A prevue into my teaching experience in Japan
Updated: Aug 25, 2022
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Since the commencement of the spring semester of 2018 I had the opportunity, in my role as an Assistant Language Teacher (ALT), to interact with junior high school and elementary school students within the Japanese public schools. That experience had given me insights into the Japanese culture and allowed me to see both the strengths and weaknesses of the education system with regards to English teaching and learning.
It is the desire of every parent for their child/children to excel academically. However, “learning is not attained by chance, it must be sought for with ardor and attended to with diligence” – Abigail Adams
For the Japanese students, this statement is one they all too well understand; they approach their studies with a kind of diligence and discipline that is quite admirable. It is a quality teachers across the globe would wish for their students to emulate. They usually arrive early for school and are well prepared for each lesson. They read textbooks ahead for classes and almost always complete their assignments.
In between lessons, there is usually a break period of about ten minutes. This allows teachers and students alike the opportunity gather the materials necessary for their next lesson. It also ensures classes begin on time and at the same time. Students utilize the break to use the restroom, drink water, talk with friends, do some reading etc. Students look forward to this break as they get a chance to talk with their friends and relax a bit. Still they don’t usually engage in time wasting as while the clock ticks you will observe many of them scurrying to their lockers to gather their books and other items for the next class. Those who’s next lesson is elsewhere on campus usually make haste to get that area. Then as the break period is winding down to the last two minutes you will usually hear one or more students reminding their classmates to get to their seats and stop the talking.
Teachers in general are seldom late for classes. However, on the few rare occasions that they happen to be late it’s usually only by a minute or two. Yet, even in rare cases where a teacher didn’t remember he/she had a class the students will remain seated and attentive as though someone was present. They will either study, read a book, or do some school work. They will not be seen wandering around the classroom or be heard disturbing other classes.
In the same way, the Japanese students take responsibility for their classrooms and the school’s resources on a whole. Each day there is a fifteen (15) minute cleaning period during which they clean the classrooms, corridors, bathrooms, teacher’s room etc. Likewise, resources that are kept inside the classrooms are never removed or destroyed. Whether it is chalk, markers, magnets, small white boards, handouts, practice sheets, books, magazines, CD players, TV, laptops etc. Whatever is left in the class remains there untouched. Also, if one of their classmates is absent then the other students who sit close to that student will ensure to place all handouts and resource materials under that student’s desk. Sometimes they even put them inside a clear folder to ensure everything is kept safe.
In terms of tests, teachers don’t usually start a new unit until students are assessed. So if they are to complete three or four units for the term then they will not move on to another unit even if they completed those units well ahead of time. Students have to be assessed first. Whenever a teacher completes the required units ahead of time he/she uses the upcoming class periods for revision. At other times the students are allowed to use the class period for self-study.
Despite the positive attributes exhibited by the students, their English Language proficiency in no way reflects this actuality. For English lessons at junior high schools, students are required to study the new vocabulary introduced in each unit. This is necessary as they do a vocabulary quiz of some sort at the start of most lessons. Add to that they also have to memorize the entire passages from their textbooks for each unit. The explanation given by some Japanese Teachers of English (JTEs) is that memorization helps the students to better understand the content. The idea being an understanding of the content will help the students to use English in a natural sense. For me the verdict is still out on this one. I should point out, however, that some JTEs actually question the relevance and effectiveness of such a strategy.
The Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT) in recent years has made a few changes to improve students’ English ability. Textbooks have been revamped and English has been introduced much earlier at elementary schools. Too, JTEs are now placed at elementary schools whereas in the past they were only employed at junior and senior high schools.
However, as the saying goes, “the more things change, the more they remain the same.” According to the results of the nationwide achievement test (2019) conducted by the education ministry students in Japan’s junior high schools struggle with speaking and writing in English. This is a test conducted annually in April for sixth-graders and third-year junior high school students nationally. The aim is to gauge students’ basic knowledge of math, Japanese and their ability to apply those skills to solve complex problems.
The ministry included English for the first time in 2019 in the assessment for junior high school students.
The English test gauged students’ speaking, listening, reading and writing skills. The students attained an average score of 68.3 percent in the listening section and 56.2 percent in the reading section. But they scored only 46.4 percent in writing and 30.8 percent in speaking. The speaking score was only provided as a reference because not all schools conducted that section of the English test.
In the speaking section, many students struggled with improvised speech on randomly chosen topics. In the writing section, many students had difficulty using their vocabulary and grammar skills or struggled with writing coherently, the results showed. “The test results confirmed that students have poor communication skills — in both writing and in conversation. … And we take it as reaffirmation of what has been long deemed a problem in English teaching in Japanese schools,” said Takeshi Hayashi, an official in charge at the education ministry’s National Institute for Educational Policy Research.
Upon reflection of what happens in the English classes each day, these test results are in no way surprising to this writer. In consideration of how a language class should be structured the expectation would be that instruction is given primarily in the target language. Despite having the support of native English speakers, the JTEs (in almost all cases) are the ones who conduct the lessons. Then what transpires is that some JTEs make it their practice to translate English sentences 100% into Japanese. What is more, students talk time is woefully inadequate as the teachers are usually talking throughout 95% of the lesson. This deprives the students of much needed practice using the language and the classes lose the language learning appeal.
The American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL) recommends that learning takes place through the target language for 90% or more of classroom time except in immersion program models where the target language is used exclusively.
The limited English input combined with limited language practice is blighting the development of the students. The end result is that when you meet these students, taking English lessons three to four times per week, outside of class and ask them a question in English they are totally baffled.
A case in point was a few years ago when I entered my 3rd Grade English class. As usual I arrived a few minutes prior to the start of the lesson. Then, in keeping with my routine I engaged a student in a little small talk. This is one of the strategies I use to get to know my students better. I asked, “How are you today”? He looked at me with confusion written all over his face and repeated the question to himself a few times. Still unable to decipher the meaning of what I’d asked he quickly turned to a classmate sitting behind him for help. I felt sad for him. It was clear to me that his teachers had failed him thus far. This is a student who had been studying English for over five (5) years.
What is more, I have noticed that a number of sentence structures being utilized in these English lessons downright unnatural. Many times I have seen the question, “What food you don’t like?” as opposed to “What food don’t you like?” or “What food you dislike?” Sentence structures like these exist in Japan because some JTEs fail to consult with the ALTs assigned to their schools and instead rely heavily on translation dictionaries.
Finally, perhaps one of the most bizarre occurrences surround the way that many students interact. For some inexplicable reason the boys and the girls do not interact much. For speaking activities students are sometimes allotted 3-5 minutes to talk to as many of their classmates as possible and get a signature. During these activities it is not uncommon to see a big divide within the class with the boys congregating in one half of the classroom and the girls congregating in the other half.
As a means of countering this situation, some teachers have become creative by allotting bonus points when boys talk with girls and when girls talk with boys to encourage more interaction among the sexes.