Teaching English in Japan: Start Them Young — in Nursery School

 

Teaching English in Japan: Start Them Young — in Nursery School

 

If there was one word that I could use to describe my experience teaching English in a Japanese nursery school, or hoikuen, it would be “energy” — because the children have it and the teacher needs it. I mean this in a positive way, of course!

 

Teaching in a nursery school has become the highlight of my monthly schedule. This is rather ironic because it was the place that I was most unsure about teaching.

 

So what changed? I just didn’t know how fun it could be.

 

As I only visit the nursery school once a month, there is a lot of excitement from the children when they see me. The nursery school in my village looks after children up to age of 4, with each age group in its own separate class. When I arrive, the nursery school staff take me to see each class for a quick hello, but I will only teach a short 30-minute lesson to the 4-year-olds.

 

 

Teaching English, Reading Japanese

 

I have come to see the benefits of introducing English at a young age in nursery school and kindergarten. The children are excited to communicate anyway they can —which makes it the perfect time to teach them a new language.

 

Their capacity to pick up new words at this age is unbelievable. And there is nothing more rewarding than the kids showing you how much they have remembered each time you see them.

 

At the start of the day at nursery school, the children have an hour of play time. When they see me, usually they all run over and bring me books to read to them. These books are all written in Hiragana, which I can read (just about), and often I don’t know what the stories are about. To compensate for this, I will either read in a funny voice or even sing the words out of tune, which is always a hit with the kids and the teachers.

 

After playtime, we all go outside, which usually results in the children chasing me around the playground for about half an hour. The teachers love this because they know that the children will now sleep well during nap time.

 

 

And Then the Lesson Begins…

 

When it’s time for the English lesson, all the children put their chairs around me in a semicircle and the class begins. For each class, I usually start with a short song and then focus on teaching new words, such as numbers, colors, shapes, and animal names.

 

The class is always fun, but there are times when the children show how smart they really are by trying to make me laugh. For example, I could be teaching them colors. I’ll show a flashcard with the color red and one of the children may shout out banana, knowing full well it’s not a banana.

 

This usually results in all of the other children laughing, so at times like these I need to think on my feet to get their attention back. Most of the time this can be achieved by quickly switching to a new game which involves a bit of friendly competition, such as “Karuta” or “Fruit Basket.”

 

After the lesson, I have lunch with the staff that run the nursery school. This is always just as fun as the lesson itself. Often I share my travel stories with them, and they always recommend new places for me to go and new foods to try.

 

The staff are nothing short of fantastic with the children and are even more so with me. Despite our language barrier, we all can communicate very well. More importantly, we are usually laughing together from start to finish.

 

I strongly believe that the introduction of English from an earlier age will help make a big difference in the level of English proficiency in Japan. The most important thing is that the children have fun while learning so that English doesn’t feel so scary by the time they get to junior high school.  

 

Teaching in nursery school has proven to be a wonderful experience and a chance to set the children on the right path to learning English. While I’m unlikely to win any awards for my singing of Japanese story books, it does help create a fun learning environment while I teach them English.

 

The next article in this series will focus on teaching English in kindergarten, which is where life starts to get a bit more structured for the children. Of course, it’s still very very fun!

 

Author: Senol Hasan

 

Senol Hasan

Author:

Şenol Hasan is an English assistant language teacher (ALT) for Motomiya City in Fukushima prefecture. In August 2018 he left his former life in London where he worked on construction projects for an NHS Hospital, to embark on a new adventure in Japan. When Şenol is not in the classroom, he is out on the road exploring Fukushima and Tohoku. Şenol was born and raised in London however his family are originally from North Cyprus.

3 Comments

  • This is a very serious and difficult topic – it deserves an article based on some empirical research and opinions of solid bilinguals in Japanese and English to demonstrate the challenges to grow up as a bilingual in those languages. Personally, I don’t feel teaching the two languages from nursery school is necessary or even desirable, especially when you’re dealing with two opposing cultures such as in the case with Japanese and English. Learning Japanese for an English speaker and vice versa, is basically an attempt to familiarize yourself with another culture that is more or less contrary to how you’re expected to behave: one culture promotes outspokenness and opinions of your own as opposed to being self-restrained and encouraging harmony. It is simply not the same as learning another Western tongue.

    An interesting subissue is that, if learning English from a much earlier age can be beneficial, there’s a need for qualified teachers all over Japan. That will be quite challenging because they must be somewhat competent bilinguals themselves, and there cannot be that many who are part of the public school system. At any rate, the fact that so many adults continue to sign up for conversational English classes taught by foreigners after getting out of college more than proves that Japan must implement a new system in order to produce a large number of quality bilinguals in this century.

    • Hey Frank,

      I’m just curious, where do you get your information from? After reading what you wrote, it makes it sound as if you don’t have experience teaching English to children of that age group. There has been actual research done to show that learning English at a young age while children are also learning Japanese can in fact allow them to distinguish the “L” and “R” sounds as opposed to when children are already 10 years old and starting to learn English. The first few years are very crucial to know the differences so the brain can absorb the information.

      You mentioned about teaching culture coming from English. English is just a language, where it’s prodominantly spoken in Western countries, it dosen’t only mean that kids have to learn about the culture. Also, that’s not a bad thing to know about other cultures and the world as well. The more information you know, the better off you’ll be instead of being ignorant and just going by sterotypes. It just seems odd that you seem to have such an issue with teaching children that young English. There are many more benefits than you don’t seem to understand, and this is coming from someone who has first-hand experience teaching kids at that age-range and seeing their development. I can absolutely tell you that kids in their first few years absorb everything like a sponge and it’s not biased to “culture” as you mentioned. It’s just language and understanding.

      What kind of “qualification” are you suggesting for teachers to teach children at that age? It’s not nearly the same as teaching like an ESL or someone teaching kids who are 6 and older. Teachers don’t need to be bilingual, there is a reason that there are English and Japanese teachers in classes to assist each other. Kids will be able to know the difference of what is being spoken to them. Making random assumptions without any evidence or just how you “feel” doesn’t institute that changing policy is a must. This isn’t the USA or whatever country you’re from. Japan has it’s own system in place and it’s quite odd that you’re trying to suggest that you know much better than Japan does. Implimenting “qualification” doesn’t even necessarily mean better results. All that means it making people do more testing/schooling and using up more valuable time and resources. Where do you draw the line? Do you want a masters degree in bilingual Japanese/English speaking to be “qualified” for teaching babies English? Do you see how that sounds?

      Having experience is much more beneficial than a flashy piece of paper saying that you sat in a classroom longer than someone else, especially when it comes to basics of English teaching to very young kids. I very much disagree with your philiosophy and I go by facts of what I’ve seen first-hand, not to mention studies doen that do show the benefits of babies learning English and their native language.

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