Elementary Schools in Gunma,

Based on a survey of ALTs, this is a report written by Christy Hamlett Cook from Gunma Prefectural Education Center. It's a very interesting read!

The coming year heralds some exciting changes in elementary schools in Gunma, primarily the enactment of the Period of Integrated Studies. This program allows schools to broaden students' horizons by choosing alternate subjects to learn or alternate teaching methods--this time period can be utilized for anything from team-teaching classes to international studies. Many elementary schools will be using this time to teach English everyday, even when there are no Assistant Language Teachers (ALTs). In preparation for this, the Gunma Prefectural Education Center surveyed ALTs, hoping to glean from their suggestions better ways to facilitate the teaching of English. Thirty-nine ALTs were surveyed. The following is a report based on their replies.
Since the ALTs are from different cultures, their comments may be written off by some as ethnocentric or otherwise stereotypical. While this may be true to an extent, their comments must be taken into account as suggestions that could improve the way that English is taught, because, being outsiders, they can view Japanese culture more objectively.

Utilizing the ALTs Effectively:

One certain method of teaching English more successfully is to better use the ALTs' time while they are visiting elementary school. Not only will the students benefit from learning English from a native speaker, but Homeroom Teachers (HRTs) can learn teaching methods from the ALTs' example.


Some of the ALTs' complaints should be considered entirely culturally-based and do not really affect the learning of language in Japan, although they may impinge on the ALTs' classes. One primary concern is the way teachers discipline their students. In many English-speaking countries, discipline is more strict and generally dictated by a school-wide policy. Japanese teachers tend to tolerate more rambunctiousness from their students, which can be distressing to an ALT who is more accustomed to quiet and order in the classroom. One ALT did mention that, since students seem to enjoy school more, it leaves the teachers more time to teach since they do not have to waste time on discipline. Other ALTs mention that sometimes they are the victims of physical violence on the part of the students because there is too little control in the classroom. One ALT described an incident wherein a special-needs student punched her in the stomach "for speaking English," while another ALT says that he was pushed while he was standing at the top of a flight of stairs. Since ALTs visit so rarely, they are often the cause of excitement among elementary school students--teachers should be prepared to keep a tighter control on the students so that they do not get overwhelmed and misbehave.

Lesson Plans:

Most ALTs preferred that the elementary schools either provide them with a vague topic (the alphabet, animals, colors, body parts, "I Like," "My name is," "I'm ___ years old," etc.) or give them no topic at all. What most wanted from the elementary school was not a lesson plan, but a description of the students' proficiency level in English. Many ALTs said that they had created lessons too easy or too difficult for their classes because they were not aware of the students' prior experiences with English. Knowing the students' experiences with English classes in the past will aid the ALTs in writing lesson plans that are both exciting and challenging for the students. Many also expressed that knowing what the students had already learned would allow them to review prior topics, giving the students more exposure to vocabulary and grammar as well as making the topics more memorable. ALTs could also build lessons based on previous lessons, allowing their classes to flow in a natural progression rather than being individualized and unconnected.
ALTs were also often frustrated because, when they made the effort to give the HRTs a lesson plan prior to the day of the class, they arrived at the elementary school to discover that the HRTs had not even read over the lesson plan. Other ALTs mentioned that the HRTs did not have the time to discuss the lesson plans before beginning the class, thus, when the ALT called on the HRT to participate, they did not know what they were supposed to do. Making the time to read over lessons and discuss the plans with the ALT will not only make the class more effective, but reduce stress for both the ALT and the HRT.

Teaching English Effectively:

The Student-Teacher Relationship:

There is one aspect of Japanese culture that can greatly aid students in the learning of a foreign language, and that is the close relationship that is often formed between student and teacher. Because teachers have a highly trusted, almost parental role in a Japanese child's life, they can influence students in their perceptions of foreign language. Japanese teachers can show students that making mistakes in a foreign language is necessary to learning. They can display enthusiasm for the new language, which will assuredly infect the students. Most importantly, they can be living examples of a Japanese person who can speak English, eliminating the defeatest attitude that many students have when it comes to learning a foreign language.

Teaching Theory:

Although the student-teacher relationship is an advantage, there are several teaching techniques that must change if Japanese students are going to be one day be able to converse freely in English without repeating rote phrases. (The "How are you?" "I'm fine, thank you, and you?" phenomena is well known. Even Japanese people who speak fluent English often fall prey to this rote phrase.) These changes must occur across the board in Japanese education, affecting all subjects aside from just foreign language.
Passive learning is an issue at the very root of difficulty in learning a new language. Passive learning is when students are expected to absorb information, but not expected to process the information in any way. Like a sponge, they absorb water and, when squeezed, all they produce is water. Rote memorization is a teaching technique still practiced in many countries, however, it seems to reduce students' ability to think for themselves. Lack of independent thinking leads to inflexibility, which is severely detrimental when learning language.
Overdependence on textbooks feeds into this problem. Students need more input than a single textbook can provide, since language is more fluid and flexible than other subjects. Textbooks generally offer formula ways of speaking, not allowing for natural forms of expression. Dependence on the textbook also gives students one more excuse not to pay attention in class--if they have all the answers they need in their book, why should they bother listening to the teacher?
Many Japanese teachers with good intentions use exam-oriented teaching. In other words, they try to teach the students in such a way that they will make good grades on their tests, be they entrance exams or other judges of learning progression. Although this seems like a good idea, and no one can deny that high tests scores are important, this teaching technique breeds certain problems when it comes to learning a foreign language. Result-oriented teaching tends to create a fear of making mistakes, particularly disadvantageous to learning a language, where making mistakes is a key way to learn more.
Some ineffective teaching techniques are language-particular, however. They are easily resolved, which means they are a good first step to improving language learning in the Japanese classroom.
Often Katakana used as a way to teach English pronunciation, since many English words have been, in the past and even now, integrated into the Japanese language. It is very tempting to teach elementary school students words they already "know," not only because it boosts their confidence but because it boosts the HRTs confidence, as well. However, "baasubaaru" is not an English word. It is now a Japanese word. Conforming English words into Japanese pronunciation is ultimately detrimental to understanding English pronunciation because students never learn the difference.
English classes should also be taught, if not entirely in English, then in as much English as possible. Teaching a foreign language class in a native language is extremely unusual--ALTs mention that foreign language classes in North American and European countries are generally taught almost entirely in the language being studied. Forcing the students to listen to English being spoken, reply only in English, and figure out the meanings of words and phrases without their being explicitly explained will greatly increase their abilities. This teaching method not only reinforces independent thinking, but also flexibility, both necessary when speaking a language.
HRTs may feel nervous when called upon to conduct a class mostly in English, mainly because they are afraid of making errors. However, mistakes are not only acceptable but preferable, since they are necessary for learning-a concept many teachers have trouble grasping, considering how much of education is result-oriented. When the teacher makes errors, it shows the students that their own fears regarding speaking English are unfounded. It is better for a student to answer incorrectly rather than remain silent. Silence is an ineffective way of communicating, no matter what the language is.

Teaching Techniques:

There are a few ineffective methods of teaching practiced by ALTs and other English teachers in Japan, mostly stemming from the idea that reading and writing is more important than speaking. Other problems come from the Japanese desire to be authentic and fluent, which is an appropriate goal, but must be approached based on the proficiency level of the students.
Many Japanese Teachers of English (JTEs) have students read text (or listen to a text being read). Reading is important in the learning of a language, but it should not be the focus of a foreign language class. Translating English passages into Japanese or vice versa not only demonstrates the wrong focus, but does not engage the students in any way. HRTs should make sure that their English classes involve more speaking than anything else, and, perhaps more importantly, excite the students and pique their interests. English in elementary school should not prepare students for the academic rigors of English class, but rather inspire curiosity in the students about English.
Generally when dialogues are being taught, memorization is unavoidable. It's important that students understand each part of the dialogue, however, so they can actually comprehend the answers to their questions and do not become confused when someone answers in a pattern other than the formula taught by the teachers. Many English teachers in Japan, both ALTs and JTEs, like to add in "authentic" English phrases to make the dialogues they demonstrate more realistic.
An example (shopping dialogue):
A: "Oh, hello. Can I help you?"
B: "Um, yes, I think so. Do you have any sweaters?"
A: "Hm, let's see. Oh, no, I'm sorry. We don't have sweaters."
B: "Oh. Well, thank you!"
A: "Thank you! Come again soon!"
While it can be good to expose students to this sort of exchange during a demonstration between the ALT and the JTE, it is not only too difficult for students to learn these "filler" words, it is also artificial. Students will probably not understand how to use each "authentic" word and explaining each one will waste valuable class time. Dialogues that the students must remember should be short and easy to explain.
An example (shopping dialogue):
A: "May I help you?"
B: "Yes. Do you have sweaters?"
A: "No, we don't have sweaters./Yes, here's a sweater."
B: "Thank you!"
A: "Thank you! Bye!"
At the elementary school level, the first priorities in English classes are for students to gain a lasting interest in the English language and to speak as much as possible. Effective teaching methods and lesson plans usually revolve around these ideas, using activities, games, and songs which excite the students and allow them to talk often. One ALT suggested a percentage for the lesson: twenty percent explanation and eighty percent game. Another said that she makes sure that her students speak for about eighty percent of the class time. These percentages are ideal, admittedly, but they demonstrate the value of entertaining, engaging lessons.
Often the significance of visual materials is asserted without it being fully explained why they are so important. Obviously students enjoy looking at colorful, well-made materials, but even quickly put-together visuals can help students learn better. Visuals, along with repetition of vocabulary, help students gain both a visual and an aural recognition. Generally a trap when learning a foreign language is mental translation--students decide what they want to say in Japanese, then mentally translate it into English, then speak. If students can instead directly associate the sights and sounds that represent a concept, they can bypass the translation stage, making it increasingly easier to speak a language fluently. For example, if a student wants to express the name of their pet, it is much quicker and more fluid for them to think of their pet, then say "My dog's name is Fido," rather than to think, "Inu no namae wa, Fido desu." then translate each word into English, then finally say it aloud.
This style of learning also has another advantage in that it promotes productive learning. Usually learning falls into two categories: productive and receptive. Receptive learning indicates that a student recognizes information, while productive means the student can also produce the information on their own. Using flash cards helps to reinforce vocabulary/image links, thus allowing a student to later reproduce information by thinking of a picture or concept, rather than waiting for the information to be presented first.
Specific activities that seem to work well in an English class are; simple interview games and activities that involve pair or group work. Interview games allow students to speak for much of the class time and practice question/answer style phrases, while group work allows students to confer with each other and learn from one another without the pressure of speaking in front of the entire class.
HRTs should be careful when designing lessons plans-different classes can react in entirely different ways to the same lesson. One class may thoroughly enjoy a game like "Criss Cross" (also called "Last Man Standing") but the students of another class may freeze up when called upon individually. In the same light, one class may enjoy highly competitive games like "Four Corners," while students in other classes may break down into tears when they are called "out." Each class has a diverse personality, so the HRT must plan according to the students he or she will be teaching.

Preparing HRTs to teach English:

Ideas for HRTs:

One method of training HRTs to teach English is surprisingly obvious--teachers should participate in ALT classes. Many ALTs said that HRTs barely even introduced themselves, much less helped with the class. Some ALTs describe fighting with HRTs to get five minutes to discuss the classes ahead of time, while others said that the HRTs sat at their desks, doing other work during the English class. Almost all the surveys indicated that the HRTs' participation was minimal. Usually this lack of participation on the part of the HRTs is not seen as a slight, but rather because the HRT has little confidence speaking English. This may be true, but if the students perceive that their teachers dislike English, they will not try to learn it themselves. This goes back to the close relationship between the teacher and the student. If the HRT is apathetic, the students will be, too. However, if the HRTs involve themselves in the English lessons, it will be a big step towards learning to teach English themselves and getting the confidence it takes to teach a foreign language.
Another way to prepare HRTs to teach English is to increase the amount of their training in English. Many HRTs are very busy, but in order to progress their classes they must take the time to study. English is a subject like any other--if a teacher is weak on a particular topic, they study to improve. Some HRTs can simply study on their own or take refresher courses, but encouraging them to also take conversation classes will help develop their intonation and speed. HRTs should also be given opportunities to travel abroad to countries where English is the native language.
HRTs need to be included in the English-teaching community of Japan. This way they will be able to interact with not only those who teach English, but more native speakers. HRTs should be allowed to attend ALT and JTE seminars, during which they could also learn many valuable teaching techniques. Some of these seminars could focus on demonstration classes the HRTs make, which could be observed and evaluated by experienced ALTs or JTEs to determine what the HRT is doing right and ways that the teacher can improve.
HRTs should also set long-term goals for their students. If they create a topic chart for the entire year, or even half-years, they can better guide the progression of the students' learning. More importantly, if they wish to teach an English concept they do not feel secure about, they have plenty of time to study that topic before they have to teach it. This way they can study as they go along, not feeling pressured to be perfect English speakers at the outset of the class.

Ways for ALTs to Help:

All of the ALTs surveyed were willing to help HRTs in any way that they can. Most of the ALTs sounded thrilled about the Period of Integrated Study, certain that its impact on English study in Japan would be nothing but good. They offered many ways that they would be happy to help HRTs gain the knowledge and the confidence needed to teach English everyday.
The most common suggestion was for ALTs to construct or leave behind any materials, lesson plans, or ideas ("ready-to-use resources," as one ALT put it) that might aid the HRTs in creating English classes. These could include anything from flashcards to sample lesson plans to compact discs. ALTs were also willing to create video or audio tapes of dialogues or any other English exchanges for the HRTs to use in class or learn from for themselves. These materials would provide much needed support for the HRTs until they could make lessons on their own.
A suggestion that involves a great deal more preparation, but still could be immensely beneficial to HRTs, was that ALTs host seminars that teach basic English. Of course, no one seminar will make anyone fluent in a language, but these seminars could be a first step in building confidence and preparing HRTs to create English lessons. ALTs are also generally willing to assist HRTs on a more personal, one-on-one basis. ALTs suggested that if they could work closely with HRTs in team-teaching sessions, this could not only expose the HRTs to the English language, but help them generate lesson plans that take into account their specific class as well as their specific strengths and weaknesses. These sessions could provide much needed encouragement for the HRTs. ALTs could also teach "mini-lessons" during teachers' breaks or after school, informal lessons that focus entirely on conversational skills. ALTs could also prepare some written homework for the HRTs, since writing is more important for a teacher to learn than a student.
Of course, many of the ALTs wanted to make elementary school visits more frequent. This is not only because the ALTs enjoy teaching elementary students, but also because it will increase their time to interact with HRTs.

A Final Word:

This change in elementary school curriculum will undoubtedly be stressful for HRTs, considering they have never needed to teach English before on their own. Many HRTs feel very uneasy about teaching a foreign language they do not know well, but they will soon find that, if they relax and try to make the classes enjoyable for both the students and themselves, they will gain the poise they need to teach well. With a little preparation, HRTs can inspire their students to move on to junior high school English with enthusiasm that will carry on throughout their lives.

Copyright (C) 2002 by Christy Hamlett Cook

(Please note that this report was not written by Genki English and hence we cannot be held responsible for the opinions and statements made. )

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