How is English Taught in Elementary Schools in Japan?

  • Education at elementary level provides a basic foundation of learning. It is when children are trained to acquire the basic knowledge and ability to survive a competitive society, which includes language skills and development. Learning English as a second language is increasing due to the demand of globalization. The English language is considered the universal language – the language of the business world and the language of the internet.

    Japan is one of many non-English speaking countries which are slowly transforming its younger generation to become globally competitive by learning the English language. With the added pressure of the upcoming 2020 Olympics, which will be held in Tokyo, more improvements in the English language curriculum are being made by the government to address the need to communicate in English. However, there are many negative opinions in Japan, regarding whether or not the English language is effective. Also, despite many years learning English, many still not be able to use the language effectively.

    Therefore, let us take a look at the Japanese public elementary English educational system and see what they are doing well and what areas may need improvement.


    At present, English in elementary is officially taught at the start of the fifth grade. Fifth graders and sixth graders learn English, not as an official subject, but as foreign (language and culture) activities (gaikokugokatsudo). Some schools, however, have the option to start English from the lower grades (first grade to fourth grade) but not as often as the fifth and sixth graders. The maximum number of students in a class is forty.


    Although there are some Japanese teachers who can speak English well, many of them have a hard time using the language and most of them have zero English expertise. It is here where the help of English-speaking foreigners is greatly needed. Assistant Language Teachers (ALTs) work hand in hand with the Japanese teacher of English (JTE) in the delivery of English education to students.


    Unlike most other subjects which are taught on a daily basis, English is not. It is held only once a week for fifth and sixth graders, and once a month or less in lower grades (in those schools which opt to start English in the first grade). The duration of each lesson is around 40-45 minutes.


    Elementary English in Japan is very basic since it is the students’ first encounter with English, except for those who can afford to have private English lessons. Its primary goal is to develop listening and speaking, and very minimal (if not none) on reading and writing. Fifth graders learn basic greetings, self-introduction, counting (1-20), likes and dislikes on fruit, animals, sport, colors and shapes; uppercase alphabet, common things found around the school, days, subject names, and ordering food and beverage. Sixth graders, on the other hand, learn the lowercase alphabet, animals, counting up to 100, basic verbs, directions and names of buildings, countries, telling time, and occupation.


    Elementary students use glossy and colourful workbooks with instructions written in Japanese. Big schools have electronic blackboards where the workbook CD is installed. For small schools, a laptop and a projector or a big flat-screen TV is used instead. Almost everything is provided by the school, like colored laminated flashcards, games activities, and other teaching materials. There is usually a large classroom dedicated to the English class. Basically, when it comes to resources, everything is great about teaching English in Japan.

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