Japanese 3rd-graders to learn English from 2020

Education minister Hakubun Shimomura said Friday that English will be a formal subject for fifth- and sixth-year students at primary schools starting in the 2020 academic year.

The education, culture, sports, science and technology minister announced at a press conference held after the Cabinet meeting his ministry's plan to reform English education in Japan that includes English classes taught only in English at middle schools.

The ministry already introduced English-only classes at high schools in April, but decided to include middle schools so students can better acquire practical English skills.

To reinforce preparations on the teaching side, the ministry plans to set up a system to regularly make available prefectural data on English language skills of teachers at middle and high schools, by utilizing external tests such as the Test in Practical English Proficiency (Eiken) as evaluation standards.

Discussions on these plans by the ministry's expert panel are scheduled to start early next year.

The ministry decided to start English classes at primary schools from the third year, instead of the fifth, starting in the 2020 academic year, and to make English classes for fifth- and sixth-year students into regular classes with evaluations.

As primary school children are expected to acquire basic reading and writing skills, as well as part of the contents of middle school English classes, the ministry judged that they would be ready for English classes in English only from middle school.

The official curriculum guidelines will be reviewed toward this end, with the addition of some high school level content to the middle school English education curriculum.

Given that middle school students are generally capable of basic conversation and exchange of information in English, regarding topics in newspapers and on TV, the new goal will be raised from "Eiken Grade 3" to "Eiken Grade Pre-2."

At high schools, students will learn advanced English through such activities as presentations and discussions about topical issues and articles in English newspapers.

To improve the instruction ability of teachers, the ministry plans to regularly release information on the English skills of teachers for each prefecture, such as the percentage of teachers who acquire Eiken Pre-1 or 1 grades. This measure is expected to prompt teachers to take the Eiken Grade Pre-1 test or TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) to obtain a certain level.

Among other measures, the ministry will increase the number of native English assistant language teachers (ALTs), and a special certificate will be issued to allow people with advanced English language skills to teach at primary schools.

Details of the reform plan will be worked out by the ministry's expert panel and the Central Council for Education. By implementing the reform policies in advance in phases, the ministry aims to have all related measures introduced by the 2020 academic year.