The British Council in Japan have reported that a significant change in English language education at primary school level has been announced by the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology in Japan (MEXT), which may lead to further growth in demand for English learning amongst young learners and teacher training.
MEXT is planning to revise the elementary school curriculum to double English lesson hours for 5th and 6th graders (10-12 years old) and introduce 26.25 hours' (per year) of "foreign language activities" for 3rd and 4th graders (8-10 years old). The report also suggests that English teaching will be provided in English at junior high schools (at senior high schools, English classes already need to be conducted in English). If this plan is formally approved by the end of the year, the new curriculum will be implemented from 2020.
The numerical target for those who graduate from elementary school will be the acquisition of 600-700 English words. They will be also expected to be able to ask and answer simple questions. A foundation for reading and writing will also be established.
Currently, pupils in the 5th and year of elementary school have 26.25 hours' of "foreign language activities" which focuses on improving their listening and speaking abilities in English. This will be upgraded to a formal subject consisting of 52.5 hours (per year) of English lessons which aim to strengthen pupils' writing and reading skills in addition to listening and speaking. 3rd and 4th year pupils do not currently receive any English teaching provision.
This plan shows the government's strong determination to improve pupils' communication ability in English. English teaching at Japanese schools has long been criticised for placing too much importance on grammar and vocabulary and failing to foster an ability to express one's own ideas.
MEXT revises the curriculum at elementary, junior high and high schools roughly every 10 years, meaning the implications of this change of direction will be long-lasting.
However, there will be practical challenges in implementing these changes, including a lack of adequate teaching skills in English teachers. A survey conducted with English teachers at junior high schools by a private English school found that only 17% of teachers actually conduct English lessons in English.
Local agents have reported that the demand for English learning amongst young learners is rapidly growing in Japan, and this change will further accelerate the trend. However, it is an increasingly competitive market with other countries such as the Philippines and Australia offering more affordable options. In light of this, UK English language teaching providers are advised to stress the following points in their marketing messages:
- High quality of English language teaching in the UK with reference to accreditations
- Care for safety including the fact that the institutions observe strict child protection regulations
- Interactive and fun teaching style which includes games, songs, movies and discussions
- Rich cultural activities that only the UK can offer
In parallel to this change there is a growing demand for English teachers at Japanese schools with the necessary teaching skills. In February 2016, the MEXT announced a draft of the "core curriculum" for teacher training courses at Japanese universities, in which it is suggested students who are trained to become an elementary school teacher should develop skills in English subject teaching. In contrast, those who are trained to be an English teacher at junior high / high schools should achieve CEFR B2 level English. The draft also notes that short term training abroad is a useful method to improve teacher trainees' English communication abilities. MEXT aims to implement the core curriculum at universities from 2017. There is a doubt about the degree to which those universities will include short term study abroad programmes in their curriculum, but there will surely be an increased pressure for trainee teachers to improve their own English skills.