Teacher-Leader Kazayuki Osako at the 2018 LEEP Conference
Teacher-Leader Kazayuki Osako at the 2018 LEEP Conference ©

British Council Japan

“Students are now more able to use English than before this training, when I didn’t have so much speaking or interaction in my classes.”

The Leaders of English Education Project (LEEP) is now in its fifth and final year. At a recent conference where we brought together Teacher-Leaders from the first four years of the project, we spoke with some Teacher-Leaders about the difference the training had made to them, their students and other teachers in their area.  Mr Kazayuki Osako, a Senior High School teacher from Yamagata, shares his experiences with us.

The intensive training

“I had never experienced a teacher-training course like this before”, said Mr Osako. “Two five-day intensive blocks of listening to English all day long and writing daily reflection essays – it felt like being abroad. It is a tough, dense and very meaningful course.”

After urging this year’s participants to make the most of the experience, Mr Osako went on to explain the merits of the training, as he sees them. “We don’t generally have time to find out about evidence-based teaching strategies in our busy lives at school. Through this training we were given the rationale for each teaching technique and activity we learned, and as a result I understood clearly what to do and why. I now find myself thinking, ‘this is the right time to try out this approach’ and ‘now let’s give this task a go’”.

The impact on students

Mr Osako has noticed that his students are now more confident users of English, “I often start my classes with a ‘warmer’ where students ask and answer simple question in English. Students are now more able to use English than before this training, when I didn’t have so much speaking or interaction in my classes”. He has also seen the benefits of incorporating thinking time into his planning: “In each learning activity I now make sure to plan time for students to think. As a result, over the last two years, I have noticed that students who previously were getting low test scores have started to improve their ability to think, and have gained confidence and improved their scores.”

The impact on other teachers

Mr Osako also reported positive results from the cascade training that he led in his local area.  “I trained 20 teachers in my area. Looking through their feedback forms, I found that most of the teachers liked the fact that activities such as writing and reading were staged in small steps, and have tried this out with their own students. Many of them said that this has had positive results and that their students have responded well to the changes. At the start, a couple of teachers said that although the suggested activities looked good, they didn’t think they would work with their students. However, after trying them out in class they changed their minds.”

Hiroyuki works with colleagues at LEEP training
Hiroyuki Sakurai (right) takes part in a group discussion during LEEP training 

Project overview

English teachers across Japan are being trained as part of an initiative to improve English language levels in the country.  The Leaders of English Education Project (LEEP) aims to help practising teachers become ‘leaders’, or teacher trainers in a more interactive, student-centred style of English language teaching.

The project forms a key part in the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology’s (MEXT) plans to move classroom teaching practice in Japan away from the traditional focus on English as an academic object of study to a more skills-focussed approach.  Extra urgency has been given to improving English language levels in Japan with Tokyo winning the Olympic and Paralympic Games for 2020.

The cascade training model involves training 500 teachers from every prefecture across Japan, who then circulate their expertise to teachers in their home prefecture, initially reaching 10,000 teachers, then later, hopefully reaching every teacher of English in the country.

Training first focusses on the teachers’ own English teaching skills and how to implement new approaches into their own classrooms, and then moves on to developing their training skills as English ‘leaders’ to deliver this new content to other teachers.

Making a difference: one teacher’s story

Now in its fourth year, Japan’s Leaders of English Education Project continues to make a positive impact on the lives of teachers and students around the archipelago. In this dispatch direct from the classroom, one Japanese teacher of English reports how LEEP training is helping bring clarity to the process of planning communicative lessons.

“As a result of attending LEEP training in 2016, my way of teaching English has really changed. For the ten years up until then, I had been groping in the dark,” says Hiroyuki Sakurai, a Junior High School teacher from Nikko City in Japan’s mountainous Tochigi prefecture.

“At every opportunity I attended seminars and read articles by well-known experts in English education. However, I wasn’t able to find any formula for planning good lessons.

“As a result of LEEP training, I now really enjoy planning lessons every day.”

A large part of initial LEEP training involves teachers participating in demonstration lessons, led by British Council trainers. Inspired by a demonstration of content-led reading, Hiroyuki has been slowly transforming the way he plans reading lessons. He shared with us a recent success where his third grade students (15 year-olds) read a text from a Ministry-approved English textbook about Burmese political icon Aung San Suu Kyi.

“For the warmer, I showed the picture of Aung San Suu Kyi and got students to do a brainstorming activity,” Hiroyuki began. This is one of several ideas that Hiroyuki picked up from LEEP training which help make students more mentally active during lessons. 

Rather than explaining the text to students and giving them translations, Mr Sakurai has found success by planning key stages that enable students to work together as a class to understand the text for themselves. These include working together to learn key vocabulary before reading, and the use of information-transfer tasks.

“A large number of my students find reading lessons interesting,” says Hiroyuki. “I think it’s because the lesson proceeds step-by-step from setting the topic, through learning the important vocabulary for the text so that individually, in pairs and in bigger groups they can try hard to help each other and enjoy the diversity of ideas that other students come up with.”

In this lesson, Mr Sakurai used an information-transfer task which involved students illustrating the key points of the text using simple line drawings:

“A key point I learned from the LEEP reading session was that by using information-transfer activities you can increase students’ motivation, get them to re-read the text for information, encourage them to think and improve their reading skills,” he says.

“They especially like illustrating the events from the story. They have gradually got used to this activity and compete to see how simply they can illustrate the story without missing out information. When they do their final picture-sharing in groups you can see how much they have tried to understand the finer details of the text by the way they check each other’s illustrations, saying things like ‘Of course’, ‘I see’ and ‘What is this picture about?’”

After giving feedback to his students on their illustrations, Hiroyuki set up a final productive activity. He instructed pairs to write quiz questions based on what they had read and these quizzes were then carried out orally in small groups, ensuring students were given the opportunity to practise all four skills by the end of the lesson.

Now equipped with this more rounded approach to lesson planning, Hiroyuki feels he is giving his students the chance to do more than simply score well in English tests:

“Obviously, there are still many issues and I still agonise over improvements. However, with a basic structure of Warmer, Main Activity and Consolidation, I think each lesson now delivers a concrete outcome.

“Up until now, I just followed the grammar syllabus in the textbook in order. As a result, even if students could get reasonable tests scores on their knowledge of grammar, they were unable to use English to communicate with one another.”

Another sign that Hiroyuki is on the right track came in the form of feedback from one of his students: A student who was so inspired by the lesson that they determined to read more.

“One student researched Aung San Suu Kyi at home,” he said. “‘Nowadays there is a big problem with discrimination against the Rohingya in Myanmar’, they came to tell me, proudly. Rather than simply extracting information from the text and stopping there, I really felt the importance of relating the content of the text to one’s own context and thinking about the lesson along with the students.”

By Ross Malcolm

LEEP Highlights - a trainer's thoughts

Teacher trainer, Mark Swinhoe shares some of his highlights working on the Leaders of English Education Project (LEEP).

It has been 6 months since I joined the teacher training team, during which time I’ve been lucky enough to travel to Ishikawa, Tottori and Osaka to deliver teacher training sessions. However, the majority of sessions have been at the National Centre for Teacher Development in Ibaraki as part of LEEP.

Being a LEEP trainer has really challenged me professionally and the prospect of facing a room full of highly experienced teachers can be daunting at times.  However, it is without doubt the most professionally rewarding experience of my career to date.  Perhaps the most satisfying aspect of working on LEEP has been seeing the way the participants change over the course of the project. 

A good example of this is Week 1 of the elementary school course.  When they arrive on Monday morning, some of the participants suffer from a lack of confidence in their ability to speak English, let alone teach it.  By Friday, they are able to read picture books to students in English, teach students English songs and role-play a planning meeting with an ALT from an English-speaking country. The change in their confidence and enthusiasm is just amazing.

One perk of being a LEEP trainer is attending the trainees’ farewell parties where we get to chat and hear more about what’s going on in teachers’ schools and classrooms.  During one of these, after Week 2 training, a teacher confessed to not really having done speaking activities in class prior to LEEP, other than having students read aloud from the book.  He went on to say that, following the Week 1 training course, he had tried out pair work and group work speaking activities with his students and that this has been a big hit. His students are more motivated, and some parents were even reporting that their children had started speaking English at home! 

Teachers often tell us that techniques and activities from the LEEP course enable their students not only to speak more English, but to enjoy it too.  For me, that’s what LEEP is all about, and I’m delighted to be a part of it.

Leading the way in Fukushima

English teaching in Japan is changing. Across the country, a new team of “Teacher Leaders” are helping English teachers to transform their lessons. Laura Mckenzie met one of these leaders in Fukushima.

I joined the British Council Japan as a teacher trainer on the second year of the Leaders of English Education Project (LEEP) in May 2015. I was soon plunged into the thick of things - in my second week the British Ambassador came to visit as I delivered training to future “Leaders of Education” in central Tokyo. There was a real buzz in the training classrooms that week, but I was curious to see how these teachers would get on when they returned to their schools and local areas, and came back into contact with everyday school life.

As a result, I was delighted when I was asked to go to Fukushima to see Yukari Ota, a Teacher Leader from the first year of the project, deliver training to her senior high school colleagues.

I wasn’t sure what to expect, but from the moment we arrived, I was struck by the atmosphere in the room. The teachers were enjoying the chance to practise their English with colleagues, but, more than that, they seemed to be inspired and captivated by the person leading the training, Yukari. She peppered her sessions with examples of how the LEEP training had helped her own students become more enthusiastic about English, and how they had started using more English to communicate in the classroom. The other teachers were obviously hooked by their colleague who was facing the same everyday realities as them, but making a change, and they clearly wanted to know more about how she had done it.

I got in touch with Yukari after the training, and found out more about her story. I would like to share it with you, in her own words:

I was selected in April last year. It was just after I moved to a new school. Also, I had just come back to Japan from the US where I had studied Education for six months so I was excited to do something for English education in Fukushima as a LEEP leader. 

After week 1 training, I changed how to teach vocabulary. I used to have students just check the meanings of words in Japanese. After week 1, I tried activities like dash to the board, Pictionary and miming. My students were excited to try these activities and I still do these in my class now.

Yukari’s flawless delivery of the training was no accident, as I soon found out. She had clearly put a huge amount of effort into preparing her sessions:

I started the first cascade sessions in December last year. As they were the first I went to Niigata to watch cascade sessions by Mr. Nozawa (a fellow Teacher Leader) to see how to deliver them... It was a great help for me to prepare. Beforehand, I listed what I should say and practiced for the sessions. I used the classroom and practiced in front of nobody. Occasionally English teachers watched and gave some advice”.

Her efforts have paid off, and Yukari has noticed that, since taking the training, her colleagues have started to view her differently: 

.., other teachers' attitudes toward me have been changing. When I suggested trying communicative teaching method before, not everyone agreed on it. However, after I delivered cascade sessions, many people started to understand what I wanted to try and gradually changed their response.    

“They seemed to be impressed to see English-only lessons delivered and were particularly impressed by ideas such as teaching past perfect, how to check students' reading comprehension, etc. Trainees in my sessions told me that they would like to try some of the ideas used”.

This has created a snowball effect in Fukushima, with large numbers of teachers flocking to see Yukari delivering open lessons in her school:

Last week, I showed my class to teachers from all over Fukushima prefecture – 56 teachers visited, far more than I expected. I think the teachers are interested in how I teach with methods and ideas in cascade sessions. It went well and teachers, including those from traditional, academic schools, gave me positive feedback. I am sure the cascade training had an impact on English education in Fukushima”.

The Ministry of Education calculates that 20,000 teachers will have benefitted from LEEP training by the end of March 2016. Rather than numbers, though, it is the personal connections that result from the training that may be having the biggest impact. Yukari notes that:

Thanks to LEEP, I now have friends to talk about teaching English with, materials and ideas”.

In the months to come, I am looking forward to meeting more people like Yukari all around Japan.

Japan-wide release of Teacher Training DVDs

The Japanese Ministry of Education is distributing over 42,000 British Council teacher training DVDs to be used in every state school across Japan.  The DVDs will be used to help English teachers develop their communicative teaching skills.

They are being released as part of the nationwide LEEP teacher training project and include footage of LEEP training sessions as well as authentic classroom footage of Japanese teachers and their students.  They include practical, step-by-step examples of communicative classroom activities, and have been designed to support teachers who have attended the LEEP training on their return to work.  They can also be used by teachers who will attend the training at a later date, to make them aware of some of the techniques they’ll be learning.

There are three versions of the DVD, for elementary, junior and senior high school levels, each containing eight 20 minute videos, focusing on areas of English teaching and techniques that are relevant at each level.  

From a trainer's perspective - LEEP phase one

Erik Jacobson is a British Council trainer working on the first year of LEEP. Here Erik describes his experience working with elementary (primary) school teachers:

I never imagined I would be reading The Hungry Caterpillar to Japanese ministry of education officials. But that’s exactly what LEEP had me doing a few weeks ago. The officials had come along to observe teacher training on the use of picture books in Elementary schools, and they apparently went away very pleased with what they had seen.

This project involves training primary school teachers from all the prefectures in Japan to increase their confidence and ability to teach English through using English. This means using storybooks, songs, authentic English, games and introducing classroom English (e.g. “Can you repeat that?” “What’s (that) in English?”) to make lessons more personalized, engaging and memorable for Japanese students. Another goal is to get students communicating with one another in English. “Foreign Language Activities” have only recently been introduced as compulsory lessons in Japanese primary schools.

I really love how active the teachers are in the training. For example, after I demonstrate reading a storybook for the teachers using gestures, intonation, pointing and other techniques, they then choose their own story from our library of picture books and plan in pairs how they’re going to tell it. The ideas they come up with are fantastically creative, everything from finger puppets, to prop stethoscopes to origami paper frying pans. After the teachers tell their stories to their students (a.k.a. other teachers) they give each other feedback which is followed by further tips from me.

One key aim of LEEP is for the teachers to eventually become trainers themselves. Once they’ve returned to their prefectures and had time to put the ideas they have learnt into practice, they will cascade the training to their peers. The ambitious goal for the project is for this training to reach every English teacher in Japan. At the end of the year, I will be travelling all over Japan to see how they are doing. I expect to learn a few new tricks myself.