EDUCATION RENAISSANCE / 6-year education system effectively sharpens students’ English skills  Yomiuri Shimbun(Aug. 21, 2012)

Isaku Kotera

This is a translation from The Yomiuri Shimbun’s Education Renaissance series. This article is the fourth installment in a five-part subseries focusing on schools’ efforts to teach English by immersion. It features a Gunma prefectural secondary school that strives to improve its students’ English communication skills under a curriculum that combines middle and high school studies.

TAKASAKI, Gunma–A student started her English presentation by saying, “I’m going to introduce Joe O’Donnell.” Her speech focused on the U.S. Marine Corps photographer, who photographed Hiroshima and Nagasaki just after the atomic bombing of the two cities in the closing days of World War II.

Joe O’Donnell (1922-2007) is widely known for his photo titled “Boy at a Crematory Site” (Yakiba ni Tatsu Shonen), which depicts a Japanese boy waiting for his turn at the crematory with the body of a baby strapped onto his back.

The presentation was given at Gunma Prefectural Chuo Secondary School in an English class for students in the fourth year, which corresponds to the first year at an ordinary high school.

During the presentation, the student held a slip of paper in her hand. The paper contained two keywords in English, “photographer” and “sad time.”

Based on those keywords provided by her teacher Kyoji Suda, she introduced O’Donnell by summarizing his background from an English-language textbook. When she became lost for words, the teacher helped by whispering, “How do you finish [a presentation]?”

Students need to know a certain number of stock phrases to make an English presentation, given in their own words, flow smoothly.

The school’s education system is helpful for students as it integrates middle and high school, with the six-year curriculum designed to enhance students’ abilities to present their thoughts and communicate in English.

English lessons for first-year students are given by a pair of teachers, one foreign and one Japanese, so the students can become familiar with English pronunciation and directions given in the language.

From the second year, each class is divided in half to make smaller classes, in which 70 percent of each English lesson is conducted in the target language. The curriculum for fourth-year and older students focuses on English composition, with the requirement that students write a thesis at the end of their fifth year.

All students are required to submit a notebook to teachers in which they write about their homework, a task that helps improve their English. The difficulty of tasks assigned for homework gradually increases over time, and as a final goal, teachers encourage students in higher years to keep journals or write their opinions on articles they read in English-language newspapers.

At the school, many English teachers follow the students in a class as they advance to higher years. This system enables teachers to make long-term teaching plans.

In Suda’s case, he has been teaching the same fourth-year students since they were in their second year. On a wall of the fourth-year students’ classroom, there is a handmade poster introducing both Japanese and foreign celebrities in English. They made the poster in his lessons last school year.

Most students enjoy English lessons. However, some feel confused when they lose points on exams for making mistakes, as teachers usually encourage them to proactively speak English without worrying about errors.

However, teachers don’t see these methods as contradictory, as they have a clear-cut teaching policy. “We want to motivate students and improve their scores on English tests through enhancing their communication skills [in class],” said Takahiko Hayashi, 48, the head English teacher at the Takasaki school. “Their scores have actually improved in reading comprehension and pronunciation.”