I was confronted with a bit of absurdness in the Japanese education system this past week. It started when W-sensei asked me to do a lesson for the first-graders just reviewing how to read the words from the first few chapters of the textbook in preparation for the upcoming exams. She’s been discouraged by the relatively few students who still can’t read English letters, and is holding back the rest of the students on their account.
I repeated a game I played a few weeks earlier to some success, in which I’d divide the class into two teams, put five words up on the blackboard (printed in large font and held up by magnets) and have one student at a time from each team compete to see who could touch the word I read first. Once I’d gone through all the important words from the first chapters of the book, I’d have them come up and try to read the words themselves, giving a chance to the other team if they couldn’t.
Most of the students were perfectly adept at this game, but there were a few who really struggled. Some students would just pick words at random during the listening portion, and make wild guesses based on the first letter of the word in the reading portion (like the word would be ‘and’ and they’d say ‘apple’). Some were really trying to sound the word out but just didn’t have the hang of it yet. And one girl just didn’t get it at all. She’d come to the board each time during the listening portion but not even try to touch the words I called, and during the reading portion she’d stand up and come to the front but just stood staring at the word in painful silence. I could see on her face that she was trying to work out the pronunciation in her mind and at times it looked like she was just about to give the answer, but she was too unsure of herself to try. All I could do was gently encourage her but eventually I’d have to give up and let the other student answer, and she’d go sit down looking crushed. But she never broke down and cried, and she continued to dutifully stand up and subject herself to the embarrassment every time it was her turn, and at least managed to successfully read the word ‘seven’ at the very end.
Afterwards I thought a lot about that game and the students who had trouble with it, and decided to see if I could offer to stay after school and help any students who might want extra practice with phonics and reading. The upcoming English exam is almost certainly a lost cause for them, but if they don’t learn to read now they’re doomed to fail every subsequent English test in the future. I in turn would feel like a failure as a teacher, even though I only get 50 minutes a week with them and there’s only so much I can do in that time, especially when I have to keep moving forward for the sake of the other students.
I told W-sensei my idea on Thursday, and she reacted with her typical skepticism that such a thing could be arranged, but she said she’d ask about it. I didn’t get the sense that she was going to make it a priority, but once I left it must have quickly dawned on her that having students who still can’t read at this point reflects poorly on her, so she should take any chance she gets to help them out. In less than a minute she approached S-sensei with my idea.
To me it seemed like the most obviously doable thing in the world, but apparently that’s just my background in American education. Students who need extra help with a particular subject can stay after school and get that help from teachers who are willing to help them. Such a thing is entirely ordinary in American schools, but apparently not in Japan. In Japan, club activities come first—or at least they’re a higher priority than English. S-sensei explained to me that all of the students have to go to their club after school. Apparently they can’t even stay an extra 20 minutes for study and be a little late to their club.
As if that weren’t ridiculous enough, it gets even more absurd. This week—the week of exams—all club activities are cancelled. The idea is that students should go directly home after school and study. There’s no guarantee that they will study, but it gives them more time to study if they choose to use it. So if students who have trouble reading want to study that, it would make perfect sense for them to have a chance to study reading with a native English speaker who can actually help them learn to pronounce the letters—something a textbook can’t do. But apparently this isn’t possible either. The rule is that the students go home directly after school, so that’s what they must do. Even though the whole reason for that is to give them a chance to study, they can’t study at the school.
The only thing that could be done was to use my “Kyle Shop” time for extra reading practice. Instead of having whichever students from a particular grade come and shop or play a game, we’d make Thursday, Monday, and Tuesday a “special lesson” for first-graders and W-sensei would send the students with the lowest reading scores to me during that 20-minute after-lunch break period.
So what in a rational world would have been a chance for students who really wanted to learn to read to come after school for as long as they wanted over the course of as much time as they needed ended up turning instead into three 20-minute after-lunch phonics cram-sessions for students forced to show up.
I tried to do the best I could under the circumstances. The after-lunch break-time is pretty hectic and disorganized, so students would trickle in at varying times. I’d never know how many would be coming altogether or when they’d show up. I’d start by practicing letter sounds with three students, then half-way through two more would come in and I’d go back and review from the beginning, then three more would come in when I was near the end and so on. It was between six and ten students each day, with only four students coming all three.
I had laminated cut-outs of every letter in lowercase, and I’d start by going over short vowel sounds, then sounds of letters with just one sound, letters with two or more sounds, then combination sounds, and finally how putting an ‘e’ at the end of a word changes the vowel to a long sound. I had to race through all that in less than 10 minutes. Then for 5 minutes I’d play a quick “game” in which I’d call out a simple word like ‘cat’ or ‘name’ and have the students try and find the correct letters to arrange the word, hopefully remembering the rules I’d just taught them. They’d almost never get it on the first try but with a few hints they’d always get it eventually. Finally, for the last few minutes I’d hold up the words I used in the reading game in the classroom and have the students try to read them, helping them sound it out if they couldn’t. They could get the easy words quickly enough but anything over 3 letters remained a challenge, especially when there were combination sounds or an ‘e’ at the end. Some things just need more time and practice to really sink in.
I found a website where you can point your mouse over letters and letter-combinations and hear the sounds they make, so I printed the URL and gave it to all the students. I also found a website that converts roman-letter words to Japanese katakana, always distorting the pronunciation but the best way I could think of to allow them to check if they could read a word. I made a list of all the words from the beginning of the textbook in one column and their katakana version on the right, so the students could fold it and check each word if they were serious about studying on their own.
Other than provide them those tools for self-study, I figured the most valuable thing I could actually do for them would just be to give them some encouragement. I wish I’d had O-sensei to help me figure out how to express what I wanted to say in Japanese, but I did the best I could with my limited vocabulary. Half-way through our second “lesson”, I paused and talked to the kids about how I’m actually a slow learner too, poking fun at myself for having lived here nearly two years and still not being able to speak Japanese without constantly making mistakes (which I’m certain I was doing as I talked to them) or understanding what people were saying when they talk to me. I told them how difficult it was for me to learn hiragana and katakana, that I had to sit and practice many times a day, but I eventually got it and if I could do it they could too. I’m not sure that sunk in but some of them seemed to appreciate it.
Before the third day I remembered a few things O-sensei had taught me to say when I was saying personal farewells to Togane Chu students. Near the end of that lesson I told the kids that I wished them success, and “If you believe in yourself, I know you can succeed.” They responded kindly.
At least one girl, a really sweet girl who loves my lessons in spite of her difficulty learning, definitely appreciated what I was doing. She came every day determined to learn, and always left with a sincere “thank you”. Most of the boys, unfortunately, were clearly only there because they’d been told to come and hardly put forth any effort, though at least two of them did try.
As for the girl who’d had the most difficulty with my reading game, I addressed her in particular at the end of our last lesson. I told her I know that she’s capable of reading English, and she quickly disagreed and said it was “muri” (impossible). I reiterated that it is possible, that I could see it in her eyes. I don’t know if her smile at that comment was one of amusement or appreciation, but it felt like a positive response. I even told her (to the best of my limited ability) that I saw how difficult my game in class had been for her but that I respected how she kept coming to the front and trying every time. I don’t know if my words had any effect at all, but they were sincere. I know a dumb student when I see one and she isn’t dumb—she just thinks she’s not smart enough to read English. If that’s a result of her never getting encouragement from parents or other teachers, then maybe my little bit of encouragement might go a long way.
Unfortunately I doubt it, but that’s just one of the biggest downsides of my current teaching-role. As the Assistant Language Teacher my opinion is not as valuable as that of a real teacher, my time with the students is not long enough to make a significant impression, and due to the language barrier I’m not really able to reach them on a truly meaningful level.
One day I’ll hopefully be able to make a real difference in students’ lives, but I’ve got a ways to go before I get there. At least this experience serves as something of an appetizer of what that might actually feel like. It must be a feeling that’s really worth living for.