Last night I had the pleasure of attending a lecture by Prof. Kensaku Yoshida, who is a major player in English education policy in Japan. He is currently the chair of the committee in charge revising the English examination for the Center Exam for admission into universities in Japan. He is also on, if also not the chair, of the committee that is planning the next course of study for English education in Japan schools as well. Although as Yoshida stated that individuals involved or researching English education policy in Japan rarely make presentations in English, this was the second lecture of his I have attended. It wasn’t too long ago that I attended this previous lecture and was a bit concerned about whether it would be too similar to be worth attending. However, that was not the case and I was left with a lot to think about after the lecture. Here are some of the key points from his lecture along with my own thoughts, ending with a bit of a pep talk for myself and others as we head into the spring break.
The English examination section for the Center Exam, the main university entrance exam for students in Japan, will become a four-skills test (evaluating listening and speaking, as well as reading and writing) from 2020. However, according to Yoshida, how that will look is still unclear.
Yoshida is interested in having already established tests, such as Eiken, TEAP, IELTS, etc., be used for this portion of the examination. As he stated, these exams are already proven to correctly evaluate students language ability and have already established test taking times and locations. TEAP, which was developed at Yoshida’s home university of Sophia, has already begun to be used by Waseda as part of its admissions package, for example.
Yoshida is a strong proponent of using already existing exams such as these to determine admission to universities, so he spent some time discussing the benefits. He also mentioned there was resistance to this within Monkasho, so the four-skills entrance examination could end up being a modified version of the current Center Exam. He seemed to not want to go into too much detail in it due it not being his first choice.
In addition, although Waseda has decided to start using an already established four-skills tests, he mentioned other prestigious universities, such as the University of Tokyo, thought, or as Yoshida said, knew, they were already getting the best students and felt no need to change their own entrance examinations in any way. In other words, they are not really considering including a four-skills English evaluation test.
I wonder, though, how teacher behavior will change if elite schools don’t follow through on implementing a four-skills exam. A lot of private cram schools and private secondary schools pride themselves on the number of students they send to schools like the University of Tokyo. Though Yoshida mentioned that the goal of changing the exams was to change teacher behavior in terms of how much Japanese they use in the classroom. He related being told by teachers that who were asked why they didn’t use English in the classrooms that it was due to the entrance examinations, but now they say with a four skills entrance examinations they don’t know how to do so. But if the elite schools don’t change, teachers may not need to move away from that initial reason of not teaching English in English.
Another issue is cram schools, which is rarely discussed in these situations but also a place where students spend many hours studying English, but to pass entrance exams, in classes which are mostly taught in Japanese. I have rarely seen any juku classes, to be honest, so that is only a guess. My assumption is Monkasho’s worry is disrupting this market – and angering parents who have spent a lot of money on these schools. All assumptions, though. However, how cram schools react to these changes is something to look into in the future, as well.
In any case, the bottom line is that what the four-skills entrance examinations from 2020 will look like is still not clear.
Changes to Elementary School Education
Elementary school education will also be changing. I taught at elementary schools in the early 2000s. In one ward I was doing English activities, which at the time was revolutionary but is now a part of the regular curriculum of fifth and sixth grader everywhere now. It is giving students an experience using English rather than teaching English. I am not sure what the difference is then or now, except that students aren’t evaluated nor should there be any explicit grammar instruction. That also means that there isn’t necessarily a need for trained or licensed teachers of English in these classes. The homeroom teachers should be able to run these classes and activities.
That will change with the new course of study with third and fourth graders participating in English activities while 5th and 6th graders will have English classes as a regular subject. However, one issue of this is time. There is just no time in the currently schedule to add these classes. Third and fourth graders were supposed to have two hours a week of English activities, but Yoshida said that is almost impossible to make room for two hours of English education in the fourth year schedule. In addition, fifth and sixth graders were supposed to have three class hours a week, but that will probably be only two. In addition, there is the possibility of there being only one full class hour a week and then three fifteen minute modules, to be placed before or after, or in between classes as opposed to a second full class hour of English being added to the schedule.
Even within this plan, Yoshida said that here are just not enough licensed teachers in Japan, whether Japanese or non-Japanese, currently to over these classes. I wasn’t clear on what the system would be, but it seems Monkasho and Yoshida envisions a training and/or licensing system to allow experts into the classroom, both Japanese and non-Japanese, that can work side by side with the homeroom teacher, in order to teach students language systematically so that they can be accurately evaluated.
Whatever this ends up looking like, there will be a need for more elementary school English teachers japan in the near future.
How Teacher Beliefs Affect Their Own Classroom Behavior and Student Motivation
One interesting in aspect of the presentation was on the perennial issue of why Japanese students do so poor in English. As always, survey data was trotted out that Japanese students thought English was important, just not for them, their lack of interest in going abroad or in their careers, etc.
What was striking, though, was that teachers also felt the same way, that English was important but not for their students. This could mean, for example, that teachers who felt this way would revert to Japanese in class because they just didn’t think their kids needed or, perhaps, could even learn English, so they may just be trying to get through the day as opposed to encouraging or supporting their kids learning.
Yoshida mentioned that research in bilingual education in the US, where students potentially came from disadvantaged backgrounds that it was important that teachers always believed their students would eventually succeed even if students were having trouble in the short term.
I remember when I first came to Japan on the JET program and taught in Niigata, I wondered if students actually needed to learn English.
These days, though, I feel it is essential, for better or worse, to know English to be an informed, engaged citizen of the world. (I relate a story about this in my bio on my personal homepage explaining why I feel my job and career is important). I often cringe when I think back on how I thought about teaching English while in Niigata and how I do so today, but I always connected it to my training and experience. I hadn’t explicitly tied it to my own reasons for teaching English, but that also seems to have played a role.
He also discussed an issue he had mentioned in the past, the role that non-native teachers and non-native forms English could play in encouraging English education. This is something I agree with, essentially, even though it creates a problematic internal dialog since I am a “native” teacher of English in Japan. But I saw it for myself when I taught English at elementary schools in the early part of the century. Student ability and interest in English was much higher when their own homeroom teachers were using English and engaged in English classes than those who were not.
Yoshida answered a final question on the hiring of non-native speakers in Japan. The questioner asked about it being seen as cost cutting measure. Yoshida answered that right now Americans were the largest group of foreign teachers in elementary schools but that the second largest nationality were Filipinos. He thought that since data showed Filipino teachers could speak Japanese and were long term residents, they could communicate better with the Japanese teachers and staff and could be doing a better job that the American teachers, so it wasn’t necessarily a cost issue.
I hope my long experience in Japanese schools, Japanese language skills, background in linguistics and education policy, etc., make up for my nativeness., I also believe I do have confidence that my students not only can speak English but they actually need English to survive and thrive in the world today. Since native teachers, however, can’t really be a model English speaker that our students in Japan can become – since they can never become a native speaker of English — I realized it is essential for us to be confident and have high expectations for our student’s future success as English speakers.
How native speakers can do this without shattering the confidence of their students by understanding that their students will never be native speakers is another blog post, probably a PhD thesis or two.
But one simple takeaway is that while student motivation may be a variable that we may or may not be able to increase, our own belief that students can become competent English speakers is vitally important. This is especially important when we teach and interact with lower level students. As Yoshida said himself, they are doing fine and will take care of themselves is those students who, for whatever reason, don’ think they can achieve success in their study of English, that need our help and encouragement and support the most. Believing in our students, even when they don’t believe in themselves, is the least we can do for them.
If you made it this far
Thanks! Of course, none of my own opinions reflect those of my employer or the schools where I teach. In addition, apologizes in advance if I misinterpreted or misunderstood any of Yoshida’s ideas. There is still more I can discuss from his lecture — I didn’t discuss at all the can do statements in the new course of study, which do not reference any level of native speaker ability and are based on the Common European Framework for Reference for Languages — so I hope to hear your ideas to perhaps build upon them in future posts.