Editor’s Note: This is the first of a two-part series exploring how the most recent reforms to Japan’s English education guidelines will change how English is taught in the classroom, and what it could mean to ALTs. Part 2 will be published in around three weeks. Please leave any questions or comments you may have in the comments section so that they can be addressed in the second part. Thanks!
By Matt Nelson
Every year there seems to be questions about what ALTs are actually required to teach. While it’s easy to say “Our goal is to teach students English and share different cultures,” what this entails and especially what is expected of teachers is the great unknown.
In 2008 and 2009, the Japanese government approved some new education guidelines that could affect the way English is taught from kindergarten through 12th grade. Exactly how this reform will take shape in each school is unclear from a mere glance at the outline of the new guidelines. However, by taking a look at some of the government’s graphs, it is possible to get a general sense for how foreign language education will change.
I’d like to show you some of these graphs and talk about what they might mean to you.
A note before we begin: I personally did the translations in the text and on the diagrams, so they may not match how the government will translate or has translated its own documents. I modified some aspects of the diagrams for clarity and aesthetics. Some of the English wording used may seem awkward because the Japanese wording itself was unclear; I used personal inference only when necessary.
All these guidelines and graphs come from the homepage for MEXT, Japan’s Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (文部科学省・もんぶかがくしょう). MEXT is the government body that sets national guidelines for education, especially at primary and secondary levels, and determines what can, and often what cannot, be taught in schools. Generally speaking, the textbooks we use in our schools must be approved by MEXT, and classes and curriculum are dictated and/or recommended by MEXT. In short, they set guidelines that local boards of education, school administrators and teachers interpret. Ultimately, the ways in which MEXT’s guidelines shape the curriculum in each school will vary.
The most recent education reform was made public in 2008, followed by some updates in 2009, when MEXT announced a “New Reform of Education Guidelines” (or 新学習指導要領・しんがくしゅうしどうようりょう, literally the “New [Government Approved] Education Guidelines”). So what exactly are the reforms? Good question; difficult answer. Ask your co-workers what they are — a really clear and definitive answer would be surprising. There are several handouts on the MEXT website giving exhausting details, if you feel up to reading through hundreds of pages of Japanese PDFs.
There is an English translation of the general outline for junior high schools, but, unfortunately, the guidelines for senior high schools have not been made available in English (yet). To date, there is not much written about the new guidelines in English, at least not on the Internet, and MEXT hasn’t released English titles for most documents — so the titles are open to interpretational nuances.
Some of the most drastic reforms announced by MEXT were in the foreign/English language field. These reforms are to be carried out from 2009 to 2013 and beyond. Diagram 1 indicates changes mainly in the organization of required and recommended elective classes, as well as the focus of those classes. These changes will affect every level from kindergarten through high school.
(Click to enlarge)
Next, here is an English mock-up of two more diagrams that can be found in the Japanese language guidelines. (They are both from this PDF: SHS Data Correlations関連資料.) Diagram 2 shows the flow of current class titles and their focus into a new system that does not separate reading and writing as much as the current system. Also, while the number of classes appears to increase, the number of different class types decreases.
Diagram 3 compares the amount of vocabulary students are expected to have studied (at a minimum — many schools currently require more) after completing each level of school. Although these diagrams pertain mostly to changes in senior high school, this diagram gives an overview of the expectations for the entire secondary system, referenced by a countable thing: vocabulary.
Last, Diagram 4 shows how many class hours are expected for each type of class. The overall time spent per week is still 21 hours. Subject, or class, titles are given in Japanese and approximated English. Certain classes are required in all senior high schools, but other classes will vary from school to school. Some schools, especially those with specialized or advanced courses, veer from the recommended pattern for upper-level elective classes, either offering specialized classes or omitting classes altogether. This is especially true in second- and third-year classes because current guidelines call for ambiguous classes such as “Writing” and “Reading.”
In my next article, I’ll take an in-depth look at the specific goals of English education and each class according to the guidelines sent out by MEXT. If you wish, you may view the current or new guidelines in entirety for yourself using the following links.