Introduction to Teaching English at Elementary Schools in Japan

This post was adapted from the handout that was used during the workshop about “Elementary School Visits” that I took part in at the Fukushima Newcomers Orientation in Fukushima City, Fukushima Prefecture, 2012.

More and more Assistant Language Teachers (ALTs) in Japan are working either full or part-time at elementary schools, as the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports and Technology (MEXT) is promoting “Foreign Language Activities” (外国語活動 – gaikokugo katsudō) for younger students. I myself taught at eleven different elementary schools during my time on the JET Programme in Fukushima Prefecture. Teaching English at elementary schools requires different skills and techniques than those that are needed at junior and senior high schools, which is why I decided to put this brief introduction together.

Overall Objective of Elementary School English

It can be a bit daunting at first to work out exactly what is required to teach “Foreign Language Activities” at elementary schools. As a starting point, I’ll quote directly from materials provided by the Japanese Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports and Technology (MEXT):

 To form the foundation of pupils’ communication abilities through foreign languages while developing the understanding of languages and cultures through various experiences, fostering a positive attitude toward communication, and familiarizing pupils with the sounds and basic expressions of foreign languages.

-          Quoted from “Course of Study – Foreign Language Activities”, Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports and Technology (MEXT).

In other words, the aim of teaching English at elementary schools is to get the students interested and excited about learning another language. The goal is not to aim for perfection and fluency. Instead, you should be encouraging your students to practice simple vocabulary, sentences, questions and answers through singing songs, playing games and other fun activities. You may find that some of your older students (5th-6th Graders) are able to read and write in English, but the main focus should be on getting the students to practice their speaking and listening skills.

To give you an idea of the level of material you will be teaching, here are a few examples of the English that I taught my students during class time:

  • Weather/Weekday/Months vocabulary
  • How are you? I’m~
  • What’s your name? My name is~
  • What colour do you like? I like~
  • What do you want to be? I want to be a/an~

Teaching Content

MEXT provides a detailed description (in Japanese) of what they would like teachers to included in their English teaching on their website. They also provide all schools with a set of two textbooks (Hi, Friends 1 and 2) which are designed for 5th and 6th Grade students, respectively. These aim to cover the required material over two years, and MEXT has produced sample lesson plans and schedules to be used with the textbooks. However, English in elementary schools is not currently as regulated as it is in junior or senior high schools. You aren’t required to use the “Hi, Friends” textbooks if you don’t want to, and as such some Boards of Education (BOEs) have created their own curriculums and may use different textbooks and materials. Your BOE should let you know which they would like you to use, and also how much freedom you will have to deviate from what is provided.

Games and Activities

There are many websites out there which resources and ideas for games you can use in your classroom. One I used a lot and can recommend is Englipedia, which includes ideas for English Language activities to use for all levels and age ranges. Another useful website is run by the Akita AJET Community. They are in the process of translating all of the sample lesson plans created by MEXT for “Hi, Friends” into English, and the completed lesson plans can be viewed here.

Feel free to experiment and come up with your own ideas for activities for your students. Many games that you played in elementary/primary school can be adapted for practicing English, such as Hot Potato, Bingo, What’s The Time Mr. Wolf, card games like Go Fish, and so on. I will upload several activities that worked well for my classes at a later date.

Classroom Management

When you are teaching at junior or senior high schools, you will usually be working with a Japanese Teacher of English (JTE) and you will take on the role of their assistant. However, in elementary schools you will be teaching with a Home Room Teacher (HRT), who is not as a rule a trained English teacher. As such, the role you will play in the lesson you participate in can vary wildly. You may be completely leading the lesson, or very occasionally you will be there simply to provide examples of correct pronunciation. (In other words, being the stereotypical walking tape-recorder!) Even if you are leading the class, I would recommend that you try to involve the HRT as much as you can. For example, through demonstrating the target conversation together or explaining activities as a pair. Also, you should not have to worry about discipline or classroom control; those are the HRT’s responsibility. Raising your voice occasionally might be necessary to get the students’ attention, but I would not suggest doing any more than that without permission from the HRT and your BOE.

Rewards

Ah, rewards. Sometimes these are the only way to get your students motivated enough to do the day’s activity! It’s also fun to offer prizes to students if they make an effort over the year or in a particular lesson. You should however avoid giving on sweets or food as prizes, unless you have permission to do so from your school. This is because most schools in Japan do not allow students to bring snacks or sweets with them. Stickers (or シール, “seal” in Japanese) are a much safer option as rewards, and even go down well with the 6th Graders! You can either buy stickers yourself from 100-yen stores such as the Daiso, Seria and Can-Do or you can have your schools order them for you, using the funds from the English budget (providing that they have one). And if you’re feeling creative, you could also try a point card system, wherein students gain stamps/points on their score card each time they participate in class, and give out prizes at the end of the semester or school year.

That was a very brief introduction to teaching English at Elementary Schools in Japan. If there are any section that aren’t clear or if they is anything you would like me expand upon, please leave a comment! Any and all feedback is greatly appreciated. And if there are any resources you would like me to add to this post or other posts in the future, please let me know about those as well. :o

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