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New Elementary School English Curriculum for 2020 Rolling Out in Japan

Improved and expanded English teaching materials are being adopted in Japan. Here’s a first look.

By 8 min read

In just over a year, Japanese elementary schools will be expected to fully adopt the new curriculum proposed for English education. Previously, English was only taught as an official subject to grades five and six but from 2020 this will extend to include third and fourth grade classes, as well.

In preparation for this, my school board here in Nagano — where I decided to relocate to last year from Osaka — and a number of other municipal boards of education across Japan have already begun gradually phasing in the new curriculum.

Indeed, the reason I have a job here now is my BOE’s decision to directly hire two new full-time elementary school ALTs last year in order to expand the number of days ALTs can spend at elementary schools each year.

From my own viewpoint, it could then be said that I have something of a proverbial “leg-up” on the competition, since I have had the chance to work with the new curriculum and materials a full year ahead of schedule. I’ve also had the chance to observe and provisionally assess how my Japanese colleagues — many of whom do not speak English — have been able to handle the teaching of this new program of study and utilize its new materials.

I have had the chance to work with the new curriculum and materials a full year ahead of schedule.

At this point, then — where are we at? Is teaching English in 2020 any less daunting a prospect now than it was when I first commented on the early promise of the new curriculum in Japan about a year ago?

Please note that my thoughts here today are based entirely on my own experiences and opinions: views formed after using the new materials for a full academic year. In your own classes (and using your own methods), you may feel quite differently than I do about this new curriculum. I would encourage all of you to experiment with different ideas and approaches in your lessons — both with these new materials and perhaps some of your own home grown elements, too — to help find your own voice as a teacher.

Remember that nobody has a monopoly on good ideas. In fact, please share your thoughts and opinions on this new system in the comment section below. The teachers tuned to this thread need all the opinions and tips we can get!

With that out of the way, let me present what I think are some of the pros and cons of this new elementary school English education syllabus.

The positives

Let’s Try! Covers for books one and two. ©東京書籍

The new textbooks are titled We Can (for grades five and six) and Let’s Try (for grades three and four). I think they are definitely a step up from the previous textbooks called Hi Friends.

The activities are simpler, easier to explain to the students without having to revert to Japanese and designed around starting with single word responses. The books then build out to answering in full sentences before finally being able to converse and exchange questions and answers using their own vocabulary inputs.

The units in the book (one book per grade level) have more of a logical flow to them. With the previous texts, I often found myself asking my colleagues if we could teach the units out of order as — particularly in the sixth grade — the difficulty gradient from one unit to the next, if taught chronologically, was just too steep.

With the new materials, it’s more a case of picking and choosing which activities best fit your own lesson flow

There are more interactive elements, as well.

Although the previous textbook had an electronic version that could be used from a computer onto a projector or an electronic whiteboard, the activities were somewhat rudimentary and lacking in depth. Often teachers would be left with the dilemma of trying to plan an entire lesson around activities that could be played through in less than 15 minutes.

With the new materials, it’s more a case of picking and choosing which activities best fit your own lesson flow, because you most likely won’t have time to do them all.

Each unit in the book has a series of chants, listening activities to practice (for general understanding and picking out specific information). There are also some good general interest and cultural aspect videos that you can show your students as a five-minute filler at the end of class or as a pre-amble at the start of the lesson.

The not-so positives?

We Can! Covers for books one and two. ©東京書籍

While the new books are a step forward in many ways, they also still suffer from many of the same pitfalls that blighted the previous titles.

The dialogue is often stilted and unnatural. Many of the video segments used in the interactive materials just don’t feel right. I get that they are using child actors — but could we at least get kids who can put two sentences together?

Pacing is also an issue. Many of the actors used in the videos speak far too fast to be understood by elementary school kids. Often, much of the vocabulary used in the dialogues does not appear in the previous sections of the unit that cover essential target language structures.

There is also an over reliance on American pronunciation and intonation.

I understand that many of the universities and international schools in Japan lean towards American-style pronunciation, but the reality is that many ALTs in Japan do not come from the United States. There is an enormous diversity within the English language and Japan’s diverse range of English teachers reflects this. Even within the U.S. itself there are dozens if not hundreds of local accents and inflections. The official, government mandated text books for Japan should reflect this.

Many of the actors used in the videos speak far too fast to be understood by elementary school kids.

Sadly, they don’t and almost all the kids and adults shown in these materials speak with the same faux west coast American accent, and they almost always speak too fast and lack clarity in their pronunciation. On many occasions, I had to just read the scripts directly to my students as they simply couldn’t follow what the on screen actors were saying.

On the plus side, you can also utilize this as a teachable moment, to show students how different English speakers can sound very different, to the point that they may not even understand each other. However, always remember to keep to American spelling, as kids will be expected to use this in their high school and university exams later. There’s nothing wrong with pointing out the different ways to pronounce and spell the same word — just make sure the students know which one they need to learn for the test.

Overall, the new texts show significant improvements from the previous editions, but still suffer from the same core, fundamental problem: they read as if they were not written by English speakers but by middle-management committees who think they know how an English class should be run. While this may not be the case, it gives the impression that they, most likely, have little or no practical teaching experience.

The language is often unnatural, the phrasing unnecessarily confusing and the overall result inconsistent. As before, it falls on the ALT and their Japanese colleagues to fill in all the gaps.

So how about our Japanese colleagues? How are they handling preparations for these changes in 2020?

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I can’t speak for other regions but I will say that here in Nagano at least, schools seem to be taking a proactive approach.

Over the summer last year, myself and my fellow ALTs gave a series of bilingual seminars to Japanese elementary school homeroom teachers to help them feel more confident and better prepared to teach English on their own and with an ALT. Remember that, unlike junior high schools — where ALTs are usually paired with a Japanese teacher of English (JTE) who is at least conversational in the language — this isn’t the case in elementary school. More often than not, the homeroom teacher you teach alongside will have little or no formal training in English.

They asked plenty of questions, they responded well to the advice we gave and they were frank and honest about the areas where we ALTs could perhaps do better, as well. Collectively, this has led to a noticeable improvement in their classroom interactions with us ALTs.

My own board of education has taken it a step further and it’s one that —  budget permitting — I recommend other BOEs across Japan try to follow.

More often than not, the homeroom teacher you teach alongside will have little or no formal training in English.

In two of the four schools where I teach, I have been paired with an English speaking Japanese teacher, a former Junior high school English teacher, who is employed in elementary schools as a specialist English teacher.

In addition to teaching alongside me, this teacher also gives an additional lesson each week to the students ensuring they get two extra hours of tuition — almost completely in English — each week. Where possible, I hope similar schemes can be adopted in other elementary school boards across the country. The results in just one year here have been remarkable, to say the least.

It remains to be seen whether the plans the government has to extend English education in Japan will continue to grow beyond the 2020 Olympics.

The cynics have their doubts, but I — for one — am hopeful.

Are you an elementary school ALT or thinking of becoming one? What are your thoughts about the direction of English education in Japan for the coming years? Leave a comment and tell us your thoughts!

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