened up its classes for observation by high school teachers and education officials. Though the school has long offered to send staff to middle schools and high schools to teach students or train teachers–as well as opening up classes by request–it was the first time the school opened its classes over a set period of time.
Since the open-class program began early last month, about 50 observers from around the nation have attended NIC’s classes at its Shinjuku Ward, Tokyo, campus.
On the day The Daily Yomiuri visited, Ochi and three other teachers were observing about 15 students for two class periods. The students, fresh out of high school, were taking head-start courses ahead of the official start of classes in April.
The freshmen-to-be had been enrolled in the all-English classes for only a few weeks when Ochi and the others were observing, but the students responded comfortably to their teachers, all of whom were native English speakers. Each of the young adults spoke quite a bit in English, in addition to asking their classmates questions and summarizing stories they had read.
“I find it interesting that these classes create an environment that motivates the students, allowing them to speak English without worrying about making mistakes,” Ochi said.
Another visitor, a teacher from a private high school in Aomori Prefecture, said she was inspired by the approach NIC employs for essay assignments.
“Students first show their rough drafts to each other before submitting second drafts to their teachers, who mark them to indicate where they made mistakes,” she said. “It’s nice to have them correct their own mistakes, and I’d like to introduce a similar system to my students.”
While welcoming the inclusion of the “teaching English in English” approach in the new government guidelines, the two teachers also shared the view that a gap would develop between that approach and the administration of university entrance exams.
“As long as the assessment methods remain unchanged, both students and teachers will refuse to change. And entrance exams remain the biggest assessment for students aiming to enter university,” Ochi said. Therefore, she believes they should add a speaking section to the test to assess their English skills.
Shuichi Chikamatsu, head of student recruitment at NIC and the man in charge of the observation program, said his institution has been offering not only English classes, but training in critical thinking through the language.
“We prove that if teachers adjust their approach even just a little, any student can develop critical thinking skills in English–even when they were not already particularly good at the language,” he said. “We hope that by opening up our classes for observation, teachers will return to their schools feeling motivated and hopeful about teaching English in English.”
The observation period ended today, but a new one will begin in May.
When it comes to programs to train teachers to teach English in English, the ministry cites previously offered schemes, referring to those administered under the “Action Plan to Cultivate ‘Japanese with English Abilities,'” compiled by the ministry in 2003.
The plan called for English classes to be taught mostly in the language, and over the five years starting with the 2003 academic year, training programs were held for all middle and high school teachers to help them improve their teaching skills to meet the goals stipulated by the ministry.
“We’ve already completed Stage One,” a ministry official told The Daily Yomiuri, hinting at additional measures in the future, though the ministry has yet to decide what those will be.