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Kids World

Topics of interest to teachers of English as a second or foreign language to young learners.

July 16, 2000

Mombusho and English: Vision & Reality

by Ritsuko Nakata

Reforming the English Curriculum
Kids Monbusho (The Ministry of Education, now officially the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology - ed.) is finally taking steps to reform the teaching of English in Japan. Steps being considered include the introduction of training courses for teachers, the criteria used in hiring teachers, reevaluating the role of ALTs (Assistant Language teachers) and how they can be better integrated into the system, and also the revision of entrance examinations to schools and universities.

Education Minister Hirofumi Nakasone formed a 22-member committee for the purpose of discussing these topics and I was asked to join the committee to give my views from the perspective of a teacher of children. With distinguished members from all walks of society from presidents of companies, deans of universities, principals and teachers, we met to discuss our points of view and to make the first steps in laying the foundations for reforming the dire situation of English education in Japan.

The Sad State of 'Communicative' English in Japan
It is well known that for all the emphasis placed on the English language in schools and the testing of English, Japan is among the lowest of all the nations in the world in test scores in TOFEL. 550 points are necessary to get accepted into universities in the US, but Japan has always been pitifully below 500 with only a handful of other nations. (However, in the most recent test, Japan finally scored over 500 points -- 501 points!) Proficiency tests are an important part of English education in Japan, even for children. However, these do not carry much weight in the real world of communication.

A company representative who sends her employees overseas remarked that they are at a crisis, because those they hire cannot speak English nor communicate successfully with their foreign business associates even though they have passed the most difficult examinations. It was acknowledged that in order to reform the English program effectively, there has to be a strong lead connecting English teaching from children all the way up to adults in order to have a complete and systematic approach to English education. With Mombusho implementing the teaching of English in elementary schools in 2002, we have to rush to come up with solutions. Mombusho wants to create a teacher training system, a solid curriculum that all teachers can follow and students who will be able to communicate fluently in the English language. It also wants students as well as teachers to benefit more from the presence of ALTs. However, with many public schools already teaching English or international understanding at their own discretion, it will be very difficult to get these schools to change what they are doing in midstream.

English in Elementary Schools - The Barriers
Putting English into public elementary schools is an enormous issue that cannot be solved easily. One of the biggest headaches is to decide who can teach and what to teach. Teachers I have spoken to at public schools are at a loss as to what to do. Japanese teachers are suddenly told by their principals that they must teach English, but not how or what to teach. They are usually left to figure it out themselves. One principal told me that there are many teachers who can teach English simply because there are many who have been to Hawaii!

Elementary school teachers have to teach all subjects and to add English will be quite a burden on them. Most of these teachers are not qualified, not only because they don't know or remember any English they had learned many years ago, but also because they cannot pronounce words correctly or even make simple sentences. Because English is a specialized subject, teachers who have been trained should be employed for this - just as music teachers are hired to teach music. However, on the other hand, there are public school teachers who are genuinely interested in teaching good English to their students because they realize the importance of teaching it and the realities of teaching a foreign language.

Teaching students with only games, songs, Mother Goose and getting them to become 'familiar' with the language is out-of-date. Now it is essential to teach communicative and active English as well as songs, and use games as a teaching tool rather than for entertainment. It is essential to teach correct English and not let mistakes and pronunciation errors go by. This is because young children have the ability to learn it right, if taught right! If a teacher accepts 1+1=3 simply because it is a way of 'familiarizing' students to math, this certainly would not be permitted. So why should English mistakes be permitted? It would be a nightmare for teachers and students alike to have to re-teach and re-learn everything later!

I hope to continue to report on later meetings with my fellow-committee members at the Monbusho and also give some tips on teaching kids so that they will be able to communicate more effectively in English.

Ritsuko Nakata

Ritsuko Nakata is Executive Director of the IIEEC Teacher Training Center and Chairperson of AETC (The Association of English Teachers of Children). She is a well-known teacher trainer throughout Japan and is the author of Let's Go, Asia's best-selling coursebook for children. She is also the creator of the MAT (Model, Action, Talk) Method.

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