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A New Challenge: Changes to Elementary School English in Japan for 2020

With the Olympics drawing closer, the government is finally getting serious about English in elementary schools.

By 5 min read

For many people in Japan, both in their work and personal lives, April is often seen as a time of new beginnings, and of transition.

This year, I am part of this process of rebirth and reinvention, as well.

After five years in Osaka, I was offered a very attractive position in Nagano Prefecture, which — having spent a lot of time in Nagano previously and familiarized myself with the place and the people — I decided to accept.

This position, however, is a pretty major departure from my previous work. Whereas before, my primary focus was private sector junior and senior high school students, my new job sees me taking on a public school position and — for the first time in my teaching career — being based exclusively at elementary school.

Now, those who know me and my teaching style, will know that I am not a song and dance man. Indeed, I’ve often said that those people willing to reduce themselves to the role of a mere entertainer or clown do the rest of us teachers a great disservice. With such an attitude, many veterans would say I may not be the right kind of teacher for elementary schools in Japan. But things are not as they once were.

Thankfully, after decades of hubris and mere token efforts, it finally seems that the education ministry is taking elementary school English seriously.

What’s happening?

Big changes are afoot and these will bring with them many new opportunities and, no doubt, plenty of new challenges to be overcome.

From 2020, English will become an official subject for fifth and sixth grade students. Previously, English was categorized as gaikokukatsudo (foreign culture activities).

This rather flimsy labeling meant that the number of classes and the topics covered were inconsistent across different schools, and there were no universally agreed lesson outcomes or standardized methods of assessment. It also meant that teachers were left confused and unsure as to the expectations of the lessons. Indeed, in previous jobs I did, on some rare occasions, encounter elementary teachers who would just hide at the back of the classroom and let the ALT deal with the course alone.

The new curriculum, which is being phased in over the next two years, will see new textbooks being introduced and the volume of classes being increased considerably.

Grade five and six students will have 70 hours of English lessons per year from now on — the equivalent of approximately two per week.

Grade three and four students will also have a new textbook and will receive 35 hours of teaching per year.

From 2020, English will become an official subject for fifth and sixth grade students.

Where does the ALT fit into this?

Now, before you all panic, 70 hours of classes does not mean 70 classes per study group per year for the ALT. Instead, homeroom teachers will be teaching English classes solo, with occasional support from the ALT. Typically, the ALT will join less than half of the total number of English lessons over the course of the year.

As a benchmark example, my new role sees me covering four schools and teaching only grades five and six. I’ll have four classes per day and each class will have 29 lessons with me over the course of the year. Multiply these four classes per day over a five-day week and then multiply this by the 29 lessons over the year — that gives us a grand total of 580 teaching hours over the course of the whole year. All things being equal, 580 teaching hours over the course of an entire year isn’t a bad workload at all.

See this article for a good outline of exactly how ALTs should fit into their schools.

How can we support our Japanese colleagues?

The new textbooks, while still not perfect, are, in my opinion a big step up from the previous materials, containing a large volume of interactive resources. As much as we can, we should encourage our colleagues to use these materials in their solo lessons. In the absence of a regular ALT, the pre-recorded pronunciation drills, chants and listening activities provide at least some exposure to native-level pronunciation. The resources also take some of the pressure off of our already overworked colleagues when it comes to preparing materials and activities for lessons.

Will ALTs need to change their approach?

The new curriculum still follows many of the same target language points of the previous one. So, drastic changes won’t be necessary. However, it’s always good to try and change your routine up a bit each year to keep things fresh and stop complacency from setting in.

As much as you can, I would encourage ALTs to make their own lesson plans and materials, covering the target language in the curriculum. This has three major advantages.

  1. It’s always easier to teach with your own materials. You can create activities, games and lessons that reflect your own teaching style and your own preferences.
  2. Using your own materials as much as you can also frees up the components, games and activities in the textbooks for your colleagues to use. They will really appreciate this.
  3. There will be extensive periods of downtime in your job (probably at least two  hours per day). Utilizing this time to make supplemental materials will go a long way toward making a good impression with your schools.

In summary, this year and next will be a time of upheaval in the elementary English teaching sector. However, it’s also an exciting time. For the first time in many years, getting creative, being proactive and taking the lead will actually be encouraged among ALTs and homeroom teachers alike.

Time will tell if this new curriculum has the desired effect, but the early signs seem promising.

Do you teach elementary school English in Japan? If so, have you made any changes to your lessons or teaching style to accommodate the new curriculum? Let us know in the comments!

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