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Kids World

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

May 15, 2001

Monbusho & English: Six Months On...

by Ritsuko Nakata

Six Months On
Kids The Education Ministry (Monbusho) has just published its interim report of the eight meetings we have had for the advancement of English-language teaching in Japan.

The report covered the themes we discussed at these meetings on how to improve teaching methods, English for elementary schools, the reformation of high school and university entrance examinations and other issues as well as how to increase opportunities for students to speak and hear English more often.

Through subsequent meetings and hearings, the ministry will finalize its findings into a final report by the end of the year.

Details of the Monbusho committee goals were discussed in my earlier article which can be found in the Kid's World Archive. Below is a brief rundown of what was discussed for the interim report:

Starting English Lessons at Elementary School
On the topic of English-language education in public elementary schools, the guidelines state that children above third grade should be exposed to a foreign language and learn about the culture and lives of the peoples that speak the language. The rationale for this was that young children learn foreign languages at a faster pace than their elders. They will also learn that there are other languages besides Japanese and they can develop confidence in the language.

On the other hand, those opposed to early English education stated that there should be more research done so that an appropriate age for introducing a new language could be established. They added that children need to master their own native tongue first. For the reasons stated above, the ministry feels that children should not be forcefully "taught" English, but should be exposed to English in "fun" ways through songs, games, skits, pretend games and other oral activities. However, in the upper grades, these activities alone will not be sufficient as the needs of older students differ from those of younger students.

The National Curiculum
Although manuals are now being written for the "sogotekina gakushu" (national curriculum) which includes English, Monbusho is demanding that appropriate information on lesson content, teaching methods and teaching materials be exchanged between them and the regional boards of education. As for who should teach English, it is understood that the class teacher will have the role. However, in order to do this, the teachers will have to undergo training and have the opportunity to study abroad.

In getting children to use the language orally, the efficient use of ALT's (such as those on the JET Program) is important as well as people with experience abroad and students who have lived abroad. Having junior high school teachers teach in elementary schools is also being considered. This will give them an idea of what kinds of things are going on and will serve as a liaison between elementary and junior high school English teachers. Through these 'model' schools, universities can study how English can be taught in elementary schools. (An interesting comment by a junior high school teacher was that student teachers who came to train at his school were using old-fashioned methods!)

Divergent Views of Role of English
The above is a brief summary of the two pages covered in the report for elementary school English education. It is very short, compared to the long hours of discussions that we had. The solutions to the issues have not been solved yet, and hopefully we will be able to find the best ways to handle them in our coming meetings. There were some interesting comments by some of the members of the committee who did not feel that English is a necessary subject to be taught in schools - elementary or otherwise.

There was also an opinion that English be abolished at the high school level and offered as an elective. On the other hand, another member said that at a recent business meeting in Europe which was attended by representatives of different countries, the medium of communication was, of course, English!

English is an important language to be learned and acquired in order to do business and communicate with other peoples of the world. There was concern over the fact that teaching English at an early age might impair the child's knowledge of Japanese. However, I think those of us who have seen bilingual children speaking fluently in two languages find that they do not have any more difficulty in their Japanese skills than their monolingual counterparts.

On the other hand, Japanese children learning English usually go to class only once a week for about an hour. Could such a short period of time learning English interfere with the development of their mother tongue? As for the age for starting a new language, I know of a 2 year old whose mother speaks to her in both English and Japanese. The child literally has "bilingual ears", as she is still not able to talk. She reacts exactly in the same way to the same sentence when she hears it in English and Japanese. It doesn't look as if she is confused by the use of the two languages. However, it would be interesting to see how she uses the languages when she really begins to talk.

Learning to Communicate
In Korea after several years of teaching English successfully in their public schools in the upper grades, they have started teaching first graders from this year. One of the main discussions for overall English education was that of motivation: how to motivate students so that they will want to learn English. Songs, games and other activities were mentioned in the report. If the teacher is trained and prepared with different techniques and good teaching materials, half of the work is done. But the other half has to be done by the students. One of the best ways to motivate them is by getting them to talk to each other. Even children as young as 4 years old can be taught to do pair practice in many exciting ways.

My junior college students who had never experienced pair practice suddenly all came to life when they realized they could speak English with their friends. I mention this because in the section regarding what children should be taught, the line "children should talk to each other" was deleted. I am most disappointed with this.

If children don't talk to each other, when will they get a chance to practice speaking out? To communicate? Only when an occasional ALT comes to class? Children who can talk to each other are self-motivated to learn English from the sheer joy of being able to communicate in a foreign language. If this were taken away from them, I feel that we might be raising another generation of passive English speakers who smile and nod their heads when spoken to, or worse yet, line up words that don't make much sense.

As I mentioned before in my earlier article, it is essential to teach active English now. If students learn to say things in class, they can have fun learning English with their teacher and have more rapport with the ALT when he/she comes and spend more quality time with each other. Many more topics were covered in the report and more interesting discussions within the group which I do not have space to report here but I will try to keep you informed of further developments.

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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