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Young Learners

Teaching English to Elementary School Children

February 15, 2009

A Plea for Peripheral English

By peripheral English I mean the English used by the teacher that is not related to the main language target of the lesson. It could be instructions to do with games such as "Your turn, Roll the dice, Choose a card", or general classroom instructions such as "Let's get our notebooks and pencils, Clear the desks please, Can I see your homework please" or requests for students' help such as "Could you fetch the remote control for the air conditioner, could you turn the light off please" or comments about the children's work such as "Wow, that's a scary tiger, Nice elephant, Is that a rabbit?" and so on. It is English that the students in general aren't expected to produce but which provides a lot of listening practice for them, and which they may start to use in time, especially phrases such as "Your turn, finished, eraser please".

There is ongoing debate about the use of Japanese by the teacher in the classroom and although I am not totally anti-use of Japanese in the classroom, a recent event made me fully realise how important it is that students get as much comprehensible English input as possible. I recently took over a small class of 7 year olds who are in their first year of learning English (Class A). They have been following the same syllabus as my own students (Class B) and in terms of their familiarity with the material covered so far, are at a similar level to the students I have been teaching since April. However the listening skills of students in Class A are far lower than those in Class B. The students' reaction when I started teaching them and using only English in class ("eigo? eigo ga wakaranai, nihongo dekinai?" etc) made it clear that the previous teacher (a native English speaker) had been using a lot of Japanese in class. They couldn't follow instructions that Class B can follow very easily such as "Let's get our notebooks and pencils".

Of course if it were merely that Class A couldn't understand a particular instruction, that wouldn't be such a big deal. However, it seems much more fundamental than that. They have not developed the attitude that they can understand English. They feel that English can't be understood without some Japanese help or translation. Whereas Class B, through exposure to lots of English that can be readily understood from the context, have developed the skills of guessing the meaning and listening for keywords, and the attitude that they can understand English, the students in Class A haven't really developed these skills and attitude at all. They are skills that are often absent among adult English speakers as well in Japan. There is often a tendency to panic as soon as an unknown word is heard, even if their English level is quite high. We can try to teach adults the skills of listening for keywords and guessing from context but it is quite hard for adults to learn this. Children on the other hand can pick up these skills very easily. Children, even in their native language, are constantly hearing new words that they have to guess the meaning of. Sometimes they explicitly ask what a word means but often they are just able to guess from the contextual clues. This skill can be easily transferred to the learning of English. But only if they are exposed to plenty of peripheral English.

Some Japanese English teachers may feel their English isn't good enough to conduct the whole class in English. I would like to encourage those teachers to try. Even if the English used by the teacher isn't perfect, I think the benefits for the students of getting used to guessing meanings far outweighs any disadvantages of hearing English with a few grammatical mistakes. Some teachers, native and non-native English speakers, may feel that quick instructions in Japanese use time more efficiently than sticking to English. I have a lot of sympathy for this view and if it is an instruction that is quite complicated and unlikely to be used again in future, I would agree. But for simple instructions or instructions that are likely to be used again, the advantages of using English I think outweigh any time that may be saved in the short-term.

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Nicely written. I like that there was a difference drawn between "complicated" and "simple" instructions.

Many of my elementary kids have that bad attitude you mention. It's like they do not even try to believe they can do it or understand. I call them my 'wakaranai, dekinai, yomenai' kids. (I don't say that to their faces, though). Lately, I find the chants and songs in the back of our student book are helping to give them a little more confidence and say 'Hey! I can do this!'. I like to start the class out with those as a warm-up so they do not carry that 'bad attitude' all the way thru the lesson.

Now, my kindergarten kids are totally different. They accept anything, are good at guessing the meaning and catch on so quickly to most anything I say or do.

Thanks for opening my eyes to the peripheral language use.

Hello Carla,

Do you teach alphabet to your students? At what grade level do you introduce this lesson?

Do you think that teaching alphabet is important to elementary students in Japan?

Thanks in advance.

Dear Sammie
Thanks for your comment and questions. I teach phonics to my students. I don't teach the ABC names of the alphabet. In all my classes phonics with reading and writing are introduced from the first class. In the elementary school I teach at, this means Grade 4. In smaller classes it means whatever grade they happen to be when they start learning English (unless they are still kindergarten age in which case they only learn speaking for at least a year). I do think teaching reading and writing are important. Please see my entry entitled Four Skills or Two? for my reasons for this.
Best wishes

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