Editorial on ELTNEWS.com
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Some of the arguments used against teaching reading and writing to Japanese elementary school children are that it is too difficult, not enough fun, and means the children spend less time on speaking. Whether these criticisms are fair or not largely depends on the method we use.

If we start with a top-down whole language approach where the focus is on meaningful context (usually stories) then, yes, this is too difficult in the once-a-week English class that is normal in Japan. Most Japanese children do not have a rich enough English environment to be able to handle this kind of approach.

If we use a whole word approach that starts with ABC and then moves on to high frequency words like cat, dog, book..., then yes, this is also too difficult. Japanese children do not have enough exposure to written text to be able to acquire many words in this way without having them pushed in by the teacher. This tends to result in lessons that are not enough fun as well as being difficult.

I think the only effective way to start teaching Japanese children to read and write is through phonics. I have written extensively on this elsewhere so I won't go into the details here. I will just say that systematically scaffolding the children's phonic skills can work well in a once-a-week class, can be made to feel easy for the children, and can be a lot of fun.

Phonics is of course only a starting point. It is important that we never lose sight of the need to build up whole language skills while the children are learning phonics. We cannot teach language in lots of little bits and then expect the children to magically develop whole language reading strategies.

And what about the argument that teaching reading and writing takes time away from speaking? I think it is important to distinguish between speaking and communicating. A child who says automatically, 'How are you?', 'Fine, thank you, and you?' is speaking but not communicating.

If we want children to communicate, they need to internalize language, and I think this is almost impossible if the children focus too much on listening and speaking in a once-a-week situation. If they learn listening, speaking, reading and writing in a reasonably balanced way in a child-centered and fun learning environment, it is not too difficult for the children to internalize language patterns and so develop the potential to use them flexibly and communicatively.

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