The Problems That Japanese Elementary Schoolers Face Studying English
In the wake of the upcoming 2020 Olympics in Japan, there has been an increase in elementary school level English classes. As an assistant language teacher half into my fourth year, I have had the rare chance to work the entirety of my time in one elementary school where I have had many great memories. However, being present every day I began to notice that some students were struggling or in some cases, not even trying when it came to English class. Talking with my peers and colleagues from other elementary schools as well as my own, there are some common problems that many students seem to experience in an English class. These problems include learning in a counter-productive environment, inconsistent exposure to the language, and a lack of progression that leads to a disinterest in learning not just a foreign language but learning in general.
This post was written by our TEFL certification graduate Gabriel B. Please note that this blog post might not necessarily represent the beliefs or opinions of ITTT.
Lack of Interest and Engagement
Some elementary school students appear underwhelmed during English classes, to a point where they “check out.” For instance, during my first year as an assistant during a fifth-grade lesson, despite having a native language speaker in the room with them, were not interested. Some had a severe case of the wandering eyes or looking for ways to entertain themselves while the homeroom teacher tries to get them to repeat new vocabulary. The teacher slightly flustered and nervous reprimanded that not paying attention, which further case the classroom air to be tense. It seemed clear that some of the students were bored, didn’t care, and perhaps didn’t have the best relationship with their teacher. No attempts to ease any of these issues led to an awkward atmosphere that was not conducive to motivating the students. Students should feel motivated or have at least some sort of interest in the class, and with a pleasant environment could be achieved. Learning language can be abstract and complex and it may be difficult to motivate students. Especially English, which can appear daunting and overwhelming and even intimidating.
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Another problem these students face is inconsistent and lack of exposure to the language. Currently, English classes at the elementary level are not necessarily graded so they tend to be pushed to the side in favor of other courses. Therefore, it isn’t too surprising to have classes frequently canceled, postponed or awkwardly scheduled. The latter meaning that an English class may be scheduled twice a week, but will be unbalanced. For example, classes may be scheduled on Monday and Tuesday or even for two periods in one day, leaving the rest of the week exposure free. Also, homework is not typically given to the students either furthering their potential to familiarize themselves or retain the information they were thought.
However, most importantly, exposure to the language is limited during the class itself. Many Japanese teachers use Japanese to teach English. Meaning that instructions and commands are given without any simple English and Easy commands and praise are typically given only Japanese. Students are also permitted to use the Japanese to complete their tasks or to participate in an activity. They may be able to reproduce the language at the moment, but won’t be able to retain in further down the line.
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The Difficulty of Tracking Students’ Progress
Unless a student is particularly self-motivated or encourages by their parents, it seems practically impossible to see the progression in foreign language learning at the elementary school level. Not every student will have the opportunity for supplemental study. These students may recognize a lack of progression end up discouraged, or lose any general interest in learning a language or learning in general.
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Ways to Solve the Problems
So, what can be done to help minimalize these issues at the elementary school level? Perhaps, a beginner certification course similar to a TEFL course that is designed for Japanese elementary school teachers would help. Even as an assistant language teacher here in Japan, I try to share the tools and tips that I learned through the TEFL certification course with my homeroom teachers. For example, I try to explain how important the role a textbook can play in learning when to let students explore and learn with each other, and to always encourage the students and build up their self-esteem. It only seems fair to share the information learned with teachers to conduct a successful English lesson that will be beneficial to the students, allowing them a chance to learn, retain, and feel good about studying the language.
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Of course, not that every elementary school student faces these problems, nor is every teacher teaching in such a manner to have these issues occur. So, the question is why? Even though English study at this level has been implemented at the elementary school level, unlike at the middle school and high school levels, elementary school teachers are not required to study or be certified to teach English. Perhaps with crash courses or some sort of the program, when it becomes English becomes a mandatory and graded subject, and elementary school teachers will be provided with the proper tools to teach English as a foreign language, and help minimize the problems that Elementary students face.
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