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Interview with Setsuko Toyama

Setsuko ToyamaSetsuko Toyama is a well-known author, teacher trainer and presenter. She specializes in teaching English to Japanese children and is the author of several textbooks, including the "English Time" series from Oxford University Press. Setsuko’s recent academic focus is on preparing elementary school teachers for the introduction of English into the primary (5th and 6th grade) curriculum in 2011. She is the advisor of PEN (Primary English in Niigata) and is also visiting professor at Keiwa College in Niigata.

Recently, Ms. Toyama took time from her very busy schedule to speak with Russell Willis at eigoTown.com Ltd. about the upcoming Primary Education reforms.

From 2011 English will become mandatory in 5th and 6th grade and all elementary schools in Japan will be required to teach 35 class hours of English per year. This has created a major resourcing and training challenge as most elementary school teachers have not been trained to teach English. Setsuko, could you tell me a little about your experience of working with Elementary school teachers?
It was in 2001 that I started to conduct teacher-training seminars at public elementary schools. In 2002, I kicked off a study group with a handful of elementary teachers and I named the group PEN (Primary English in Niigata). Over the past seven years PEN grew to be a body of 170 elementary teachers and teachers of children, spread over Japan, from Kyushu to Sendai. We communicate daily by mailing list and every other month we have a meeting called "Pencil Box Seminar". Members present their lesson plans and I give workshops as the advisor.
Can you give me an example of the type of issues that need to be addressed when teaching English at public elementary schools?
One of my first team-teaching experiences was in 2002. I met with the homeroom teacher who had a pretty good command of English to discuss the lesson plan. I proposed a lesson plan that had worked very well in my own school. The next day we confidently started the class. Guess what happened. The children didn’t speak at all. They clammed up and eyed us suspiciously. We panicked and walked around the classroom to help with the groups but there were six groups for the two of us. It was a disaster.

Looking back, the plan we had made was probably really good for a small class of children who wanted to learn English but it was not appropriate at all for thirty-some children who were not used to having an English lesson in school. The plan did not give children enough listening and forced them to speak on their own right away. The plan looked like fun and children-centered, but set in a large class it became a different monster.
So how do you deal with large classes of students with varied English abilities?
The expertise of the homeroom teacher (HRT) is key to success in the elementary classroom. They know the children’s names and can control the classroom, something that is almost impossible to do if you are a guest teacher (GT). Another key is to design lesson plans that incorporate activities that appeal to various learning styles. My observation is that every class has a few children with some difficulty and often, these children benefit from English instruction that appeals to different intelligences that they bring to the classroom but are not appreciated in other subjects. This idea is based on the theory of Multiple Intelligences, which was developed in the 1980’s by Dr. Howard Gardner, a professor of education at Harvard University.
Can you give me an example?
Every student has eight different intelligences but in different proportions. It is important to take all eight intelligences into account when planning lessons so that all students have an opportunity to learn in their style. This leads to greater motivation and ultimately more successful learning. Here are a few ideas for each intelligence:
Linguistic Intelligence Read words, name the words, say the words, listen to the words, shout the words, and whisper the words.
Logical-Mathematical Intelligence Do puzzles, sequencing activities, or classification activities that involve logical deduction. For example: A is taller than B, but shorter than C. Who is the tallest?
Spatial Intelligence Use visual aids such as maps, big flashcards and realia. Art projects are also useful
Bodily-Kinesthetic Intelligence Use movement with songs, chants or games that include, for example, running or slapping cards. Gestures, role plays and dramas can also be used.
Musical Intelligence Listen to songs and chants, sing and chant, use body percussion (stamping, clapping, patting, snapping) to accompany songs and chants, and play instruments.
Interpersonal Intelligence Involve students in activities or games in which they work together in pairs or groups.
Intrapersonal Intelligence Involve students in individual activities that require personal input and personal choices.
Naturalist Intelligence Show how the structure/organization of language relates to things in nature. Use realia and "natural" examples whenever possible.
What about "Eigo Note"? Isn’t that the required textbook from the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT)? Don’t all teachers have to follow that syllabus?
Eigo Note 1 & 2 (1 for the 5th grade and 2 for the 6th) are teaching materials MEXT produced for "Foreign Language Activities" that will officially become a "ryoiki" (area of study) in 2011. At present, most elementary schools are "rehearsing" for 2011 and many have already implemented a certain amount of English instruction in their curriculum- to get ready for the official start in 2011.

Eigo Note 1 & 2 are not MEXT-designated textbooks that all schools must use. In fact, elementary schools are entitled to use any textbook or supplement Eigo Note with any commercially available material.
So what do you think about Eigo Note?
Many educators have already publicly commented on Eigo Note. The following are the aspects of Eigo Note that I find to be positive. First of all, it’s the first effort of MEXT to create actual lesson plans and to publish Student Books, Teacher’s Books and audio CDs. Eigo Note 1 & 2 serve as the basis of what MEXT wishes the 5th and 6th graders to learn throughout Japan. We can also give recognition to the fact that the units are topic-based or situation-based and not grammar-based.
We should also note that MEXT has decided on the number of English Activities, which had been left to the discretion of each school. In school districts where more than two elementary schools send children to one junior high school, the fact all the children have learned the same amount of language. In short, we can give a big hand to Eigo Note for having set a norm for English Activities.

However, as an author of ELT materials and a practitioner of team teaching in elementary schools, I find a number of problems in Eigo Note. An article I wrote recently for the Oxford Kids’ Club Newsletter outlines the issues and offers solutions as well (download article here).
Do you have any additional advice for interested teachers?
I will be presenting around Japan in January, February and March with a number of other authors and educators on the Oxford Teaching Workshop Series. The theme is The Teacher’s Tool Kit: Ready for 2011 and my fellow speakers and I will be addressing many of these issues in a series of interactive, hands-on workshops that are full of practical ideas and activities for teaching primary learners that can be put to immediate use in the classroom. The workshops are free and open to the public. It’s a great opportunity to make new friends, share ideas and expand your own teaching tool kit!

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