The education ministry's report on a proposed update to the curriculum guidelines for elementary, junior high and high schools aims to improve the quality of education at those institutions, with the introduction of "active learning" that encourages children to develop inquisitive minds through discussion and turning English into an official subject with 70 class sessions a year in the fifth and sixth grades.
The proposed updates, released on Aug. 1 by the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology, are certain to add to the heavy toll on teachers, with concerns over whether they are really able to handle such new curriculums. Specifically, fears are raised over English education as aspiring elementary school teachers are not required to study the English teaching method in their teaching credential courses at college, resulting in a mixture of primary school teachers with and without experience in studying English teaching methods.
At a seminar this spring on English teaching methods for elementary school teachers organized by giant English school operator Aeon in Tokyo and Osaka, many teachers complained that they were poor at English and had no idea how to teach the language to their students.
Meanwhile, some schools are already moving on with early English education. Tokyo's Shinagawa Ward started providing English courses at all elementary school grades in the 2006 academic year. At Mitsugi Elementary School in the ward, a model school for English education, students learn English with two teachers per class -- a homeroom teacher plus an assistant language teacher (ALT) for first- and second-graders or a part-time Japanese teacher of English (JTE) appointed by the ward for third- through sixth-graders.
"Even when I pronounce English words the wrong way, our JTE would fix it, I feel secure giving classes together with JTEs," said Mieko Nagaoka, a teacher for a sixth-grader class at the school. "Children learn so quickly, and I find their listening ability improving," she said. School principal Tatsuya Kishi confides, "The presence of JTEs and ALTs is a big help for us."
Starting in the 2014 academic year, the education ministry has appointed teachers who took government-held seminars as "English education promotion leaders." The ministry is planning to increase the number of such leaders to 1,000 at elementary schools by the 2018 school year and the number of "core teachers" who receive training from those leaders to 20,000 by the 2019 academic year, assigning core teachers to primary schools across the country.
The education ministry also began subsidizing universities and local governments when they launch a program to certify junior high school English teachers, in which teaching credentials are granted to those who attend a total of 210 hours of training sessions.
Some experts, however, have voiced criticism of the ministry's proposal to make English a formal subject at elementary schools.
Haruo Erikawa, professor at Wakayama University who is versed in English teaching and English education policy, said, "Teachers are required to have a high ability as they need to primarily teach English listening and speaking to children who are not familiar with foreign words or grammar when they start learning.
"Unless they provide sufficient budgets, manpower and teacher training to support the scheme, we can expect no positive results. Making English an official subject at this point would be a premature decision, and the education ministry's plan almost certainly faces collapse," he said. Because those seeking qualifications as English teachers need to attend sessions on holidays, "Teachers will face yet heavier burdens, raising risks for the entire elementary education programs to fail," he added.