How Can Teachers Develop the Productive Skills of Japanese Junior High School Students
Change is coming to the way that English is taught in Japanese public schools. The changes to the curriculum by the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science, and Technology (MEXT) increase the teaching of English at all levels of schooling. The goal of this change is, in the words of Ikuko Tsuboya-Newel, founder and chair of Tokyo International School, “The government has decided that beginning in 2020 all high school graduates must achieve a level of English equivalent to B1” (“Why do Japanese have trouble learning English?”, The Japan Times, October 29, 2017). To achieve that goal, high school entrance exams are expected to include more testing of productive skills in English. Therefore, junior high school students are expected to have these skills before entering high school — even though Japanese students lack the Roman alphabet and that instruction in writing does not begin until the fifth or sixth grade level (with MEXT’s recent curriculum changes).
This post was written by our TEFL certification graduate Sarah C. Please note that this blog post might not necessarily represent the beliefs or opinions of ITTT.
Ways to work with the Japanese students
So, what can teachers do to help Japanese students practice and develop productive English skills? I will describe a speaking activity and a writing activity that I have used in a public junior high school in rural Japan to develop students’ speaking and writing skills. The activities are intended to be used during the Activate stage of a lesson.
Giving speeches in Japanese is a significant part of the culture — at special events and even casual parties, the expectation is that everyone will say a few words reflecting on the occasion. Students already study the construction and performance of speeches in Japanese. They also often study and are exposed to a Western-inspired form of speech and debate in Japanese (Narahiku Inoue, “Traditions of ‘Debate’ in Japan”); however, this often greatly differs from American ideas of “debate.” First, students are given time to consider a topic such as “Your best memory from the school year” or “Your dreams of the future.” With the topic in mind, students can select and practice vocabulary that personally interests them and reflects their own lives. For example, lower level second-year students chose words including “electrician,” “fashion designer,” and “nursery school teacher,” and were motivated to learn how to say these words because those are future careers they want.
Atmosphere and Classroom Environment
Even if students have many experiences in common, they often have different feelings and unique perspectives on these shared experiences. For example, many first-year students gave speeches about the school sports day (for the topic “Your best memory from the school year”). One student said, “I am not good at running, but I tried to run in the relay race,” while another said, “I like dancing, so I enjoyed the girls’ dance.” These are very different ideas and experiences of the same event.
During speeches, rather than passively listening (and, perhaps, falling asleep), I always ask the other students to provide some form of feedback. With lower-level students, simply grading the other students’ speeches on things like “attitude” and “volume” creates an interactive communication experience. Third-year students are asked to summarize the contents of a speech as well as give written feedback to the speaker, and can even be asked to pose unscripted, clarifying questions to the speaker. The overall activity is intended to mirror both speaking that students do in their mother tongue and a form of speaking (speech giving) that is culturally significant to them while allowing them to develop accuracy skills in spoken English.
My students move from writing only single English words and phrases in the Roman alphabet during elementary school to writing full sentences in junior high school. And within the three years of junior high school, they will be expected to be able to write well enough in English to pass written entrance exams for high school. For students whose native language is not written in the Roman alphabet, this is an understandably large step. Rather than teach to the test, my most successful writing project has been a modified letter-writing campaign. With prompts like “What is your favorite season? Why?” for first-year junior high students and “How can I prepare for my first winter in Japan?” for third-year junior high students, I encourage students to practice skills they may use in essay writing or business emails, such as presenting a logical argument and offering advice. These assignments are given as in-class work, where students have the opportunity to use dictionaries and ask for help and continued as homework.
Giving a feedback
Most importantly I think, I write individual responses to every student at their reading level. These assignments have more than a 90-percent completion rate from students, and, while students don’t like receiving new assignments, they become very excited to get their finished work returned. Most importantly, their writing in graded assignments and evaluations also improves on the language used in the letter-writing — even if it just means that students try to write instead of leaving blanks.
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In conclusion, teaching the productive skills of reading and writing in a Japanese classroom has and will become increasingly important. It is a government mandate, but it is also a global necessity. Using what is culturally and personally significant to students, however, can motivate them to practice and develop these skills in the classroom.
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