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English recommended as official school subject from 5th grade

An advisory panel to the education minister has recommended that the English language be upgraded to an official school subject from grade five, as well as the introduction of "foreign language learning activities" to students from grades three and four in a report for the next school curriculum guidelines that will come into effect in the 2020 school year, it has been learned.

The advisory panel Central Council for Education compiled policy revisions to the school curriculum guidelines and reported to Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Minister Hirokazu Matsuno on Dec. 21. Under the current curriculum, English education for fifth- and sixth-graders is categorized as foreign language learning activities that aim to have children learn English through fun programs such as singing songs. The council has recommended that English should be upgraded to an official school subject from grade five and that children in grades three and four be introduced to foreign language activities.

The education ministry will revise the curriculum for elementary and junior high school by the end of the 2016 school year and for high school in the following school year based on the recommendation. The revised guidelines will be fully implemented in the 2020 school year for elementary schools, 2021 for junior high schools and 2022 for high schools. Elementary and junior high schools will be able to implement the revised guidelines from the 2018 school year at the discretion of individual schools.

The panel's recommendation points out that in this rapidly changing society with the development of technologies such as artificial intelligence, it is important for children to learn through trial and error on their own and foster the ability to coexist and cooperate with others. It also requested improvements in classes from the perspective of "active learning," stating that how people learn should be fundamentally reviewed so that they can engage in lifelong learning. In addition, the panel recommended strengthening language activities such as reading and writing at school in response to the drop in Japanese students' average reading comprehension scores in the 2015 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) conducted by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

The panel recommended maintaining the volume of the current curriculum contents to continue the path of breaking away from the so-called "yutori," or relaxed, education system. Class hours will remain the same at junior high schools, while at elementary schools 35 periods a year, or about one 45-minute period per week, will be added to grades three and above due to the enhancement of English education.

For high schools, courses called "general history" -- mainly focused on modern Japanese and world history -- and "public issues" aimed to educate high school students on popular sovereignty will be added as compulsory subjects in line with university entrance reforms currently under consideration. Selective courses will include an applied study that will allow students to observe problems in a multilateral manner by utilizing science and mathematics.

The government's Education Rebuilding Council recommended making English an official school subject at elementary school in May 2013 with an aim to prepare students for a global society. The number of English words learned at schools by the time a student graduates from high school will be increased from the current 3,000 words to 4,000 to 5,000.

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