The Japanese Ministry of Education revised its Course of Study for elementary and secondary schools in 2008, and one major change in the elementary school curriculum is that "foreign language activities" are to become a compulsory part of the school curriculum in 2011.
The main goal of these activities is to form the foundation of children's communication abilities by achieving three sub-goals: (1) developing an understanding of languages and cultures through various experiences, (2) fostering a positive attitude toward communication, and (3) familiarizing pupils with the sounds and basic expressions of foreign languages. The Ministry also recommends that homeroom teachers should be responsible for planning activities with help from assistant language teachers (ALTs) or other human resources available in the local community.
This study analyzes how ALTs interpret the Ministry's English version of the above-mentioned objectives of foreign language instruction both at elementary schools and at junior high schools. Data were collected through a questionnaire survey administered to ALTs in one prefecture. The ALTs were asked to comment on both the objectives specified for elementary schools and those for secondary schools. The two different sets of responses were then compared and analyzed. 25 questionnaires were completed and returned: twelve were from first-year ALTs, who had just arrived in Japan at the time of the survey, and the remaining thirteen were from ALTs who had worked in Japan for at least one year.
Regarding the objectives of foreign language instruction at junior high school, we obtained no negative responses from both the experienced ALTs and newly-arrived ALTs. However, regarding the objectives of foreign language activities at elementary school, there is a marked difference between the two groups: the experienced ALTs produced many questions and ideas such as the importance of teaching literacy skills to children, while the newly-arrived ALTs stated that the objectives should be more focused and that the language used in the objectives should be clarified. If no appropriate information or instruction is given to ALTs who identify foreign language activities more narrowly with teaching English itself rather than fostering children's basic communication abilities as advocated by the Course of Study, then there is a risk of misunderstanding and miscommunication between Japanese teachers and the ALTs. Based on the results of this survey, we discuss how ALTs should be utilized in conducting foreign language activities and also involved in planning in-service teacher development programs in the future that involve both ALTs and Japanese teachers.