Can ES Teachers In Japan REALLY Teach English ALONE? by David L. Hayter

by David L. Hayter
Bio: David L. Hayter works as a Lead Assistant Language Teacher (ALT) in Japan. Although he primarily teaches junior high school, he has taught all the grades from kindergarten through ninth grade.

Aside from teaching classes in junior high school, his other duties include training and managing new ALTs, designing and delivering teacher training workshops, and performing other duties for his local Board of Education.

When he’s not teaching, he actively volunteers in his community, enjoys playing video games, loves to cook, trains hard, practices martial arts, podcasts, helps run the ALT Training Online blog and writes for his blog, Yokkaichi Connections.

So it’s time to ask the question: Can elementary school teachers in Japan REALLY teach English Alone? The quick answer is, “YES, THEY CAN!” With a little extra help that is.

The MEXT (Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science, and Technology) in Japan has set the lofty, and some would dare say unrealistic, goal of having ES (elementary school) students study English from the 3rd grade in 2020. While this should definitely mean that future generations will have a better command of English, there is still a lot of work to be done to get the ES teachers ready for the task.

From my experience, different ES teachers have different levels of enthusiasm when it comes to teaching English.

They also have varying skill levels. Some love the subject and jump at the chance to have conversations with ALTs and other English speakers. Other teachers who are less enthusiastic about English may do the minimum amount of instruction required to satisfy the requirements of the curriculum.

Keeping this in mind, this post covers some things Japanese teachers can do to become better teachers of English elementary schools. A lot of the info applies to ALTs as well. Many of the following practices are being promoted by a local BoE (Board of Education) in my area and the good people who work there.

Practice using picture books

ES students, especially the younger crowd, love picture books. However, there is a lot more to using a picture book effectively than just reading the words on the page.

When reading a picture book, make sure all the students can see the book
(I’m a genius, I know).

If you can add in different voices for characters and sound effects, the students really get a kick out of it.

The students will be zoned in on you and your reactions to the story. If you have fun with it, they’ll have fun with it. Don’t be afraid to act really surprised, happy, sad, or scared. It really helps reinforce the meaning of the story!

Lastly, you can also use the book for comprehension questions. You can ask questions like:

  • What’s this?
  • How many ~ do you see?
  • Do you like ~?
  • What color is this?
There are a lot of creative ways to get the most out of your picture books. Give it a shot!

Use more digital resources

The world is becoming more digital day by day. The same is true for Japan (although at a much, much slower pace). Despite the slow adoption of new technology in Japan, Japanese children are growing up on tablets and smart-phones.

Using digital resources in the classroom do a lot more to retain the students’ attention.

For example, I’ve done a Halloween presentation more than a few times over the years. I first had a presentation with a lot of pictures on the slides. It was interesting for the students, but there were still some who seemed a little checked out.

Later, I added in more animations and transitions. After a while, I put in more GIFs and links to YouTube videos. The content was the same, but it was more engaging for the students.

Even if the students don’t like English, they’ll at least dig the crazy stuff that pops up on the screen.

The new textbooks for ES, We Can and Let’s Try, have some digital materials that can be used with the book. If teachers can combine the digital materials for the book with their own, it’ll make the class more interesting and relevant for their digital-native students.

Make communicative, context based lessons

One idea I’ve picked up over the last year is CBL (Context Based Learning). It may sound like a fancy word off the bat, but it’s pretty simple when you think about it.

When teaching an English class, the students will get more out of the lesson if there is a “context,” or real-world situation, behind the lesson (what a concept!).

The days of drilling grammar and vocabulary in order to translate it and get the right answers for a test do little to produce students who can use English in real-world situations.

Games can be fun but if students don’t get some context with them, it’s kind of like just having fun for nothing.

Many teachers may be intimidated by CBL, but if they can see that it’s not too difficult and can be a lot of fun, I think more teachers will come around to it.

Here are some ways you can give lessons context:

Asking “Wh-” questions

  • Write a letter to a student in another country asking about their life
  • Interview a famous person
  • Find a criminal by interviewing witnesses
  • Ask about someone’s hometown

There are a lot of different ways to give lessons context. In the end, simple lessons that get the students up, moving around, and talking with each other tend to go over well.

Become a conversation partner for the students

As teachers in ES begin to teach more on their own (without ALTs), they will naturally have to speak more English in the class (genius – again, I know). That means that the ES teachers will be speaking a lot more with their students.

One of the best ways to do this is to have short, simple, and unscripted conversations with students. 

The goal isn’t to reproduce a passage from a book. Rather, the goal is to build skills and confidence in the students (and sometimes teachers).

The MEXT calls this “small talk,” I call it “just speaking English.”

Here’s an example:

Teacher: Yesterday, we learned about food. Now I have a question. What food do you like? Any volunteers? Yes!

Student 1: I like pizza.

Teacher: Oh, you like pizza? Me too! How about you? Do you like pizza?

Student 2: No. I like sushi.

Teacher: I see. You like sushi. I like sushi, but I don’t like wasabi. How about you? Do you like wasabi?

(And so on, and so forth – I think you get the idea)

From this example, we can see that the conversations aren’t too in depth and the content pretty easy to handle.

These phrases and expressions are the very basic building blocks of language.

There are some things to note from the above example:

  1. The conversation is between the teacher and the students
    • As the students become better, they should be able to do this with each other.
  2. The questions are very simple.
  3. There is no right answer (the students get to give their opinion).
  4. The teacher repeats the student’s answer.
    • This checks for understanding while stating the answer again for other students to hear.
  5. “How about you?” is a magic question.
    • It makes it more into a back and forth conversation.
    • It’s not the usual type of interrogation.
  6. The students practice social skills and thinking on their feet
    • Some students struggle with this in Japanese, let alone English

Time will tell

The practices listed above are some of the new ideas that are being promoted by BoEs around Japan. We’ll have to see if these ideas end up being effective as time goes on.

I’m fairly hopeful that if teachers begin to incorporate these ideas into their classes, then the English speaking ability of Japanese students should increase over time (fingers crossed).

Although the ALT will remain a valuable resource for teachers and students, incorporating these ideas will move Japan away from an educational system where the ALT primarily has been seen as the model of an English speaker to one where the ES teacher also becomes a model of an English speaker with the ALT (team-teaching, anyone?).

So the answer to my first question again is “YES, THEY CAN!” But, the rest is up to them. Let’s do what we can to make it happen!

          A note from ALT training online’s David Hayter

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