Missed Opportunity

One of the things that you hear about eikaiwa teaching is that it is easy. This is usually said by people who are rubbish teachers. If it were easy, Japan would be full of confident and fluent English speakers. It is not. The level of English here is appallingly low.  The other myth about English in Japan is that the students are able to read and write well, but are poor at speaking due to the lack of oral practice at school. That they have few opportunities to speak is true; that they are generally good at reading and writing English  is not. Anybody who has attempted to edit or rewrite an English paper written by a Japanese national will tell you that, often, it is a horrendous task. Written English can be every bit as jumbled, nonsensical and poor as the spoken language, and more often than not it is.

Reading skills are similarly poor. Of course, there are many students who go through school and learn to read English with reasonable proficiency, but experience tells me that there are shocking numbers of students who do not. Oh, they can muddle their way through a text, but they read with neither ease nor confidence. This is hardly surprising. Students are not taught how to read. Few schools have any kind of phonics programmes in place and students seem to be expected to learn to read simply by rote memorization of each and every word. That, sadly, is an extremely ineffective way to become a proficient reader of English. Before 2011, students started English in their first year of junior high school. They were given textbooks, taught the alphabet, and from there were expected to be able to read. That is like expecting kids to do maths before they can count.

In 2011, English became mandatory in the fifth and sixth grades of elementary school. I was pleased when this was announced, thinking it would allow students two years in which to build reading skills through phonics and thus have a solid platform on which to begin more serious English study at junior high. The ability to read would allow students to become more autonomous learners, they could review stuff on their own, they may even choose to read in English for pleasure! It was a great opportunity to improve English education in Japan. Except that the Ministry of Education decided in its infinite wisdom to stress that these primary years should not be used to teach reading or writing. The intention seems to be less on developing language skills per se and more to encourage a kind of general interest in English and the world abroad. That is an admirable goal, but it remains to be seen whether such a goal will be achieved and whether or not it will in turn contribute in any way to a better grasp of the English language by students. What is almost inevitable, however, is that reading skills will not improve and therefore just as many students will continue to fail to develop the skills necessary to become confident and autonomous learners.

Reading, writing, speaking, listening – they are all connected and the one thing that seems to be criminally ignored is that one of the best ways to improve speaking, listening and writing is to read, read, read. And no student is going to do that if it is simply so difficult as to be an absolute chore. Yes, smart kids can figure out phonics rules of sorts without even realizing they are doing so – the kid that sees ‘station’ for example and makes the connection of that final ‘-tion’ to figure out how to read ‘information’, ‘action’ or ‘option’ – but there are many who need guidance, who need to be helped to learn to read and that help is in woefully short supply.

This is one area where many eikaiwa schools are of enormous benefit to children. Kids actually do learn to read in a great many eikaiwa and those that do have a huge advantage when starting English study at junior high school. But, even then, teaching English in Japan is not, as is often claimed by gap-year, just-here-for-a-holiday teachers, easy. Or at least teaching English well is not easy. Filling time in a class is easy. Having fun and playing games with students is easy. Teaching in a manner that sees meaningful improvement is not easy. ‘Well, that’s the students fault! They are lazy!’ cry the moaners. ‘Language improvement only comes through your own efforts! A teacher can’t just insert English into a student’s head!’ say those who get despondent at the lack of progress. Well, yes, there is truth in those claims, particularly the latter, but a teacher’s job is more than just to impart knowledge. It is also to motivate and to create a desire to learn. It is to encourage the autonomous learning techniques that are required for real improvement to be made. That is not easy.

I complain about my students. ‘Why don’t they get it?’, ‘They must be actively trying not to understand!’, ‘How on earth can they still not know when to use the verb “to be”?’ But do you know what? Almost every time that I come out of class cursing and moaning and feeling depressed at the futility of my efforts I can later look back and reflect that my frustrations are as much of my own causing as they are of my students. There is always room for improvement in my lessons. Can teaching eikaiwa be easy? Well, yes, it can if you want it to be and don’t particularly care. To be a good, effective teacher, however, takes a lot of time and practice.

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6 Responses to Missed Opportunity

  1. Being a good effective teacher takes time and practice no matter what subject. I think too many become teachers because in their eyes it is an easy job. It is my hope that every student gets that one teacher that turns their world on end and makes a difference.

  2. Jen says:

    Excellet analysis.

    However, I have been looking for an eikaiwa thy could teach my kids to read using phonics but have had no luck. Do you know of any that do?

  3. Turner says:

    I liked this chapter, and it’s spot on; I’ve had several teacher roundtables in Korea and Japan, nearly all of which resulted in us complaining about the abilities of our students. But, as we were all one-year teachers, we didn’t feel like we had the responsibility to fix the system. What do you think about JET or another program hiring an adequate number of teachers so every high school student can have at least a consistent teacher over those three years? That is, only bring them in to teach the first year of high school and ensure they stay on to that year’s graduation?

    • It’s a nice idea but I think it would be pretty hard to ‘ensure’ they stay. Some will leave no matter what. The other problem is that the way the current system is set up, students have no real need to speak English at school – they simply have to be able to pass the entrance exams and, whether you agree with the system or not, that is pretty much how the Japanese teachers have to teach. They know the exam system much better than the native English teachers and unless that system changes they are not going to give more power to the ALTs. Some schools do, of course, try and include the ALTs much more than others but it is still mostly form over function and get them through the exams that are paramount. It’s not really the Japanese teachers’ fault – I just think that the Ministry of Education is somewhat lost with regard to English education and doesn’t really know what to do, or risk trying a different approach.

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