If I ruled the world… junior high school English in Japan

junior high school

This is the second of four posts on how I would improve English education in Japan. Today I am going to be looking at English in junior high school. You can see my thoughts on elementary school English here.

The Current Situation

Junior high school is where serious English study begins. The course of study starts off reasonable (most students can use the English they learn in the first year) but by the middle of the second year the learning curve is too great and it becomes an academic exercise instead of learning to use the language. Many teachers just go through the textbook page by page, with the occasional activity or worksheet thrown in for variety. Classes are large (35-40 students) and passive: students listen to explanations and take notes a lot of the time.

My Thoughts on the Current System

Junior high school English has a bad reputation in Japan. Some of the problems at elementary school (particularly the guidelines against teaching reading and writing) are a direct result of MEXT trying to make sure that classes there are not in the same style as JHS English. Some of this is structural (the large classes, the high school entrance tests) and some situational (overworked teachers and unimaginative materials). Many students start off excited to be learning English, but by the end of the second year the increasingly difficult classes mean that a large number of them are lost and frustrated.

My Recommendations

I want to focus on specific measures that could be implemented fairly easily. Here is my list:

  1. Improve teacher training
    Many teachers at junior high school mean well but did not receive sufficient training pre-service and are not incentivised to pursue further training after they start working. There is a real need for both incentives and opportunities for teachers to develop their teaching skills and their language skills. This should include local training within schools and local areas and internationally, with some teachers being sent on teacher training and language courses abroad. These teachers should then become trainers to spread the new knowledge within their school and local areas.
  2. Hugely increase understandable input
    At the moment junior high school students get very little English input (often just their textbooks and the odd handout). Introducing extensive reading and listening, both on- and off-line, would make a big difference to students’ skills and motivation. Students should be listening for meaning from the first grade, and reading for meaning from the middle of the first grade. A large amount of comprehensible input would allow students to use the words and grammar they study, and cement their knowledge of them. Graded readers and online listening (accessible through mobile phones or computers) would not cost very much compared to the potential benefits.
  3. Have students work on productive skills
    Students also need to produce language, both spoken and written. Currently students have few chances to speak, and even fewer to write. If students have a chance to try to produce personalised language they are much more likely to be able to use it later. Students should be producing short dialogues, presentations, and writing assignments regularly.
  4. Teach students how to learn
    Most students do not know how to learn a language, and few schools specifically instruct them on this key aspect. At the start of English classes, and regularly throughout the three years, students should have the chance to learn about and practice key language learning skills, such as how to use a dictionary, how to learn vocabulary using flashcards, how to learn vocabulary in context, how to find English content online, etc.
  5. Reduce class sizes
    With the falling population many schools are finding they have extra classrooms and teachers. Instead of merging schools and closing them, the government should seize this chance to reduce class sizes from the current standard of 40 to something more in line with the rest of the OECD: 20-30 students per class.

What do you think? Would the five suggestions above be enough to improve English education in junior high school? Have I overlooked anything?

3 Apr 2013, 12:58pm
by Andy Boon


If you ruled the world, I would be very happy

Be careful what you wish for, Mr Boon! (nice to have you drop by, it adds a touch of class to the blog)

Right on, especially # 2 and #3, Shearon??. I agree with class size reduction, but with the huge cost factor to consider, sadly it’s just not going to happen.

Thanks! The government is talking about spending 10 trillion yen on education, so we can dream big for now πŸ˜‰

Hi Ben, I’ve read that behind the scenes the two main government ministries dealing with this issue are fighting now. The Zaimu Daijin (Ministry of Finance) wants to vastly reduce education costs by reducing the number of teachers significantly and want to maintain a minimum of 40 students per class and maybe look at going up to 45 or 50 in some areas (largely in rural areas where they may have 46 students in a grade therefore requiring 2 teachers). Meanwhile the poor folks at the Monbu-kagaku-sho (Ministry of Education, Culture, Science and Technology would like to do exactly as you have suggested with class sizes, reduce them for the good of the students and teachers. Unfortunately, normally the one that controls the purse strings wins the fight and that could mean no class size changes or possibly larger classes for some areas.

Of course the Zaimu Daijin people don’t care so much about the rural school students nor do they understand the problems. They mostly come from the better public and private schools in urban areas.

Hi Terry
That would explain a lot! Hopefully the new government’s push (with funding) for better education will tip the scales on that one… but then again they might just pay it all to ETJ for TOEFL tests πŸ˜‰

3 Apr 2013, 6:51pm
by Joel Laurier


This is good constructive problem solving. If we started the teaching of English at an earlier age, it might also help. In hearing your suggestions, I feel these could be addressed to a great extent with the introduction of cooperative learning in English classes (especially solutions # 2, #3,#4,#5). Giving students focused groups to discuss the issues and work on the content will increase their comfort zone as well as their output level. Especially if the groups are carefully selected to have proficient speakers with not so proficient speakers. This will increase the need for team work.
I like the positive tone you take. And if the MEXT were not intending on spending the entire 10 trillion yen on TOEFL testing and instead investing it on teacher training, you would have a good plan.
Keep up the good work.

Hi Joel
Thanks! Your comment was very encouraging πŸ™‚
I think it’s really important for junior high school students to practice working in groups, because they are surprisingly unpracticed at it!
I also fear you’re right about MEXT’s (or rather, the government’s) plans…

3 Apr 2013, 9:19pm
by Tim Knight


Great ideas but I hope the appropriate people with influence & power are reading.

Hi Tim
Thanks for commenting. I’m not holding my breath on that!
My main purpose in posting this is to put something constructive out there. I hear a lot of criticism but not many suggestions -hopefully if we keep repeating practical things that could be done, eventually someone will try one or two. Hopeless idealist, eh πŸ˜‰

4 Apr 2013, 5:45pm
by Richard Attwood


One of the teachers I taught with at my JHS in Sendai was chosen to be amongst a select few nationwide who are sent every year to do EFL training in Cambridge. I was there at the same time doing my CELTA and we met up for coffee. She didn’t seem to really want to be there or think much of the training, but it goes to show there are some teachers being sent for training by MEXT. Another teacher I know from a good SHS in Chiba is going to America for 6 months this year for EFL study, again funded by MEXT.

Hi Rich
Yes, they have been sending teachers overseas for training for years now, but very few of them and as you say, they haven’t managed to make it attractive. I’m guessing the teachers feel it takes time out of their career. I would recommend giving teachers who successfully complete overseas training a pay increase for the rest of their career, and maybe give them priority on promotions. They should also be asked to conduct training for other teachers in their schools.

And of course, it shouldn’t just be the youngest teachers that are selected to go, but rather the ones with the most leadership potential/teaching ability πŸ˜‰

4 Apr 2013, 9:14pm
by norcalgal4


Just curious. How would you propose assessing “leadership potential/teaching ability” in Japan?

Drat, someone called me on that one πŸ˜‰

It’s really difficult to do on paper, through standardised tests, or ‘officially’.

However, I found that I could tell within a short time of arriving at a school which teachers had presence, enjoyed the respect of students and colleagues, and were a positive presence in the school. I guess this would be something that would require principals to recommend teachers, and some form of selection process. I guess it’s like pornography… you know it when you see it, but it’s really hard to codify.


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