If you look at your schedule it probably doesn't say  "English" or "eigo", it probably says something like "kokusai rikai kyouiku" or "Education for International Understanding". Which tends to beg the question....

What are we supposed to be teaching in Japanese Elementary Schools? 

This a pretty good question to ask. The answer is that  nobody has really decided!  Our lessons are part of the special "sogo gakushu jikan" where schools are free to devise their own study programmes according to the needs of the students or communities. The idea is that you can teach whatever you and your school think is appropriate. But that still doesn't really help if you are stuck with no ideas. So on this page I'm going to try and help you out.

There were recent  discussions  by the "Committee for the Improvement of English-Language", which was set up by the Minister of Education, on how to reform the education system here.   The Ministry recently published a handbook for teachers and your school may have a copy, if not it is published by Kairyudo (ISBN4-304-04078-2 C3037) for 100 yen. It is a thoroughly recommended read, but the lesson plan examples should be improved! 

But in the official one page guidelines (see below) there is nothing that says "Teach numbers 1 to 10, How are you?  etc.".  It's up to the individual schools to decide exactly what to teach, and how many hours a year should be devoted to it.

The reason why I made this website in the first place was exactly because there was no set curriculum. I had no idea what to teach in the beginning, so as I gradually got some ideas together I decided to put them on the net for everyone to use. On the "Year Plans" page you can see some of the ideas that were used in Ochi-gun, Ehime and have since been built upon with my experiences with Genki English.. ( By the way I did JET at primary school from 1997-2000, now Genki English teacher training is my full time job. )

The official guidelines

In my schools, the basis we used for our lessons, and the basis I use for Genki English ideas, is the legal and official "Shougakkou Gakushu shidou youryou kaisetsu" (yeah I know it sounds a handful, but I put the Japanese in so that you can tell your teachers to check it out!), published in 1999 and reprinted in December 2002.  On page 53 they give a concise run down of what they call "International Understanding Education" or "Kokusai rikai kyouiku".  This International Understanding Education is one option that schools can teach under the "sogo gakushu jikan" or "Period for Integrated Study".  This type of education became compulsory from the year 2002 and was an optional course before. In the blue handbook the information presented is basically the same, but in a more detailed form - and also in English - If you would like to show your teachers a Japanese copy of the the official guidelines (it's only one page!) - have a look here.

So what is this International Understanding Education thing then?

Well, the guidelines say that children should be exposed to and be able to experience foreign languages, foreign lifestyles and foreign customs.  These should all be at a level that is suitable for the kids and done in a positive, hands-on fashion. They also recommend that foreign languages should be in the form of "suitable songs, games, simple greetings, skits etc."  Furthermore exchanges with other schools, sister cities and native speakers should be promoted in an interesting, positive way.

It also says that the lessons should be fun and that the kids should come out of it thinking "English is interesting!" Further more it also says that Elementary School English should not be preparation for Junior High School English! (You'll appreciate this if you've ever taught a junior high school class!).

One other element that is stressed is the concentration on listening and speaking elements. Hours of grammar study or starting with the "abc"s are definitely out of the question!

Click here for the original guidelines in Japanese

No Katakana!

In the handbook they also say that English should NOT be taught by using the Japanese Katakana script, "Do Not Pronounce English Words Using Katakana Sounds" and "teachers should not use katakana to spell out what has been said" is what they say!. It is very important that your kids learn that as soon as you write something in katakana, it becomes Japanese - the so-called "gairaigo". Don't use it to teach English!

In the classroom...

From the meetings and conferences that I've attended over the years in seems that this type of education's main aim is to expose the children to cultures of other countries.  And a big part of this is communication skills, this is where the English comes in to play.  In Japan it is commonly accepted that English is the "International Language" (I can think of a lot of countries where people would disagree with this!), and as such is the key to communicating with the world.  

In my experience most Japanese teachers also want ALTs to introduce and explain things about their own culture in the classroom.  However in real life, without Japanese ability, it is pretty difficult for us to attempt such things!  However, explaining about culture doesn't  mean talking for 40 minutes about your country. Quite the opposite, the guidelines talk about the importance of "hands-on experience orientated activities"(!) where the kids use all their senses to try and gain an understanding of the subject.  One of the best ways to start is to try just teaching English lessons, but keep dropping hints about your culture.  For example when teaching "Summer Words", choose things that you think are summer like. When teaching verbs, teach the word "clean", and then teach the kids that in most Western countries the kids don't clean schools themselves! As you advance with your Japanese you can explain more and more about foreign customs.  Things like the Olympics or World Cup are a great way to teach about the host country. If you celebrate Hallowe'en or Christmas, then these are a great way for the kids to have fun whilst learning.  The kids are very quick and will pick up on anything you do, wear or say that they think is strange, in my opinion this is very simple, but very important internationalisation!!

Taking ideas from other academic subjects is also good. For example my fifth years used to study "European Summers" in October time, and the second years have a section on "Greetings from around the World". The fifth years also had a section on "European Houses", so I took a video camera round my house during the holidays (you can see it online here) . Getting the kids to introduce Japanese culture is also great, especially around New Year (where there are lots of special games and things) or the Doll's Festival in Spring.

So to sum it all up, there are no rules.  You have guidelines and you can teach pretty much what you want within these guidelines.  Talk with your teachers and see what you come up with, sometimes they may have a clear idea of what they want, but more likely you will be free to come up with ideas yourself.  In each prefecture there was also a "pilot school" that has been testing the type of education for the last few years. Try asking your prefectural board of education if they can put you in touch! And of course Genki English is always here to help you out! If you're stuck you can always give me an email or put a message on our discussion board.

Or if you would like to see Genki English in action, get a group of teachers together, a place to hold a meeting and we might be able to bring you a Genki English Workshop I can also do JET Mid Year Conferences, if you'd like to invite me.

  Some people take the lack of a concrete syllabus as a bad thing, but I see it as a challenge!  You can go where you and your kids interests lie and teach things exactly to their level.

My kids learnt all about England and Europe, their schools and customs. They've eaten English sweets, seen videos of my house and my trips to France, Thailand and Indonesia. They've met my family and had visits from ALTs from different countries. They've learnt lots of songs and  can speak great English with incredible accents. But the most important thing that I wanted to teach them was that even though people from different countries have different customs, languages, skin colours or habits, we are all fundamentally the same human beings.

Be genki,


August 2000 (updated May 2003, guidelines still current April 2006)

Thank you very much to Huw Oliphant of the Ministry of Education for his  help in preparing this article.

Find out what other ALTs think of teaching in Japan in our Genki English video!

Also, check out my article on "Your first day at Elementary School!",
Our Genki English Workshop Page
or Our Genki English Live Show Page!

Any thoughts or comments about this article? ? Give me an email, or better still try posting them on our discussion board!


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