Matthew's Classroom

I have been teaching English to kids in Japan for more than 20 years: public elementary schools in Tokyo for 11 years, and Hello Kids Komazawa for the last 9. For 3 years I have been teaching weekly lessons to students at Tsutsujigaoka Kindergarten. As I tend to stay at the same workplace for a long time, I've been able to see the long-term results of my work. Being able to really see children's English communication ability grow has been very rewarding. I mainly use APRICOT materials in my classroom. They best suit my goal of having students use as much English as possible while developing confidence and self-esteem. I enjoy teaching development, and I love discussing English education with other teachers!

    It’s late March. A new school year is just around the corner.
    As a teacher, I rarely give thought to my counterparts working away in the public junior high education system. We are “counterparts” in name only: “teachers”. But our work couldn’t be more different.
    They teach English as a system to memorize for the purpose of passing tests, I teach English for the purpose of communication.
    They teach English by and large in Japanese, I teach English in English.
    My approach takes students’ self-esteem into deep consideration, their approach does not.
    They give feedback to students’ efforts in the form of noughts and crosses on answer sheets, I give students the opportunity to self-correct problem areas, and all effort is good effort.
    I take care to have my students feel success with English by having them actually use it, my junior high counterparts don’t.
    And I’ll be frank; not only do I feel so very little in common with public junior English teachers, I often feel that much of their work goes against what I’m trying to achieve with my students.
    Dwelling on our un-relationship is not productive for me so I don’t. However my students do on occasion bring our differences to my unwanted attention – especially when they discuss their tests and test scores. Consider the following end-of-term English “speaking test” as described to me by one of my 1st grade students…
    In a one-on-one setting, a native-English teacher asked students a series of questions each of which were unrelated and to which there was no context. The questions were given in advance, and students were told previously they would be asked these very questions in the very same order. Students were required to memorize and produce the answers. Questions included “When is your birthday?” and “Which do you prefer, coffee or tea?”
    During the test, if the student answered anything less than the memorized answer, it was considered incorrect. For example if the students answered “Tea” instead of “I prefer tea”, it was marked as incorrect. Similarly, if students answered “November 15th” or even “My birthday is November 15th” instead of “My birthday is on November 15th”, it was marked as incorrect. A total score out of 10 was calculated.
    Now OK, I haven’t met or talked with the teachers who designed and conducted this test so I cannot know their thinking behind it. But I must say that I have some serious qualms about this test, particularly as it relates directly to students’ assessment of their speaking ability.
    You would imagine that a “speaking test” would have some element of communication to it, but there was none here as the questions and their order were pre-given. The Monbukagakusho guideline of English education stipulates that its purpose is communication.
    My student communicates in English well, but he spent valuable time before the test memorizing the petty detail to the answers his teacher wanted to hear. In the end, he lost a point because he forgot the word “on” in his birthday answer. (Incidentally, omitting “on” is NOT incorrect because “on” is only required when referring to something like a “meeting” or “appointment” which has a starting time and a finishing time: “My appointment is on November 15th.” Birthdays last the whole day so “on” is irrelevant. “My birthday is November 15th” is entirely acceptable.)
    English tests like the one described here send a totally unhelpful message to our students. Instead of being a valuable and important tool for learning about others and sharing one’s ideas, English becomes a process of accurate recitation, of form over content, and the slightest technical error costs you marks. With English education like this, it’s no wonder that Japanese communication ability in English is low compared to nearly all countries where English is a foreign language.
    It’s late March, and a new school year is just around the corner. So I call on my counterparts in the field of public education; instead of working against each other, let’s work more closely together. Let’s meet up with other English teachers in the community, join their teacher-development meetings and study groups. Let’s share perspectives on our students, their future and on the role of the English language within it. We are all teachers but currently we are doing disservice to our students and our profession. I believe that with cooperation we can work for our students more efficiently and effectively.
    Hopefully too I may be able to have a conversation with my students about their school English education without cringing!

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