Daniel Hughes: English Teaching at Ohara Gakuin Elementary School

Recently in B class, we have been discussing the recent changes to English education in Japan made by the Ministry of Education that dictate basic conversation and pronunciation will be taught starting from third grade instead of from fifth or sixth grade. Over the course of eight weeks I spent volunteering at Ohara Gakuin Elementary School, I was able to experience firsthand the effects this change has had on Japanese schoolchildren. Once a week, I worked alongside the teachers of Ohara Gakuin to teach basic English to students ranging from first to eight grade, and what I noticed was that when it comes to pronunciation and very basic grammar structures, the younger students who have grown up in the new system of teaching have a far better understanding than the older students.
The first week I visited Ohara Gakuin, I worked with first and second grade students whose pronunciation was astoundingly good. After spending a good deal of time with these students both in the classroom and during lunchtime, I enjoyed their enthusiasm for learning English and got to know them all very well. They were able to introduce themselves with basic English phrases such as “My name is…” and “My favorite color is…” and if I spoke slowly and carefully enough without using English grammar that was too complex, they were able to understand me without much help from the other teachers. We played games, sang songs, and from time to time I would read children’s picture books to them, which I was very surprised to learn they could nearly read themselves. Needless to say, the first and second graders of Ohara Gakuin are well on their way to becoming fluent in English if they continue learning the way they are currently. The older students, however, were a far different story.
After having spent the first week teaching the advanced first and second graders, I had expected the other grades to be of similarly advanced ability. However, before teaching the sixth and seventh graders in my second week, the Ohara teachers silently warned me that these students were not as quick to understand English as the younger students were. Having heard this, I expected the upperclassmen to have little to no proficiency in English, and so I was pleasantly surprised when I found them to be on par with what I would consider a normal level of ability for a middle school student. Like the first and second graders, they were able to introduce themselves fairly well and would even ask me questions like, “Can you swim?” and “Why did you come to Japan?” For the most part, they were able to understand my responses and were even able to ask well thought out follow-up questions. Having experienced this in the first few minutes of class, I wondered why the other teachers had told me these students were not necessarily as far along in their English learning as the younger students. However, once class started and I began using slightly more advanced English, the problems became very apparent to me.
Unlike the first and second graders, the upperclassmen had very little confidence when it came to pronunciation and sentence structure. At first I chalked it up to general middle-schooler malaise, and while that was certainly a part of it, it eventually became clear that the older students suffered in their English learning because of the drastically different teaching methods with which they had been taught. For example, whereas the first and second graders had the privilege of learning from a native English speaker three days out of the week as well as listening watching English movies and listening to English songs everyday, when the older students were in first and second grade they had only one day of hearing native English pronunciation, and rarely, if ever, watched movies or listened to songs. In my opinion, not being able to hear a native voice contributed to their lack of confidence when it comes to pronunciation, and their lack of interest in the continued study of English.
I fully accept the possibility that the younger students are more interested in learning the language simply because they are younger and full of much more energy than the middle-school age students, but I do think that the change in teaching methods greatly contributed to the change in English ability. The first and second graders have grown up learning English every day in school, and are greatly encouraged by the Ohara Gakuin teachers to use it as often as they can in their every day life. The older students had a different, less intense experience learning the language, and so are less inclined to put forth their best effort when it comes to being able to English. Whether or not any of this is actually true is something I can’t really prove, but if nothing else my experience at Ohara Gakuin has made me think that immersing students in English from a young age is the best way to teach it.
Observations aside, I had a great time teaching English at Ohara Gakuin Elementary School, and was sad to leave on my last day. I was, however, very happy to receive a lovely “thank you” poster from the younger students, whose well wishes and grateful goodbyes made it clear to me that I definitely want to become an English teacher in Japan. For any future KCJS students who are interested in English teaching, I cannot recommend Ohara Gakuin enough, and encourage you to spend your semester getting to know the lovely teachers and students of Ohara. As I left the school on my last day, “thank you” poster in hand, I had no doubt that I had become part of their community if only for a short while.

2 thoughts on “Daniel Hughes: English Teaching at Ohara Gakuin Elementary School

  1. Hey Dan– thank you for sharing your reflections on your experience volunteering at Ohara Gakuin Elementary School! As someone who would also love to teach English in Japan at some point in the future, I found your observations interesting and positive remarks on the recent English education changes hopeful! Regarding your time spent with older students, what kinds of activities do you think they found most engaging? I am also curious, what are your thoughts on how teachers currently (and/or could) cover lost ground with older students who did not learn under and benefit from the recent changes? Thanks for sharing again, Dan!

  2. Hey Morgan, thank you for taking the time to read and commenting on my post. I appreciate your kind words, and am glad that you were able to glean something from my experience!

    As for the older students, I’m not entirely sure what they would find to be most engaging. It was interesting with the younger students. Since they were so used to hearing English via movies, television, and music, they were up for most anything I suggested to them in terms of an English speaking game or lesson. (This may also be because they were all younger than 10 years old, and who doesn’t love a good game in school, right?)

    That being said, I did notice that most of the older students were far more excited to learn English if I suggested some sort of game. Usually it was an English-oriented version of “Red Light Green Light,” or “Simon Says,” and they were happy to participate. Again, I could chalk this up to the fact that any kid would jump at the chance to play a game during class time, but I think it’s a little more than that. Compared to just standing in front of the classroom and having them recited sentence after sentence, having them play games made them quicker on their feet, and more ready to respond to harder, more complex questions. Students are students, I think, and most students are going to be more apt to learn if they’re having fun while doing it. But that’s pretty par for the course as far as teaching goes, I think.

    As for covering lost ground, that’s a really interesting question, and one that teachers all over Japan are going to have to figure out sooner rather than later. Like I said in my post, it’s fantastic that these kids are starting to learn English younger and younger, but the inevitable problem is the gap it creates between the younger kids and the older kids who didn’t have this type of teaching as they went through the elementary grades.

    The younger kids, I think, are going to have no problem mastering the English language if they put the time and practice into it. The older kids, however, were 1.) Not raised with this teaching program, and 2.) Don’t really feel the need to learn English to the extent that the school is teaching it. I think the best thing that can be done about this is to really focus on specific, conversational English with the older kids.

    But then, I’m not very sure. Like any language, the students get out only as much as they put in, so a big question is how to motivate them to want to learn English. And unfortunately that’s a way bigger question than I think I can answer.

    Thanks again for reading!