Wednesday, February 13, 2019

New ES Textbook Features And How To Use Them by Mikayla Govern

by Mikayla Govern

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.
This is the second part of a series. Be sure to check out part one!
With the renewed effort of revamping the English national curriculum, MEXT has released 4 brand new textbooks last year (H.30-31/2018-2019). These new textbooks have obvious relations to the textbook that came before (Hi Friends!) and are made to help students not only retain more English but also develop interpersonal skills and promote self-development. These textbooks, are comprehensive and build on skills students learned in preceding chapters more than any other textbook to this point. This change is to help lessen the huge gap between middle school English and elementary school English as well as engage students from a younger age (in hopes of real language acquisition).

Let’s get acquainted with the new textbooks. They can be split into 2 categories by following how English language education is divided in elementary schools (see the previous article). The first set of textbooks are for the 3rd and 4th grades entitled, Let’s Try! (LT). They are designed to get students to expand their world view and try English in a no pressure, fun and engaging atmosphere. These are very comparable to the previous textbooks (Hi Friends!) in terms of how English is studied and what is expected of students. Here are all the units for the 2 Let’s Try! textbooks.

Let’s Try! 1

1. Hello! 挨拶をして友達になろう p. 2-5
2. How are you? ごきげんいかが? p. 6-9
3. How many? 数えてあそぼう P. 10-13
(Numbers, how many)
4. I like blue. 好きなものを伝えよう P. 14-17
(colors, food, sports)
5. What do you like? 何が好き? P. 18-21
6. ALPHABET アルファベットとなかよし P. 22-25
(Uppercase alphabet recognition)
7. This is for you カードをおくろう P. 26-29
(shapes, colors)
8. What’s this? これなあに? P. 30-33
9. Who are you? きみはだれ? P. 34-40
(adjectives, animals)

Let’s Try! 2

1. Hello, world! 世界のいろいろな言葉で挨拶をしよう p. 2- 5
2. Let’s play cards. 好きな遊びをつたえよう。 p. 6-9
(weather, games, clothes)
3. I like Mondays. 好きな曜日は何かな? p. 10-13
(days of the week)
4. What time is it? 今、何時? p. 14-17
(time, daily actions)
5. Do you have a pen? おすすめの文房具セットを作ろう p. 18-21
(school supplies)
6. Alphabet アルファベットで文字遊びをしよう p. 22-25
(lowercase letter recognition)
7. What do you want? ほしいものはなにかな? p. 26-29
8. This is my favorite place. お気に入りの場所をしょうかいしよう。 p. 30-33
(school room names)
9. This is my day. ぼく・わたしの一日 p. 34-40
(Daily routine)

You may notice that both the textbooks for 3rd and 4th grade have units on the alphabet. These units are mainly to get students used to the alphabet and able to recognize and distinguish letters. For example, a 3rd grade student should look at a G and a Q and know the difference. A 4th grader should look at a p and q and know which is which. This means there is no phonics practice in 3rd and 4th grade, but rather a focus on letter names and shapes. Games that focus on differentiating letters from the alphabet and shapes are recommended.

As per the national curriculum, students from 3rd grade learn romaji (the English alphabet as it applies to writing Japanese words) in their Japanese class. There are 3 forms of romaji in Japanese kunreishiki, nihonshiki and hebonshiki. The one that applies to English is hebonshiki. This distinction is very important and has a direct impact on how we teach English. In the current curriculum, students learn to write, for example, いちかわしょうり as Itikawa Syori (instead of Ichikawa Shori in hebonshiki). This is what they teach in class, so if you teach English and phonetics to younger kids it might confuse them and conflict with the other curriculum. There will be changes happening to the Japanese language curriculum coming up, so let’s hope they change to use hebonshiki in the future.

The second set of textbooks are titled We Can! (WC) and are designed to be used for 5th and 6th grade. These books are used to teach English as an official, graded subject so they are more extensive and have a lot more material to get through. The aim of these textbooks is to expand students’ willingness to use English and push the boundaries of how English is taught. They are accumulative, so they help students retain the English that they have already been taught. Much like the Let’s Try! textbooks, they are designed to be taught conversationally with an emphasis on speaking and listening. However rather than English being all fun and games, the students at this level are expected to produce and use the language, and also will have grades and evaluations in class (a new concept for elementary English). Here are all the units within the new textbooks:

We Can! 1

1. Hello, everyone. アルファベット・自己紹介 p. 2-9
2. When is your birthday? 行事・誕生日 p. 10-17
(Months, date)
3. What do you have on Monday? 学校生活・教科・職業 p. 18-25
(days of the week, school subjects, jobs)
4. What time do you get up? 一日生活 p. 26-33
(time, daily routines, adverbs of frequency)
5. She can run fast. He can jump high. できること p. 34-40
(Can/ can’t, Pronouns [first exposure to 3rd person pronouns])
6. I want to go to Italy. 行ってみたい国や地域 p. 42-49
(Can/Can’t, want, countries)
7. Where is the treasure? 位置と場所 p. 50-57
(prepositions of location, buildings, objects)
8. What would you like? 料理・値段 p. 58-65
(Food, money)
9. Who is your hero? あこがれの人 p. 66-73
(adjectives, can/can’t)

We Can! 2

1. This is me! 自己紹介 p. 2-9
2. Welcome to Japan. 日本の文化 p. 10-17
(Adjectives, Japanese culture)
3. He is famous. She is great. 人物紹介 p. 18-25
(Sentence structure [SVO])
4. I like my town. 自分たちの町・地域 p. 26-33
(buildings, have/want)
5. My summer vacation. 夏休みの思い出 p. 34-41
(irregular past tense verbs)
6. What do you want to watch? オリンピック・パラリンピック p. 42-49
(sports/ Olympics)
7. My best memory 小学校生活・思い出 p. 50-57
(past tense verbs, life events)
8. What do you want to be? 将来の夢・職業 p. 58-65
(Jobs, want)
9. Junior High school life. 中学校生活・部活動 p. 66- 73
(clubs, school routines)

The new texts are designed to coincide with current the curriculum being taught in schools as well. Students may learn about a topic in another class and then have a similar lesson in their English class. This was designed to help students deepening their understanding of English while connecting to things outside of the English learning environment.

Let’s look at some of the features of the textbooks and how to use them. All of the textbooks have “Let’s Listen” (LT/WC) sections. These sections are to test listening comprehension. Students should be able to listen to the audio and complete a task (connect a line, choose a number, etc). A new section, however, expands listening comprehension to being able to listen to more complicated dialogues and understand the overall meaning without knowing all the grammar or vocabulary. This section is aptly called “Let’s Watch and Think.” Rather than the students being able to comprehend everything in the dialogue, these sections are made to deepen language learning more naturally. However, since the dialogue is much more complicated a lot of homeroom teachers will feel the need to translate for the students. Here are some tips to get around that:

  • Tell the students to take notes on the vocabulary they know or think they know. I recommend letting them do this in Japanese.
  • Have the teacher ask only questions (in Japanese or English) about the content.
  • If there is something the students don’t understand, rather than translating it directly have students guess what they think it means based on the context.
  • This more immersive version of listening helps students overcome the discomfort they feel when they don’t understand everything being said to them and helps build comprehension skills for better communication.

Another feature of the new textbooks is the “Let’s Chant” (LT/WC) feature. This feature is a carry-over from the “Hi Friends” texts. However, they have added a few more varieties of chants per chapter so you can match the level of your students. Since English is viewed as more of a musical language as compared to Japanese, adding rhythms helps many students remember dialogue. In addition to “Let’s Chant,” there is also a section called “Jingles” (WC). This section is for phonics practice and introduces kids to new vocabulary as well. The jingles are in the back of the We Can! textbooks and there are many ways to use them to further phonics understanding.

Yet another new feature of the textbooks is “Small Talk.” This feature, however, is not written into the textbooks. “Small Talk” is a way of introducing new target language and usually done within the first few lessons of the unit. Toward the beginning of the year, “Small Talk” can be used between the main teacher (T1) and the assisting teacher (T2), however, by the end of the year, students should be able to participate in the small talk with the teachers or even do small talk on their own. This part of the curriculum is mandated for We Can! but I have also very successfully used it in my 3rd and 4th grade classes. “Small Talk” is also a good chance to bring realia into the classroom and takes learning into the real world. “Small Talk” can seem intimidating for many elementary school teachers, but even if students don’t understand everything you are saying, it is possible to have students understand enough to make sense of what you are saying. Just like with the “Let’s Watch and Think” sections, this part is designed to help students further their language beyond the textbooks.

The skill required to practice “Small Talk” can be hard to develop when you first start out so here are a few tips and resources. Firstly, small talk doesn’t have to be a long speech. If it is just teacher talk time, I like to keep it between 1-2 minutes. If students are also involved in the small talk, then I expand the time up to 5 minutes. The new curriculum wants teachers to emphasize aizuchi as well. Aizuchi is the Japanese form of back-channeling. You might notice when you talk to a Japanese person, they tend to make a lot of sounds. This back-channeling shows interest in what the other person is saying. Although not normally present in everyday English, there are a few natural aizuchi that you can incorporate into your small talks. Things like, “Oh!” “I see...” “Oh no” “I gotcha” “Yeah” and other natural conversational back-channelings are important in the “Small Talk” section. The earlier students are exposed to these aspects of English the more likely they are to pick them up. If you are really struggling to come up with topics or scripts for your small talk, you can find examples of small talks as produced by MEXT at their YouTube site

Another feature of the new textbooks is a presentation feature. Although mainly focused on 5th and 6th grade, there are also presentation elements found in the Let’s Try! textbooks as well. This presentation feature is one of the main changes in how English is taught in schools. Now, English isn’t just about communication for elementary schools, there is now an expectation that students can think and relay their own thoughts in English. This undoubtedly is to help with speech contests and other challenges at the junior high school level. This can seem like a big hurdle for kids at this age. However, it is ok to start small. Not every presentation has to be a speech exactly either. I like to have a festival atmosphere where kids walk around and listen to each other speeches so they don’t feel the pressure of presenting in front of the whole class. This also gives them a way to practice the previously mentioned aizuchi. Students should always have some sort of tool during the presentation (a worksheet, a poster, etc.) and, at this stage, they are not meant to be memorized. This can also be a good way to incorporate writing into your lessons for the upper grades.

The last section I’m going to talk about also applies only to the We Can! texts. A new feature called “Story Time” is designed to help develop reading skills. This section should not be taught as kids reading on their own however, they are not expected to stand up and read a sentence by themselves. A good way to teach these sections is to follow the 6 steps of second language reading guidelines. For those of you who don’t know, here are the 6 steps and how you can apply those steps to your class:
  1. Read all the way to the end
  2. Summarize what you understood
  3. Read again-> reduce uncertainty
  4. Ask questions
  5. Check unknown words encountered
  6. Reread
In the classroom, I tend to follow this outline for every reading we do. First, I have the students read on their own. I set a timer for about 2-3 minutes and let the kids read to themselves and see what they know on their own. If they come across a word they can’t read, I say to circle it and skip over it. Next, I ask what words they could read. Note, that this is not for checking comprehension yet, just to see what they could and couldn’t read on their own. The next step is to read as a class; you can use the digital textbooks if you have the option. The kids aren’t necessarily ready to read out loud quite yet, but using the digital textbooks’ underline feature, you can have the kids use their fingers to follow along. This part helps students get auditory input while reading, and helps kids figure out reading challenges on their own. This also helps reduce the uncertainty that they may have experienced the first read through. Next, I check for comprehension. This part doesn’t have to be done in English, but for an advanced class, I tend to have both Japanese and English comprehension questions prepared. If you really want to make an activity of this, you can have kids come up with their own context questions and ask each other quiz style. In the fifth step, I have the kids check the words they don’t know. We will write them on the board, sound them out, and then figure out the meaning. If you don’t want to resort to translation directly (good!), the best way to get kids to realize the meaning of the words is to give them different examples, not found in story time. For example, to get the kids to realize what a pine tree is you can draw a picture or even talk about it in a different context. The last step, reread, can easily be turned into a different activity such as the pointing game or a speed reading practice.

As with any section of the textbook, I personally recommend you match it to your teaching style. If you enjoy teaching it, the kids will enjoy learning it. The new textbooks overall are developed to not only give kids a strong foundation in vocabulary but also teach skills that they can use in English class and life in general. Hopefully, kids will gain more exposure to the world and English while feeling more confident to make mistakes and try things outside of their own comfort zone, a struggle that often occurs as they grow older. Although it may appear that the textbooks focus a lot on non-active aspects of English, like listening and reading, the power is entirely in the teacher’s hands. The textbooks are meant to be a lead into more active activities such as making a poster and presenting it or conversational games. As with any of the textbooks we use in Japan, We Can! and Let’s Try! are tools to help give structure to your lessons. Use them well and hopefully you will be able to see amazing growth within your students.

-          A note from ALT training online’s David Hayter

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Wednesday, February 6, 2019

The Features Of Elementary Education by Mikayla Govern

by Mikayla Govern

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.

This is the first part of a series. Be sure to check out part two!

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.

-          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 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. 

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