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EDUCATION > English Language

Economic inequalities influence children’s English language ability

  • February 17, 2017
  • , Mainichi , p. 30
  • JMH Translation

Currently, English is categorized as part of “foreign language learning activities” [in Japan’s elementary school curriculum], and school children learn English through songs and games. From 2020, however, English will become an official subject for fifth and sixth graders. According to a dispatcher of assistant language teachers to elementary schools, disparities are already appearing in children’s academic abilities. “There is a clear difference [in ability] between children who study English outside school and those who do not. Students who study outside school are active in answering questions in English classes in school as well, so teachers end up moving the class on [to new material].”


Junior high school entrance exams are starting to change, too. There has been a sudden increase in the number of private junior high schools that have an English segment on their entrance exam. Only 15 schools in Tokyo Metropolis and Chiba, Saitama, Kanagawa, and Ibaraki Prefectures had English as a subject on their entrance exam in 2014. This year the number is up to 95, an increase of more than six-fold. When English becomes an official subject in elementary schools, there is a chance that having English on junior high school entrance exams will become even more common.


South Korea is a step ahead of the rest of East Asia. They started to [officially] teach English at elementary schools in 1997. According to 2015 statistics, English is the most costly of extracurricular education expenses [in Japan], and there is a strong correlation between parental income and students’ grades in English. The average amount per month that households of children with [English] grades in the top 10% spend on extracurricular English school is 2.5 times that spent by households of children with grades in the bottom 20%.


According to Yuko Goto Butler, associate professor in the Educational Linguistics Division at the University of Pennsylvania [Graduate School of Education], English is a subject where it is easy for the financial situation of parents to impact children’s ability. A large gap in speaking skills arises because children from wealthy families attend English conversation school. “Having English in public education is important in that it means that all children have an opportunity to study English regardless of the parents’ financial situation,” said Associate Professor Goto Butler. She went on to sound the alarm: “Grades in English class at school have a major impact on whether a student goes on to the next stage of education and what kind of job they can find in the future. It is problematic if English-language education becomes too frantic and disparities widen. For public education to compensate for disparities, it is critical that pedagogical methods that ensure students receive solid instruction are in place.” (Abridged)


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