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A Follow-up to the 2002 Language Teacher article: “Training Japanese Elementary School Teachers to Teach English”


WRITTEN BY: Curtis Kelly     ADDED: Feb 19, 2009


Dr. Curtis Kelly, a 30-year resident of Japan, is a Professor of English at Kansai University.  He has published seventeen books, including Significant Scribbles (Pearson), Writing from Within (Cambridge), and Active Skills for Communication (Cengage). He led a Ministry of Education-funded research project to design an e-learning system to train elementary school teachers how to teach English to children.  He also trains college students how to teach English to children and has set up numerous cooperative programs between universities and elementary schools.




 In 2002, tens of thousands of Japanese elementary school teachers were assigned to teach English. Most had no training in language teaching and were desperate for ideas. More recently, the Japanese government legislated that English will officially be added to the curriculum in 2011, to also be taught by homeroom teachers. Although their overall knowledge of English instruction has improved since 2002, they still need training.  The paper starts by examining the situation and then proposing a three-part means of satisfying the nationwide teacher training deficit: 1) a review of the literature, 2) an assessment of self-perceived and predicted training needs, and 3) development of a Web-based training site to satisfy those needs.


The Situation


After decades of complaints about the poor quality of public education in Japan (Yomiuri, 2000), especially in relation to English (Mulvey 2001, July), the Japanese Ministry of Education has begun what they claim is their greatest reform since the end of the World War Two (Kelly, 1998; Monbukagakusho - Ministry of Education 2001; Simmons, Yonally et al. 1995). One of the most important changes, following similar moves in Korea and Taiwan, is the addition of English to elementary curriculum. The first move to adding English occurred in 2002.  The Ministry did not really specify that English be taught; they merely the opportunity by adding “The Period of Integrated Studies” (Gakushutekina Jikan).  Some schools decided to use this period for Environmental studies, Korean, or other languages, but the vast majority used it for English instruction (Monbukagakusho - Ministry of Education 2001).  By 2004, 90% of the elementary schools had English instruction of some sort.

Since then, the Ministry has decided to make English instruction an official part of the curriculum from 2011 (Mizuno, 2009).  Fifth and sixth graders will be taught English, but as “English activities,” not “English study.”  In other words, as is true with the current system, the emphasis will be placed on internationalism and language awareness rather than language proficiency. The Ministry does not require schools to use English experts to teach the classes.  Although some will almost certainly be hired independently by the schools, most of the classes will probably be assigned to homeroom teachers.

The policy changes in 2002 created a dilemma for elementary school administrators. Due to the strict licensing and hiring system for elementary school teachers in Japan, very few of Japan’s currently employed 416,000 elementary teachers had training in how to teach English (Monbukagakusho, 1999, p. 150). Thus, all across Japan, tens of thousands of elementary school teachers, who were informed that they had to teach English in 2002, were in a quandary as to how to proceed.  Since then, many have worked out their own curricula, often borrowing from the Ministry-designated designated pilot schools, and using the Practical Handbook for Elementary School English Activities (Shogakko Eigo katsudo jissen no tebiki; Monbukagakusho, 2001), but since the Ministry itself did not provide any clear guidelines, the English programs have all been experimental.  Many schools brought in English specialists on special contracts, or used native speaker ALTs, but most of the lesson plans were still made by homeroom teachers with little or no training in English instruction. This will be the case in 2011 as well. While we can assume that even though elementary school teachers will be better prepared to teach English in 2011 than 2002, the fact still remains that since: 1) no clear instructional guidelines were given, 2) homeroom teachers have had little training in English instruction, 3) the responsibility for the English curriculum has generally been rotated between homeroom teachers, and 4) few elementary schools have yet had the opportunity to bring in full-time English teaching experts, that a training deficit still exists.

Taiwan’s Ministry of Education faced a similar problem a few years ago and set up an extensive training program for teachers. Unfortunately, such efforts face numerous problems. First of all, there is a fair amount of literature on how to teach children English, but most of this literature was developed in the West and is not appropriate for the Asian EFL situation. Second, Taiwan, Korea, and Japan do not have the infrastructure to conduct extensive training. There are few specialists and meager budgets. Third, and most important, whereas we have a fairly clear idea of what skills a junior high EFL teacher needs, the same is not true for an elementary school teacher. Setting up a training program for elementary school teachers based on junior high English teaching methods might end up doing more harm than good.

Here, then, is the crux of the problem and its solution: We need to dig into the literature and find out everything we can about teaching children English. Then, we need to conduct a needs assessment on the training needs of Japanese elementary school teachers. And finally, once we figure out what we need to teach, we must find a means of delivery that can reach elementary school teachers all across Japan.

Fortunately, two of these problems are easy to solve. The literature, although biased towards situations in the West, is well-developed and easily accessible. (In fact, if you were to read one book on teaching children English, I would recommend Lynn Cameron’s Teaching Languages to Young Learners, Cambridge University Press). As for the means of delivery, as I will explain later, we are entering an age in which massive, widespread training can be conducted even if the infrastructure does not exist. It is the third problem, then, finding the training needs of elementary school teachers that we must focus our attention on.



Determining Training Needs

Needs assessment is an old science in the field of education, dating back to at least Tyler’s 1949 groundbreaking article on curriculum design, but it seems to have reached a sort of heyday in the eighties. Unfortunately, only a fraction of the needs assessments conducted are effective. Not many people are trained in the technique, and an in-depth assessment requires financial expenditures that few institutions are willing to put out. Therefore, when most people need to find something out, they use one of the least reliable tools of needs assessment – a questionnaire – usually hastily thrown together, biased towards the views of its creator, and administered on a sample that does not represent the larger population.

Even when a high degree of scientific rigor exists, two problems with using questionnaires to determine training needs are unavoidable. First, questionnaires can only be effective if the right questions are asked, and with a close-ended questionnaire, when the right answers are offered. A questionnaire approach then, can only be effective when the training needs have already been established and the researchers are just trying to identify frequencies in the population.

Second, there is a built-in fallacy in asking someone who needs training to become a specialist in determining what those needs are. Hiemstra and Long, in 1974 (cited in Cameron, 1988), found large discrepancies between the “felt” needs physical therapists identified on a questionnaire and their “real” needs as measured by testing. Most self-assessment inventories are really just interest inventories, where interests are mistaken for needs (Cameron, 1988).

Therefore, if questionnaires cannot identify training needs, what can? I would like to suggest a two-pronged approach, using focus groups to identify “self-perceived” training needs, and diagnostic methods to identify “predicted” training needs.

Self-predicted needs can be discovered through focus group interviews. As Morgan (1997) points out, the general rules of thumb for planning a focus group is to have 6-10 participants who are “homogeneous strangers,” and conduct 3-5 groups per project (p. 34). The facilitator asks preplanned questions to start a discussion, which is then guided by further questions (Morgan, 1997). Sample selection is a key factor in reliability, although, in our case, since the population of elementary school teachers is fairly uniform, assembling a good sample should not be a problem.

Focus groups have proven extremely useful for product development and marketing studies, and they will probably also produce a rich assortment of training needs, but again, the same problem with questionnaires comes into play: How can inexpert respondents identify their own training needs? Therefore, a focus group interview approach to identify “self-perceived needs” should be balanced with a second approach combining a diagnostic approach to identify “predicted” needs, and directed interviews. A list of predicted training needs for elementary school English teachers can be developed in three ways: by looking at the literature, by having a panel of subject matter specialists generate a list of needs, or hopefully, by combining the two. Teachers can be interviewed on these predicted needs, thereby increasing reliability, texture, and depth (Caffarella, 1994; Nowlen, 1980).

A preliminary list of predicted training needs from my own research can be organized into seven topical areas:

1) Theories on how children learn languages

2) An understanding of what kind of English should be taught

3) An understanding of Monbukagakusho policies

4) An understanding of EFL methodologies

5) EFL activities for children

6) Evaluating and utilizing one’s existing strengths and weaknesses

7) Designing and planning lessons


The Web as a Means of Educational Delivery  

So once training needs are identified, and a training curriculum developed, how can the educational package be delivered? Actually, this is an almost ideal situation for Web-based training: 1) the educational gap is new and widespread; 2) the problem is immediate and has no pre-existing infrastructure to fill it; 3) the learners are self-directed, similar, and highly motivated; and 4) Japan is going on-line at a phenomenal rate. In fact, in regard to the latter, according to the Internet Whitepaper 2001, from February, 2000 to February, 2001, the number of Japanese Internet users rose to 32.6 million, representing a 68.5 percent increase over the same period last year (IDG June 26, 2001, para 1). By comparison, although the proportion of total Americans on-line is slightly greater, with 102.1 million, the number of people going on-line from U.S. homes only rose 16 percent from July 2000 to July 2001 (Mariano August 14, 2001, para 2).

The idea of using the Web to provide specialized training is hardly new. Industry has been shifting to this medium at a surprising rate. In 1999, 41% of large organizations had some sort of on-line training, and 92% planned to implement it by the end of the year (Horton, 2000, p. 9) Likewise, trend analysis shows that by 2007, almost half of all university students will be taking part of their courses through distance education technologies. Therefore, by setting up a well-designed Web site that utilizes the information from the needs assessment, we can deliver the kind of training needed all across Japan, almost immediately and at relatively little expense. Such a site should not just be a book-based course put on-line. It should use the synchronous and asynchronous technologies to foster interaction as well.



The problem that faces us, finding a way to train tens of thousands of elementary school teachers on how to teach English to children, can be solved in a way not possible even ten years ago: through Web-based training. New technologies alone, however, will not accomplish this task. We must first extract all we can about teaching children from the literature. We should also conduct rigorous needs assessments of both self-perceived and predicted needs.



Following the original publication of this article in 2002, I carried out the research project proposed. With assistance from a Ministry of Education grant, the study involved: 1) using focus groups to assess teacher-training needs at two Shiga elementary schools, 2) telephone interviews with children’s English instruction experts to gain their views on elementary school teacher training needs, 3) analysis of the results, and 4) the use of formative and summative panels to create a Web-based training plan for Japanese elementary school teachers.  The short version, a 168-page report, can be seen here.

Some of the more interesting findings of the study were that elementary school teachers are well-aware they need training, but have little awareness of what specific kind of training they need.  They mistakenly think their greatest need is to raise their own English proficiency rather than learn how to teach it. A second finding is that one of their greatest needs is to increase their confidence. They tended to think that since they are not fluent in English, they cannot teach it well, which differs greatly from the observations of the experts. Most of these teachers excel at teaching children, and need not know more than a couple hundred basic words of English in order to do so effectively.

The results on how to deliver training, based on needs and availability of resources, determined a Web-based training solution would work the best.  Since the teachers showed a preference for just-in-time training and andragogical approaches, Web-based training should be delivered through a Yahoo-like portal site rather than through an on-line, linear, page-by-page course.  That way, teachers can solve their most urgent problems by navigating to specific training sections in just one or two clicks. To make the training effective and enjoyable, a simulations approach was designed to help teachers identify their own training needs and satisfy them.

I am including the plan of prototype site (link no longer available) developed by the study.  As far as I know, other than our own modest attempt to make part of the site in 2002, which no longer exists, this plan has not yet been utilized for training.



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Cameron, C. (1988, January). “Identifying learning needs: Six methods adult educators can use.” Lifelong Learning11: 25-28.

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IDG (June 26, 2001). “Japanese Internet Users up 68.5% on Year.” The Industry Standard: Retrieved on August 19, 2001 at,1902,27462,00.html

Mariano, G. (August 14, 2001). “Net access passes 100 million in the U.S.” ZDNet News: Retrieved on August 19, 2001 at,4586,5095626,00.html

 Mizuno, M. (January 17, 2009). Weekly report/ education: Elementary schools getting ready for English. The Asahi Shimbun, Tokyo, Japan.  Retrieved February 15, 2009 from

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Yomiuri (2000). New times force changes in education. The Daily Yomiuri. Tokyo, Japan: 3.






This article is an updated version of a similar one published in Language Teacher, 2002. Mr. Kelly revised the article specifically for Englipedia readers.



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