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Young Learners

Teaching English to Elementary School Children

March 01, 2009

Four Skills or Two?

The elementary school I teach at recently held its annual national teachers' conference which was attended by about two hundred teachers mostly from western Japan. The conference includes lessons in all subjects which participants can watch, followed by Q&A sessions. I taught a 3rd grade English class. The students start studying English from the 3rd grade so this class have been studying for about ten months. They are following a four skills phonics-based course using Finding Out 1. They are currently on Unit 9 of this book where they learn how to read and write longer words, but have not yet been introduced to letter patterns such as "ee", "ch" and "oy". Because, the children are learning to read and write in the 3rd grade, a lot of focus is put on learning these two skills, although speaking and listening are also included in every class. Several participating teachers asked questions about this, as many elementary school English programmes focus only on speaking and listening, and the MEXT guidelines suggest that only speaking and listening should be taught.

The two main reasons given to support the view that reading and writing shouldn't be taught in elementary schools are that it isn't fun and that it is too difficult. Both of these criticisms may be true in some classes, if the method of teaching is dry and the material is introduced too quickly. But this could just as easily apply to lessons that focus on speaking and listening. If, however, the lessons are taught in a way that is interesting for children, and if the material is introduced gradually and systematically then reading and writing can be fun and manageable for students. Of course it may be difficult sometimes, but most students are not afraid of a bit of difficulty and a challenge in class.

When asked, at the conference, my opinion about the relative importance of the four skills, I said that I thought that they were all important and that reading and writing shouldn't be ignored for the following reasons:

1. Some students are visual learners and seeing words written down can help their learning. These students would be at a disadvantage in an oral skills only class. Having four skills allows more children to be good at something.

2. Some students are very shy and may not like speaking out in class. Reading and writing gives them a chance to produce English in a way that is comfortable for them.

3. Homework can be given easily, so instead of studying English once a week, students can do some English between classes too.

4. If we are immersed in a new language then we can usually pick it up without reading and writing, but if we are only studying once a week or even less then the additional support of reading and writing can make a big difference. A table with four legs is more stable than a table with two legs, especially as it gets increasing amounts of vocabulary and sentence patterns stacked on it.

5. Having a notebook, file and homework book allows students to look back and find words they have forgotten. My students often forget the word "leg" for example but, because they can read, they can look back and find where they have written "leg", read it and then they know how to say it.

6. Teaching children to read allows them to notice and read English in their everyday life. Just as we (non-Japanese) start trying to read signs and adverts on the train when we are learning katakana, hiragana or kanji, our students will be able to do the same. There is lots of random English on clothes, shop signs, stationery etc that children can practise reading. Any opportunity to use English in some way between classes can be very beneficial. (Of course the English may not be perfect, but the students are at least improving their skill at reading. On a visit back to the UK, I found my friend had wallpapered his staircase with wallpaper covered in kanji. It was just random kanji in patterns with no meaning but was still useful for me to practise reading each time I went upstairs.)

7. Some diligent students want to remember all new English words. If they can't write in English they will have to resort to writing down the word using katakana. When they look back at this word, they will read the katakana and their pronunciation will suffer as a result.

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In our preschool we do a lot of "group reading" and "group writing". Then last spring I gave the kindergarten kids (5 and 6 year olds) a notebook and encouraged them to write down new words as we learned them. They enjoy copying words or short sentences from the board and drawing a picture or writing word in Japanese (hence teaching Japanese literacy too) to make their own dictionaries. Then the 4 year olds demanded to be included. In just one year, they have become astute at "reading the room" and their notebooks to find spellings of words they need to complete a task. In free play time, they like to write notes to each other, and they label their own drawings. We never force them to write this way, they just did it naturally, but this simple exercise has resulted in a huge improvement in their reading and writing abilities. Needless to say, our students going into Japanese first grade can read and write at about the same level as native English speakers in my home country. So, I say "YES to teaching reading and writing from elementary school!"

I totally agree with you.
I taught English in my home country and now that I am in Japan I have been teaching English at elementary school here as an ALT. Many of my kids want to learn to read and write in English but most homeroom teachers are against the idea. They think letters and grammars should only be taught during at JHS level. Sigh....

All great reasons for having reading and writing as part of the elementary school curriculum. Thanks, Carla. Just out of curiosity what's the name of the elementary school mention in the article? I'm constantly trying to persuade (usually unsuccessfully) the schools I work at to let me include reading and writing, and it's always good to have specifics when touting a success story.

I totally agree with you on this. Although the Japanese system would tend to take it too far and make learning to read and write too serious. All students would have to sit at their desks and "study" reading and writing. I am amazed at how well my students can read and write by just giving one page of homework once a week, then I back it up with games in the classroom that incorporate reading and writing on the whiteboard. Boy do kids love writing on the teachers white board. In particular they love the "whisper game" where I have teams lined up and teacher whispers a word to the student at the back of the line then they have to pass the message to front person who writes it on the board. For younger classes I have cards for them to look through through to find the word so they can copy it onto the board. Incorporates listening, speaking, reading, writing and fun all in one game.

The militaristic education system here is still strong. Monbusho needs to recognise that its a new era, with internet access in most households and on their phones Japanese kids are modernising faster than they can imagine. The current system does not meet young kids needs anymore evident with increase in drop outs etc. Education can be fun! WE do not want to produce anymore robots.

I hope your comments have some influence among educators here in Japan. Good luck S

I just found your articles and have enjoyed reading them. I am in Iwakuni and teach privately. Thank you for sharing.

I agree with you, Jeana Schieffer. I pray you will email me, as this is yet another attempt to contact you. I see you have continued to shine since our tea ceremony at the Schieffer Farm with the mayor of Miharu and my former- Don Ruedy. I pray for your reply to me at

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