I wish I had a scanner at work because I want to show you an example lesson that I made versus one that was made by another teacher here. I should state from the beginning that I like the teachers that I work with, I have always been somewhat lucky in that respect, and I don't think any of them are bad teachers. I just think that the system has never pointed them in the right direction as to teaching English.
If you have never taught in Japan, it is probably hard to imagine the type of mistakes that people make when trying to use English. Everyone knows the stereotype of the bad spellings and misused words. Those exist, but that isn't the main issue. I don't have any of the English essays from last year sitting around but...wait...let me see what I can find. I'm back. The papers I graded are already gone. Sorry. A typical essay will have a theme, but the writer will be at a complete loss to implement it. Writing a basic sentence; subject, verb, object, will be beyond them. This is after three years of daily English study. Most will struggle to reproduce a sentence or phrase that they read and remember. Many will over think and try to include too much. An example sentence might be: I like much play baseball. But that sentence would have the advantage of having a subject. What you need to understand is that, in Japanese, most conversations drops the subject entirely. For example the following conversation is not only possible, it happens almost every day:
Give buy lettuce?
Now in English that sounds absurd, but if you were used to speaking that way everyday of your life then why would you think of communicating some other way?
Step one in my system: Tell every student all the time that Japanese and English are not even closely related as languages. It is best to not try to think about English using reasoning based on Japanese. Think about it as something completely different.
Japanese system: Translate everything into Japanese and then translate what you want to say back.
That is cumbersome, time consuming and taxing, in my opinion. Added to this is the fact that a lot of things just don't translate well. Take the conversation above.
So, as I didn't change schools this year I developed an initial lesson to set out my goals. For 1st and 2nd graders the lesson looked like this:
We first discussed what "I" is. Then we talked about "am" and how it can be viewed as an equal sign for "I." First I had them write their name.
I am Ken Watanabe.
I made sure everyone could write their name. Lots of people can't. On the worksheet there are four boxes. The first box is labeled "Feelings." This is all set up as a game. If a team answers questions, they get points. I asked what "feelings" meant. Then I went through the list of feelings from the box, checking the meaning. Then they chose one and wrote it.
I am tired.
Next was nationality. I do this to try and get them to purge "gaikokujin" from their vocabulary. I tell them that it isn't practical in English. I also give them the option of "human."
I am human.
Next is a quality about themselves.
I am tall.
Last is age.
I am thirteen.
That finished, I tell them that their team has a chance to make a comeback. If they come to the front and read their list to the class, they will get three points. Other teams can earn one point if they listen carefully and then tell one thing about the person. For example, "He is tall." Now, what I have done there is tricked them into learning "He is/She is" in about a minute. Nobody has had a big problem with it, but first year teachers go into absolute fits spending a week or so teaching it and saying it is the hardest lesson of the year. It is for them because they try to explain it like a math problem instead of just getting people to say it over and over again in a realish setting.
That is it. That is a lesson that sets up "I am _____" and "He is/She is______" I see these as being the underpinnings of all of their future work and the most commonly misused. It also gives them some new vocabulary that they might forget, but they might remember. It also gives them the ability to introduce themselves or someone else. The first chapter of the textbook isn't terrible in this respect, but I don't think it is great either.
For the 3rd year students I included two extra sentences: "I am interested in _________." and "I am worried about____________." What I want is to make sure that most every sentence starts this way. I have had third year students who use "Me" to begin a sentence. It isn't rare. It is almost common for people to say "Her is _____" instead of "She is________." I think this is mainly the fault of teachers who have a loose handle on English and have no idea what elements are important.
Let's look at the first lesson in the third years textbook. This comes from the New Crown English Series New Edition.
I'll show you a trick. Let's do it together. First, make two rings with the paper. Then, paste them to each other like this. They're pasted at one point. Are you with me? Good. Finally, cut along the rings. Start here and keep cutting. What will happen to the rings?
The picture accompanying the dialogue is one of the main characters, Wang Ming, doing this ring cutting. Now, if all of the students were competent in the basics, then I could see making an OK lesson out of this. There are some useful elements in the reading. But if "I am" and "He is" are still problems, then why are we putting so much extra, non-essential stuff in their brains? What makes it worse is that the teachers have no way of editing what is important and what isn't, so that "cut along the rings" is given equal value as "Finally."
There is one new third year teacher who I am not crazy about and who doesn't like working with ALTs. She insisted on doing this lesson first and skipping my "I am" lesson all together. Towards the end of the year when everyone has to write English essays and do high school interviews in English, which will come in more handy? I think I know, but no one really seems to care. They will just shake their heads and say "We don't know why the scores are so low."