Problems with the Use of ALTs for English Teaching in Japanese Elementary Schools


Chie Ohtani, Tamagawa University

English education is always a topic of discussion in Japan. However, since the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT) will make English education activities compulsory at Japanese public elementary schools beginning in 2011, the topic of English education has become an even more popular and controversial.

In 2002, the MEXT released the Rainbow Plan as the educational reform plan for the 21st century. The purpose of the Rainbow Plan is to establish a system in which Japanese students would become functional in English within a five years period. In preparation, many Japanese schools have been working hard since 2002 to establish new systems, develop curricula, and acquire human resources to accommodate the educational reform plan.

Pushed by the Rainbow Plan, more than 97% of public elementary schools have already started English activities through the integrated study class Sougouteki-na Gakusyu-no-jikan
in 2007. Currently the purpose of English education activities in elementary schools is to increase ginternational understanding.h Therefore native English speaking Assistant Language Teachers (ALTs) are dispatched to public elementary schools by local governments to assist in these activities. The MEXT promotes utilizing ALTs and over 80% of English activity periods at elementary schools used ALTs (MEXT, 2008).

However, despite the fact that ALTs are valued as integral to MEXTfs educational reform, many ALTs report that they have been isolated or excluded from lesson planning because of poor communication and the lack of input from Japanese teachers. Furthermore, many Japanese teachers have found problems team teaching with ALTs because they feel that some ALTs are not really interested in teaching. Clearly there are a number of problems with the current ALT system that need to be addressed.

ALT issues are often discussed in English Education or Team Teaching studies, but this study focuses on the ALT system and the reality of using ALTs at Japanese schools. In addition, this study focuses on the JET (Japan Exchange and Teaching) program because the JET program has originally started the ALT system (supported by local authorities in cooperation with the council of local authorities for international relations and three governmental ministries since 1987). In concrete terms, this study examines ALT qualifications, the training system, and the role expectations in the JET program. In addition to the close examination of the JET program and ALT system, this study also examines
@ cultural sensitivity at elementary schools in order to critically analyze English activity at elementary schools from the point of international understanding and cross-cultural understanding.

Data for this study were based on secondary surveys of ALTs and on in-depth interviews and e-mail exchanges conducted by this researcher with JET ALTs and Non-JET ALTs (ALTs not hired from the JET program) from February to March in 2009.

The data suggest critical problems with how ALTs are utilized. First, the JET program does not require any educational teaching experience or qualifications for their ALT eligibility criteria. For less experienced ALTs there is only one staff development training for team teaching. Another systemic problem is an inconsistency between the JET program schedule and the school calendar. In addition, contradictions between the expected role of the ALT and the reality of the situation at schools are found. As for the Japanese school site problems, ALT teachers tend to feel isolated at school because many teachers are not willing to work with ALTs because of the language barrier. The low level of English/Japanese communication skills only allows for minimum, simple communication that tends to cause misunderstanding and isolation of ALT teachers. Consequently, many lessons are conducted without sufficient communication between Japanese teacher(s) and an ALT teacher. This lack of English communication skill affects the content and structure of English educational activities in the classroom. I contend that unless these problems are addressed, the quality of English activities in the classroom will suffer at the expense of the children and schools who have high expectations to be functional English speakers.