Columns on View All Columns
Visit ELTBOOKS - all Western ELT Books with 20% discount (Japan only)

The Uni-Files

A candid look at EFL life and lessons from a university teacher's perspective.

July 30, 2010

A very brief blueprint for Japanese university English programs

In the comments section of the previous entry, reader Mark Howarth asked me to outline what I think an English program at a Japanese university should look like. I have covered a similar topic on this blog in the past which you can access here (scroll down to the second entry) but I thought it would also be worthwhile to restate, or elaborate on, a few points.

First, here's what I think a Japanese university English course shouldn't be modeled upon:
1. It is not eikaiwa. There are legitimate places to learn daily conversation. University is not one of them. A university should have a more rigorous academic focus for any subject- including English.

2. It is not a continuation of high school English. Most students learned English structure in the form of discrete items in high school (particularly in preparation for entrance exams). The students, at some level, know this stuff. True, very few can use it productively or even in a consolidated manner but at some level they 'know' it. The trick is getting it from the realm of the latent and passive and into more active contexts. Now is the time to put what was learned (at a certain level) in high school to use.

3. It is not a matter of just memorizing more specific terminology- which can be achieved using a good dictionary.

4. It should be more generalized in scope- as befits the concept of a university- than the narrower, very specialized focus of a senmon gakko. That is, it should balance intrinsic and instrumental purposes.

5. It shouldn't be reduced to a TOEIC-like course, a detached, discrete-point, impersonalized, externally-administered program. Such things are useful foor supplementary study but hardly as a curriculum framework.

On the positive side- a university program should...
1. cause students to engage cognitively

2. be academically viable

3. develop critical thinking skills and production of English within meaningful contexts (meaning within their major subjects)

ESP (English for Specific Purposes) and EAP (English for Academic Purposes) models therefore seem most appropriate.

Teaching methodology should not focus upon structure (which will just repeat the shortcomings of high school English) or terminology but upon the frames of discourse within a particular academic subject (i.e., agriculture majors should study and utilize English skills that reflect and enhance what people in the field of agriculture talk about, what they read, write, communicate.

Universities should be a place where students learn to communicate with peers worldwide in the field and gain the ability to write papers and give outlines/preparations in English on specific topics.

Discrete aspects of English (specialist vocab., structural elements) can be mastered through ongoing moderated evaluated tasks, process learning, (if and when such points are needed and can be grasped contextually for the sake of enhancing communication) rather than a focus upon numerically-based discrete item testing. In other words, vocabulary and grammar are mastered not before dealing with meaningful, academic content but through dealing with such content. The meanings and functions only have reality for students when they manifest themselves in meaningful expression, and is retained only when recycled through meaningful contexts which the student is creating or maintaining (not teacher or text fed).

The most common negative response I get in regard to these proposals is that many, if not most, university students don't have the English skills to embark upon such a program- that many can barely squeak out the most basic of utterances.

I would answer that it is precisely the focus upon non-cognitive mechanics that has brought about this disjunct (between the passive knowledge of English as gained in HS and actual, practical, meaningful usage) and therefore to continue pursuing it, arguing that students have not yet mastered it sufficiently, is flogging a dead horse.

Challenging, rather than cognitively coddling, students should inspire them. By relating it to their field of study/interest we provide a framework that has significance for them. Talking about shopping or movies in English does not. They might start of awkwardly upon this track but the rate of improvement and mastery of skill should excite both students and skeptical teachers. After all, it treats them as if they were adults and real students.

I should know because I've seen this happen with my medical students. And while medical students tend to be pretty sound academically, this does not always transfer into utility when they enter university. In fact what they generally do well at is test-taking. But after two years of a discourse-based ESP/EAP approach most have taken at least a few steps forward- steps that are more becoming of a university student.

« Getting involved- local politics, universities, representation and influence | Main | EFL big shot critiques two presentations- Live from suburban Hanoi! »


Mike, thanks for laying out your ideas for all of us who read this blog. I wish you much success in proposing your ideas to the powers that be at your uni.

Your ideas sound great on paper, I just question whether they can be realistically implemented in most programs. I agree that university English courses should aim to teach more than daily conversation. As you point out, ideally we should be teaching English which is directly related to the fields of study our students are undertaking. But there are two problems I see with this: 1.) many of our students may not end up working in a field related to their studies. Of course medical students will likely end up somewhere in the medcial field, perhaps engineering students may end up engineering at some point. But what about business majors (who often don't end up doing business), or art majors. How do we help students who are undecided at this point in their lives? and 2.) it would be really tough to teach, say, engineering students how to explain the processes involved in building a road in English when they can barely even introduce themselves or reply to simple questions.

Perhaps at the higher level universities in Japan a plan such as your is viable, but for some universities I don't think it is realistic. For lower level unis a more achievable goal is to simply spark some interest in English. Show the students that after all the boring years of study they did in JHS and HS that maybe they did absorb some things and can now try to start putting it to use at a basic level. I could be selling my students short but I think these are more realisitc goals for a program such as the one I am involved in.

Anyway, thanks again for offering your thoughts on this important topic. Good luck with your proposal.


Hi Mark.

To be honest, yours is by far the most common response I receive when I tell of my methodologies and curriculum planning regarding university English in EFL contexts. Your objections have inspired me to write a near-future Yomiuri piece as to how this might be achieved with even mediocre students in subjects less directly related to real-world skills than medicine.

Let me give a brief outline using your example of Art majors and assuming a number of students who, as you say, even have trouible introducing themselves.

First, I should mention that introduction can, in a sense, be hard. It does not necessarily precede academic discourse in terms of difficulty (many of the Profs hat my Univ. can do presentations and lpeer contact in English but will botch up the 'simple' stuff).

For example, many of my students will say, "I came from/ I was from" and subsequently get all botched up when talking about hometowns. Or, they might well use, "Almost weekends" instead of "On most weekends" when talking about personal activities. The choices between come/came/was from are actually quite delicate, as is knowing the correct preposition for 'weekends' and a precise role for the determiner (?) 'most'. But will they get it just by going over these things again? Do they have to master these details before they can engage in more substantial discourse? I don't think so.

In fact they can come to master these more mundane forms by having them repeatedly appear within academic frameworks, where they are concentrating on content rather than the forms per se (this is how my medical students often come to master the perfective 'have', for example).

So- OK, for an Art major... What discourse forms exist in their community. I can think of three offhand. 1. You've been asked to submit a proposal for a contract or a competition (or are commisioned to do a work for advertising, architecture whatever) 2. You carry a portfolio that needs explaining in English 3. You have to give instructions as to how to assemble/design a piece to others.

In carrying out these tasks students can be creative and engage their chosen major/area of interest. This comprises the 'inspiring an interest in English' part that you mentioned. They already (should) have certain cognitive categories in their heads regarding art so you don't have to teach art content per se. But what English is needed to carry out the discourse forms mentioned above? Need it be much more complex than a self-introduction?

(example) A comissioned piece needs a:

Task- Design an item (various catgories possible) and provide the information above in English. Then, you will present your work to the teacher (or peers) as if you were 'selling' your piece. You will prepare both a written and spoken version.

(example of one section) Purpose: This is an outline of a stadium used for soccer and baseball and other summer sports. It will hold 30,000 people. We must consider costs, environment and usage. It will be used mostly in summer.

OK- The above can be appended with the teacher's help to give it a more professional appearance but neither the vocab nor structures involved (and certainly not the cognitive aspects) should be above 19 year old university students. They will make mistakes of course because they haven't mastered much English yet, ("This stadium is ball sports stadium") but because they'll be going through a process and recycling, this will get fixed. Not only that, but that fixing of certain basic structures is likely to be internalized and thereby have a longer-lasting holistic impact precisely because it was created by their own cognition, was meaningful to their task purpose, was recycled, and finally used in a prestige situation.

When forms are used repeatedly within contexts that are cognitively engaging and meaningful to students they tend to absorb them; to understand their role and functionat a deeper level.

Of course this type of procedure can continue with each category in the list and further, with each task replication of real English discourse in the world of art. The same thing can (and should) be applied to any academic discipline.

I hope that clarifies what I mean a bit more.


Good stuff Mike, I think you are onto something here. I agree with your point regarding fleshing out the small errors through working on the bigger picture. Getting students to ignore the minor grammatical shortcomings while focusing on overall message will, in my opinion as well, lead to basic structures being more "internalized" (to use your words).

If this type of curriculum is to be carried out successfully I see at least a few challenges which need to be met head on: 1. teachers will have to really re-think what it means to teach English in Japan. This is a tough one because I think almost teachers, err most teachers, would really rather just go in and teach daily conversation because, quite frankly, it's easy. It doesn't require a lot of planning time, it's not all that cognitively demanding to evaluate students and provide error correction and feedback to the students, and it's pretty simple to come up with games/activities which make the classes enjoyable. It would be a hard sell to ask teachers to create different curriculums for each of the majors we teach. If there were a textbook available, for example "The Art of Teaching Enlish to Art Students" by Mike Guest, which teachers could follow then it might be an easier sell, but I can't think of any textbooks out there which aim to do what you are proposing. So that's challenge number one, a formidable one but not impossible to overcome.

Challenge number two would be convincing students to overlook their grammatical shortcomings in the short term for the sake of long term benefits. You wrote recently on this site about the overnervousness of japanese people. This is so true, especially when it comes to speaking English. Many students hesitate to open their mouths for fear of mucking up whether "I was from Fukuoka" or "I am from Fukuoka". There will need to be a mass cognitive shift in the way J students perceive errors. I find that no matter how many times I implore the students not to worry about grammar mistakes they still manage to get flustered over making minor errors.

There was one more challenge I had thought of but I can't seem to think of it now.

Anyway, these are just some thoughts I had regarding your proposal. The challenges I mention, and others which I haven't mentioned, can be overcome. But it will require quite a big shift in thinking in the world of university ESL in Japan. And that is not a bad thing.


Recent Columns

Recent Comments




World Today