JET Programme Essay Contest: The English problem

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at
Fri Jun 8 12:24:17 UTC 2007

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JET Programme Essay Contest

Posted By *Mike* On June 7, 2007 @ 10:26 pm In *Personal* | *No Comments*

Every year the JET Programme runs an essay contest and, because I had
nothing better to do, I entered it. I found out today that mine was not
among the winning entries but that's OK. When you read it I think you'll
understand why this was probably not what they were looking for. I thought
since no one will see it now I'll put it up on the blog. Unfortunately CLAIR
hasn't put up the winning entries so I can't link to them but I'll get back
to updating this post when they do.
The English Problem

There is no shortage of academic papers, newspaper articles or JET essays
that note the 'English Problem' in Japan. Despite the massive amounts of
money channelled into English education and the JET
the Japanese Government continues to founder in its attempt to develop
English language abilities in the populace. The system of English education
must carry a great deal of the blame for this current state of affairs. What
is to be done and why should it be a concern of the JET Programme?

The second question is the easier of the two. Any thorough analysis of the
JET Programme must take into account the context in which it operates:
namely, the junior and senior high school education system of Japan and more
specifically English education within these schools. If there are problems
in this system it should be a concern. Failures within the system inhibit
the ability of the JET Programme and its participants to achieve two goals:
English language instruction and grass roots internationalisation. On the
other hand, a better functioning system means a better functioning JET

It is for this reason that in my attempt to analyse the JET Programme and to
encourage improvement and development of the JET Programme, and indeed
international exchange and foreign language education at large, that I
propose to look at the English Problem in Japan: what are its causes and how
can they be solved?

There is no shortage of money being invested in foreign language education
in Japan; the JET Programme alone is testament to that. What obstacles are
there, then, that impede the ability of Japanese people to speak better
English? In my experiences as a participant on the JET Programme and in a
review of the literature I have come to the conclusion that there are two
major obstacles to foreign language education in Japan: (1) the
grammar-instruction method of education still predominates; and (2) large
numbers of students do not want to learn English.

The latter point requires some elaboration. The size of the private English
education industry is testament to the fact that large numbers of people do
want to speak English2<>[2].
What I mean is that students are not interested in learning English in the
formal education system. Considering the exorbitant cost of private tuition
(and its continuing popularity) this should surely come as a surprise.

The grammar-instruction method of language education is often singled out as
a major reason behind Japan's inability to speak English. Keiko Sakui (2004)
found that in spite of a curriculum that ostensibly privileges communication
skills ahead of grammar and vocabulary '[in] overall actual classroom
teaching, grammar instruction [is] central, and far more foregrounded than
CLT [communicative language teaching]' (p. 157). Furthermore, in 'class
periods taught by Japanese teachers, if any time at all was spent on CLT it
was a maximum of five minutes out of 50' (p. 157). Others identify a similar
tendency to 'stress reading and writing over reading and listening' (Reesor,
2003, p. 61). My own experience – and that of fellow JETs – bears out a
similar result. In my own classes, which involve far more speaking and
listening, everything remains grounded in grammar points that students are
expected to memorise.

This brings me to the second obstacle. Given the above it is perhaps not
surprising to discover most students don't want to learn
While it might not be surprising it should be concerning. Noboyuki Honna and
Yuki Takeshita (2005) present data from a study they conducted showing first
year junior high students who start studying English in April 'begin to take
a strong dislike to English as early as May in the same year' (p. 374).
Jacqueline Norris-Holt (2002) found 50% of third year senior high school
students 'indicated a lack of study commitment during English classes at
school' (p. 37). These studies are reinforced once again by my own
experience as an ALT where merely arousing interest constituted the bulk of
effort in the classroom.

If we have identified these two major obstacles, what next? Before we rush
looking for solutions we should pinpoint not just the obstacles but also
their underlying causes. In this essay I wish to address four causes and
propose solutions to them. The four causes are: (1) examinations; (2) the
English-is-foreign attitude; (3) mixed-ability classes; and (4) teachers.

The first cause is one familiar to anyone who has spent time in the Japanese
education system. Simply put, education in this country is geared towards
tests. Charles M Browne and Minoru Wada (1998), Keiko Sakui (2004), Yuko
Goto Butler and Masakazu Iino (2005), and Robert W Aspinall (2006), amongst
others, have noted the overriding importance of tests, particularly college
entrance examinations and their grammar-translation focus. Aspinall points
out that when the Ministry of Education added the requirement of
communicative foreign language learning to the curriculum in 1992 it had
'almost no effect because high school students, their teachers and their
parents were overwhelmingly concerned with passing paper exams' (p. 260).
Browne and Wada make a similar claim: 'the need to teach the contents of the
textbooks and the need to prepare students for entrance exams still affect
classroom activities more [than directions from the Ministry]' (p. 108).

In my classes I found that while getting students to pay attention to a
model conversation was often an exercise in futility, there was no such
problem when it came to worksheets. I still find the sight of a class of 16-
to 17-year-old boys stopping their conversations to work on a word search
puzzle utterly bizarre. And yet I see it in class after class. As soon as
the worksheet comes out, pencils are drawn, heads go down and a blissful
silence descends on the classroom. Part of the reason is that this is an
activity students can complete with confidence but I am convinced the
overwhelming motivation for students is the knowledge the worksheet might be
used in an upcoming test.

If the focus of English instruction is to be altered then educators must
overhaul the examination process. All the pronouncements in the world about
cultivating English with Japanese sensibilities abilities will do nothing if
the exams students and teachers are working toward maintain the same focus
on grammar and vocabulary they always have.

This suggestion is not particularly novel. A debate about English testing
has been going on since at least the 1970s and many have made proposals to
tackle the issue. In 1974 House of Representatives member Wataru Hiraizumi
proposed, in a wider move to reorient English education, that English be
dropped from college examinations altogether. Yoichi Funabashi (2000) argued
that this was going too far but that English assessment tests like TOEFL
should replace those currently testing English ability in entrance
examinations. Whichever strategy is adopted the evidence surely indicates
maintaining the status quo is untenable. Nothing will change until the
problem of how to test English is addressed.

The competing solutions of Hiraizumi and Funabashi get to a more fundamental
problem, however, and the second cause I wish to consider. Japan still has
not embraced English as its own language. This point is made forcibly by
Matthew Reesor (2003) who argues 'curricular reforms stressing communicative
English abilities will prove to be unsuccessful without first addressing
widely held negative attitudes and discriminatory practices affecting
Japanese English language speakers' (p. 57). Honna and Takeshita (2005)
similarly maintain that the success of the Ministry of Education's latest
plan will succeed or fail 'to a large extent on whether Japanese people will
be able to take English as their own language of communication rather than
simply a foreign language' (p. 364). I can confirm the 'English as a foreign
language' attitude prevails among students. Most view English like one would
a magic trick – fun to watch but not something you'd actually do.

My solution to this problem is, at first glance, more a declaration of
defeat than anything else. I have come to the opinion that attempts to
'convince' Japanese people to accept English as their own language will
ultimately be in vain. Japan does not enjoy the historical connections to
English that successful non-native English-speaking countries such as
Singapore or India do. Nor does it need English-speaking in its educated
elite as other developing countries might. As a result forcing all Japanese
students to study English is a pointless exercise. My solution is to make it
an elective subject.

I am exposed in almost every class I teach to a handful of students who are
clearly interested in English and a vast majority that are not. It is
heartbreaking to be in a class of 40 students and realise that not only are
only five students paying attention, but that those five will not receive
the attention they deserve as a result of the other 35. The egalitarian
ethos that underpins Japan's desire to have all people speak functional
English is admirable. But is it realistic? What good are we achieving by
forcing all students to take English, even those that do not want or need
it? Much talk is made of the necessity of speaking English. But people have
been making this argument for decades now. If it truly was essential to the
survival of Japan that it speak English it would have gone the way of the
dodo a long time ago. The fact of the matter is that most people in Japan do
not need English. It is probable that Japan would be in a better position if
it had the English levels of India but then Japan would be in a better
position if it had the birth rate of India. You work with what you have. The
Ministry of Education needs to be realistic, not just admirable, in its
goals for English learning in Japan.

There are many who would argue strongly against a proposition to make
English elective throughout high school. Even if this proved impossible it
would still be an improvement if at the very least certain schools had the
option of making foreign language study elective. During my time in Japan I
worked at a technical high school. I can say without doubt that 80% of the
students will not need English in their future employment. Forcing these
students to study English makes as much sense as forcing them to learn
synchronised swimming. Sure, people might be smiling but no one is really
having a good time.

There are some who contend that making English elective will lead to the
creation of an educated 'elite' and segment students along socioeconomic
lines. I do not shy away from this as a possible result of my suggestion and
one that is unfortunate. To this argument I would reply that segregation is
already prevalent in Japanese education. There are solutions to it but I'm
not convinced forcing everyone to study a foreign language is one of them.
Surely the vast amounts of money expended on English education (textbooks,
teachers, the JET Programme) could be better invested in improving school
facilities, better pay for all teachers and more opportunities for
underprivileged students that would be a far more effective use of the money
in bridging this divide.

Elective classes would help solve another problem and the third cause: mixed
ability classes hinder efforts to target lessons appropriately for students.
I teach classes which are, on average, 40 students in size. In such a large
class English ability varies markedly. I have found preparing material
appropriate for all the students to be an impossible task and more often
than not design lessons aimed at the lowest common denominator. In such
classes it is no wonder students struggle to maintain interest. Some
situations are so extreme that I would almost recommend certain students
skip the lessons entirely and go to the library to study a textbook
appropriate to their level.

This is identified by Aspinall (2006) as part of the policy failure of
foreign language education. He remarks that although the driving force
behind mixed-ability classes is an egalitarian ethos, students are
disadvantaged as a result: 'more able students are held back [while
students] who have specific learning difficulties with language are also
disadvantaged' (p. 264). With the Ministry of Education now more actively
promoting the idea of 'individualised education' (Goto Butler and Iino,
2005, p. 29) perhaps the time is ripe for a change to occur. Mixed-ability
classes are not benefiting anyone. Putting students into ability streams –
especially if English remains compulsory – will enable better targeting of
resources. It might result in increased work for the ALT in preparing
different materials for classes but I am certain it would result in much
increased job satisfaction.

If classes can't be streamed by ability at least making classes smaller
would assist language teachers. It is true debate about the virtues of class
size is ongoing and that while there exists a wide body of work suggesting
smaller class sizes do academically benefit students the evidence is far
from conclusive4<>[4].
One thing that doesn't seem to be in dispute is that students in smaller
classes experience more interaction with the teacher (Peter Blatchford,
2005, p. 200). In the case of ALTs where part of our job is to interact with
students, it would seem self-evident that smaller class sizes would better
enable this. A 50-minute class with 40 students means a minute per student.
Hardly a satisfactory amount of time for grass roots internationalisation.

The fourth and final cause is, unfortunately, teachers. There are too many
teachers who simply are not competent. By this I refer not only to Japanese
Teachers of English (JTEs) but also the ALTs that come over as part of the
JET Programme. It has been suggested that one of the reasons behind the
prevalence of the grammar-instruction method in schools and at university is
that for some JTEs this is the only form of teaching in which they feel
confident (Aspinall, 2006, p. 259). If English education is to be improved
in Japan it will require the Ministry of Education to properly tackle this
issue. Stories abound amongst the JET community of ALTs who operated as
little more than human tape recorders – not because of laziness on either
end – but simply because communication between the ALT and the JTE was all
but impossible.

This is not just an issue with respect to JTEs. ALTs need to be better
trained as well. In her comparison of Japan's JET Programme and Hong Kong's
NET Scheme Mee-ling Lai (1999) observes that the JET Programme is not well
designed to attract language teachers. It does not require any language
teaching qualifications and it sets limits on the amount of time ALTs can
work in the programme. Compare this with Hong Kong's programme, where
advisory teachers are required to have both qualifications to teach in
schools and qualifications to teach English. Undoubtedly the goals of the
two programmes are different and this results in a different focus when it
comes to candidates. However, surely some knowledge of teaching English
would be of assistance to JETs.

Even if qualifications were not required prior to being accepted into JET,
there is no reason training could not be part of the preparation. Consider
my own situation. I found out about my acceptance to the JET Programme in
April 2006. I left Australia at the end of July. This means that for
essentially four months I knew I was going on the JET Programme but had
nothing to do in preparation apart from read the General Information
Handbook. Without doubt this time could have been used more productively. I
would have happily taken part in an English teaching course, as I'm sure
would the vast majority of JETs (especially if it was made clear in the
application material this would be part of the programme). This course could
have been paid for either by the JET Programme, by the ALT in advance or it
could have been deducted from the ALT's pay (much as the costs of the
orientation are). While obviously the former would be the most popular with
JETs I don't believe JETs would be averse to paying for their own training,
particularly if this training was recognised and could be used to find work
subsequent to their stint on the programme. The English problem in Japan is
a complex one and it cannot be solved simply. The four causes I have
identified and the solutions proposed are only meant as a jumping off point
for debate.

Japan needs to recognise the two major obstacles to English education and
work towards finding solutions to them. Such an undertaking will not be
minor and the solutions employed may differ radically from those I have
suggested. The important thing is for discussion to occur and debate to

English education in Japan, and the JET Programme especially, is an
incredibly ambitious undertaking. The goal is admirable and the Japanese
Government ought to be congratulated for their courage and foresight. But
courage and foresight is one thing, believing that nothing ever needs fixing
is another. The Japanese Government has the opportunity to take the lead on
this issue. Twenty years of the JET Programme means more than just a chance
for a party. It's also means a chance to solve the English Problem once and
for all.

1. According to McConnell (2000) the JET Programme alone costs US$500
million a year (p. ix).

2. It is estimated Japanese people spend approximately \3 trillion (US$25.7
billion) a year on private English tuition (Gottlieb, 2001, p. 44).

3. Although the literature mainly concentrates on university students see
Cogan, Torney-Purta & Anderson (1988), Kobayashi, Redekop & Porter (1992),
Kitao & Kitao (1996), LoCastro (1996), Long & Russell (1999).

4. For more on the debate see Filby, Cahen, McCutcheon & Kyle (1983);
Evertson & Randolph (1989); Morgan (2000); Stasz & Stecher (2000).


Aspinall, R (2006). Using the paradigm of 'small cultures' to explain policy
failure in the case of foreign language education in Japan. Japan Forum,
18(2), pp. 255-274.

Blatchford, P (2005). A Multi-method Approach to the Study of School Class
Size Differences. International Journal of Social Research Methodology,
8(3), pp. 195-205.

Browne, C, & Wada, M (1998). Current Issues in High School English Teaching
in Japan: An Exploratory Survey. Language, Culture and Curriculum, 11(1),
pp. 97-112.

Cogan, J, Torney-Purta, J, & Anderson, D (1988). Knowledge and attitudes
toward global issues: Students in Japan and the United States. Comparative
Education Review, 32(3), pp. 282-298.

Evertson, C & Randolph, C (1989). Teaching Practices and Class Size: A New
Look at an Old Issue. Peabody Journal of Education, 67(1), pp. 85-105.

Filby, N, Cahen, L, McCutcheon, G, & Kyle, D W (1983). What happens in
smaller classes? A summary of a field study. In L Cahen et al, Class Size
and Instruction. New York: Longman.

Funabashi, Y (2000). Aete eigo koyogoron. (Nevertheless, English as an
official language.) Tokyo: Bungei Shunju.

Gottlieb, N (2001). Language planning and policy in Japan. In N Gottlieb & P
Chen (Eds.), Language Planning and Language Policy: East Asian Perspectives,
Richmond: Curzon Press, pp. 21-48.

Goto Butler, Y & Iino, M (2005). Current Japanese Reforms in English
Language Education: The 2003 "Action Plan". Language Policy, 4, pp. 25-45.

Honna, N, & Takeshita, Y (2005). English Language Teaching in Japan: Policy
Plans and their Implementations. RELC Journal, 36(3), pp. 363-383.

Kitao, K & Kitao, S (1996). English Language Education in Japan: An
Overview. Retrieved on March 7, 2007, from [9]

Kobayashi, S, Redekop, B, & Porter, R (1992). Motivation of college English
students. The Language Teacher, 16(1), pp. 7-15.

Lai, M (1999). Jet and Net: A Comparison of Native-speaking English Teachers
Schemes in Japan and Hong Kong. Language, Culture and Curriculum, 12(3), pp.

LoCastro, V (1996). English language education in Japan. In H Coleman (Ed.),
Society and the language classroom. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,
pp. 40-58.

Long, R, & Russell, G (1999). Looking back: Student attitudes change over an
academic year. The Language Teacher, 23(10), pp. 17-27.

McConnell, D L (2000). Importing Diversity: Inside Japan's JET Program.
London: University of California Press.

Morgan, L Z (2000). Class Size and Second-Language Instruction at the
Post-Secondary Level: A Survey of the Literature and a Plea for Further
Research. Italica, 77(4), pp. 449-472.

Norris-Holt, J (2002). An Investigation of Japanese High School Students'
Attitudes towards the Study of English. Second Language Learning & Teaching,
2, Retrieved January 28, 2007, from [10]

Reesor, M (2003). Japanese Attitudes to English: Towards an Explanation of
Poor Performance. Nagoya University of Commerce & Business Journal of
Language, Culture and Communication, 5(2), pp. 57-65.

Sakui, K (2004). Wearing two pairs of shoes: language teaching in Japan. ELT
Journal, 58, pp. 155-163.

Stasz, C & Stecher, B M (2000). Teaching Mathematics and Language Arts in
Reduced Size and Non-Reduced Size Classrooms. Educational Evaluation and
Policy Analysis, 22(4), pp. 313-329.

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