Changing English Teaching in Japan

Changing English Teaching in Japan

by Jonathan Packer      

In Japan, as a high school and college teacher and previously an assistant language teacher in high schools and junior high schools, I have been privileged to participate in a school system producing good results with an inclusivity that does not exclude students as may happen in England.

In Japan every child has a right to education and a school place, not just “access” to education as is on offer in England and Wales. This basic right then underlies much of the curriculum which is based on a clear set of values.

There are no league tables or public rankings based on Sats-like data in Japanese schools. Also Japan performs well according to international measures of attainment like Pisa.


Testing is a basic feature of any education system. Tests have a ‘backwash’, changing both what is taught and students’ perceptions of what they have to achieve.

So assessment is not just an add-on where teachers are then doing their own thing, but changes teachers’ ideas about what they are doing, the aim of their teaching as well.

So that is where to start changing English teaching in Japan: testing..

Of course exams can be more or less rigorous. There as many ways of assessment as roads to Rome but all have to have reliability (or repeatability) and also validity (or reality). That Rome has to be real.

In Japan, testing in schools is summative and usually not just criterion-based. That means they can be less rigorous on that scale, less number based, but oddly, English tests tend to be at the ‘rigorous’ end of that scale, about right and wrong answers instead of the very grey area that is language and what language may mean.

Also, softer skills like teamwork or participation in the class get credits in this system of progression that is externally mediated but school-based, leading to school graduation. To get into university you then need to take a test…

These softer skills that are part of it can be misunderstood in this system. Here assessment is not just about numbers but also values. These come from a Constitution that says education has to be beneficial to both the individual and society and “to contribute to world peace and to improving the welfare of humanity.”

What to change

In this article I will suggest that that this is not at all incompatible with good English teaching and an international outlook. This main ethos does not need changing but a certain expectation around correctness in grammar and translation seems subtly not to chime with that constitutional imperative, and the principle which is at the heart of Japanese education, which is fairness.

That approach, along with learning three thousand English words before you graduate, a centrally set requirement, seems fair, because checking meaning in Japanese provides the same baseline for all, it seems. The problem is language and meaning are not like that.

To paraphrase George Orwell, some parts of language are more translatable than others, and the untranslatable parts – deep understanding, operational effectiveness in some context or other, fluency – also count for something. They count for a lot.

Also school textbooks, and school tests, which are often grammar-and-translation based are often derived from a methodology which does not quite fit the bill internationally, as a level test using translation into Japanese cannot, for example. These are reliable measures of overall English language ability only in the sense of repeatability, but not validity.

An insufficient methodology has developed its own insufficient outgrowth of cultural practice and invalid teaching and testing practices.

 The challenge

So what to do? Teachers are trained in and often believe in these practices, as conforming with the basic educational ethos of this system. The suggestion that they are not really much use is not likely by to win their instant assent but what if there is a third term which combines that basic fairness with valid testing?

Also the part of the system in Japan which trusts the professionalism of teachers is also basic to it. It is both important in itself and a great opportunity because teachers themselves can control testing methodologies and outcomes much more than in the UK or USA. And anyway, I agree with and support the public service ethos of Japanese education which is fairness.

So what is to be done to effect change?

School assessment should certainly not be replaced by wholesale externally produced or privately administered out-sourced testing which itself has a wrong or mixed up emphasis like the TOEIC test – it leads to a number – that Japanese companies often use, or some universities have as an entrance requirement.

Step Eiken, which the government currently uses for surveys of level among school students, also has these elements of unrealistic over-complex grammar or over-simplified vocabulary meanings that are (rightly) approached by students like a memory test.  .

The challenge is validity. Remembering words out of context with a single translated meaning, or deciphering very long complex sentences no real speaker of English would ever want to use or understand, does not pass that particular test.

Further this invalidity in the system is something many students see themselves when they first meet it and become demotivated, in the first year of junior high school aged 12. And now that threshold is to be pushed back as fifth and sixth year elementary school students will have to study a similar formal English from next year.

 What to change

Japan should therefore use:

  1. Valid internationally recognized testing for level. (not like TOEIC or Eiken).
  2.  School tests that have this basic quality of fairness, that are tests of what students have done in class for progression from year to year with inclusivity as is suitable for the Japanese school system.

All that Japan-produced materials and textbooks tend to lack in fact.

And such testing – a little like the negotiation of Japanese daily life – needs elements of vagueness and indeterminacy to it – not to be just hard-edged with value-free answers like yes or no, or a gap-fill with one word only to fill in, or which are too ‘unitary’ and simplistic.

And if that sounds a little vague, this is just what the Cambridge IELTS test or Trinity College Speaking exams are like, for example, assessing not a ‘right’ answer but looking at deeper levels of skills that are performed like inference, or reading between the lines, or coming up with coherent as well as cohesive writing and speaking.

A mapped progression from different baselines with diagnostic testing would not work here, for reasons which the above makes clear, and not least because it would be very difficult administratively but also because that is out of step with a certain ‘vagueness’ that allows inclusivity and progression for all.

So, I think the same principles and values need to underlie English testing in schools as the rest of school life. That means fairness, but also a certain vagueness or indeterminacy that is a noticeable if difficult-to-describe feature of the Japanese public space. One which is not at all in contradiction with good attainment, as the evidence shows.


That compatibility with the existing teacher-led system for testing is what otherwise excellent text-books produced outside Japan tend not to have, meaning there is a big gap in terms of valid, appropriate English testing materials available in Japanese schools.

Also, for busy teachers, even if theoretically they can do this themselves, it is hard if not impossible for them to produce and reinvent such tests independently; certainly not new one-off syllabuses or curriculums. What is needed is something that works systematically, that complements and does not contradict the values of Japanese public education

So to change English teaching in Japan what is needed first is to change testing. I will write about how this might be done and what is happening now in this rapidly changing world of English teaching and learning in Japan in a forthcoming article and welcome any thoughts and contributions and suggestions from readers who are teachers in Japan or anywhere!



Pisa and Japan:




  • The ethos of inclusivity and attainment described in this article is underpinned in law and the Japanese Constitution.


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