Tuesday, October 30, 2018

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

If you have something 'ALT' to write about that hasn't been covered in these blogs, email me at alttoblog@gmail.com so we can work together and spread your story.

Don't have any ideas? We have a list of topics to write about that need a writer. Email in your interest to write and we can set you up. 

For upcoming blogs see the blogs tab here:  http://www.alttrainingonline.com/blog.html

Monday, October 22, 2018

7 Reasons Why English Only Classes Alone Won't Fix Japan's English Problems by David L. Hayter

by David L. Hayter

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 (BOE).

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.

Over the years, the Japanese government has placed a large emphasis on the need for “English only” classes and immersion in English education. Having studied Spanish and Japanese in the US before coming to Japan, I can say that these techniques are very effective for preparing students to communicate in real-world situations.

However, it seems that this type of education won’t be beneficial for the Japanese students who are learning English if the content they are studying and how they are being taught doesn’t change.

Let’s take a closer look at the current situation and examine the barriers to teaching “all English” classes.

Students are all grouped together regardless of level

As you may already know, students in Japan are all placed in the same class regardless of actual English ability. This is a stark contrast to language education in other countries where students must pass one level to move on to the next level; the idea being that they have to master the basics before they can move on to the more difficult material.

This means that you may have some students who know everything you’re about to teach them sitting next to other students who still haven’t mastered the basic sentence structures they learned earlier in the year.

Without classes tailored to the needs of individual students, this kind of instruction will be very challenging.

Lack of qualified teachers (especially in ES)

Most teachers in Japan teach English the way they were taught. In my experience, the best teachers are those who have studied abroad or lived in an English speaking country for an extended amount of time.

These teachers have first-hand experience with using English as a means of communication to express their own ideas and to get new information. Some of these teachers are able to transfer this to their classes and it helps give their lessons context and meaning.

Other teachers who may not have this experience tend to rely on the textbook and word-for-word translations when teaching. Their lessons lack context and don’t reflect real-world situations. It’s probably hard for them to break these old habits, especially since they are usually focused on getting their students ready to pass tests.

In this type of environment, it’s more like the students are studying the idea of English rather than actually learning to use English.

The materials have A LOT of Japanese

When I open my English textbook, the first thing I see is … wait for it ... Japanese! A lot of the texts and study materials have instructions in Japanese and this immediately breaks the immersive environment we’re trying to create. This may get better over time, but it’s a tough hurdle to get over at the moment.

Japan loves tests

Many students have the ultimate goal of learning English so they can do well on entrance exams. I can’t say that I blame them either.

If you think about it, what reward does a student get for speaking English well? What reward does a JTE get for using all English in the classroom? Is there any consequence for not doing so? Without any carrots or sticks beside intrinsic motivation, it’ll be hard to bring about change.

Until the tests are given entirely in English, it will be hard to change the classes

Getting good scores on an entrance exam gives a more concrete incentive for students to study English (even if they can’t speak it all that well). They can get into a good high school, then a good college, work for a prestigious company, and enjoy the rest of their life.

Lack of an “English environment”

As you may already know, students in Japan spend most of the day in their classroom as the teachers move around to different classes. While some schools do have dedicated classrooms for teaching English, this is not always the case.

When teaching English in a typical classroom, the students are surrounded by Japanese. This also breaks the immersive environment we’re trying to create.

Having classrooms for English allows the teachers to fill the room with English materials and helps students stay in the “English mode” for longer.

It's a good start but not a comprehensive strategy

If Japan was really serious about improving its English education, a lot more work will be needed aside from having their classes taught entirely in English. It's definitely something that the government should pursue, but there is still a long way to go in making the types of changes necessary to improve Japan's English ability.

-          A note from ALT training online’s David Hayter

If you have something 'ALT' to write about that hasn't been covered in these blogs, email me at alttoblog@gmail.com so we can work together and spread your story.

Don't have any ideas? We have a list of topics to write about that need a writer. Email in your interest to write and we can set you up. 

For upcoming blogs see the blogs tab here:  http://www.alttrainingonline.com/blog.html

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Going Beyond “Teaching English” In English Language Classrooms by Dr Jaroslaw Kriukow

by Dr Jaroslaw Kriukow

Bio: Dr Jaroslaw Kriukow is a researcher and academic tutor. He facilitates lectures and workshops on qualitative research and data analysis in NVivo, develops self-study courses and provides free academic support through his Qualitative Researcher Dr Kriukow website and Facebook.

He was awarded a PhD degree by the University of Edinburgh for his mixed methods research into Polish migrants' English Language Identity.

His research interests include: Non-native English speakers' self-concept and self-esteem in relation to English, the implications of English as a Lingua Franca research for Educational Psychology, post accession Polish migration to the UK, links between ELT (English language teaching) and language learners' self-perceptions as well as TESOL.

Forward by David L. Hayter,
ALTTO Community Media Manager

As ALTs (Assistant Language Teachers) in Japan, I think a lot of us are often focused on the nuts and bolts of teaching lessons like creating fun activities for our classes and making quality materials. However, we may sometimes forget to investigate the finer nuances which drive our students’ attitudes towards learning, our JTEs (Japanese Teachers of English) attitudes towards teaching, and how they both perceive themselves in a global society.

Dr Kriukow’s work focuses on the concept of self-identity within social-science. Oxford Dictionary defines this self-identity as, “The perception or recognition of one's characteristics as a particular individual, especially in relation to social context”.

When thinking about this concept of self-identity as it relates to Japanese English students and teachers, we must take into account that if they are not actively shaping their own identities within an English speaking and global communication context, then an alternative, often negative, identity is being shaped for them. This “English Language Identity” that Dr Kriukow describes can have a dramatic effect on how students learn languages and how teachers expect them to perform.

From my experience, much of the confidence that Japanese students, and sometimes teachers, lack comes from a culture where they have been told that anything but perfection is not good enough and that the ultimate goal is to speak like a native speaker of English. This creates an environment where English is purely a measure of one’s academic ability and intelligence as opposed to a tool for people to use to communicate their ideas and gain new information.

Along with many of the changes prescribed by The Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT) for improving English education in Japan in 2020, the shaping of this “English Language Identity” must be addressed to effect long term change in the country’s attitude towards teaching and learning English.

As you read through Dr Kriukow’s work dealing with Polish migrants in the UK, try to keep your own students in mind and think about how we can support our students and teachers to shape a positive, realistic “English Language Identity”.

Going Beyond “Teaching English” In English Language Classrooms

In this blog post, based on research into English as a Lingua Franca, as well as research in Social Psychology and my own study of Polish migrants’ “English Language Identity”, I argue that, in an English language classroom, the students’ self-perceptions and beliefs about the language and its users are just as important an issue as the language itself. Subsequently, I make suggestions for classroom practice that would foster the development of desirable self-perceptions and conclude with a call for the current practitioners to conduct their own classroom-based research.

Research into English as a Lingua Franca

With the global spread of English and its use as a lingua franca, or a common means of communication between speakers of different first languages (Seidlhofer, 2011), as well as with Non-native English Speakers (NNESs) outnumbering Native English Speakers (NESs), the language no longer ‘belongs’ exclusively to the latter, but to everyone who speaks it. Early research into the structural aspects of English as a Lingua Franca (ELF) communication revealed that the ways English is used are often at odds with those promoted by ELT practice, which views NES speech as a benchmark of achievement (Dewey, 2012). It also showcased the common structural aspects of NNES use of English that do not affect mutual intelligibility during communication, despite it differing from the ‘traditional’, ‘standard’ variety taught in the classroom and modelled by Native English-Speaking Teachers (NESTs). ELF researchers perceive many of these differences as proof of an adaptive nature of NNES’ use of linguistic resources during interaction and often as a tool for expressing identity and culture (e.g. Baker, 2012). They put forward the notion of multi-competence, or the “knowledge of more than one language, free from evaluation against an outside standard” (Cook 1999: 190), as a concept beneficial for NNES identity construction in light of the global use of ELF. Rather than viewing NESs as the benchmark for measuring their language proficiency, it has been argued that language learners should recognise their own potential of being multi-competent language users (Cervatiuc, 2009). Cook (1999) argued that, by continuously comparing their pronunciation with native models, NNESs are likely to perceive themselves as “deficient native speaker[s]”, or an “imitation of native speaker[s]” (ibid: 195), rather than thinking of themselves as being successful, multilingual speakers who are fully legitimate members of a global community of English users.

Language, Self-concept and Self-esteem

At the same time, an extensive body of research within Social and Educational Psychology suggests that a person’s self-concept, being the sum of “beliefs (…) about oneself” (Hamlyn, 1983: 241), as well as self-esteem, or the evaluation of that self-concept (Rubio, 2015), are factors that influence people’s behaviour and decision-making in their everyday life (Ryan and Irie, 2015). As it is through language that people first internally conceptualise, and then express, that sense of self to others (Park, 2007), language is believed to play a central role in both self-concept and self-esteem formation. It has also been suggested that NNESs develop their self-concept by comparing themselves to those whom they believe have expertise in a domain relevant to a particular communicative situation (Mercer, 2011). ELF research adds to this, by arguing that, at least with regard to English competence, NNESs tend to both view NESs as such ‘experts’ and measure their own achievement in terms of proximity to their unrealistic and irrelevant goal of achieving native-like pronunciation.

The study of Polish migrants’ English Language Identity (ELI)

I kept the above claims in mind when I conducted a study of Polish migrants’ English Language Identity (ELI) which I defined as the relationship between the English language and the migrants’ self-concept, or beliefs about themselves. The setting was Scotland, where Poles constitute the largest, and fastest growing, migrant community. A goal of the Scottish Government is to attract and retain these migrants in the country, not only to promote cultural diversity, but also to counter the issues of Scotland’s aging population and insufficient workforce. Research suggests, however, that Polish migrants tend to not integrate well with the local communities and to work below their education level and skill set (e.g. Bielewska, 2011). Suggested reasons include some migrants’ low English language skills, their willingness to apply for unskilled jobs because of a short-intended stay in the UK, or employers’ discrimination. However, my background as a Polish national living in Scotland and therefore frequent interactions with other Poles led me to believe that other factors are also likely to be at work. I believed that in their migrant experience in which they have been rapidly immersed in a new linguistic environment and the way they perceive themselves as users of English vis-à-vis NESs is likely to affect their sense of self. My impression was that their general understanding of English as an exclusive property of its native speakers brings about their low self-confidence in speaking the language. This, I believed, would lead to their low self-esteem in general and affect their understanding of what their skills are outside the language, which could result in them choosing jobs below their skill set.

The findings of this study revealed that, in fact, the participants’ beliefs about the English language and its speakers (including themselves) were, ultimately, the main factor influencing their ELI. Their understanding of the notion of “correct” English, for example, paired with, or arguably stemming from, their limited awareness of the variety of forms that English may take in light of its global spread, resulted in them perceiving themselves as having a limited English skill, as opposed to the “superior” and “expert” NESs. This ultimately led to feelings of frustration, stress and anxiety. In sum, it appeared that their overall beliefs about English and its speakers ultimately led to lowered self-esteem and affected their everyday decisions, including them avoiding socialisation as the site of communicative encounters, opting for less linguistically demanding jobs, or, in some cases, deciding whether or not to stay in Scotland.

For those who had been taught English in Poland, this educational setting appeared to have an influence on shaping their overall “language ideologies”. This was evident in the participants’ critical statements about their English learning experiences, which accorded with research on the ELT practices in Poland that revealed that British English and American English are often the only varieties students are exposed to, and the message conveyed to students in ELT classrooms is that these are the only ‘correct’ and ‘legitimate’ varieties (e.g. Janicka et al., 2005). The participants of my study criticised the English education in Poland for a lack of exposure to the different accents spoken worldwide, a lack of training in communication strategies, not enough opportunities to practice speaking and over-reliance on grammatical accuracy. They felt that having been taught in a “don’t say anything because you’ll sound like an idiot, because you won’t say it grammatically” (Ewa, Interview 1) manner, that conveyed the message that ‘Native English’ is the only inherently correct English, grammatical accuracy is the most important aspect of successful communication and the only varieties of English you may encounter abroad are British English and American English, they formed a set of unrealistic and irrelevant beliefs about English and its speakers. These beliefs further influenced their beliefs about English competence (e.g. what it means to be able to ‘speak English’) and their beliefs about people’s perceptions of migrants that were revolving around the migrants’ status of mostly being “failed” NESs (Jenkins 2011: 284). These negative assumptions negatively affected their ELI and resulted in behaviour and various decisions that would ultimately determine their whole migration experience. Furthermore, expecting to encounter only the “marked” versions of English (e.g. ‘British’ or ‘American’ English) on arriving in Scotland also contributed to their initial shock, resulting in their negative self-evaluated English competence and widening the distinction between themselves and the local community.

Incorporating ELF-awareness into English language teaching

The findings supported the previous claim that awareness of the global spread of English with its consequences, including the ways in which the language is used and the different forms it takes, the “fluid” notion of language correctness and the implications of this spread for the “status” and (self)identification of its various non-native users, who are in the majority and may exercise linguistic “power” equal to their native counterparts, could benefit learners’ self-esteem building. Most importantly, instruction that involves this kind of awareness raising, as proposed by various ELF scholars, could, ultimately, transform learners’ perceptions of the language, from seeing it as the “property” of expert NESs into a language that belongs to everyone who speaks it (Cogo, 2012). The feeling of ownership of English and awareness of it having different varieties could enable learners to value their own “version of English”, free them from pursuing the unattainable native accent and ease their future transition into an environment where a variety of English accents are spoken. It could also help them to address the view held by the participants of this study that they speak incorrect English and that they are constantly being evaluated by NESs.

There is a growing body of literature on how to incorporate an ‘ELF perspective’ into English language teaching. Raising awareness of ELF-related topics, for example, can be achieved through direct instruction about the global spread of English (Galloway, 2013), through increased exposure to English varieties (Hino and Oda, 2015; Galloway and Rose, 2013) or authentic encounters through ELF (Galloway and Rose, 2013; Hino and Oda, 2015). The topic of the global spread of English could be incorporated into listening and reading exercises, oral debates or written assignments that would encourage reflections on, and learning about, this topic. Exposure to ELF and various varieties of English, in turn, may be achieved by using materials that include encounters in English between speakers from different backgrounds and in various settings where English is used as a common lingua franca. This would not only prepare learners for the variety of accents and varieties of English they may encounter in the future, but also encourage them to reflect on the ambiguity of the notion of ‘correctness’ in, and, arguably, the ownership of, English. This could, potentially, encourage learners to reconsider their own English competence and their interlocutors’ status as “experts”, which has been shown to affect their ELI, as well as the notion of English as being “NESs’ language” that requires native-like fluency and grammatical correctness.

The importance of practitioner research

All of the above leads to a point that I would like to make. As English teachers, we need to be aware of our students’ needs, beliefs, goals and personalities. As I argued above, these various characteristics not only influence their language learning and performance but may also have a crucial role in their future experiences when using the language. Furthermore, as no teaching/learning context is the same, apart from being aware of the existing research, it is also important for the teachers to conduct their own research to minimize the long-existing gap between research and practice.

This does not have to involve publishing in peer-review journals (although I love to see this kind of papers coming from practitioners), but rather conducting small-scale, ‘local’ research for our own purposes. Conducting a needs analysis among students, using questionnaires to gather their evaluations and feedback, or conducting interviews are only a few methods that may help us understand our students’ needs and beliefs. Nobody understands the students better than the teachers themselves, and it is this teacher perspective that I feel has still not received enough attention in academic literature.


Baker, W. (2012). From cultural awareness to intercultural awareness: culture in ELT. ELT Journal, 66 (1), 62-70.

Bielewska, A. (2011). National identities of Poles in Manchester: Modern and postmodern geographies. Ethnicities, 12 (1), 86-105.

Cervatiuc, A. (2009). Identity, good language learning, and adult immigrants in Canada. Journal of Language, Identity, and Education, 8, 254-271.

Cogo, A. (2012). English as a Lingua Franca: concepts, use, and implications. ELT Journal, 66 (1), 97-105.

Cook, V. (1999). Going beyond the native speaker in language teaching. TESOL Quarterly, 33 (2), 185-209.

Dewey, M. (2012). Towards a post-normative approach: learning the pedagogy of ELF. Journal of English as a Lingua Franca, 1 (1), 141-170.

Galloway, N. (2013). Global Englishes and English Language Teaching (ELT) – Bridging the gap between theory and practice in a Japanese context. System, 41 (3), 786 – 803.

Galloway, N. & Rose, H. (2015). Introducing Global Englishes. London: Routledge.

Hamlyn, D.W. (1983). Perception, learning and the self: Essays in the philosophy of Psychology. London: Routledge.

Hino, N. & Oda, S. (2015). Integrated practice in teaching English as an international language (IPTEIL): A classroom ELF pedagogy in Japan. In Y. Bayyurt & S. Akcan (Eds.), Current perspectives on pedagogy for English as a lingua franca (pp. 81-111). Berlin/Munich/Boston: Walter de Gruyter.

Janicka, K., Kul, M. & Weckwerth, J. (2005). Polish students’ attitudes to native English accents as models for EFL pronunciation. In K. Dziubalska-Kołaczyk & J. Przedlacka (Eds.), English pronunciation models: a changing scene. Bern: Peter Lang.

Jenkins, J. (2011). Accommodating (to) ELF in the international university. Journal of Pragmatics 43. 926-936.

Mercer, S. (2011). Towards an understanding of language learner self-concept. Dordrecht: Springer.

Park, J. (2007). Co-construction of nonnative speaker identity in cross-cultural interaction. Applied Linguistics, 28 (3), 339-360.

Rubio, F.D. (2015). Self-esteem and self-concept in foreign language learning. In S. Mercer and M. Williams (Eds.), Multiple perspectives on the Self in SLA (pp. 41-59). Bristol, UK: Multilingual Matters.

Ryan, S. & Irie, K. (2015). Imagined and Possible Selves: Stories we tell ourselves about ourselves. In S. Mercer and M. Williams (Eds.), Multiple perspectives on the Self in SLA (pp. 109-126). Bristol, Buffalo, Toronto: Multilingual Matters.

Seidlhofer, B. (2011). Understanding English as a Lingua Franca, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

-          A note from ALT training online’s David Hayter

If you have something 'ALT' to write about that hasn't been covered in these blogs, email me at alttoblog@gmail.com so we can work together and spread your story.

Don't have any ideas? We have a list of topics to write about that need a writer. Email in your interest to write and we can set you up. 

For upcoming blogs see the blogs tab here:  http://www.alttrainingonline.com/blog.html

Monday, October 1, 2018

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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