education elementary english education

Experienced Educator Explores Elementary English Education

Renowned English Language Educator Yuri Kuno Gives TJ the Inside Scoop


Yuri Kuno began her career as an elementary school English language educator at Seijo Gakuen Shoto Gakko nearly a quarter of a century ago and remains dedicated to enhancing the quality of English language education in the Japanese school system. Kuno Sensei was recently appointed to the Ministry of Education’s advisory panel as one of only two elementary school teachers on a twenty-two member panel established to provide guidance to the Ministry of Education which is currently revamping English education standards in Japan. Since retiring from Seijo Gakuen, Kuno Sensei has continued her career as a teacher trainer and researcher . In addition to her teaching career, Kuno Sensei has been involved in the development of numerous English Language Teaching materials for children such as CD ROMs and Prentice Hall’s renowned textbook series “Super Kids”. Most recently, she has been involved in the creation of an NHK twenty-program television series for school children that will be aired nationwide beginning this upcoming school year.

TJ: Most people in Japan are under the impression that English is and has been a compulsory subject at the junior high and high school levels for many years. Is this true?.
Kuno: No. Contrary to common belief, English has never been a compulsory subject in the public school system here in Japan. Over the past several years, an overwhelming number of junior highs and high schools have opted to teach English. This phenomenon has led most people to assume that English is a compulsory subject. However, the Ministry of Education has concluded that English will become a compulsory subject beginning in the 2002 school year.

TJ: I have heard conflicting reports regarding the implementation of English language education at the elementary school level. I was originally under the impression that a program would be implemented in April of 2000 but have recently heard reports that nothing is scheduled to begin until April of 2002. Could you shed some light on this?
Kuno: Actually, the Ministry of Education originally planned to implement a program that would involve English language activities in the year 2003. They have since pushed the start date up to April 2002 and have given permission to elementary schools to begin implementing English language programs anytime during what they call “the transitional period” which is between April 2000 and April 2002

TJ: I see, but I am still a little confused. I know that a number of elementary schools already have English language programs. Are these progressive schools breaking the rules of the Ministry of Education?
Kuno: No. There are certain periods of time that are dedicated to school activities and the principals of these schools are allowed to fill these time slots with whatever activities they choose such as community cleanup, school assemblies or English language activities.

TJ: So, beginning in the year 2002, it will be mandatory for all elementary schools to have English programs. Is this correct?
Kuno: No, not exactly. It is up to each individual school and district to decide if they wish to implement English language programs

TJ: I am still a bit confused. What is the difference between the process in past years and the Ministry of Education’s plan for the 2000 and 2002 school years? It seems as though the schools have had the option of teaching English all along and the Ministry of Education is still not making it compulsory at the elementary level.
Kuno: That’s a good question. In the past, schools were able to use their free periods for English lessons. Officially beginning in 2002, schools will have the option of cutting into time normally allotted for other subjects such as Mathematics, Japanese language study, etc. and devote this time for English language study. They may begin to do so anytime during the transitional period.

TJ: Do you feel this is going to create further debate as some parents may be upset that the implementation of English language study may hinder the study of other important subjects such as Math, Science, etc.?
Kuno: Yes. Some people have expressed concern - especially since the year 2002 will also mark the beginning of the five-day school week and the beginning of a General Studies program which will allow students the option of choosing between four subjects - Social Welfare, Computer Education, Environmental Studies and International Education, which would most likely be English language study. Three periods a week will be dedicated to this new General Studies program and it will be up to the student, of course with the guidance of their teachers, to decide which classes they would like to take during these three periods. So in essence, students will be losing four periods on Saturday and the General Studies program will take up three additional periods during the week. This time will have to come from somewhere and teachers will need to adjust their curriculums to fit all of it in.

TJ: Are elementary school teachers who are not proficient in English nervous about the implementation of English?
Kuno: Yes, of course, and it is not only elementary school teachers who will be faced with this. Many junior high school teachers who are used to teaching students who have no experience with English are concerned about dealing with students who have already been exposed to the language. Some are intimidated by the idea that students may want to correct the teacher’s katakana-like pronunciation as many of the students will be exposed to native-like pronunciation in elementary school.

TJ: Rumor has it that you have been working with NHK on a new English language television program for school children. Can you tell us about it?
Kuno: Yes, we are going to produce a series of twenty-minute English language programs that NHK will air nationwide twice a week during the school day throughout the entire year. Elementary school teachers will be able to begin their English lessons with this program. Although I may be too optimistic, I would guess that by the year 2002 approximately 70% of the elementary schools in Japan will incorporate this program into their English lessons

TJ: It all sounds very exciting. I thank you for taking the time to speak with us and wish you good luck on your project.
Kuno: It was my pleasure.

Did you know . . .

. . . the average TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) score in Japan passed 500 points for the first time in 1999? However the score of 501 still ranks among the lowest in Asia, only higher than Afghanistan, Cambodia and Laos.
(Source: Educational Testing Service)


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