Jeff Wastila: What are some of the challenges in English language education in Japan?
Gregory Strong: One great challenge in language education has always been to operationalize current theory and research into classroom practice, and more recently, to harness some promising new technologies to language teaching. In Japan, we have the further challenge of adapting strategies and published materials such as textbooks and media, developed for the U.S. and Europe for students of mixed culture and ethnicity, who may be college-bound, with the context here of a largely homogenous group of students, many of whom will not be using English after they graduate and have a very different level of engagement. I must say that JALT, its many sigs, its annual conferences and mini-conferences, and The Language Teacher have served us very well over the years in developing curriculum as praxis, that meeting of the theoretical, the practical, and the actuality of a classroom. A final, often overlooked challenge though is to provide more professional outreach and support of part-time teachers—I would prefer the term “adjunct” here—because for most, their commitment is total. They teach the bulk of language education courses in Japan and many are very active in publishing and presenting.
You mentioned adapting language teaching theory and practice to a Japanese context. I know you’ve done research in this area and you have practical experience as well. How would you compare language teaching in Japan with overseas?
In Japan, our language teaching at universities is embedded within departments and faculties; in my case, an English department, where our colleagues seldom have much awareness of our field and sometimes little sympathy for it. On the other hand, in the UK, Canada, and the US, and elsewhere, language educators are often placed in separate institutes or in colleges attached to universities, but with much less support. There are economic reasons for this, mainly, that it’s cheaper for universities to provide language education by non-tenured personnel. So those of us who are on university faculty in Japan are very lucky to have the resources and support that we do. In part, this may be why so much good research, resources, and teaching practice have come from Japan.
Can you share your insights on how English learning and teaching has improved over the years here?
Very briefly, there is an impressive level of professionalism today compared with 25 years ago when a post-secondary degree and native speaker status were sufficient qualifications. In 1993, even course evaluations were a novelty, administered by only a handful of universities. As for improvements in the field, for myself, a long-term program administrator, two touchstones have been the work of Jack Richards and H.D. Brown, both speakers at JALT numerous times. Their very readable books on teacher education, program design, and administration have gone through so many editions because they tackle curriculum development so effectively, things like providing support in terms of curricular materials, pre-service orientations, and professional development. The whole thrust of task-based language teaching (TBLT) has been so helpful as well. In our program, it enabled us to identify several very important communicative tasks, the most popular with students being the small group discussion task which engaged students in choosing news items to read of interest to them individually, writing summaries, then leading small group discussions, and developing questioning strategies. Finally, the action research paradigm, that valuable intersection between theory and practice, has been a great fit for many educators. It offers us a systematic approach, often a collaborative one, to improving classroom practice.
What developments are you seeing now in classrooms in Japan?
Among the many I could mention are the impact of content and language integrated learning (CLIL) which has helped us to think more contextually about language teaching. Then, there is the growing influence of the Common European Framework of References (CEFR) for languages as a benchmark for assessment and setting curricular goals. It’s now being integrated into the next generation of language textbooks for Japanese high school students, and ultimately, it will appear in testing. More recently, English as a medium for instruction (EMI) in Japan is having an impact in improving instruction in content courses, in attracting foreign students, in the hiring of more foreign faculty, and forming part of a trend toward globalizing education in Japan.
You mentioned promising new technology earlier. Which ones seem to hold the most potential?
For a long time, I think many people, myself included, felt computer-assisted language learning (CALL) was expensive and often overrated. But in the last few years, through combinations of the Internet, apps, and the ubiquity of smartphones, we can now provide individualized instruction, maximum student learning time outside the classroom, and target essential vocabulary. Sometimes we lose track of our accomplishments as a community here in Japan. So much good work has been done by people here on extensive reading like Tom Robb and Rob Waring, or Charlie Browne on vocabulary. In turn, their work has assisted the development of some great educational technology and locally developed companies such as EnglishCentral and Xreading. What thrills me about them is that students on their smartphones can access online libraries of texts, audio, and video that are of interest to each student respectively. These platforms offer individualized vocabulary study, the work can be done extensively outside of class time, and that teachers don’t have to mark or read anything; simply monitor student use. This is a very exciting time, especially when I think back to learning French in university through the audio-lingual method; everybody sitting in a language lab, endlessly parroting the same phrases.
You touched on the challenge of outreach to adjunct faculty, something very important to me as a part-time teacher. What do you think should be done?
It should start with recognition of the excellent work some adjunct teachers are doing which so often goes unnoticed. Adjuncts should be encouraged to publish in school journals. Outreach also means building relationships between full-time and adjunct faculty; full-timers simply getting to know all the people who work in their programs or departments much better. More fundamentally, we need to bridge the professional development gap between adjunct faculty and full-time teachers who have the resources and motivation to attend conferences, present, and publish. The same problem exists everywhere, but at least in the U.K. and Canada, professional organizations such as BALEAP and TESL Canada offer teachers additional certification which can lead to peer recognition and better employment opportunities. The certification is based on experience as measured by contact hours of teaching, and through professional development such as presenting at conferences and publishing. JALT could be offering the same and perhaps institutional memberships that would cover adjunct teachers. However, tenured faculty can also take more substantial initiative, too. For example, professional development grants at our university are not available for adjunct faculty. However, we found we could hire teachers to assist us in action research projects and find educational publishers to sponsor them by paying their conference fees. These were win-win situations. The adjunct teachers in our projects became co-researchers, co-presenters, and co-writers. Later, they mentored other teachers when we introduced innovations in our program and teaching practice.
A last concern I have for adjunct as well as full-time teachers is a general lack of preparation for retirement. Overseas, public school and college teachers have robust pension plans; at the very least, adjunct faculty will have contributed to national pension plans. The national pension is very modest in Japan and many adjunct teachers have not even paid into it or worked long enough in their home countries to qualify for much there. There is some interest in JALT toward establishing a SIG for retired JALT members, and Ben Tanaka is doing some excellent work with his Retire Japan website. Moving forward, I hope that more teachers will think about this problem.
Thank you very much for offering to share your insights on English learning and teaching in Japan. I appreciate it.
Brown, H. D. (2014). Principles of language learning and teaching (6th ed.). Longman.
Richards, J. (2014). Curriculum development in language teaching (2nd ed.). Cambridge University Press.
Strong, G. (2010). Talking it up: A small group discussion task for the classroom. In A. Shehadeh & C. Coombs (Eds.), Applications of task-based learning in TESOL (pp. 11-20). Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages.
Willis, D., & Willis, J. (2007). Doing task-based teaching. Oxford University Press.