A commentary on Japan’s latest update to English education guidelines


Editor’s Note: This is the second part of a two-part series about how the Japanese government’s most recent update to its English education guidelines could change the way English is taught in Japan’s schools, and what those changes could mean to ALTs. To read part 1, click here.

By Matt Nelson


When it comes to teaching English in Japan, one thing is a daily certainty. On any given day I hear several complaints by JTE colleagues about the low level of student performance, too-low standards, and how much work they have to do to prepare for classes and evaluate students. Needless to say, I join in on occasion. I have heard teachers, administrators, parents, PTA presidents, ALTs, university faculty, and even students, complain about these same problems. It makes for good 井戸端会議 [いとばたかいぎ] (housewives’ meeting by the side of a well), the loose equivalent for water-cooler banter. I think it is a fitting word here because the education system, and the equipment used in the average public school classroom, seem like they were grandfathered in as ancient relics. Unfortunately, I’ve found that people seem to enjoy talking about getting water out of the well rather than actually getting it.

Inevitably, at the end of every school year or even school term, you have to ask “what can we do to improve any of the rampant problems that give everyone headaches?”  No doubt we’ve all asked the question: Can we change something?

Response: crickets, moans, “そうですね~”. Translation: “Let’s just do the same thing, eh?”

I look at it this way. You have two options to change things. You can change what you teach, and how you teach. But the what won’t change drastically because MEXT guidelines outline specifically what grammar and situational expressions are supposed to be taught in each class. So changing how may be most effective because it can be done on the fly, according to the situation on any given day with any students or teachers.

Unfortunately, this is usually very hard to achieve, for several reasons. When I ask teachers why it’s so difficult to change things, the most common responses I hear from them are 1.) the guidelines dictate what to teach, so we must follow it, 2.) the subject matter is difficult, and 3.) the students do not try hard enough.

I agree that these are all true, in a way. However, when suggesting that the how should change, you will usually hear more crickets, moans, “そうですね~”s.

Loopholes invite change

The MEXT Education Guidelines are long and repetitive. And they do dictate what must be covered in specific classes, but there are loopholes, or at least suggestive language. The guidelines are broken up into school level, and then into subject matter, and then further by individual class names. Guidelines pertaining to English education are usually located under two separate categories: English and Second- or Foreign-Language Curriculum. They do not vary much, but the English Curriculum guidelines are much more specific. They outline the purpose and objectives of each class; the situational language, grammar, and vocabulary goals that are expected to be taught; and generally what to consider in devising lesson plans and strategies.

Under almost every class description in the current guidelines, a near identical suggestion is given:

This subject should be taught comprehensively using reading, writing, listening, and speaking.

This seems obvious, but from my own experience, apparently it is not. I think this statement and other similar general statements such as “objectives are to promote communication and understanding” or “students must be able to express their opinions, thoughts, and wishes clearly” leave a lot of room for interpretation and nuance.  Furthermore, never does it specify classes must be in a classic classroom setting where teachers lecture and students memorize/recite, read aloud, repeat/regurgitate, and continue to do other numbing practices. Therefore, teachers can teach how they see fit to achieve such goals. This seems obvious, too; but again it may not be.

Class names mean nothing

I think the fundamental problem in education in Japan right now, and especially English, is that most required courses are broken into several parts with several books, teachers, syllabi, and tests. I’ll give an example from a senior high school where I taught. The school did not necessarily follow the MEXT first-year curriculum because of its more intense English coursework, but this is allowed. Following the current guidelines, each week they should have had two classes of Oral Communication I and three classes of English I.

Instead, the school changed English I to “Comprehensive English”, which was divided into two parts, grammar (one lesson per week) and reading (two lessons per week). Oral Communication was kept the same. Between these two (or three) different classes, there were three textbooks, three workbooks, plus a vocabulary study book. There were two different tests every term. And students generally had a different JTE for each class, plus the possibility of two different ALTs. That means they possibly had five different English teachers a week for three different classes. Confused yet?

None of the three classes were related in any way by grammar, vocabulary, or topic/theme. Therefore, students had to learn about three different and unrelated topics with four sets of vocabulary (remember the separate vocabulary book), patterns, grammar, and objectives. Not to mention classes were at different times on different days and Japanese school schedules are notorious for having modified schedules every other week due to non-class related events.

No wonder I have students who don’t know what class it is, forget their materials, don’t prepare, and don’t even know what teacher they have. Furthermore, teachers do not know exactly what or how the other class is being taught. Topics and information covered in the various lessons may not be correlated, and there is no comprehensive review of the different subject matter to build students’ active vocabulary and communication.  Indeed, the opposite occurs: cooperation between teachers becomes more difficult; teachers have more work to do to prepare for more classes, as well as make and grade completely different tests. Meanwhile, students are confused and while they are exposed to a lot, they absorb little and rarely get chances to practice or use what they learn in one class more than once.

The example classes I gave above are interesting because they show two things: the failure of the system to make education amiable to students and even teachers, and that teachers and schools can, and do in fact, slightly adapt their curriculum to the guidelines in order to suit their purposes. The current high school curriculum tends to stress specific objectives for separate classes: a reading class, a writing class, a listening comprehension class, oral communication for speaking and listening. Common sense and even the new MEXT reform would suggest that these should be combined into more comprehensive classes utilizing all forms of communication. The new outline mandates that old classes combine into more comprehensive-style English Communication, Expression, and Conversation classes.

I think it’s a step in the right direction. Perhaps in the future the next step would be to actually streamline the courses into, I don’t know, a course called “English,” and allow individual schools to build more specialized elective courses (advanced reading, literature, culture, business, writing, university test preparation) according to their students’ needs – a practice which many schools already do anyway.

“Yes we can!” change the classes

In a perfect world, the reform, like all ideologies, would work. But in reality, the irregularity and sparseness of each class (two to three times a week on scattered schedules), means students, and even teachers, are confused about what class is when and what to prepare for. Therefore, the overwhelming majority of students will continue to gain large passive language (even this is questionable) and little or no active language. Plus, this means a lot of extra work for teachers to plan, make tests and correct student work, not to mention the long-term headache of underachieving students.

There are enough people (parents, teachers, administration) that agree there needs to be change. However, if schools and teachers continue to teach the same way towards the same goals (i.e. university entrance examinations) and hold the same classes with a different name, then nothing has changed except the cover of the textbooks. Everyone agrees that change is necessary, but don’t agree on what should change and how to change it. The real problem is so few educators are willing to take chances, namely the chance to succeed and let what works for the students dictate what and how they teach, rather than someone or something that has never been inside their classroom nor knows the students. Basically, teaching here feels like a passive position, shaped by whatever the textbooks, college entrance exams, and least motivated students in your class dictate.

Of course things won’t change overnight. This isn’t the only problem beleaguering education. Changes in youth culture, budgetary issues, and the breakdown of sense of community all have a large impact and are difficult to change or are nearly uncontrollable. Not to mention that textbooks used in team teaching classes are designed for JTEs to solo teach with a CD player. So it stands to figure that education should be changed. The what is easy to gauge and measure, the how is more crucial and will continue to impact students, teachers, and future generations, for a long time.  With the shrinking population and low student numbers, schools need to stress quality over quantity, depth over breadth. This can start in the classroom and can affect all of society, given time.

Despite the ever-looming PTA and monster parent syndrome, in the end teachers, along with school administrators, have the real power to change what they do, although I think most don’t want to admit it. Straying outside the lines may seem like a liability and dangerous in a country famous for conservative group-decision making and bureaucracy, yet I believe the general tone of MEXT’s guidelines in many ways tends to encourage freelancing and experimentation, maneuvering and personalization.

I’m sick of hearing “しかたない” (“It can’t be helped.”) – it makes me feel depressed.  My personal motto at school is “しかたある!” (“It CAN be helped!” or an easier translation “Yes, we can!”). Next time you ask another teacher why it is the way it is and they try and throw the book (MEXT Education Guidelines) at you, if your reply works in getting them to admit that they can change it and you actually do, tell me what you said because I’m still trying to figure out how to persuade people to get the ‘water’ from the ‘well’ instead of just standing around it and talking about getting it.

Photo by Dunechaser / Published under Flickr Creative Commons License 2.0.


  1. Awesome, awesome, awesome article. Matt, if you want, I really think we should send this (maybe translated and original) to MEXT, CLAIR, and even the CIR newsletters. You’re right about change, and I wanna help.
    Also, 4th paragraph, first sentence of “Class names mean nothing”, you are missing the word “know”.

  2. Nice article. I am also plagued by the same-english-class-disguised-as-3-different-classes syndrome. You did a good job forming the question of the problem, but we are all still looking for answers. It would be nice to see a few suggestions…maybe in a third part.

    Should we try a few classes out of the classroom?
    How do we teach and inspire without the harnesses of entrance exams?

    Besides what you have mentioned I feel that teachers are also controlled by school image. I have some principals that are shooting to be number one…(but at what cost?)

  3. word. Why is it that in 2 years and 12 schools, even working with some amazingly talented educators, I have to meet a single teacher who subscribes to the theory: “If you teach them actual English, and well, they will pass whatever’s on the test”?!?

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