Teach English in Siming Zhen - Yancheng Shi

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Japan is currently undergoing a massive education reform, including English education. As an ALT in a small town, I am exposed to the consequences of these reforms, as well as on-the-ground problems of the materials the government produced. This report is not intended to speak for all of Japan, but rather my experiences teaching fifth through eighth grade students. I will be focusing on the two most consistent obstacles I have experienced, pronunciation and lack of authentic material while instructing. While pronunciation is a concern for any and all English language learners, the lack of authentic materials depends on the location, and in my case, because my town and its budget are small. English has fundamental differences from Japanese that can make it difficult for students to learn or feel comfortable engaging with. A major difference is pronunciation: English has sounds that simply do not exist in Japanese. The current education system in public schools introduces elementary students to a writing system called “romaji,” which can translate Japanese writing systems into their basic English phonetic counterparts. This system is government created and is therefore required. Unfortunately, two major problems arise from romaji: first, it does not include all English sounds, and second, it incorrectly translates certain sounds that are shared. For example, ち (pronounced as a softer “chi”) is written in romaji as “ti,” which is an entirely different sound in English. Romaji is used in order to help students type on a QWERTY keyboard, as well as give them a basic introduction to the English alphabet, but when students write name tags for class or are asked to spell something based on phonetics, the incorrect letters are often used. While this is something that can be worked through, it requires students to unlearn something along with learning something new, which can dampen motivation and take up time that could be spent focusing on entire new linguistic concepts such as the diphthong. Additionally, if a class’s ALT does not know Japanese and can only read their “English” name tags, the ALT could make mistakes and take longer to build rapport. As discussed in unit 13, pronunciation in English is not limited to individual sounds, but also intonation and stress. In my experience, teaching intonation and stress can drastically improve letter and word pronunciation. One particular case stands out when I was going over the word “ruler.” Japanese pronunciation does not include “L” as a sound, and “R” is produced as a more alveolar sound like a short, soft “d” sound. Naturally, the combination of these factors makes ruler a very alien word that my students struggled to reproduce. To my surprise, I found that teaching the stress and intonation of the word helped them produce the sounds more clearly. Unfortunately, the time that allowed me to discover this was because I had extra time, and that is not always the case, especially in middle school. Intonation and pronunciation are often left for the ALT to model in middle school, and while intonation is taught in phrases, particularly with question phrases, a long, focused study of pronunciation rarely occurs. A consequence of this is that student model readings tend to be flat, but no real explanation or study is given; if students had a chart like the one given in unit 13 about stress, I think there would be an improvement. The difficulties of English pronunciation are not an unknown problem by the Japanese Ministry of Education. Last year, the middle school introduced a workbook that aimed to help students improve reading abilities by teaching pronunciation. I have never instructed this workbook but I have perused it: the methods use reading and writing exercises with minimal pairs to help students identify patterns. I am unsure if an audio portion is provided or if they must answer based on memory. Despite these unknowns, this workbook demonstrates that materials and resources are being adapted and employed to fit the needs of the schools. However, many, if not all, of these materials are nonauthentic. The middle school textbook has some authentic reading materials in its textbooks, but the use is left up to the teacher. Often these readings are used for speech competitions and not as learning materials. Elementary schools have little to no authentic materials. While teachers and ALTs may provide authentic materials or supplement with their own created materials, the lack of exposure to authentic English makes identifying nuances of certain grammatical patterns difficult. In Japanese, expressing the future and future intentions has one grammatical form, while in English there are seven. As a native English speaker, I was astounded by this because I had become familiar with their uses and formations by exposure, not through study. The lack of exposure to authentic materials makes it extremely difficult to demonstrate to students how these different tenses work together and how they are integrated. The nonauthentic materials provided for studying do allow for ample controlled practice, but the texts provided often concentrate on the target phrase so much that to a native speaker they sound unnatural. Without samples of authentic material or at the very least more exposure to a more natural integration of tenses, students have a difficult time noting the differences in usage, and can struggle when listening exams use a mixture. These experiences are not a reflection of all schools and English education in Japan, but they do reflect national concerns: if students do not have exposure to natural English, they will not understand or produce as much. Pronunciation is particular difficult to fix, as students must unlearn a problematic system before being able to fully engage with natural English pronunciation. The lack of authentic materials also prevents students from being exposed to English in a more diverse way that could potentially help them pick up more natural patterns, such as tense usage. However, there are steps being taken to fix these issues, and I, too, intend to use the material in this course, as well as other sources, to do what I can for my students.