Setsuko Toyama is a prolific author, teacher trainer and presenter. She is one of the
pre-eminent names in teaching English to Japanese children, and is a tireless advocate of
content-based English instruction. She is the author of several textbooks, the latest of
which is the "English Time" series.
Ms. Toyama took time from her very busy travel schedule to correspond by e-mail with ELT News
editor Mark McBennett at the beginning of December, 2002.
About the early days
From what age did you begin to have an interest in English? What memories
do you have of your early English education?
My father was in the trading business and spoke fluent English. When I was a young child,
there were English picture books, Betty Crocker cookbooks, department store catalogs, and gifts
from my father's friends in the US around the house. Guests from the US would visit our house,
we would cook sukiyaki and I thought my father was really wonderful, speaking English and
translating for us. My father would read me Little Golden Books before I went to bed.
I think I grew up with a positive image of English and vaguely thinking I would grow up and be
like my father. I started learning English in junior high just like everyone else. I wanted to
use the language right away and I had little difficulty using it and learning more and more.
I'm very lucky in that I learn languages rather quickly and I am very strongly auditory.
I believe you majored in comparative studies of cultures at university.
How did you get started in ELT?
When Tsuda first offered the course in comparative studies of cultures, a French major class for
30 students was created. I was one of the first 30 who had a very intensive program in French but
had to maintain a certain level in English. It was hard but FUN. I wrote my thesis on a French
I was hoping to go to Europe for further studies but instead I got married and didn't have any
doubt about becoming a homemaker. I belong to that generation. I had never taught English until
some mothers in the neighborhood asked me to teach their children. I couldn't say "No" as they
took turns baby-sitting my children while I taught theirs! There wasn't much material available
so I used picture books. That was in Akita and we moved to Niigata. More and more students enrolled
and I knew I needed to study how to teach.
By chance I went to the kick-off meeting of JALT Niigata chapter, where the late Munetsugu Uruno
sensei, a co-author of Basics in Listening, was the speaker. That was an eye-opener and I was
hooked. At the end of Uruno sensei's presentation, I knew teaching English was what I wanted to
pursue as a career. You can't imagine how hard it was for me to make it to each meeting, though.
I live in a very small town where women are defined by not what you do or are but whose wife or
mother you are. Although this aspect has changed a lot over the past decade, back then it was
unthinkable that I would leave my family on a Sunday to attend a meeting for English teachers.
My husband was supportive but he didn't regard teaching as my career. My in-laws thought it was
a nice hobby!
I persisted and became actively involved in the local chapter and then at the national level. I
haven't missed the annual conference since 1987 and I have served on a few conference committees.
I also started attending TESOL in 1991. My first work as a teacher trainer was for Matsuka Phonics
Institute. I was an instructor for the teacher training seminars on weekends. I learned so much
from Ms. Matsuka and I respect her for all her contribution to changes in English education in Japan.
About being an author
You've become a very prolific author of textbooks for children. How did you get into that field?
It all started in Morioka, at JALT Summer Seminar 1990. There were only a small number of teachers
and in fact JALT decided not to organize a summer seminar after that. It was such a small function
that all the participants, organizers, and publisher reps got to know one another and became really
good friends. I'm still in touch with most of the people who were there. It was the time of Sansa Odori,
the famous summer festival of Morioka and all through the conference, we heard distant sounds of drums,
rehearsing for the night.
Addison-Wesley had a rep at the display and during the conference, we talked about picture books. Later
I was asked if I would be interested in developing the Japanese guidebook for A-W Big Book Program. So
you see, I wouldn't have gotten my first published book, if I hadn't gone to Morioka that terribly hot
summer! Life is full of unexpected turnings.
Once I published "Eigo Ohanashi Takarabako" for Addison-Wesley, I was asked to present at various
functions and people started to see me as "the storybooks teacher". Offers and requests from other
publishers kept coming and I took up only what I really liked; what my gut feelings told me to do.
Every project was a challenge and I loved working on it.
Then I was approached by Prentice Hall about writing Journeys Listening/Speaking 1. I first thought I
couldn't write an English textbook but I co-authored it with Carl Adams, an old friend from JALT
Niigata chapter. After that I worked on different projects that kept coming my way. I've been very
fortunate to work with extremely good editors, both at Japanese and ELT publishers. Some of them moved
to different publishers and I was asked to join in their new projects. So I have worked with the same
people but it looks like I have worked with various publishers.
What is the most difficult stage of writing a textbook or series of books?
Working out the solid syllabus and the format of each unit is difficult but most important, I think.
It's the concept of the book or the series. If you have a strong framework to work within and an
experienced editor who knows where you are going, writing the student book is not so difficult. This
writing part, as I see it, is putting your classroom experiences on pages in a language that general
teachers out there who don't know you personally can understand.
I love writing dialogs, activities, songs and chants. They are complete in one or two pages. Writing
stories is more challenging, time-consuming and sometimes nerve-wracking. I've written storybooks that
are graded readers with controlled and limited language materials. Coming up with exciting story lines
that enabled me to use the language and offer meaningful practice was truly a challenge.
Do you have a personal favorite among the texts you've written so far?
"Eigo Ohanashi Takarabako", my first book ever, is my favorite. I remember the excitement of seeing
the books in bookstores. I also love "Hajimete no Eigo Start Kit", a video program I wrote and
supervised for Kairyudo Publishing.
About your current career
You always seem to have a very busy schedule, giving presentations and teacher-training workshops
both in Japan and abroad. Do you enjoy this kind of hectic lifestyle?
Setsuko Toyama (center) gives a presentation on Teaching Ideas at the JALT Junior conference,
Yes, I love it! I think I'm very lucky, getting to go to all the places and meet various teachers as
I do. Each presentation teaches me something. I love my work in that I believe I'm making a difference.
The teachers I talk to will share my ideas when they teach. That way I'm reaching out to so many
students! I've learned so much from so many teachers and now I can pay it back by training new teachers
in the field. I've also been working with elementary school teachers.
Keeping healthy is important, though. Last year I gave 40 talks and more than 50 this year. I try to
exercise in a gym and also take treatments such as reflexology or shiatsu, whenever I feel exercise
doesn't solve my fatigue. I'm not planning to have another year of so many presentations, though. I'm
starting to teach "Teaching Children" courses in a private college in Niigata next year and I hope to
concentrate more on teaching. I enjoy teaching young adults. My own students need more attention now
that my hectic schedule for launching a new series is over.
We should of course mention your latest project, the "English Time" series for children that has kept you so busy since last year. How has it been received?
I did two workshop tours in Korea and one in Taiwan this year. Teachers told me they find ET easy to
teach because each page is self-apparent and each unit is short. They like the way we constantly review
the language. I was very happy to meet teachers who are in love with the three main characters: Annie,
Ted and Digger, all of whom I named.
I think that's where ET is different from other coursebooks. It has more of a storybook feeling and
students like to find little stories in the art. However, I wasn't expecting all this while I was
working on the project. I was simply concentrating on the immediate deadlines and working closely with
my editors in NY. So meeting the "users" of the series is a whole different dimension that I had to
get used to.
About education in Japan
How important is it for Japanese people to learn English?
I think it's very important for Japanese people to be exposed to foreign languages and learning the
basics of at least one foreign language while young is essential. How can you truly understand your own
language without learning a foreign language? English is important for communication, of course, but it
is also useful to get first-hand information.
You need English to use the internet, for instance. I am a bookworm and I love to read. I want my
students to enjoy reading. If you rely on Japanese translation, your reading will be limited, don't you
think? You'd also miss out on the whole lot of fun of learning new things.
Presently I'm studying Korean and would like to learn more languages. Learning languages is learning
about people and culture. It's also like music and I love listening to different languages. In November,
I was in Taiwan and I had the good luck of getting into this taxi in which the driver spoke English,
Japanese and French, on top of three different Chinese languages! He's a retired official from the
ministry of agriculture and forestry and he learned French during his mission in Africa.
Setsuko Toyama and friend Tom Merner relax at the Oxford Classics party at the JALT 2002 conference. Tom is also active in the Teaching Children Special Interest Group. He spoke with ELT News in September 2002.
Fascinating,isn't it? He drives the taxi only on the weekend so he doesn't go senile. He was so happy to speak
French with me that he stopped the meter and took me shopping so I had a personal driver/guide that
On the morning I left Taiwan, the limo driver spoke Japanese. He was happy to find I was
interested in the language situation in Taiwan, gave me a good lecture on how people acquire Taiwanese,
Hakka and Mandarin, then treated me to a porridge breakfast at a road-side eatery!
What are your impressions of the new "studies for international understanding" at elementary schools?
Are teachers coping with the change?
The workload has increased from what I've heard from the teachers I work with. The hours allotted to
"studies for international understanding" are totally each teacher's responsibility and they have to
come up with the syllabus and encourage students to think critically. Elementary school teachers are so
busy, not only with teaching but also with miscellaneous jobs.
I hope to see the class size reduced to 20 students per class and only then will the changes in the
curriculum become effective. I can only speak for Niigata prefecture but I think more and more schools
are using the hours to introduce English. In one school where I've been going to conduct training
sessions, even 1st grade and 2nd grade have English once a week, using the "Seikatsu Ka" time. All the
students and parents love it. Those schools that didn't venture into English this year are considering
starting next school year.
What advice would you offer an inexperienced English teacher about to come and start a career in
It'll help if you know Japanese; it'll make it easier to communicate with your Japanese colleagues and
to understand your students' needs and problems. As to teaching, you'll have to go through a series of
spontaneous decision making and to support you to do that you'll want to stick to one good Teacher's
Book of a coursebook or one good resource book for the first year. By thoroughly following one book,
you'll learn a lot from the author about his/her teaching theory and method. It's like a recipe book.
You want to follow exactly the first time but the second time you'll feel comfortable making some
changes in the ingredients or the ways to cut and dice.
About the future
What changes would you like to see at all levels of English education in Japan in the future?
More teacher training is necessary at all levels, but the biggest challenge is in junior high schools.
"Sogo Teki Gakushu" affected the junior high curriculum, which not many people are aware of. They have
only three hours of English with one "selective" hour left to the school's discretion. Three hours a
week is not enough at all. A lot of students start to dislike English because they can't catch up and
they cannot read. One solution is to teach basic phonics rules in the first semester but not all the
teachers know phonics. Phonics should be integrated into the training of teachers, "kyoshoku katei",
to start with.
Can you see the level of English ability in Japan improving in the near future?
Yes and no. The fact that more and more young children are learning English will affect the whole
scene but as I said in the above, the current curriculum in the public school system doesn't offer
enough hours of English for junior high kids to get a good foundation of learning. That worries me
more than any other factor.
If you could make one change to the English language, what would it be?
Can someone come up with an easier term for "ventriloquist"? I just cannot say this word!
Setsuko, thank you very much for taking time out of your busy schedule to speak to us.
Thank you for taking interest in my work. I still have this "Who me?" syndrome. I'm just one teacher
who loves teaching and who has been doing one thing after another. I simply hope there will be more
Japanese teachers/authors in the ELT field in the near future.
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