Teach English in Lindong Zhen - Chifeng Shi

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Japan is currently going through a transitionary period in the government’s approach to the promotion of English ability among younger generations of Japanese. Until recently, elementary schools had not treated English as a core subject with reading and writing elements, and the focus of middle and high school English classes had been largely skewed towards preparation for written exams to enter desirable institutes of education. Even with eight or more years of mandatory English education, the communicative abilities and English confidence level of those who have gone through this system have been found to be less than desirable. Thus, public schools have adopted changes and new systems to encourage the development of an interest among youth in communicating verbally through English, on an international stage. These changes include modified textbooks and curriculum with greater speaking and listening emphasis, employment of Assistant Language Teachers from primarily English speaking countries who interact with students and encourage a primarily English atmosphere, and earlier introduction of real English classes in elementary schools. As with any transition, there are bound to be hiccups in the process, and I’ve become familiar with some of the strengths and weaknesses of Japan’s English education through personal experience living and teaching in a rural area of the country. I would like to discuss several peculiarities, and connect them to themes I’ve learned in this course, with the goal of ruminating on how best to adapt to and make the most of the English learning environment within Japan. With virtually 100 percent monolingual English classes in any area of the country, and a body of teachers composed mostly of Japanese speakers of English as a foreign language, Japan faces pronounced difficulty in creating English immersive environments and exposure to natural spoken English for students. As one countermeasure for this, the Ministry of Education has been employing young teachers from various English speaking countries (referred to as ALTs), who perform varying degrees of teaching duties depending on the schools they are assigned. The effects on English abilities due to the presence of ALTs at schools and in classes are perhaps not always measurable in written performance based tests, and this is a common criticism of the system. However, from my experience working as one, the increased internationalization opportunities and increased need to use English with non-Japanese teachers in the classroom, as well as the easy availability of natural sounding models for communicative activities, dialogues and roleplays can have a highly positive impact on student confidence and conversational abilities. Unfortunately, the utilization of ALTs throughout the country is nowhere near perfect. Many public school teachers are not trained in how to work alongside a team teacher, and a large number of ALTs are hired with no prior teaching experience. Many ALTs languish in public schools with little responsibility, and those good teachers who crave a more legitimate teaching experience ultimately leave the public school system to teach at universities, or private businesses such as conversation schools or cram schools. In order to make the most of the funds that are spent on the ALT employment system, and have the most positive effect on the growth of students, the problems need to be addressed and the possibility for engaging ESA style lessons in junior and senior high schools needs to be enhanced. As for elementary schools, recently strides are being taken to transform English classes into more legitimate lessons that nurture the four aspects of language learning starting from 5th grade, and expose children to verbal communication from the 3rd grade. While the effects of the change can’t fully be measured for several more years, during my four years teaching various levels in Japan I have noticed significant improvements in listening and pronunciation ability of incoming junior high school students which increase by the year. Japan has harbored a fear that exposing children to English too early may have a damaging effect on their Japanese language acquisition, but it seems as though the Ministry of Education is realizing the benefits of starting early when children can still be “language sponges”. It’s not unusual for older primary school students in Japan, especially those in rural areas, to lack the motivation to learn English due to their rationale that no one around them speaks English and it won’t be useful to their future lives. Getting students comfortable with English from a young age, and giving them many fun and varied communication experiences through knowledgeable and enthusiastic native English speaking teachers is highly valuable. Many Japanese elementary teachers are not trained in the use and teaching of English, and this has made the transition very stressful for them. As it stands, increasing the frequency of classes involving international teachers who are familiar with teaching young learners, as well as improving the preparedness of Japanese elementary teachers to teach English would impact the first stages of English education in Japan immensely. Due to the introduction of English classes earlier in primary schools, the officially sanctioned textbooks are in a state of flux. At least in junior high schools, each region of Japan is required to use a government selected textbook that prepares students for standardized tests on the information from a specific curriculum. Many teachers are pressured to stick very closely to it, and this can impact the variety and creativeness of lessons. The series of books does give a good indication of what the students are starting with and where they should be at various points, but supplementing and revising areas of the book to suit the class should be done to make lessons more interesting and relevant. Phonetics is a particular area that is neglected in the curriculum, so supplementing the book with training in the phonetic alphabet or pronunciation intensive practice may prove useful. Japan is increasingly realizing the need for English in an international world. I hope that through discussing the areas that English education could be improved, students will eventually become more prepared to communicate effectively and confidently in English.