English Activities in Elementary School; Discussion Summary

Below, please see a summary of AJET’s meeting with The Council for Local Authorities for International Relations (CLAIR), the Ministry of Education (MEXT), the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA), and the Ministry of Internal Communication (MIC). AJET’s questions are in italics, followed by summaries of the responses.

English Activities in Elementary School  – Written by Donny Anderson, and Adam Chludzinski and Matthew Cook.

Presented by Donny Anderson and Matthew Cook

1. AJET: AJET recognises that MEXT is in the process of introducing English language study to elementary schools this year, and that it will be expanded in the coming years. Phonics is recognised worldwide as an essential component of teaching English, which helps first-time learners grasp not only the basic sounds, but how letters can be combined to make sounds and words. The ability to read phonetically is vital as young learners begin to associate meaning and comprehension to the words they are learning, in tandem with basic communication skills.

2. AJET: Is MEXT prepared to introduce phonics in the coming years as one of the cornerstone skills of English education as it is recognised around the world?

MEXT responded by saying that the relationship between pronunciation and spelling is covered only at the junior high school level, and is not handled in elementary schools. They added that it was important to begin written language instruction only after students have become accustomed to the spoken foreign language, and therefore, that it was appropriate to limit exposure to written language to the alphabetand upper and lower case letters. MEXT reported that there are no plans to begin teaching phonics in elementary school at this time.

3. AJET: From the survey responses it is well understood, across the board, that there is a vast lack of communication and mutual participation regarding the coordination of lessons in the classroom, usually resulting in the ALT becoming the de-facto main teacher.
Based on this, we’d like to ask what MEXT currently does to facilitate and encourage cooperation in teaching, and planning, between Japanese teachers and ALTs.

MEXT responded by quoting the guidelines for foreign language education, “schools shall improve their instruction by making an effort to utilise native speakers for classroom instruction while, depending on the local situation, receiving cooperation from those in the community proficient in a foreign language.” Additionally, MEXT added that in order to smoothly implement the new course of study, prefectures throughout Japan have held training seminars for elementary school teachers on creating lesson plans and conducting classes for foreign language activities. MEXT also reported that they plan to put even more effort into encouraging cooperation between and effective utilization of ALTs by showcasing specific examples for schools.

MEXT also offered to allow AJET to provide examples, information, or suggestions regarding training seminars for JTEs, put them on their homepage and allow prefectures to use them as reference when planning and preparing for their training seminars. MEXT also encouraged ALTs to make suggestions directly to those in their areas with regard to training seminars.

4. AJET: Based on the survey results, over half of JETs who teach at elementary school have either less than 5 minutes of lesson planning time with their Japanese counterparts, or none at all. This places a large amount of stress upon the participants to provide quality classes to all the students. We understand that you recognize this as an issue, but would like to ask your advice and any recommendations on how JET participants can deal with this.

MEXT agreed that enhancing cooperative relationships between ALTs, homeroom teachers and foreign language activities instructors is vital to improving the implementation of foreign language activities. One of the things MEXT recommends is to, as much as possible, use those 5 minutes very effectively and also to find a way to regularly meet with homeroom teachers and the foreign language teachers. MEXT recognized that the circumstances of every school are different but advised ALTs to make the best of each situation.

5. AJET: AJET understands that MEXT prefers that the different respective Boards of Education set their own educational curricula for elementary school English education. However, when JETs were asked about said curricula, an excess of 70% responded that Eigo Noto was, by default, being used in place of a curriculum. We understand that Eigo Noto is not meant to be a stand-alone curriculum, but rather a teaching tool to supplement a curriculum set in place by the respective Board of Education; however, this is not what is happening in classrooms across the entire country. Does MEXT see this as a problem?

MEXT reiterated that the course of study states, “each school should set appropriate goals based on the students and particulars of the community, and work to achieve these goals during the two years of foreign language activities….” They explained that it is the role of the homeroom teacher and foreign language activities instructor to set study plans and conduct classes, and that Eigo Noto was created and distributed by MEXT as a common teaching tool to help ensure equal opportunities for foreign language activities and to maintain a certain standard throughout the country. Even though the percentage of schools using Eigo Noto as their primary curriculum was high, since each school modifies the curriculum based on their levels, they do not recognize the high usage of Eigo Noto in and of itself as a problem.

6. AJET: Of the many comments we received, many were from discouraged JETs voicing their opinions regarding the inconsistency of elementary English education between multiple schools. Many expressed discontent with the current system in place where JETs are forced to teach to different standards (or have different lessons entirely within the same school and sometimes even the same grade level), in the same city or area.
Recognising that this is a major issue that the majority of JETs face, does MEXT have advice for JETs on how to deal with these circumstances?

MEXT responded by stating that goals and study plans for each are up to the discretion of each school based on the level of their students, therefore it is fully conceivable that the classroom activities will vary according to school. In addition, for regions in which students will attend the same junior high school, elementary schools are expected to coordinate with the junior high school to ensure some uniformity in the study plan.

7. AJET: As JETs are being asked to help with lesson planning. AJETwould like to help alleviate this problem by helping the ministry establish a set of broad but realistic goals that would help relieve some of the extra pressure that JETs are facing by such constraints. Does MEXT have any plans to provide additional supplements besides Eigo Noto, which may aid in the standardization of this English and internationalization program?

Currently, MEXT is preparing new materials that will take the place of Eigo Noto beginning in April of next year, and they reported that they were in the process of preparing this and distributing it to the schools. They stated that they do not have plans for any other materials at this time.

8. AJET: In the free response section of our surveys which were used for these reports, many JETs voiced strong opinions that formalised English language education should begin from an earlier age and year in school. This is currently the trend in other East Asian countries. For example, Taiwan and China began elementary-level English study at the third grade level ten years ago, in 2001. Even earlier, South Korea had introduced English to the elementary curriculum in 1997 beginning at the third grade level. Based on this anecdotal evidence from neighbouring nations, we think that much more could be accomplished and achieved if English education was started at the third grade level instead of the fifth grade level. Is MEXT planning on doing this, or would you be open to instituting this policy in the near future?

MEXT responded by saying that they understand that there are many differing opinions regarding foreign language education in elementary schools. Nevertheless, the new course of study just came into effect this fiscal year, and they believe for the time being that Japan should concentrate on its stated goals for improving foreign language activities for fifth and sixth grade students.
But based on this performance, they would like to evaluate the results and problems of the current course of study and use those findings to improve the new course of study when it comes up for review again.

9. AJET: At the JET Alumni Association International Meeting in Tokyo in October, there was some discussion regarding standardisation of pre-departure orientations, so to avoid the overlap of pre-departure orientations, Tokyo Orientation, and prefectural orientation.
Considering this report’s data regarding the number of JETs who become the de-facto lead teacher in elementary school, what can MOFA do to provide more training for JETs in their home countries, after they have been accepted to the JET Programme, but prior to their departure?

MOFA responded by saying they believe it is important that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs makes pre-departure orientations as useful as possible, by avoiding overlap with other orientations.
To accomplish this, they convey to overseas embassies and consulates the content of Tokyo Orientation and prefectural orientations, while requesting that they avoid overlap. However, as it is a reality that the content of pre-departure orientations is largely up to the discretion of the respective embassies and consulates, they reminded us that it is difficult to uniformly implement training for English instruction.

10. AJET: Taking into account CLAIR’s efforts to provide TEFL scholarships and AJET’s actions for scholarships and partial grants for the entire JET community via TEFL, would it be possible for MOFA to provide the opportunities, not necessarily the grants themselves, but the opportunities and the information for pre-departure JETs to get teacher training in their home countries, such as through our website?

MOFA answered by explaining that the specific content of each embassy or consulate’s pre-departure orientation depends on their specific circumstances. However, they understand that with the cooperation of local JETAA chapters and other parties, pre-departure orientations include Q&A sessions, seminars, and lectures concerning language instruction. They would like to consider what they can do while taking into account limitations on human and financial resources. And they would like to consider as well the ideas AJET gave and see how applicable they are.

11. AJET: We believe that one of the most significant hurdles to overcome in Japanese elementary schools is that the course of study (and thereby, English language acquisition) is not taken as seriously as it should be by the faculties in schools. Considering that there are no tests or grades for elementary school English, this leaves educators with no quantifiable standards by which students’ English language abilities and progress can be measured.
Does MEXT believe this to be a problem? Is there a reason that there are no ways to measure progress for the current course of study, other than the fact that that it is not an “official” subject?

To answer this question, MEXT stated that the main goal of foreign language activities is to develop an attitude among students in which they are proactively seeking to communicate in a foreign language, not so much to actually memorize specific expressions in a foreign language or to improve measurable skills. In the same vein, the foreign language activities do not call for numeric evaluations. However, this should not be interpreted to mean that there are no evaluations done whatsoever.

The three criteria to be taken into consideration for the foreign language activities are as follows:

1. To develop interest in proactive communication.
2. To become accustomed to the pronunciation and expressions of a foreign language.
3. To take interest in the depth of the language and to realize that there are diverse ways of seeing the world.

Instructors are to evaluate based upon these three criteria. Also, these evaluations are conveyed to students and their guardians on a semesterly basis.

End of Discussion

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