Where English Begins: What Is It Like Teaching English in Japanese Elementary Schools?

In a previous article, I have given an overview of what being an Assistant Language Teacher (ALT) in Japan is like, and I would like to explore deeper into the day-to-day life of an ALT working in elementary schools here.

In Japan, English is a weekly subject for 5th and 6th graders, and with the educational changes coming in 2020, 3rd and 4th graders will officially begin English classes. However, many school districts have already established English classes for the lower grades, and many ALTs do have opportunities to teach all the classes in the whole school.

A Japanese elementary classroom

Depending on your location and how big the schools are, most ALTs have multiple schools. It is fortunate to have only two or three schools, because those working in rural areas might be going to 20 different schools or more.

Taking a more in-depth look at the job, the ALT is a very special position in the school. Unlike most teachers in the school who have their homerooms, the ALT is a free-goer. That alone creates a big gap in the workloads between the ALT and others. Most ALTs also belong to an ALT dispatch company, so you usually are not officially hired by the school, leaving you with even less responsibilities from the schools.

Young kids doing a physical activity in the school gym

Teaching materials

As mentioned in the previous article, ALTs are supposed to be team-teaching with the homeroom teachers. However, since they are already so occupied with all the other subjects they have to teach, English being a minor subject receives much less attention, and the ALTs might be asked to plan the lesson in some cases.

Regardless of who plans the lessons, you are very unlikely to have efficient time to discuss with other teachers on the lessons beforehand. It’s not their fault, they are just THAT busy. Therefore, a huge part of the successful team-taught English lessons rely on the chemistry you have built up with your teachers and your ability to think on the fly.

An English lesson at the elementary school level will likely involve a few things:

  • A song or chant
  • A warm-up activity that may involve reviewing the previous English
  • An English pattern
  • New key words
  • Practice time for the new English
  • One or two activities that require students to use the new English effectively

For example, I may be teaching my 5th graders the pattern “What ___ do you like? I like ____.” I would start the class with a song that we’ve been practicing recently, followed by a quick five minutes quiz game that gets students excited and raises the energy level. Then, I would introduce and demonstrate the new English with the Japanese teacher, using a skit or simply asking her “what sports do you like?” “what colour do you like?” “what food do you like?” At the elementary school level, English learning is limited to listening and speaking only, with reading and writing to be officially introduced in junior high schools.

The key words this time may be sports-orientated, and the key words and sentence pattern are repeated and practiced until the kids appear comfortable with using them.

Finally I would demonstrate the interview activity which has the students asking and answering each other while doing rock-paper-scissors for points to encourage them. I might wrap the class up with another quick game, but that is flexible depending on the class’s energy level and how much time is left.

After the lesson, I would then reflect on it and make necessary tweaks before conducting it again for the next class. It definitely isn’t a complicated line of procedures, but it does require some good ideas and a lot of energy to keep up with the kids’ engagement and excitement levels.

Japanese school lunch

The job doesn’t end there. A huge part of the ALT’s work is the continuous English communication outside of the lessons. For example, I am always eating lunch with my students, rotating through the classes in the school. Afterwards, I would join (or the students would drag me to join) the kids for break time and we would be outside playing tag or dodge-ball. Cleaning time (yes, students in Japan are the ones cleaning the school) is also my opportunity to interact with the students as I help make the school a more beautiful place.

Kids cleaning their classroom

What about the periods when there are no English classes? Many ALTs would take it as break time or Japanese-studying time, but what I love to do is walking into other classes (with prior permission from the teachers, of course) and joining the students in learning whatever subject is currently in progress. Not only do I get to learn Japanese, paint pictures, embarrass myself with my singing, show off my mastery of elementary level mathematics, show off my basketball dunking skills at elementary height baskets, experience Japanese calligraphy, dig up sweet potatoes and do a whole lot more that I wouldn’t normally have the chance to do in the staffroom, I am also connecting myself even closer to the students, demonstrating that language is a much lower barrier than we thought if we can enjoy the same activity together.


Japanese elementary students will never learn enough English just from the weekly lessons they get with us, but the hope is that with our help, they will be more open and interested in English that they will continue to seek learning opportunities on their own in the future. Being an ALT in elementary schools in Japan is more than just teaching English. It is being an ambassador of another culture, connecting with the students and motivating them in learning English, and it is a meaningful job that I truly enjoy and take pride in every day.

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