Are concerns for the addition of English warranted?

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Jodie Hogan, Hachinohe University


Although only recently implementing the addition of English as an elective subject at the elementary school level, Monbukagakusho (The Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science, and Technology—MEXT) is once again reviewing its guidelines. Swooning under public pressure to end its latest reform and replace it with a specific syllabus, MEXT is due to release a national curriculum in April 2004. Providing evidence from a case study at Fukiage, a rural primary school located in Aomori Prefecture in the Tohoku region of Japan, this article argues that, as the majority of teachers at this school are providing English in accordance with the Period of Integrated Study (Sogotekina Gakushuno Jikan) policy, much of the criticism directed at the new curriculum and at the teachers themselves is unwarranted.

The Period of Integrated Study Policy

The launch of the Period of Integrated Study policy marked a historical break in foreign language policy-making. Renowned for traditionally emphasizing rote learning, the elementary curriculum was altered to cater to students' individuality. Under the motto, "Schools will be better and education will change" (Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science, and Technology 2001, p.1), MEXT handed down the Period of Integrated Study plan in April 2002. English Activities (EA) are included as one of the many foreign language options under the International Understanding (IU) umbrella, but as it is not an official subject, MEXT has refrained from insisting on a specific English syllabus. Instead, MEXT has released flexible guidelines, uncharacteristically leaving decisions up to individual schools.

Concerns for the Introduction of English

The unconventional nature of the reformed curriculum attracted widespread attention. When MEXT first released "maximum" guidelines for the Period of Integrated Study in April 2002, its significantly lesser content met with such extensive public criticism, that the Ministry quickly changed these to "standard" guidelines. London's study (2002) hence belittles the new teaching paradigm as an evolving experiment without clear results. In comparison to Korea, where a standardised English education curriculum is currently being enforced, English guidelines provided by MEXT are notably complex and vague. As other compulsory subjects continue to be bound by Shogakkou Gakushu Shido Yoryo (set framework on how subjects are to be taught via compulsory textbooks), departure from the structured classroom environment symbolises uncharted territory for teachers. According to Kelly's research (2002), "tens of thousands" of elementary teachers across the nation are thus suffering a "low level crisis" (Kelly, 2002, p. 32). Takagaki (2003) states that due to lack of official guidelines, teachers are unable to design, plan or teach EA. Komatsu (2002) blames unclear guidelines for confusing teachers. Childs' research (2002) suggests that lack of training extending back to their university education is inhibiting teachers from commencing EA whilst Merner (reported by Gillis-Furutaka, 2002) speculates that neglecting to provide a syllabus has resulted in teachers either waiting for clearer guidelines from the Monbukagakusho, or resorting to the way they were taught English via traditional grammar-translation (TGT). Kudo (2002) holds the opinion that, unable to teach by themselves, teachers are relying on native English speakers to teach EA. In Watanabe's (2002) article, Ito reports that Tohoku schools are particularly stalling the nation-wide effort to teach English.

Rural Teachers in Focus

Ito does not state why he has singled out Tohoku teachers, but geographic positioning is a viable reason. Located far from Tokyo, sparsely populated and agriculturally based, Fukushima, Yamagata, Miyagi, Akita, Iwate and Aomori prefectures are often represented as inaka (a derogatory term meaning rural) in national newspapers and television coverage. Due to linguistic differences in spoken Japanese, such as variations in pronunciation and word choice, Tohoku regional dialects vary significantly from Standard Japanese. Dialect users are hence socially marked and are quite often the powerless victims of media inflicted stereotypes.

Research Aims

As a native English speaker who has worked at Fukiage Elementary School for the past three years, I am intrigued by the lack of evidence to support (or oppose) many of the fears currently being promoted by the media. Although empirical research into teachers' actual teaching of English is yet to be conducted, MEXT appears convinced that teachers require clearer guidelines. By reporting on Fukiage teachers' contributions to English, I hope this article proves that much of the criticism targeted towards rural teachers is unfounded. Admittedly, findings are restricted to Fukiage and cannot be generalised to the larger Tohoku region, however data reveals that the majority of critics have underestimated teachers' ability to adapt to the latest policy.


Data collecting measures used in this case study included a questionnaire and follow-up interviews in Japanese. In total, 25 teachers participated in the survey and two teachers from each grade took part in further interviews.

Site Description: Fukiage and its Context

Fukiage, an elementary school with approximately 700 students, is situated in Hachinohe city, located in the southeast corner of Aomori, Honshu's most northern prefecture. Hachinohe, 640 kilometres north of Tokyo, provides industrial, fishing, agricultural and commercial port facilities and is an industrial representative for the Tohoku region.

Role of the English Coordinator

The English coordinator was responsible for developing the school's English Programme. Adhering to MEXT's Practical Handbook for Elementary School English Activities (Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science, and Technology, 2001), he designed three curriculum documents for teachers: Period of Integrated Study Year Plan, International Understanding Plan, and Seven Hours of English Activities Plan. Following the MEXT handbook's step-by-step instructions, the coordinator created educational goals for English teaching, time allotment plans, and the content of EA for Grades 1 to 6. He also outlined the teaching roles of ALTs (Assistant Language Teachers), the SSA (School Staff Assistant) and HRTs (Homeroom Teachers).

Role of Native English Speakers

As an SSA, I was required to visit the school 32 times in the April 2002-March 2003 school year. In a year's time, I taught a total of seven hours of EA to the Grade 6 classes, two hours to Grades 5, 4, 3 and 2 and one hour to Grade 1 classes. ALTs were required to teach Grade 3 to 5 students for a total of 20 visits from April 2002-March 2003. The amount of hours of EA taught by the ALTs varied from 1 to 4 hours. Five ALTs work in the Hachinohe area, employed by the JET programme. The ALTs all share a "one-shot" status, meaning that they are not stationed at one school and instead visit several schools throughout the year.

Role of Homeroom Teachers

Apart from SSA/ALT teaching, Grade 1 to 6 teachers were also required to provide EA. From April 2002-March 2003, a total of 30 hours of EA was to be taught at the Grade 5/6 level, about 20 hours in Grades 3 and 4 and a total of 10 hours of EA were to be taught to Grade 1 and 2 students.

Aims of English Teaching at Fukiage

The main aims of EA at Fukiage are as follows:

  1. Fostering students' interest and desire to learn English.
  2. Helping students to develop abilities to express themselves.
  3. Using various activities to help students deepen their interest in and understanding of cultures and life in other countries.

In order to create positive international feelings, conversational skills are to be taught mainly by native English speakers. The main goal of EA for Grades 1 and 2 is for students to become used to foreign guests who visit the school; for Grade 3 and 4 students, it is to enjoy playing English games with foreign guests; and for Grade 5 and 6 students, it is to learn easy English conversation with foreign guests.

Results: Are Teachers at Fukiage Teaching IU?

Participants in the questionnaire were asked to state if they had taught IU. Twenty-two (88%) Fukiage teachers indicated that they had taught IU in the April 2002-March 2003. The majority of teachers (84%) identified developing an interest in foreign language and culture as the most important IU goal.

Are Teachers at Fukiage Teaching EA?

In the survey, teachers were asked to indicate if they had taught EA. Results reveal that 17 of the 25 teachers (68%) taught EA in the April 2002-March 2003 school year. During follow up interviews a Grade 3 teacher concluded that ". . .between the ALTs, SSA and HRTs we are successfully teaching English. We also have Fukiage's guidelines to support us."

What is the Impact of the Open Framework?

Survey participants described their English teaching by choosing from a frequency scale (always, usually, unsure, sometimes, never). Respondents answered as follows:

  REF Always Usually Unsure Sometimes Never
1. I teach easy English with a textbook   0% 4% 24% 12% 60%
2. I teach English listening skills using CDs/tapes   0% 4% 32% 0% 64%
3. I teach English songs/chants   0% 12% 52% 4% 32%
4. I concentrate on students' reading ability 4% 0% 0% 20% 12% 64%
5. I explain foreign culture in Japanese 4% 0% 16% 4% 52% 24%
6. I ask students to translate English into Japanese   4% 8% 4% 24% 60%
7. I concentrate on students' writing ability 4% 0% 4% 20% 0% 72%

Questionnaire results reveal that rather than utilising TGT strategies, teachers at Fukiage mainly focus on the students' English speaking and listening skills. In a follow-up interview, a Grade 5 teacher further explained, "The most important goal of EA is that the children understand that English is fun."

Are Teachers at Fukiage Adequately Prepared to Teach English?

Results verify that adequate pre-service and in-service training is yet to be provided by MEXT. Although the majority of teachers have taught EA with an ALT/SSA, data reveals that 12 teachers (48%) failed to provide EA by themselves. Five teachers (20%) admitted lack of ability to teach EA. A Grade 6 teacher blamed her university education stating, "I didn't study communicative English at university so it's impossible for me to teach EA." Another Grade 6 teacher concluded, "We can't just start teaching EA because the government says so. If we have to teach it then we need to be trained!"

Are Teachers Lacking Motivation to Teach English?

Choosing from an opinion scale (strongly agree, agree, no opinion, disagree, strongly disagree), participants commented on their attitudes toward teaching EA. Teachers answered as follows:

Figure 1

Figure 1.

In regards to motivation towards teaching English, most teachers stated that they enjoy teaching with ALTs/SSA. Reporting that working with ALTs is an enjoyable form of English training, a Grade 5 teacher explained, "I don't have any confidence to teach English. That's ALT teaching is so effective. I can study English with the students." Another teacher stated, "EA should be fun but without a native speaker, it'll be a horrible experience for me and the children!" Although 16 teachers (64%) reported to have "no opinion" as to whether they preferred to teach compulsory subjects, in a previous section of the survey, 0% of teachers stated that they are concentrating on compulsory subjects rather than teaching EA.

Are Teachers at Fukiage Waiting for More Guidelines from the Government?

Notably, 0% of teachers who had not taught EA claimed to be waiting for clearer teaching guidelines from the government. In fact, most teachers indicated that Fukiage's guidelines are more useful than MEXT's. A Grade 3 teacher admitted that "we have seen guidelines from the government, but we don't actually use them. We teach EA step by step in accordance with our school plan." Several teachers disagreed that clearer guidelines should be provided by the government. A Grade 3 teacher reported that although it would be easier to have more concrete guidelines, this would interfere with the purpose of teaching and the focus of EA would become teaching content rather than communication. Another teacher concluded that "Being interested in English is the main aim for our children, so our current situation is satisfying."

How do Teachers Feel about Their Representation in the Media?

Participants were asked to comment about Ito's statement that Tohoku teachers are failing to teach EA. The results indicate that 16 teachers (64%) disagree that Fukiage is doing little to implement English teaching. Respondents stated that due to the Period of Integrated Study plan, Fukiage's English curriculum policies, as well as regular ALT and SSA visits, the school is effectively teaching EA. Other teachers identified the English coordinator as playing a major role in successful English teaching. Controversially, 6 teachers (24%) surveyed agree that they are doing little to implement English teaching. Two teachers (8%) claim that reliance on the ALT for teaching proves that teachers are not providing EA. A Grade 3 teacher argued that "We rely entirely on ALTs to teach EA because we don't have any English teaching experience." Similarly, a Grade 1 teacher wrote, "The ALT needs to be at the centre of English teaching. I can't teach without an ALT. I have absolutely no confidence to teach English."

Discussion: Goals of International Understanding

Whilst MEXT continues to be accused for failing to provide teaching guidelines, this is not entirely true. Rather than dictating an English curriculum, MEXT has provided minimal guidelines in the Practical Handbook for Elementary School English Activities (Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science, and Technology, 2001). The manual outlines IU aims and procedures for EA teaching and schools are expected to design their own English curriculum by adhering to the flexible guidelines. Despite variation in elective subjects, schools throughout the nation are required to address the following compulsory IU requirements:

  1. Fostering the students' open mindedness and understanding regarding other cultures, and the development of an attitude that is respectful of these cultures and qualities.
  2. Establishing a strong sense of self and sense of being Japanese to better appreciate the concept of international understanding.
  3. Development of basic foreign language skills, the ability for self-expression, and other communication skills for the purpose of expressing one's own thoughts and intentions, while respecting the positions of others in an international society (Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science, and Technology, 2001, p. 121).

Non-English Teaching Objectives

As MEXT is merely offering the opportunity for schools to teach EA, the goals of English teaching in Japanese elementary schools are significantly different from other Asian countries that have also recently introduced English. For example, as the main goal of elementary English in Korea is based on academic achievement, the government has provided concrete guidelines, training and an English syllabus. In comparison, as an elective subject in Japan, the main objective is to expose students to English and increase interest in foreign cultures. Hence, MEXT has specifically stated that IU is not aimed at improving children's language ability.

English Teaching Objectives

MEXT's third IU objective calls for development of communicative ability in a foreign language. MEXT states the primary aim of EA as fostering students' interest and desire to learn, "not to teach a language" (Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science, and Technology, 2001, p. 123, emphasis added). EA in Japanese elementary schools are designed to raise students' awareness of different customs and encourage them to communicate with people from different cultures. In the handbook, MEXT suggests that teachers provide enjoyable EA which focus on communicative English. Teachers are advised against forcing students to memorise English but instead emphasise desire to learn the language.

Unwarranted Concerns

Consulting teachers at Fukiage and allowing them to respond to criticism directed towards them has provided valuable insight into determining the extent to which teachers' perceptions of IU parallel or contradict the concerns being promoted by the media. Data from this case study illustrates that there is little need for a standardised English curriculum at Fukiage. Results reveal that Fukiage teachers are successfully fulfilling the goals of IU in accordance with the school's English programme. Speculation that MEXT's failure to provide a syllabus has resulted in teachers waiting for clearer guidelines from the government or teaching English via the TGT approach was also unwarranted. As Fukiage has provided its teachers with curriculum plans, regular visits from native speaking foreigners and an English co-ordinator, the school has played a significant role in preparing teachers for the task of EA teaching. Hence grounds for concerns that teachers faced with the daunting task of teaching English are experiencing a low level crisis was unfounded by this case study.

Warranted Concerns

Results confirm reports that MEXT is yet to provide appropriate training. Data indicates that to a certain degree, concerns regarding teachers' ability to teach English are also warranted. Several teachers identify lack of English ability for prohibiting them to achieve the target number of EA lessons as quoted in the school documents. Even though 13 of the 25 teachers (52%) at Fukiage have taught EA, the remaining 12 teachers (48%) mainly citing English inability, have failed to provide EA outside of teaching with native English speaking guests. Data thus provides evidence for concerns that teachers rely on ALTs for EA teaching.


The way the introduction of elementary school English has been reported by the Japanese media has done little to promote understanding of the Period of Integrated Study period. Few articles presented in the national Yomiuri Shimbun have accurately informed the public of the aims and goals of the latest policy. Unfortunately, as MEXT appears to have little intention to approach teachers and schools for feedback on its latest foreign language reform, the negative image of teachers continues to be the only representation available to the Japanese public. Several teachers at Fukiage predict that as a result, parents may continue to pressure MEXT to end its relaxed policy and replace it with a standardised curriculum. Considering that Sogotekina Gakushuno Jikan is already under review, teachers' fears are already proving to be veritable concerns.


I would like to thank the staff at Fukiage for participating in this project, especially Mr. Kazuki Ono for his support and encouragement over the past 3 years. Special thanks to my husband, Noriaki, for co-analysing the questionnaires and interviews.


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Jodie Hogan teaches conversational English at a private university in Hachinohe, Aomori Prefecture, in addition to teaching at two kindergartens and Fukiage Elementary School. Commencing her teaching career as a Japanese LOTE (Languages Other Than English) teacher in three elementary schools in Australia, she subsequentlytaught English at high school, junior high school and elementary school levels as an ALT on the JET programme. She recently completed her Masters of Education in TESOL from the University of South Australia, Australia.