Editorial on ELTNEWS.com
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I hope some of you will join this collaborative editorial. A new teacher/researcher friend recently sent me the following request:

“I am collecting impressions and anecdotes on the challenges faced by teachers in the 21st Century around the globe. I was wondering if you could provide me with 2-3 points on the most pressing issues for language teachers in Japan now.”

She’ll be presenting these ideas at a conference this summer. I was very pleased to be asked my opinion, and I’m hoping that you--our readers--will also share your thoughts. OK, here’s my list:

1. EFL is not ESL

There seems to be a growing awareness that ESL experts who have been flown in to conferences and training seminars over the past number of years have been toting a message that never quite fit with our context. There was always a sense of taking their advice and trying to fit a round peg into a square hole. As EFL Japan matures as its own distinct context, we are searching for more meaningful approaches in the classroom. The growth of Extensive Reading and various other fluency-related approaches are a positive step in that direction.

2. Balancing accuracy and fluency

We often blame the university entrance testing system and its washback effect for the challenges in teaching English in Japan. However, rather than sighing shikataganai (it can’t be helped), it may be an innovative approach to look at promoting a better balance between accuracy and fluency. The six years at JSHS almost entirely focus on accuracy through a grammar-translation and intensive reading method. By comparison, challenging students to work on their fluency may be a timely and easy argument. That has been my experience with high school students as well as first year university students. There are always a lot of heads nodding whenever I ask, “Is your reading too slow?” or “Is it difficult to think and speak at the same time?”

I’ve recently measured two areas of their fluency: speaking (words per minute) and reading (words per minute). Their speaking fluency ranged from 36 wpm–100 wpm, and that information gave them two valuable messages: 1) they realized where they were in relation to their classmates, and 2) they could easily set new goals for improvement.

3. Textbooks vs your own materials

I’ve had this battle before, and yet, I’m having it again. Once you know the goals of a course, and familiarize yourself with what’s available in published textbooks, is the only justification for continuing to use textbooks the fact that they save prep time? If you invest time to prepare your own materials, does that emotional commitment mean that textbooks don’t stand a chance by comparison? My students are pretty sophisticated, veteran students. Last week, they encouraged me to teach them things that I valued in life, not the academic essays on pruning, irrigation and geothermal energy that we’ve encountered in textbooks this year.

What do you think are some pressing issues for language teachers in Japan?

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Sorry, Steve. I hope I don't derail your discussion, but I need to take issue with your last point. To be fair, you do frame it somewhat more ambiguously than textbook=bad; own materials=good, but perhaps because I've encountered this particular argument so often lately, the implication certainly seems clear to me.

The thing is, if one's justification for choosing a textbook is ONLY that it saves prep time, then frankly I find it hard to muster much sympathy for any resulting disappointment. If your school is making you teach from essays on geothermal irrigation pruning, then surely someone along the way make a rather poor decision. (And I'll be quick to admit that it could have been the textbook writer--there *are* certainly a lot of bad textbooks out there.)

But there are a lot of good textbooks too--and the very real skills it takes to choose an appropriate textbook, and then to use it effectively in a specific class, are just as valid and worthy of celebration as the drive and the creativity it takes to develop one's own material.

I'm starting to come to the conclusion that the default, "Textbooks are a second best choice" argument is unfairly biased and disempowering to a certain kind of teacher--a majority, in fact, and one that is often silent in these kinds of discussions. You, Steve, are a powerhouse of energy and ideas, and very talented at making your own materials come alive, but frankly, not everyone is. Some teachers are talented in taking that dry essay or grammar point and making IT come alive.

I think instead of constantly setting up the implicit argument as "Own Materials=Good, Textbooks=Less good", we need to admit that some teachers are not very good at developing their own materials--and that some teachers are simply not very good at using textbooks! (I'm one of the latter!)

Isn't that a nicer way to put it? Rather than implicitly undermine the confidence of teachers who may in fact be doing a pretty decent job using textbooks?

So now, my little sidetracked rant over, I wish your comments thread all kinds of success. I am with you 100% on points 1 and 2, by the way.


Marcos - Exceptional writing and very well expressed. Yes, framing the argument as "textbooks work better for some (perhaps the majority is even fair) teachers than their own materials" is a much more fair AND inclusive approach to the topic.

We often see our own perspective as the most reasonable one, don't we! I'll think about that for the next editorial.

Geez - I wish I could have a more contrary argument to throw back at you, though! A post that started, "Marcos, you ignorant git..." could draw a lot more people into the discussion. Then, I could even post on Twitter, "Benevides and Herder, best buddies until the textbook flap, now in a no-holds-barred war!

Oh well, maybe next time. Any other ideas on pressing issues in EFL Japan?

Hi Steve and Marcos,

Great discussion here! Let's see if I can calm the waters between you by saying that I can relate to both of your points of view regarding textbooks. I have a couple of favorite textbooks, and one in particular, that I think are excellent grist for the mills of many if not most of my students. I think these books are so well designed for progressive vocabulary study that it makes no sense for me to spend time trying to reinvent similar materials, though I sometimes create additional supplementary materials for further practice and review.

In too many of my classes this year I'm austensibly required to use certain textbooks that seem completely uninteresting and inappropriate for my students and for my personal teaching style, so the challenge is to try to find a way to use the texts in a way that I can incorporate into my teaching style and philosophy, for at least part of the class time, or possibly as homework. As an alternative activity in some of those classes I've been experimenting with timed Extensive Writing similar to what you (Steve) have written much about, often with very positive results.

One other issue that's tangentially related to fluency development in Japan's EFL context that I'm enjoying delving into more deeply than usual this semester is helping my students to simply relax while speaking English. People often talk about the four skills of reading, writing, listening, and speaking, and some (notably Diane Larsen-Freeman) will add "grammaring" as the fifth skill. But this year in a wonderful public speaking class I have students who are quite good in all of those skills and are generally very motivated, but the main skill that I think many really need the most is the skill of relaxing so they can communicate more naturally and effectively. We're having a lot of serious fun really focusing on our physical tension levels as we do various warm-up and relaxation activities, and as we give speeches. Learning to relax in stressful situations like public speaking or even in speaking in a foreign language in general, has become "the sixth skill", and one of our primary subjects of study, and sometimes the main focus of our class. This is not an issue that is unique to students and teachers in Japan, but at least for me and many of my students this is one of our most pressing issues this year.

Well, I have to agree with Marcos on the issue of textbooks, and I guess I'm fortunate because I often have the freedom to choose the textbook I want. Recently, I try to choose textbooks written by people I know, textbooks that began as one teacher's homemade materials. That way I know that the materials have been piloted with students similar to mine. To be honest, I used to like making materials but I don't now. I want to spend my time looking for web 2.0 applications that my students and I can use to create things through English, and I want to display what they create. Overall, textbooks are getting better, and I don't think the textbook versus homemade materials debate is a pressing issue in Japan.
I think what is pressing is the need to really come up with ESP curricula. The current "English for no specific model" isn't working - actually what's incredible is that anyone would think it would work! To do this I think that in secondary school we should teach to the test, that is the Centre Test, which has improved a great deal. The Japanese government should stop allowing individual universities the level of freedom now. The vast number and variety of entrance exams makes it impossible to formulate coherent curricula for all.
Hmmm, that's all I'll say for now. Gotta go to work.

Thanks, Bob. I'm very happy to hear your thoughts, and what you wrote about relaxation reminds me of another similar issue that has a direct effect on my classes. This year I have 6 different classes tackling the same material--TOEFL iBT preparation--and while they are all at different levels and therefore struggle with different challenges, HOW they work through these challenges is almost more interesting than WHAT they do. This mostly has to do with class cohesion. Whereas the classes are all 12 students or less, theses class dynamics have a huge impact, I believe, on individuals students attitudes towards their studies. It often only takes one "mood maker" to get everyone in the right frame of mind to enjoy themselves (relax) and have a positive experience during our time together. I spend a great deal of energy trying to create a good class atmosphere similar to your focus on relaxation. I wonder if there is a classroom research project in this idea of "a relaxed, happy group of students improves more than a stressed-out, unhappy class?"

Michael - You early bird, you! (Marcos fb video is still haunting me)

Great points about the ever-improving quality of the Center Test, as well as the silliness of a million different individual university entrance exams. Unfortunately, with the decrease in young minds (bodies?) the importance of the money gleaned from these entrance tests is probably more important than it has ever been!

Working with the new TOEFL iBT this year has been a revelation. With its integrative writing and speaking sections (students must first read something and listen to something, then they must write or speak a suitable response) there is a considerable focus on meaningful skills development. I see my second year students having both verbal skills and improved thinking skills.

I agree 150% on what you wrote about introducing web 2.0 and getting students to create things. We learn by doing, and as often as possible, I get them to teach each other because we REALLY learn by teaching, don't we!

While the issues you've focused on, Steven, are certainly central, the most pressing issue of all, in my humble opinion, is how to reshape English education in Japan in a way that makes enough sense to insure its survival. Around the country, English departments in universities are seeing marked declines in enrollment, the franchise English chain schools are closing up shop, and people who once saw English as a vehicle for personal and professional development are looking elsewhere for their fulfillment.

While I have my notions on why this is all happening and while I even believe that it's a good thing, I'll say no more about that for now.

What I'd like to comment on instead is the dearth of ideas from the usual parties on how to take English Education from where it is now, to what the people want.

Instead, we hear a lot of moaning and in universities get a lot of grief from administration about why our numbers are down. Then we go to department meetings where often the best ideas seem to be a repackaging of the usual or a flashy new brochure to better market the same old thing.

What I wonder is how many university departments will have to close, how many franchise chains will have to shut down, how many teaching jobs will be lost before anyone wakes up to the fact that the past model is dead and can't be revived. without either a revolution or at the very least, an evolutionary shift into a new paradigm?

What's called for is some serious soul searching, and more people moving in more creative and liberating directions.

Every single person who has left a comment here is doing just that in his / her own way but unless this ripples out, trickles up, and spreads widely soon, we're going to see a lot of English language educators reinventing or relocating themselves to other shores.

Morning Chuck,

You really hit one of the nails on the head. Your experience and unique perspective are really valuable to this discussion. I once had an idea to hold a monthly think tank on this very topic: Innovating the EFL context in Japan. It would be great to have a core team and then invite a different guest each month. We could type up the main points from our discussions and blog them or send them to various education officials throughout Japan. Hmm... I still like this idea!

Your comments were in line with my first draft of this month's editorial (I stumbled through 3 entirely different drafts this time). Here is part of it:

Note: It certainly has a few major problems (exaggerations/hype) and thus landed on the editing floor:

My first pressing issue:

1. Where do we go from here?
As an industry, I get the sense that EFL teaching in Japan is just coming out of puberty, and looking towards adulthood. One example of this is JALT: it marks its 36th annual conference this November. And as our industry matures, especially in the current lousy economy, we face a lot of angst and changes in our identity.

Teaching in Japan used to be compared light-heartedly to working at Disneyland, and returning home meant having to escape “the golden handcuffs” of a high salary for relatively few hours of work each week. Whereas most of us were untrained teachers at the time, there was also a certain “Mickey Mousiness” about the industry as a whole. Well, that has changed a lot since I got here in 1989.

Despite the black mark on our industry by dispatch companies, the embarrassment of language schools going belly up and the hopelessness of tenured positions at universities being all but extinct, the good still outweighs the bad.

EFL Japan should hold its head up high and focus on some of the great innovations to have come out of our context: Japan is now considered a world leader in both Extensive Reading programs and research; Teacher development is booming with a huge increase of professional teachers holding post-graduate qualifications; and finally, more and more study materials uniquely produced for the EFL market are being written here in Japan. In short, we are beginning to realize that EFL is distinct from ESL, and that Japan can be worldwide leaders in EFL if we simply stand up and act as leaders.

My second pressing issue:

2. Where do I go from here?
After my brief foray into university teaching. I’ve come to realize that there are way too few applied linguistics professors leading the way in universities in Japan. There are a plethora of professors with PhDs in literature, translation, British or American Studies, etc, but not nearly enough professors with expertise in second language acquisition. I’d sure like to promote increasing the number of TEFL teachers /researchers: professors with as much enthusiasm for teaching as they have passion for research. My peers have a combination of years in the classroom as well as applied linguistics/TEFL post-graduate teaching degrees. We have ideas and we are ready to take on more responsibility and work cooperatively with our Japanese colleagues.

I wonder if any others dare put fingers to keyboard and share their thoughts?

Sorry for being so late to the party...

These are all valid points, and I support any discussion that seeks to improve our profession.

If your teacher/researcher friend is trying to collect the top issues facing university EFL in Japan, then this is a great list, and you can ignore the rest of what I have to say :-)

What concerns me a bit is that the "problems" being discussed affect a relatively small number of teachers at the tip of a very large iceberg.

I'd wager that there are more Japanese teachers of English here than foreign, more teachers of children than university students, and more inexperienced teachers than those with training. Yet, most of these discussions focus on the problems of that small group at the tip.

In part, marginalization in these sorts of discussions is probably unavoidable--it takes money to attend conferences, time and money to conduct research, and more time to write and publish the results of research. All of these happen to be more available to university level educators than others in our profession.

And I know that professional development groups around the country (both those that conduct meetings in English and those that conduct meetings in Japanese) work really hard to make all teachers feel welcome. And, I know they are perennially frustrated by the lack of diversity at their meetings. So, I don't think that any of this is active exclusion from one part of the profession toward another.

I don't have a solution here, but I do feel that this divide is one of the problems facing language teachers in Japan.

For example, one way to insure the survival of university level English courses is to make sure that teachers of children (generally considered the bottom of the teaching iceberg whether at home, in language schools, or in public schools) have support to be the best teachers they can be, so that their students grow up to create a market for higher education.

While I admire the effort to identify problems facing language teachers in Japan, I think that collecting suggestions from any one group of teachers (without the balance of other groups) risks presenting a skewed image of the profession as a whole.


What a glorious "slap upside the head" bit of reality you offered in your post!

God forbid- Have I now become part of the establishment? Since I left the front lines of elementary school and JSHS teaching and now have an office and a university job, does that make me a stuffy, old white guy academic? Do I no longer see the reality of what language school teachers, kids teachers, etc, see and feel every day? Geez, I need to sit down and think about this for a bit...

OK - finished thinking. The unequivocal answer is YES and NO.

First, the YES - I have settled down a bit. I'm no longer full of the angst that I carried around as a younger teacher; worried about what my boss thinks, what I'm gonna teach tomorrow, if it's gonna work, if I have a future in teaching, if anyone's gonna call me a fraud because I don't have a teacher's license, if I can find a few more PT jobs to pay off my student loan quicker.

Now, the NO - I'm equally as passionate as I was as a young guy. I'm still evangelical about sharing what I know works, I can still talk teaching/students/learning/writing/ and researching all night over beers. I still care about the EFL industry and I'm still willing to put my money where my mouth is and willing to reach out and engage my Japanese colleagues as well as young, new teachers at just about any opportunity.

So, where are the people who want to grow, who want support and ideas, or even just to be listened to? I'd love to find a forum to explore ideas with these people. I'd love to have some open Skype sessions, or online meetings for teachers here in Japan who want to talk and collaborate or even jut commiserate.

With the advances in online technology, there are no restrictions or excuses anymore. For anyone who wants more, it is only a click or two away.

My Skype name is Steven Herder and I'd like to publicly declare that I'd happily support any teacher who wants to improve themselves: who wants to explore, and create, and brainstorm in English or in Japanese.

It would be nothing less than great fun to connect with any other teachers who want more from themselves and their careers.

Barbara, let's put our heads together and see what other ideas we can come up with. Thanks, again, for the inspiration.


Steven herder

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