English In Japan In 2020: A Reality Check For Elementary and Junior High School ALTs by Craig Hoffman

by Craig Hoffman

Bio: Craig Hoffman is a novelist, writer, blogger, and Social Media guru living in Japan. He spent years as an ALT-CIR and consults with ALTs and school boards on a variety of English teaching issues. Craig can be found at @craighoffman11 on Twitter and at https://craiginjapan.wordpress.com/blog/.

Assistant Language Teachers (ALTs) rejoice! English education in Japan is changing in 2020. It is about time. I mean; after all, Japanese people love English.

In modern Japan, there seem to be conflicting views over how the Japanese people view the English language. On one side, it appears that there is much interest in acquiring a working knowledge of the English language, which can be demonstrated by the annual rise in STEP Eiken applicants and the number of Japanese media outlets that have begun to incorporate English-language programs into their repertoire, in order to participate in the global economy and international community. While at the same time, writers such as Henry J. Hughes and Mike Guest point out that Japan maintains itself as one of the most independent nations on Earth due to its geographic isolation and amazing translation industry which results in hardly any need of English in daily life. (Wikipedia)

The Japanese government loves English. Well, they love English enough to change the English language curriculum in schools. And, it is happening just in time for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

English will be a mandatory subject from the 3rd grade (elementary school) for the entire nation. Currently, municipalities decided to study, or not to study, English as an integrated subject or as conversational English. English has only been mandatory starting from the 5th grade from 2011 or so. English will be taught using immersion and other modern methods in junior high school. Currently, English is grammar-based but includes some communicative elements. (EK-Go)

Elementary school ALTs have nothing to worry about since the Japanese homeroom teachers will be teaching English. Those licensed teachers must be qualified to teach English. After all, Japan is the land of certificates.

According to an education ministry survey in fiscal 2015, only 4.9 percent of elementary school teachers were licensed to teach English. Many didn’t even learn how to teach the subject because it wasn’t necessary to acquire their teaching licenses. (Japan Times)

Certainly, this will not be a problem at the junior high schools. There is a Japanese English teacher with the ALT in the classroom. That has to be a cake teaching job for the ALT. Right?

The blueprint also calls for English classes in junior high schools to be “basically” taught in English with the goal of nurturing the “ability to understand familiar topics and exchange simple information as well as express simple thoughts.” (Japan Times)

Unfortunately, there is not enough qualified Japanese English teaching staff to put in every elementary and junior high school in Japan. In fact, there is a significant teacher shortage in general in Japan.

The number of teachers working at public elementary and junior high schools in Japan was at least 357 short of the necessary quota at the start of the 2017 academic year. (The Mainichi Shimbun)

There are elementary and junior high schools across Japan scrambling to put a warm body in front of students. There are a number of Japanese teachers who are not fully qualified to be teachers let alone English teachers.

“Do you really believe the temporary Japanese teacher is going to be ready on the first day to teach English with you?”

Japanese test-takers ranked 40th of 48 countries in 2013 on their average score on the Test of English for International Communication (TOEIC), organized by Educational Testing Service, a private, nonprofit educational testing and assessment organization. (Wall Street Journal)

That is not to say one needs a teaching qualification or even a high TOEIC score to be an effective English teacher. Some of the best Japanese English teachers I worked with over the years have degrees outside of English. In this day and age, young Japanese people spend time overseas on homestays, as university exchange students, and working holidays.

Those aged between 26 and 30 scored the highest with an average of 616 points. Those under 20, the youngest bracket, scored the lowest with 492. (Wall Street Journal)

“Is it a reasonable expectation that an older, certified elementary school teacher you are working with is going to have enough English ability to carry a year’s worth of English curriculum?”

Probably not. The older generation of Japanese teachers did not have as many opportunities for English immersion experiences. Unfortunately, the English education Japanese college students get in school is of little practical value. This is according to a recent case study on the matter.

The findings in this study also revealed that students have not had significant opportunity to practice the use of English with other students. The fact that 66% of the students in this study did not believe that their prior English learning experience was meaningful was similar to research by Mack (2012), whereby students also complained that they felt uncomfortable with other students because they had not had much experience speaking in English. (Grant L. Osterman)

“Is it likely your junior high school is staffed with Japanese English teachers who can conduct English lessons completely in English for the entire year?”

The teachers themselves — most of whom were taught in the same way as they now teach — do not have adequate enough English communication skills. In fact, more than 70 percent of junior high school English teachers have a TOEIC score lower than 730. (Japan  Today)

This is unlikely in most junior high school English classrooms. I do not believe all is lost despite the above gloom and doom. This English curriculum transition provides a unique opportunity for ALTs to redefine their roles in the classroom. ALTs in 2020 can support Japanese English-teaching staff like never before in the Japanese school system.

A flexible and well prepared ALT in an elementary school can lead English classes while allowing the Japanese homeroom teacher to interject where and when they feel comfortable. The ALT should lean on the Japanese elementary school teacher’s pedagogical expertise. There must be a commitment by all involved to work together if these new changes are to be given a chance to succeed.

A fostering of a symbiotic teaching relationship between the elementary school ALT and the Japanese homeroom teacher will be necessary as the Japanese education system seeks to make English a tested and graded subject. A balance between the ALT teaching real English and the unavoidable fact that most of that practical communication will not be on the real English tests is going to be a problem.

The ALT must weigh increasing English communication skills against the sobering reality that tests still matter in Japan. This presents a different challenge for an ALT teaching at the junior high school level. The MEXT has decided junior high school English classes should “basically” be taught in English.

This change necessitates more communication between the elementary and junior high school Japanese teaching staff (and ALTs) than exists at present in Japan’s school system. In addition, the transition will require more preparation and teamwork with the Japanese English teacher inside the classroom. There is no doubt many Japanese junior high school English teachers will struggle to adapt to an all English teaching-learning environment.

The ALT is going to be invaluable in helping with lesson planning and presentation. It will be imperative the ALT instills confidence in their Japanese English teachers they can teach in English. The ALT should not be expected to do everything alone. It is still team-teaching after all.

The Japanese English teacher and the ALT should create clear lesson plans with easy, student-led activities promoting the use of English only in the classroom. The ALT’s days of winging it and being a human tape recorder are coming to an end. There will be bumps in the road for both ALTs and Japanese English teachers in the classroom, but there is a silver lining for foreign English teachers.

It is a fortunate time to be an ALT in Japan as these English curriculum changes come in 2020. Finally, there is a chance for students to learn and use English, and for the ALT to be an integral part of the process. If everyone involved is committed to working together, English education in Japan will improve in the future.

And, so, I say again, ALTs rejoice!

          A note from ALT training online’s David Hayter

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This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Nathaniel Reed

    A great read, and very interesting to understand all teachers needs and abilities. The English through English policy has fear stricken with all of the JHS teachers I work with, except one who says she has no problem with it at all. So there will be a long period of adaption as far as I can see. Also, the English lessons in English says 'according to the level and understanding of the students' – so it looks like teachers in JHS have a lot of room there to interpret this government guideline AND do as they see fit. But, this blog made me think more about the support we can provide for ES teachers – with little/no training and English ability they've really been put in the deep end (my brother is a teacher in the UK, I can't imagine his response if the government suddenly asked him to teach a language he's not been trained to and is not competent in).

  2. DudeinKyushu

    Unfortunately I don't think this is going to work out. There will be a few cases for ALTs to shine and do really well, but for the most part we will see failed curriculum. The students will fail to learn English well enough to communicate in it and they will continue to dislike their lessons. The students know their lessons are bad and that they aren't learning. Many ALTs are shut down or overworked now as municipalities are running out of money and getting stingier. They are hiring more non-native speakers, often with English skills only slightly less questionable than the JTEs in the schools or HRTs. It's not going to go well for most kids or schools. A few of us can probably make something good happen. Juku and eikaiwa will continue to rain in the dough teaching only slightly less horrible curriculum by virtue of the public system setting the bar so ridiculously low whilst also putting so much pressure on the testing piece. I want to be dead wrong about this but I'm not. Things are only getting worse going forward.

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