Getting Ready for 2020: Changes and Challenges for English Education in Public Primary Schools in Japan

Alison K. Nemoto, Miyagi University of Education

Hello colleagues,

English Education in Japan has reached an exciting stage of development with the upcoming changes at elementary school level. Alison Nemoto, who has been involved in working on the new curriculum being introduced by MEXT, and in teaching and teacher training for many years, gives us her views on where Japan is heading in this new era and what the changes will mean for students and teachers.

On another note, please notice the change in the column title from “Young Learners” to “Younger Learners.” This is to better reflect the students we serve, from preschoolers to high school students, and also to align it with the Younger Learners SIG. 

As we approach 2020, athletes all over the world are training hard, pushing their bodies to the limits with the aim of gaining medals for their countries in the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics. At the same time, English education in Japan is going through a similarly challenging period of enormous change. The impetus behind these changes is the need for Japanese people to be able to function and communicate more effectively in English, in our increasingly interdependent global society. Hosting the Olympics is just one example of this. To reach this goal, significant revisions are being initiated at all levels of English education. Here, we will look in detail at the changes outlined for public primary schools.

One major transformation will be an increase in classes, aimed at developing communicative English skills and international understanding, from 70 to 210 hours (1 hour = 45 minutes). Following a new, more challenging curriculum, and using professionally produced textbooks, pupils will be exposed to around 700 English words prior to junior high school, and expected to use an increased number of English phrases. Basic literacy skills will be introduced for the first time, to enhance the present oral-skills-only curriculum. The teaching styles recommended for this new era are learner-centered and communicative for all subjects, with deep and active learning as the goal. 

The new curriculum will be officially implemented from April 2020, but the next two years have been allocated by MEXT as a period for preparation and familiarization with the new content. Most schools are already pre-running the new curriculum, having started this April. However, there is some confusion among observers, teachers, and parents as to the number of hours, aims of classes, use of suggested study materials, and changes in the roles of instructors. I’d like to share my observations on these changes as a teacher and teacher trainer who has been involved closely with public school English education in Japan for almost thirty years. 

Background to the New Curriculum 

English instruction and the development of international understanding for primary school children was first initiated on a large scale in 2002, with optional English Activities (eigo-katsudou) outlined by MEXT for integrated studies in years 3-6 (sougouteki na gakushu no jikan). At this time, English classes began in many primary schools all over the country, but the year groups involved and hours of instruction varied greatly between school districts, making it difficult for teachers to share good practice, teaching techniques, and resources. Even primary schools feeding into the same junior high school had inconsistencies, creating learners with different learning experiences in the same class. 

For these reasons, in 2011, Foreign Language Activities (gaikokugo-katsudou) became compulsory for 35 hours per year in years 5 and 6, and the MEXT materials ‘Eigo Note,’ which had been available for use since 2009, were replaced by the improved materials, ‘Hi Friends! 1 & 2.’ 

These materials and digital resources have now been used for over 7 years, and most primary teachers that I have had the opportunity to observe have become familiar with the contents, producing effective and engaging classes for 5th and 6th year pupils. Although at first many teachers perceived the materials, and the task of teaching them, as very challenging, I have found during recent in-service training courses that teachers are now quite confident in using the target English questions and phrases. Isn’t it therefore timely to challenge teachers and children further, with a more demanding curriculum, as a positive step towards improving English ability nationally to an appropriate level for this new and exciting era for Japan? 

Increase in Study Hours

From April 2020, there will be 35 hours, or approximately one hour per week, of ‘Foreign Language Activities,’ for both years 3 and 4, and 70 hours, approximately two hours per week, of ‘English as a formal assessed subject’ for both years 5 and 6. Leading up to this, schools will have some flexibility in increasing English study hours from the 2018 academic year. Initially there will be some variations in the hours and content of English lessons in primary schools, but after 2020 the hours of study and content should be consistent nationwide. 

Content of Classes

The aims for years 3 and 4 are twofold; to gradually develop intercultural understanding and to introduce achievable English listening and speaking activities through materials and activities appropriate to the pupils’ developmental stage. There will also be a sub theme of developing literacy, but only recognition and formation of upper and lower case letters will be expected at this stage. This change is to align English studies with the use of the Roman alphabet, or romaji, for Japanese words which they cover in their Japanese language studies at this time.

The revised aims for years 5 and 6 regarding language skills are primarily to develop listening and speaking skills that build on the previous 70 hours of classes from years 3 and 4, and also to further develop basic literacy skills, such as reading and writing simple words, and then moving on to first copying, and then writing, full sentences. Choral reading of simple English passages will also be introduced in year 6 as a step towards developing phonetic awareness. The aim is for pupils to ‘notice’ similar sounds in the text naturally, rather than for phonics to be formally taught at this stage.

These changes are aimed at bridging the current gap between the focus on purely oral communication (i.e., short listening and speaking tasks) in the upper grades of primary school and on developing all four skills at junior high school level. It has also been considered that this combined four-skill approach fits the developmental stage of upper primary pupils better than the present contents. However, this new literacy element is just a small part of the curriculum. Listening and speaking activities are still the main focus of the course and these will be more challenging, with longer, more natural conversations and situations based around the pupils’ experiences, such as sharing news after the summer vacation or talking about future plans. 

Some exposure to linguistic input will be in the form of new and improved short videos which will clearly introduce the natural context for the language to be used. These videos are also aimed at developing pupils’ global outlook, which is still an important aim in primary education and one that shouldn’t be overlooked when planning lessons. International understanding can be developed in an active way by, for example, pupils of this age doing their own research and preparing quizzes or presentations on topics such as languages apart from English and world cultures. 

Materials and Lesson Planning

Although there are many positive points in the new curriculum, undoubtedly, one of the biggest challenges for teachers during this transition period is to expand the content, blend the old and new materials, and gradually facilitate a smooth transition for children, as the hours and scope of English lessons increase. This year and next they will still use the “Hi Friends! 1 and 2,” series as a base for the curriculum in years 5 and 6, and then add selected units from the “We Can!” series, so there will be inconstancies between schools, depending on how many hours they decide to teach. 

Practically speaking, although the new materials are exciting, and provide a vision of where English in primary schools is heading, they do not necessarily link into where learners are now. This is because the “We Can!” resources are designed to be used in sequence, and the contents build on the 70 hours of study using the ‘Let’s Try!’ books. At the moment, they are really available for the training of teachers, and to be used with children only selectively. Therefore, each teacher must consider how to supplement learning and whether use of the new materials is appropriate and, most importantly, achievable for learners. Following this two-year period, these will be replaced by textbooks produced by the major textbook companies and approved by MEXT, which will be available for viewing and selection by each school district, as is the case for any subject. 


As for human resources, MEXT has plans to increase the numbers of specialized staff trained to teach English and also the numbers of ALTs nationally, but it is up to each school to make its own  staffing decisions. Some schools may designate a staff member to be a specialist English instructor, responsible for instruction in the whole school or a whole year group. They may be supported by an ALT or another teaching assistant, for example a local resident who is proficient in English. Other schools will still expect the classroom teacher, (CRT), to lead lessons with an ALT or other instructor when available.


Looking back on this journey from 2002, to English becoming a formal subject in primary school, teachers have been challenged by revisions and changes when they were first initiated. However, they have gradually mastered the contents in order to teach effectively. Given some time, I see this similarly challenging situation we are facing now gradually being resolved in the same way. Important issues such as teacher training and creating an effective system for assessment of young learners certainly still need to be addressed, but we have a clear shared vision of where English primary education is going and we can concentrate now on how to get there. 

Since arriving in Japan in 1989, I’ve been told numerous times that, “this is the new era for English,” and “with this change everyone will become fluent,” but it really hasn’t happened yet. Hopefully this transition in primary school English education will lead to providing a ‘real’ foundation for junior high school and senior high school English education, which is also undergoing its own revisions. It will take time. “Rome wasn’t built in a day,” as they say, but if we raise the bar sufficiently now, I feel that the effect should be felt in 10 years’ time, when the 8-year-olds of today will have spent 10 years studying English before entering a university like mine, to become English teachers for the next generation. I believe this Olympic-like challenge is a necessary step towards the goal of facilitating the whole nation in becoming able to communicate more effectively in English.    

Further Reading

Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science, and Technology (MEXT). (2018). Shogakko shidoyoryo kaisetsu gaikokugo-katsudo/gaikokugo-hen [Explanation of the course of study for primary school: Foreign language activities and foreign language]. Tokyo: Kairyudo Shuppan

Ohshiro, K., & Yorozu, R. (2017). Chugakunenyo hajimeteno shogakko gaikokugokatsudo, Jissen Gaidobukku, shin-shido yoryotaio [A practical guidebook for the new course of study: A guide to first time foreign language activities for primary school middle grades]. Tokyo: Kairyudo Shuppan

Ohshiro, K., & Yorozu, R. (2017). Kougakunenyo shogakko-eigo hayawakari, Jissen Gaidobukku, shin-shidoyoryotaio [A practical guidebook for the new course of study: An easy to follow guide to primary school English education for the upper grades]. Tokyo: Kairyudo Shuppan

Alison K. Nemoto is from the UK and trained as a primary school teacher, before coming to Japan on the JET programme in 1989. She has over 20 years of experience teaching in kindergartens, primary schools, and junior high schools in Fukushima. Since 2012, she has been a Specially Appointed Associate Professor at Miyagi University of Education, and she holds an M.A. in Teaching English to Young Learners. For over ten years, Alison has been involved with publication of textbooks for young learners at the JHS level. She has been a primary English curriculum and materials development adviser to the Myanmar Government and last year joined the MEXT committee which produced the new materials, “Let’s Try!” and “We Can!”