No-frills English pays off in Japan

I DON'T like debate class, but I think it is very important,” a first-year high school student said in faltering English. Asked by an assistant language teacher (ALT) why she thought so during a recent debate class at Maibara High School in Maiharacho, northern Shiga Prefecture, she replied immediately, “It is very difficult but we can learn a lot of vocabulary.”  

Although the conversations were simple, students stated their opinions in English without any hesitation. “It is the fruit of having the debate class twice a week since April last year,” said Kenji Yamaoka, a Japanese teacher of English at the school.  

Located in a quiet, rural area, the prefectural government-run high school has been designated as one of 16 Super English Language High (SELHi) schools that the Education, Science and Technology Ministry selected from 57 applicant schools.  

Since April last year, the SELHi schools have been trying various innovative teaching methods and tools on a trial basis, not only to nurture fluent English speakers but also to develop a new teaching model of English education.  

Yamaoka said what has been done at Maibara is rather simple compared with some other designated schools, which have introduced the Internet or have sent students overseas for certain periods before starting to teach all subjects in English.  

“Our school still does not have a language laboratory where students can have access to computers,” he said. “But I believe the reason why we were selected as a SELHi is that the ministry approved of our enthusiasm for changing English education by making simple efforts possible and applicable at any high school in the nation,” he added.  

SPEAKING UP: Japanese students are encouraged to speak during English classes through debates in a pilot project to improve students' proficiency in the language.

Since 70% of students at Maibara aim to enter government-run universities, the school formerly put more emphasis on entrance exam preparations.  

However, the policy was changed to nurture more communicative skills in English. The school has tried several new methods in English studies with the aim of comprehensively nurturing the four basic English skills--writing, reading, speaking and listening.  

Maibara's goal as a SELHi school is to foster those four skills and to motivate students to express themselves through communicative learning. Thirty-five first-year students are serving as guinea pigs, taking seven hours a week of English classes, two hours more than students in the regular course.  

The debate class, which The Daily Yomiuri observed one morning, gives students the opportunity to acquire the targeted skills.  

During class, students exchanged opinions on effective methods they have applied to improve their English ability in group discussions.  

“They are just beginning to be able to speak what they think in English,” Yamaoka said.  

Kerry Donny-Clark, one of two ALTs at the school, said, “They still do not have the skills to make an argument, but I think their ability to think critically and creatively has increased .”  

“Since Maibara is surrounded by mountains and there are not many stimuli for students, it is very difficult to keep up their motivation to study English,” Yamaoka said.  

The teachers, therefore, help the students set successive goals. Speech and recitation contests at least three times a year are part of those efforts. Winners of the contests at the school can take part in larger contests.  

Inviting specialists, not only of English but also in other fields, is the most exciting part for students although it is limited to a few times a year.  

In January, the school invited Kumiko Torikai, a professor of Rikkyo University who is a simultaneous interpreter. The teachers asked her to observe their English classes to let her understand the policy and activities of Maibara. Torikai spent 10 hours conversing with students during the two-day visit.  

Apart from speaking with ALTs in regular classes, the Maibara students experience an “English shower” during overnight English camps at the school's facility twice a year, and a weeklong intensive course at the Japan Centre for Michigan Universities in Hikone, Shiga Prefecture, in September.  

ALTs teaching in the prefecture voluntarily participated in the camps, at which the students speak only in English. Although the ability of students in the programme was similar to that of their counterparts in regular courses when they entered the school, the assiduous efforts made by the students and their teachers through the various events have resulted in raising their average English scores in examinations. Shiori Igeta, a second-year student who won a prize at a recitation contest, said she had never missed a daily NHK radio programme since she began listening to it during her summer vacation as a first-year student. “Now I am able to pronounce any English word by reading phonetic symbols,” she said.  

The English teachers have made efforts to brush up their teaching skills by receiving advice from four university professors specialising in English-language education who visited their classrooms.  

“The teachers at Maibara have been doing a good job although I have made many requests of them,” said Eiji Saito, one of the four professors visiting Maibara almost every week.  

Saito, dean of Kansai University's graduate school of foreign-language education and research, believes that it is the fault of teachers if students lack certain skills in English. He told Maibara teachers that it was imperative for students to hammer down the structural patterns by memorising texts if they wanted to nurture skills for communicative English.  

Saito also found a big difference in speaking abilities between first- and second-year students during debate classes. The second-year students learned to present their ideas more fluently using the structural patterns, he said.  

He also praised the Maibara teachers who welcomed visitors to watch their class activities. The school welcomed observers, including teachers from other schools, to their English classes at least 15 times this year.  

The teacher said their remaining tasks are to give students a firmer grounding in English in an attempt to enable them to speak about more complex and profound subjects.  

Their final goal is for the students to score at least 650 points on the Test of English for International Communication as well as to acquire the ability to collect information on social issues and to think deeply about issues by the time they graduate from high school. – The Yomiuri Shimbun/ Asia News Network 

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