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Teachers cite problem of finding time for students to learn 'practical' English

A symposium held at Sophia University in Tokyo's Chiyoda Ward on Dec. 6, 2015, regarding the state of English language education. (Mainichi)

While numerous junior high and high school teachers say that it is important to nurture the ability to communicate in English, it is also difficult to devote class time to doing so due to the need to prepare students for entrance examinations that focus heavily on reading, the results of a survey have shown.

    The national government has called for reform of English education at schools, citing the need for "English language ability that may be utilized in the age of globalization" -- a move that has caused teachers to cite their own struggles with respect to the gap existing between ideals and reality.

    The Benesse Educational Research and Development Institute (BERD) sent the questionnaires to English teachers at all nationwide junior high and high school English teachers between August and September of last year. Responses were received and analyzed from a total of 3,935 teachers.

    The survey asked the teachers to rate several different teaching methods as "very important," "somewhat important" or "not very important."

    The method of "repetitive drills aimed at establishing fundamental content" was rated as "very important" by the highest proportion of teachers at both the junior high and high school level -- 87.4 percent and 78.2 percent, respectively.

    The second and third highest-rated responses at the junior high school level, in terms of those receiving the "very important" ranking, were "students engaging in activities using English," at 84.0 percent; and "creating opportunities for students to express their own thoughts in English," at 82.3 percent.

    A large proportion of high school teachers, meanwhile, gave high ratings to "providing instruction in a manner such that students will come to love English" at 72.4 percent, and "increasing interest in foreign countries and different cultures" at 72.0 percent.

    In response to the question "How often are you implementing" the various methods, 54.7 percent of junior high school teachers and 40.2 percent of high school teachers said they were "sufficiently utilizing" the technique of "repetitive drills aimed at establishing fundamental content."

    Teaching methods in which large gaps were seen between their designation as "very important" and an indication that they are being "sufficiently implemented" were those of "creating opportunities for students to express their own thoughts in English" and "providing balanced instruction in the four skill areas of listening, speaking, reading and writing" -- both of which were subject to gaps of between 50 and 60 percentage points among both junior high school and high school teachers.

    In terms of areas where teachers indicated that they experienced worries regarding instructing students, significantly high responses were seen for "feeling a burden as a lot is expected of English teachers," among 65.3 percent of junior high school teachers and 75.2 percent of high school teachers; and "finding it difficult to balance teaching the skills required for encouraging communication abilities and those necessary for entrance examinations" (73.7 percent of junior high school teachers and 74.4 percent of high school teachers).

    Meanwhile, 66.7 percent of junior high school teachers and 62.9 percent of high school teachers indicated their personal English language skills are insufficient.

    Regarding the types of methods utilized in class, it was discovered that numerous teachers provide instruction in the skills of listening and reading, with a combined total of 90 percent indicating that they either "often utilized" or "sometimes utilized" methods for this purpose including reading aloud, practicing pronunciation, and explaining grammar.

    Less than 10 percent of the teachers said that they engaged in discussions or debates in English, however, indicating the low level of class activities that focus upon the skill of speaking.

    According to an analysis of the results undertaken by the institute, "The lack of speaking and writing activities in class is likely a reflection of teachers' own insufficient abilities in the English language, as well as their own struggles with respect to methods of teaching."

    The institute also said that "in order to make improvements to English language education, we will need to provide support aimed at easing teachers' concerns, as well as to look into various additional matters such as expanding opportunities for on-the-job training, offering teacher training courses, and examining the use of textbooks and other teaching materials."

    The Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology compiled an English Education Reform Plan in December 2013 that was premised upon holding classes in English at the junior high school and high school level. In its second Basic Plan for Promoting Education, the national government additionally declared its objective for English teachers to attain a level of pre-1 or above for the EIKEN Test in Practical English Proficiency.

    While the ministry has called for 50 percent of junior high school teachers and 75 percent of high school teachers to have achieved this goal by 2017 school year, the figures remained a mere 29 percent and 55 percent, respectively, as of December 2014.

    BERD additionally held a symposium in Tokyo on Dec. 6 last year titled "How to begin teaching and evaluating conversation," which drew some 240 teachers and other individuals from around the country. Through hands-on presentations from teachers who are on the cutting edge of English language education, as well as other exercises such as pair work, the symposium participants debated on how to best implement the skill of "speaking" within the classroom setting.

    Attendees also broke into groups and discussed the following question: "Which methods of instruction are best for strengthening conversational ability?" regarding which numerous attendees gave responses to the effect of, "impromptu assignments asking students to speak about and write down their feelings and ideas in English" and "having teachers give simple talks in English."

    By contrast, the number of responses that suggested "translating textbooks into Japanese" and "introducing long reading passages" were scarce.

    Tamagawa University associate professor Yoji Kudo noted that students who say their English level is high are not only able to perform Japanese translations and complete exercises, but also enjoy the study of the language through outside pursuits such as movies and music.

    "In order to increase students' abilities in English, it is necessary to employ numerous diverse activities whereby students are asked to write and speak their opinions," he recommended.

    Aoyama Gakuin University associate professor Akiko Takagi also commented, "If educators use English on a daily basis -- and encourage their students to do likewise -- it will be possible to create an image in the students' minds of speaking the language, as well as to incite their interest in this regard."

    Yasushi Shigematsu, who heads the Tokyo Metropolitan association of junior high school English education, points out that what is needed on the part of English teachers is "not only to impart knowledge, but also to let students know the types of worlds that will open up to them with the English language."

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