Opinions sharply divided on elementary school English education

A first-grade English class at a school in the city of Sayama, Saitama Prefecture. The English native ALT is seen at the front of the class as the homeroom teacher, right, looks on. (Mainichi)
A first-grade English class at a school in the city of Sayama, Saitama Prefecture. The English native ALT is seen at the front of the class as the homeroom teacher, right, looks on. (Mainichi)

The government's council for revitalization of education on May 28 proposed reinforcing English language education in elementary schools by introducing formal English classes in the fifth and sixth grades, and informal lessons for younger children.

While some test programs at public elementary schools show early childhood English education can be effective, experts have raised questions about beefing up the English curriculum before kids reach junior high school.

"He is Doraemon!" shouted fourth grade students at Minami Elementary School in Sayama, Saitama Prefecture, as an assistant language teacher (ALT) held up a picture of the popular anime character and asked in English, "Who is he?" The students applauded themselves for answering correctly, and in English.

"The students have no resistance to English as they have been learning it for a long time," said Susumu Ichikawa, the school principal.

"It's not wrong to start English in earlier grades," said a Sayama Municipal Board of Education official. The city applied to the national government to become a "special education district" -- where English is introduced early in the curriculum on a trial basis -- and has been running English lessons starting in the first grade at all of its 15 elementary schools since 2004.

English is taught once a month for first and second-graders and once a week for third-graders and above. The city hired 24 Japanese assistant teachers and 10 ALTs. According to a survey conducted by the education board in the 2012 school year, 90 percent of elementary school students said they "liked English" and found it "fun." Meanwhile, the city's second-year junior high students always score above average on prefectural English tests.

There are some, however, who strongly disagree with reinforcing English education in elementary schools.

"Just because children are exposed to English in their early years doesn't mean they will be English speakers," said Meikai University professor Yukio Otsu. He pointed out that it might increase the number of students who dislike the subject.

Benesse Educational Research and Development Center carried out an online survey in October 2011 targeting 2,688 first year public junior high school students on what they thought about the English course. Asked about their sixth grade English lessons, 36 percent said they didn't like them. The students said they were "not interested" and thought the classes were "difficult."

"Once the subject becomes an official course and the students get graded, more students will start hating English," Otsu said.

Furthermore, teachers will also face a problem. If English becomes an official course, teachers will have to obtain a license to teach English. There are about 21,000 public elementary schools across the country -- twice the number of junior highs and five times the number of high schools, where English is already compulsory.

"English language education is not sufficient in junior high schools or high schools. I don't think elementary schools can get teachers who can teach English well. Foreign languages should be taught from junior high school on, when students have a better sense for languages," Otsu said.

English language education in elementary schools is officially called "foreign language activities," which were introduced in the 2011 school year as once-a-week mandatory lessons for fifth- and sixth-graders. The curriculum is aimed at better understanding of languages and cultures so as to foster communication skills. There are no grammar lessons, and the emphasis is on listening and speaking.

Unlike Japanese or math, English is not an official elementary school subject. There are no textbooks and students are not graded. The government curriculum guidelines suggest ALTs assist homeroom teachers to perform the lessons.

May 29, 2013(Mainichi Japan)