Current issues in teacher training

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Hiroyuki Iida Setagaya Gakuen

In 2003, the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science, and Technology (MEXT), announced a new policy entitled "Regarding the Establishment of an Action Plan to Cultivate 'Japanese with English Abilities'" (MEXT, 2003a), committing to an "intensive training program aiming at improving teaching abilities to cultivate students' practical communication abilities in English" (MEXT, 2003a), and declaring access to intensive training for all English teachers in order to improve their teaching abilities. However, the MEXT policy does not specifically address teacher preparation programs at universities, or collaboration between secondary schools and universities in practicum, arguably the most important aspect of teacher preparation.

Issues in Teacher Training in Japan

MEXT guidelines

Although MEXT (2003b) states in its "Goal to cultivate 'Japanese with English Abilities'" that, in order to foster Japanese with English abilities in school education, "it is necessary to give a system of unified instruction through each school level" (p. 1), it is not clear who will provide this instruction, nor whether teacher training at, or practicum provided by, universities are included in such instruction. It is also stated that, in order for improvements to bear fruit, "it is necessary to carry out simultaneously a number of different measures. These include improving teaching methods, improving the teaching ability of teachers, improving the selection system for school and university applicants as well as better curricula" (MEXT, 2003a). However, no detailed procedures for the innovation are provided.

Furthermore, although it has been reported that English conversation activities were carried out at approximately 50% of all public elementary schools (MEXT, 2003c), the question remains as to how many elementary school teachers are currently qualified to teach communicative English. According to Kelly (2002), tens of thousands of elementary teachers required training in methodologies to teach English to elementary school children prior to teaching, because very few of them had experienced such training. Requiring the teaching of English before there are enough teachers able to teach it is what Murphey (2003) refers to as "the cart-before-the-horse situation" (para. 1). As Murphey suggests, it would be more appropriate for elementary school teachers "to learn with their students as near peer role models" (para. 10) under a TESOL professional's guidance, "tak[ing] advantage of skills teachers already have to increase their own and their students' learning" (para. 11). Bradford-Watts (2003), too, claims that, at lower school levels, even if their English level is low, teachers "willing to communicate [in English], committed to continued learning, and able to provide stimulating lessons to foster interest in communicating in English, are an extremely valuable resource which should not be overlooked" (para. 12).

Teacher Education

Grossman (1989) suggests that

Teacher education coursework can help prospective teachers acquire knowledge about what students are likely to find difficult in a particular subject, and a realistic sense of students' interests, abilities, understanding, and misconceptions concerning specific topics … [and] …While subject-matter knowledge, good character, and the inclination to teach are important characteristics of beginning teachers, they do not necessarily lead to a pedagogical understanding of subject matter nor to a theoretical understanding of how students learn a particular subject.(Grossman, 1989, pp.206-7)

Grossman points out the difficulty of learning from experience alone, describing some misconceptions held by three English teachers holding undergraduate and advanced degrees from a prestigious college or university, but who had not completed any teacher education courses. All of Grossman's subjects were well-versed in their subject areas, were inclined to teach, and had experienced teaching at independent schools or a public school, but, technically, they were first-year teachers. All seemed "to presuppose students who are bright and motivated, students very much as they remember themselves being. They do not feel it is their job to motivate the unmotivated" (Grossman, 1989, p. 205), and they "rely heavily on their memories of themselves as students and their high school experiences to shape their knowledge of teaching English" (p.198). Grossman (1989) suggests that "[w]ithout help, the teachers found it difficult to re-conceptualize the discipline of English for English as a secondary school subject, and to rethink their subject matter to make it more accessible to students" (p.193).

Peer teaching

Although peer teaching, where one college student plays the role of a teacher and the other students play the roles of students, is popular, the question remains as to the value of peer teaching to teacher trainees. Real students vary in, for example, motivation and ability. At the high school at which I work, some students have been accepted into special programs at the school on the basis of their motor skills. However, the English curriculum for these students is the same as for those in the regular classes. These students have motivations, English levels, and abilities, which may be at odds with the teaching assumptions held by student teachers. There are also returnee students with TOEFL scores of over 600. It is doubtful if a teacher trainee's peer-teaching experiences would prepare them for teaching such diverse students.


Although Grossman (1989) found that practicum is useful for teacher trainees, Asaoka (2003) questions the system in Japan. Asaoka (2003) reports that some students participating in her study of practicum programs at secondary schools in Japan "were asked by their supervisors to teach in any way they liked…there was no particular meeting in advance" (p. 7). One student was "asked only to observe his supervisor's class one day before the practicum started"(p. 7). He "was allowed to teach as he liked, but he was at a loss, with too little information" (p.7). This appears to reflect the current reality of practicum programs at secondary schools throughout Japan.

Although training appears to be more systematic for those pursuing advanced degrees abroad, the consequences of studying outside Japan may hamper these trainees upon their return. McKay (2000) examines the practicum experiences of five Japanese English teachers pursuing a master's degree in TESOL in the USA, and concludes that "[the] expertise they have gained in their graduate program in terms of linguistic knowledge and teaching methods may not be valued and perhaps may even be viewed by some as a threat" (p.66-7) upon their return.

Abilities of practicum supervisors

What can student teachers learn from in-service teachers? Although it would seem common-sense to assume that trainees would take away from schools an awareness of best practice, as well as the reality of programming and day-to-day teaching and management concerns, this is not always the case. Lamie (2000) points out that "teachers have a tendency to perpetuate the methodological status quo" (p. 33). This is the situation of Japanese teachers of English at secondary schools. According to Midorikawa (2002), only 10% of 1,278 Japanese teachers of English at secondary schools thought it possible to organize a workshop for solving methodological problems found in English classes, and that about 70% of teachers did not do anything to improve their English teaching.

The teachers supervising the three student teachers at my school this year have not studied TESOL, ESOL or SLA theory, and they do not belong to any research institutes, and this is not unusual. In such situations, no advice, or suggestions, will be supported by SLA theory or practice. What, then, can supervisors give the student teachers? According to Yonesaka (1999), the current focus of teacher preparation is the need for better preparation for coping with bullying, deviant and violent behavior, and school avoidance. Although this is very important, teacher preparation should enable student teachers to learn as much about the craft of English teaching as possible.

Asaoka (2003) investigated five teacher trainees to gain a greater understanding of the pre-service EFL training processes in Japan, and concluded that "secondary schools should also be more aware that the practicum has a very significant impact on prospective teachers; thus, supervisors need more training to be good mentors" (p.14). I also believe that supervisor training is an extremely important element of designing effective practicum experiences for trainees.

English language abilities of teachers

Do teachers supervising trainees in schools have adequate English abilities? Unfortunately, the answer to this question may be No. MEXT has emphasized communicative English teaching for more than ten years, and set the minimum English level secondary school English teachers should reach: STEP pre-first level, TOEFL 550, or TOEIC 730, as proof of improving abilities of English teachers, and the upgrading of the teaching system.

However, Ishida (2002) surveyed 1,278 English teachers about taking English proficiency tests such as TOEFL, TOEIC, or STEP, and found that 673 of the respondents had taken a test. On the TOEFL test, 3% of those who took the test achieved a score of 550-579, 1% achieved 580-599, and 2% scored over 600. On the TOEIC test, 3% achieved a score of 730-809, 2% had 810-899, and 1% tested over 900. 51% of respondents attempting a STEP test passed STEP 2nd grade, 27% passed Pre-1st grade, and 10% passed 1st grade.

Only half of these 673 English teachers obtained scores meeting the MEXT criteria. This means that the levels of teachers on such proficiency tests are lower than MEXT expectations vis-à-vis the goals for secondary school English teachers.

A mini-study

During the 2003 academic year, three senior students came to our school for a three-week practicum. After their practicum, I interviewed them about the preparation programs at their universities in order to collect information about such programs. The participants filled in a questionnaire in Japanese (Appendix 1), and were then asked about their ideas and opinions about the teacher preparation programs they were taking prior to their practicum. The following comments have been translated from Japanese. All three students agreed that their comments could be used, but I have not used their names, in order to protect their privacy.

Student 1:

I am a student at a private university and specialize in cross-cultural and foreign studies. My teacher trainer is a Japanese national and the language used in class is Japanese. My English teaching methodology course lasts for two years and consists of 15 college students. I am given a commercially published MEXT textbook for the course and am expected to think of various activities for speaking, listening, reading and writing classes for grade 11 students. I have not been given any lectures on SLA theory and practice, and have not been expected or obliged to read articles, essays, or research projects about SLA theory. My trainer gave some students a chance for pseudo-teaching in every class and the rest of the college students played the role of the grade 11 students. The teacher trainer's concern is for slow learners only and his common question is, for example, "When the grade 11 students cannot understand that grammatical item because it is too difficult for them, how would you explain it to them?"

Student 2:

I am a student at a private university in Tokyo and major in English and American literature. My teacher trainer is a Japanese national and the language used in class is Japanese. The class consists of 30 male students and 100 female students and my teacher trainer gave lessons about the Graded Direct Method, the Oral Approach, the Oral Method and the Generative Grammar Method by using a 260-page textbook written in Japanese. I have not had any opportunity to give any presentation of my lesson plans or to rehearse my teaching in class because the class is too large. I wanted my teacher trainer to give me information about real teaching situations in order to prepare for my practice teaching.

Student 3:

I am a student at a national university of foreign studies, and major in English. My teacher trainers are Japanese in-service teachers, and they taught me about real situations in Japanese teaching settings. The class consisted of 40 male students and 60 female students. The main trainer taught me about language testing, for example its reliability and validity, had us take a sample language test, analyzed the test scores and passed on some comments about the test and scores. The trainer divided students into groups and had them rehearse a class. I was sometimes asked to attend an open seminar or to watch a videotaped open class in a secondary school.

Was preparation for the practicum systematic for these trainees? Unfortunately, the comments suggest it was not. Lamie (2000) surmises that delivery of the New Revised Course of Study will not be successful without better in-service training for experienced teachers. This is even more true for preparation of teachers involved in practicum programs.

Propositions for improving future training programs

I would like offer these proposals to improve future teacher preparation programs.

  • English lessons at the university and college level introduce courses focusing on public speaking, discussion, debate and presentation, so that students can acquire high-level productive English.
  • I suggest that MEXT support the design of a web site for basic instruction in TESOL methodology by, for example, research institutes such as JALT and/or JACET, to foster pre- and post-practicum self-study by student teachers, as well as elementary school teachers. Kelly (2002) lists seven areas for training, including web-based teacher training. Siennicki (2003) introduces the Teacher Development Program, built and managed by the University of British Columbia, and recognized by TESL Canada. This program is a combination of on-line and on-site methodology lessons and practicum, and is a good example for those designing similar sites.
  • MEXT (2003b) announced that experienced native speakers of English will be employed as full-time teachers (p.7). As far as possible, I suggest that elementary and secondary schools should have at least one team consisting of a qualified Japanese teacher, and a native English speaker teacher with a master's degree in TESOL, ESOL, or SLA, and that this pair be the mentors of the new curriculum and action plan. Such teams could take the lead in encouraging primary and secondary school teachers to "learn English with their students in a collaborative learning project with specialized methods and materials" (Murphey, 2003, para. 10), and could help alleviate the worry of English teaching of elementary school teachers.


It appears that, currently, English teacher preparation programs at Japanese universities and colleges are not systematic, and, therefore, innovation in teacher preparation programs is a pressing concern. If the programs become more systematic, practicum at secondary schools will become more meaningful to trainee teachers. Finally, I believe that universities and secondary schools need to reconsider the process of, and attitudes toward, the role of practicum in teacher training.


Asaoka, C. (2003). Student teachers' perceptions of pre-service teacher training. JACET Bulletin 37, 1-15.
Bradford-Watts, K. (2003). EFL teacher training for trainee nursery and kindergarten teachers in Japan. NEXUS: A Journal for Teachers in Development, 6 (1).
Grossman, L. P. (1989). Learning to teach without teacher education. Teachers College Record, 91 (2). 191-208.
Ishida, M. (2002). Zenkoku Genshoku Eigokyoin Anketo Chosa Kekka [Questionnaire results answered by Japanese teachers of English all over Japan]. Tokyo: Teacher Education Research Group.
Kelly, C. (2002). Training Japanese elementary school teachers to teach English. The Language Teacher 26 (7),31-33.
Lamie, J.M. (2000). Teachers of English in Japan: Professional development and training at a crossroads. JALT Journal, 22 (1), 27-45.
McKay, S. (2000). An investigation of five Japanese English teachers' reflections on their U.S. MA TESOL practicum experiences. JALT Journal, 22 (1), 46-68.
Midorikawa, H. (2002). Kyojuho, Shido Gijutsu, Kyouka Nai Kenshu. [Methodology, Teaching Skills, and Training in English departments]. A Comprehensive Study of in-Service English Teacher Education in Japan—from status quo to renovations. Tokyo: Teacher Education Research Group.
MEXT. (2003a). Regarding the Establishment of an Action Plan to Cultivate "Japanese with English Abilities" [Online]. Available:
MEXT. (2003b). Goal to cultivate Japanese with English Abilities [Online]. Available:
MEXT. (2003c). Support for English conversation activities in elementary schools [Online]. Available:
Murphey, T. (2003). NNS primary school teachers learning English with their students. TESOL Matters, 13 (4), 1-6. [Online]. Available:
Siennicki, B. (2003). A mixed-mode in-service teacher training program. NEXUS: A Journal for Teachers in Development, 6 (1).
Yonesaka, S. (1999). The pre-service training of Japanese teachers of English. The Language Teacher, 23 (11), 9-15.

Hiroyuki Iida teaches at Setagaya Gakuen School. He received his M.A. in TESOL from Teachers College Columbia University. His research interests include L2 speaking and writing development, English-teaching curriculum innovation, and teacher training.


Questionnaire used in mini-study

The questionnaire can be downloaded in PDF format