Elementary Schools and the ALT






Why do ALTs go to Elementary Schools?


From about 10 years ago, the Monbukagakusho (Monbusho) has conducted pilot programs throughout Japan to assess the possibility of establishing English education programs in elementary schools. Two such pilot programs are those at Nakagawa Elementary School in Ogaki city and Namazu Elementary School in Hozumi Town. There is a book (only in Japanese) about the Namazu Elementary experience, but there is also an overview of the Nakagawa Elementary experience entitled, "On with the Sho!" distributed by ALTs.


If you can access either of these materials, they make for interesting reading, although the circumstances these teachers taught under are likely to be very different from those that most ALTs and JTEs will currently face. Suffice to say that the pilot programs were viewed as a big success since they exposed Japanese children to English before the junior high school curriculum was to begin, and Boards of Education across the nation wanted to duplicate this success in their localities, often at the request of parents.


Currently, within Gifu, the teaching of English at Elementary level has been reviewed and curricula have been/are being formulated by teachers together with ALTs at these schools. Indeed, this year has seen a surge in government backing for ES Japanese teachers to take on the responsibility of overseeing the planning of the English curriculum for their respective schools.


How are ALTs sent to Elementary Schools?


Most ALTs working for local Boards of Education (BOEs) are sent to elementary schools in addition to their junior/senior high school postings. These visits may be once a week, once a month or once a term- depending on teacher demands, school schedules and the number of ALTs in a given locality. Some ALTs are hired exclusively to teach at elementary schools, in which case they are often sent to several schools in a locality. A few ALTs, such as those who worked at Nakagawa Elementary in Ogaki, are hired especially to work at one particular school.


What do ALTs do in Elementary Schools?


Obviously, ALTs are hired to teach English, but they are very often expected to do other things at elementary school. ALTs come from all over the world and many of them speak other languages as well as English. Japanese teachers may request the occasional "cultural lesson", which may focus on the geography, clothing, cuisine etc. of an ALTs home country. In this situation, it is very helpful to have at least a spoken command of Japanese or someone available to interpret.


In addition, ALTs are often requested to join the children in eating their school lunch, which is quite a "unique" experience. You may be surprised to see young students serving each other and their teachers hot lunches in the classroom! Serving lunch is effectively part of the curriculum. Vegetarians or others with dietary needs should notify the head Teacher, in order to avoid confusion on the part of children who WILL ask you why you do not wish to eat or drink something.


ALTs may also be asked to play with the children at recess, or even help clean the school after class! In this instance, comfortable shoes and clothing are recommended.


Planning the ALT visit


It is often up to the school to arrange a time for the ALT to come and visit. As previously mentioned, school schedules often preclude regular English lessons, so it's wise for ALTs to plan a one-off style of lesson which can be completed within 45 minutes (the length of the class ). This is mainly because an ALT may only teach the same class several times. This is based on the "40-40-4 equation i.e. 40 students, 40 minutes, 4 times over any given period (e.g. a month/term/year). Given this situation and the inevitable variation among students and teachers, you could say that ALTs merely "gently" expose children to the language rather than comprehensively teach them as is the case in junior and senior high schools.


With this in mind, ALTs should look at the 1st year junior high English student guide (currently New Horizon and New Crown in Gifu) for invaluable ideas on appropriate vocabulary and expressions to teach. However, there are also many resources available now.


As for the schedule itself, it is useful for the ALT to contact head teacher at the school. This person is usually a "veteran" who no longer teaches regular classes. Contact this person (always in Japanese) and arrange for an "uchiawase" (a short meeting) at least a week prior to the lesson day. Very often, schedules will comprise of "back to back" classes with little time to prepare for lessons- especially with the other activities mentioned above.


ALTs who are at elementary schools daily, should enlist the help of school staff to make materials according to the lesson plan discussed in the meeting. Since there is currently no set curriculum or textbook at most schools, the ALT has a certain freedom to teach what he/she wants to do within limits.


The limits are those mentioned above (40-40-4) as well as budgetary. And of course, the children's attention span. The ALT should ask the head teacher if there is a budget.


As a general rule, first to third graders should not be expected to learn more than 10-12 words per lesson, while fourth to sixth graders can learn up to 16 words, enough for bingo games. Likewise, no activity should take more than 10 minutes with lower grades and 15 minutes is the general limit for upper grades. In this situation, a typical lesson plan would look this:

1. Greetings/ announcements: 2-3 minutes

2. Topic/phrase introduction: 5-10 minutes

3. Practice of target topic/phrases: 5-10 minutes

4. Production of language/games: 10-15 minutes

5. Overview of lesson/ comments: 5 minutes

6. Good-byes/announcements: 2-3 ,minutes

Following this plan, it's easy to see how quickly time passes in the lesson. If it runs smoothly, the teachers and children will be satisfied that they learnt something even if it's only once a term. However, if children, teachers (or even ALTs!) are late, it can be unnerving, so it is of utmost importance that both the ALT and the JTE are punctual. When an ALT is teaching, students will only value a lesson if a teacher is perceived to view it as valuable.


After the lesson, it is always useful to ask the teacher and the students what they thought of the lesson. If they say "Tanoshikatta" (It was fun) or "Omoshirokatta"(it was interesting) then you know it was successful. However, if you hear "Muzukashikatta" (It was hard) or "Tsumaranakatta"(it was boring) then you have some work to do! Some teachers have ideas on how to make a lesson better for their students, so please ask them: "Kondo wa, motto tanoshiku dekiru yo ni, nani o sureba ii desuka?" (What should Ido next time to make the class more fun?).




As has been broadly mentioned in the paragraphs above, communication among ALTs and elementary school staff is an essential component of successful elementary English lessons and cultural integration. You could argue that it is an ALTs duty to learn as much spoken Japanese as they can master during their tenure since it is unrealistic to expect the Japanese staff to always communicate in English. The only exception would be where the ALT is working with a JTE or a classroom teacher who wishes to speak English!


In general, the success of an ALT's lesson in elementary school very much depends upon how keen an interest they take in the students' own language and culture. Personally, I can say that my current language ability is due in part, to the kind guidance I've received from teachers and students alike over the years.




1. Mr. Vinko Boznyak, my former colleague in Kitagata town, has produced a practical, user-friendly guide called "Elementary Gambare". Please email: aet_gambare@hotmail.com for details and activities.

2. JALT, the Japan Association for Language Teaching, holds monthly meetings on Sunday afternoons at Heartful Square, JR Gifu Station. Kids' English is featured! For more information go to http://www.jalt.org/groups/Gifu

3. ETJ is another online group dedicated to helping English teachers in Japan. They are accessible at http://www.eltnews.com