Bio: Mikayla Govern is from Midwest America. She completed her bachelor’s degree in International Studies and has been working in the international sector ever since. She worked at one of the largest banking corporations in the world before finding her passion for teaching. Now, she works in the Saitama and Tokyo area as a lead ALT and helps develop training for ALTs and Japanese Teachers of English.
As many veteran ALTs in the industry already know, the way lesson planning works in Japan is very paperwork heavy and full of bureaucracy. Without Japanese language skills it can be difficult to navigate for a beginner. This is a crash course for beginning teachers of elementary schools in how to navigate the new textbooks and maximize lesson plans based on Japan’s national MEXT plans and expectations.
By 2020, Japan’s planned lesson hours of English in schools across the country will be 70 hours for 5th and 6th grade and 35 hours for 3rd and 4th grade. Last year (H.30/2018) and this year (H.31/2019) are transitional years so the amount taught in schools will be decided by the local boards of education with a minimum of 15 hours for the lower grades and 50 hours for the upper grades. These numbers represent a few changes that affect ALTs in elementary schools across the country.
First, that the new textbooks are not expected to be finished in depth for any grade levels. Unless you are teaching in an English specialty zone, it is unlikely that your school will be aiming to complete the textbooks, as a general rule you might not have many teachers that know about the curriculum changes apart from knowing that they’re happening and the number of English classes will be increased over the next 2 year period.
Second, this push to have increased mandatory English from other grades means there will be an increased demand for elementary ALTs. This could be a good thing or a bad thing depending on how you look at it. The good includes a larger job market for experienced ALTs and a higher chance of working in just one school in the district and better job stability. The other side of the coin could mean increased workloads for ALTs as Elementary English is a new subject so it doesn’t have main English teachers that are working exclusively on English education. ※Elementary education differs from middle school education in how the lessons and workload are divided. In middle schools in Japan you will find that teachers specialize in a subject and then teaches that subject to different classes. However, in elementary education you will have one homeroom teacher who teaches multiple subjects to the same class. Depending on your school you might also have specialized teachers who are in charge of certain subjects but the first pattern is the most common.
With that in mind, some larger elementary schools might receive help from an English specialist (a middle school JTE) from the school district. This program is not yet planned to be carried out at every school in Japan and since it’s not mandated, it will be up to the local boards of education (BOEs) to decide whether to do it or not. Working with these specialists can present new challenges to ALTs who are used to more freedom in the elementary environment, but with good teamwork skills it should bring an overall benefit for the students and the homeroom teachers.
Finally, the amount of hours taught in elementary school means in a lot of cases by 2020, especially in the case of 5th and 6th grade classes, the homeroom teachers will be expected to teach English lessons on their own. Many BOEs are trying to get the teachers to be able to function completely without an ALT and some cities have already made the jump. However, with a lack of English training and ability in general, many teachers are unwilling or not ready for that change. To be honest, there is not a general plan to make this happen as it is up to local BOEs how they want their teachers to interact with the English language. All of this variation in city plans essentially means that the quality of English education will vary drastically from region to region, something to keep in mind when choosing to make a region change in the future.
So how will these teachers teach English? The current way Japanese teachers plan and think about English is that every class needs to cover certain aspects of language acquisition as mandated in the MEXT English subject guidebook. As many of you know there are actually 2 different types of English classes in elementary school gaikokugo-katsudou (外国語活動 – foreign language activities) and gaikokugo-hen (外国語編 – foreign language education). Gaikokugo-katsudou is for grade 4 and below. Students are expected to have fun and gain exposure to the English language. (This is how the English language had been taught previously in elementary schools with the Hi Friends texts.) As such these students aren’t expected to read, write, or produce language without a lot of support from their teachers. The main point is having fun in these classes. Gaikokugo-hen, however, is a new subject within the elementary education system. The difference now is that it is, in fact, a subject. From this point on 5th and 6th grade students will need to learn to be comfortable with reading, writing, phonics, and language production on their own to have a basic mastery of English. This also means the students will start to be graded. For now, the grade is arbitrarily decided by the homeroom teacher but by 2020 there should be tests and homework for students. So far there is no mandatory testing or homework regiment or requirement so you will find that it varies from school to school.
Another new feature of gaikokugo-hen is the increased need for students to work on skills of deduction and reasoning. Previously, with the Hi-Friends texts, the subject matter was not accumulative. Students would focus on one main grammar structure and practice just that structure. Now, with We Can and Let’s Try, things are much more accumulative which will hopefully lead to more retention of the language. Students will also be exposed to language that they haven’t encountered before within the textbooks. This is to promote self-growth and deductive reasoning in students. With Hi Friends, the listening exercises were mostly based on what students already were taught in class. Now the listening exercises are designed to broaden students’ language boundaries while making them use new deductive reasoning skills learned through-out their new English language education. The problem with this, however, can be the desire for teachers (especially Japanese homeroom teachers) to translate the content into Japanese for their students rather than helping them develop productive, deductive skills that are essential to second language learning acquisition. ※For tips on how to avoid this pitfall, see the next part to this article about the features of the new textbooks.
So with these two main categories of English, how do the Japanese teachers plan for the new lessons? In Japan, previously and currently, there are three main points in English education. These are the same for both gaikokugo-katsudou as well as gaikokugo-hen. The objectives for English education are covered by kitzuku, (気づく – discovery), communication, and nareru (慣れる – acclimatization). These three points should be present in any given unit of your lesson plans. Let’s have some examples of each.
Discovery is very simple; it’s about students being exposed to non-Japanese ways of thinking. For example, in the Let’s Try 1 textbook unit for counting, the textbook exposes students to different languages’ way of counting and rock-paper-scissors. Another example would be if an ALT gave a presentation about a custom from another country (such as a Christmas presentation or a presentation about schools across the world). Discovery can also be a goal of an activity. For example, if you have students look for letters from the alphabet in the classroom, the goal of such an activity could be for students to discover the plethora of English in their surroundings. As an ALT, it is important not only to teach students English but also to broaden their world view. Exposing students to new ideas and customs is a great way to cultivate interest in learning English as well as provide context and motivation for second language acquisition.
Communication is pretty self-explanatory, but a necessary feature of language learning is the ability to convey one’s thoughts and receive information from ones speaking partner(s). Without a doubt this is one feature that Japanese tend to struggle with no matter the age grouping. Communication doesn’t have to be conversation. Any communication using the target language counts. So for example, using a listening practice exercise from the textbook and eliciting the target language and vocabulary from students counts as conversation. Obviously, it would be ideal to have students practice in a free-form way to use as much language as possible, but many students lack the confidence to do so. All communication has to accomplish is transferring an idea from one person to another so games tend to take on this feature most prominently. As the whole point of English education is communication of some sort, I wouldn’t worry too much as undoubtedly all of your lesson plans will include some aspect of communication.
Lastly, acclimatization is the process of becoming accustomed to another language. You might consider this the hardware of your classes. This would include vocabulary drilling and grammar points. This is the explanation point of any given lesson, deepening the understanding of English and allowing students the time to practice new words and phrases before the communication stage. Anytime you play a game with no grammar or conversational context it would fall under this category. The point of acclimatization is to help students build confidence and strength with the basic building blocks of English before they apply them to the communication feature. Some examples of this would be criss-cross game, Pictionary, bingo etc. In my experience a successful ALT incorporates both types of activities in their lessons so the students have the proper scaffolding to produce language and convey things they actually want to say to others.
Apart from the 3 main features of English lessons: discovery, communication, and acclimatization, the new English curriculum has expanded into focus on different skills sets of language performance. These skill sets are applied unequally across gaikokugo-katsudou and gaikokugo-hen. There are 5 skills that are thought to be necessary to develop in the new foreign language curriculum. These skills are listening, speaking (conversationally), presentation, reading, and, finally, writing. Only the first two skills are applied for gaikokugo-katsudou and all five skills must be worked on for the upper grades. Of course there is a little cross over to help kids make the transition between gaikokugo-katsudou and gaikokugo-hen but the main idea of how these classes are taught will follow these principles. ※For more information about these skills and how to develop them in your lesson plans see my article about lesson planning for the new curriculum
In conclusion, the increase in mandatory hours in elementary school means a number of challenges for the average school. However, with these challenges come new opportunities for English growth and the possibility for real change in the fluency for Japanese people. With the two different types of English in schools, there are better defined expectations of elementary school English as well as a better transition from elementary school to junior high school, reducing the stress of students. Using the three features of English education, discovery, communication, and acclimatization, Japanese students will develop a set of the 5 main skills of speaking, listening, reading, writing, and presentation. These skills and features will help students build confidence and knowledge in the English language and allow mastery on a new level. Of course this is just the first step of many changes to come but hopefully, this will mean true and meaningful language learning for the Japanese student.
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