I have a dream… for Japan’s English education


I was very negative about the Japanese government’s proposal to use TOEFL to screen university applicants. It’s easy to criticize, to offer up reasons why things won’t work. It makes you feel important, contributing to the conversation in that way. It even feels productive sometimes, like you are saving people from making mistakes.

I still think indiscriminately imposing the TOEFL test on students in Japan is a flawed idea, and next week on this blog I am going to offer up some alternatives.

I will post my suggestions on how I think English education in Japan can be improved at the primary (elementary school), secondary (junior and senior high school), and tertiary (university) levels.

And then you can all have a go at criticizing me 🙂


* give yourself a pat on the back if you know who the guy in the picture is

Japan to use TOEFL as university entrance hurdle?


You may have read about the Japanese government’s suggested plan to use TOEFL as a screening test for university entrance. If not, here are some online articles:

Japan Times (March 25) “Abe Wants TOEFL to be Key Exam”
Japan Times (March 25) “LDP urges TOEFL scores as college entrance, graduation requirement”

I am not an expert on the TOEFL test, and I am not privy to the details of this plan, such as what kind of scores they are planning to require, or how they expect high schools to prepare students for the TOEFL. However, I think this is a horrible idea.

I am really opposed to using tests out of context, for purposes other than the ones they were designed for. This applies especially to the TOEIC and TOEFL tests. As far as I am aware, TOEIC is a test designed to measure English proficiency within a working environment. Apart from the language, it also requires test-takers to have some idea of working environments and tasks. I find that young people with no experience of working in office or professional environments are at a real disadvantage taking the test -basically it is not designed for them.

I believe TOEFL is designed to measure how well candidates will deal with studying in an English-language institution. It is looking at whether they will be able to understand lectures, write papers, take notes, participate in discussions, etc.

Using these tests indiscriminately to measure general language proficiency or achievement is surely less than ideal.

I am opposed to using the TOEFL test to pre-screen candidates for university entrance, as suggested in the articles above, for the following reasons:

  1. The test is inappropriate to measure English achievement over the entire student population, as opposed to a select few who intend to study abroad
  2. Regular high schools are not in a position to prepare students for these tests, which means that students will have to go to the private sector if they want to go to university, which means that only relatively affluent students will be able to go to university
  3. The bar will have to be set so low on the TOEFL iBT in order for normal students to pass it as to render the whole thing meaningless
  4. A foreign company like ETS should not have this much influence on Japan’s national curriculum: giving it to them is an abdication of responsibility on the part of the Ministry of Education
  5. The test is expensive, and presumably most students will take it several times to try to maximize their score, adding 30-50,000 yen to the cost of applying to university

Basically this is the latest in a series of ‘reforms’ that start from a positive goal (improve students’ practical English abilities), then completely fail to implement steps to achieve that goal, due to lack of knowledge, political will, or sheer incompetence.

What do you think about this idea? Is it going to help Japanese students?

VIDEO Oxford Teaching Workshop Series 2013: Creating a Reading Program for Young Learners

This year I was very fortunate to be invited to be part of the Oxford Teaching Workshop Series, presenting in four cities in Japan this spring. This video is from the Okayama session:

Please tell me about your reading program in the comments.

An important lesson

ankle cast

I had a motorbike accident last week, and it’s taught me a number of lessons. I thought I might share them here.

1. Don’t ride motorbikes when there is a chance of the roads being icy

I woke up having already decided to ride my bike to work. The morning was cold, and although there was no ice on the roads where I lived, nearer to my workplace the roads were completely frozen.

2. Make sure you wear all your safety equipment

I broke my ankle in the accident, but didn’t have a scratch on me otherwise. I suspect the only reason I broke my ankle was that I was not wearing my boots properly. I had pulled them on but not bothered fastening them correctly.

3. You are not invincible

This is the first time I have ever hurt myself seriously, and in a way it’s a bit of a wake-up call. I’m not invincible, and I can get hurt.

4. Being injured is horrible

Having a broken ankle is incredibly inconvenient. It takes 3-5 times as long to do anything (and I mean, anything, from getting dressed to getting a tissue to going to the toilet to going to get lunch). I’m relatively fortunate as well: I’m only 35, I am fairly fit so can stand up using just one leg, can hop around, can lift myself up using my arms… I can’t imagine how unpleasant this would be if I were older or less physically able.

5. It’s really hard to carry things in your hands when you are on crutches

I’ve had about ten days to learn to improvise, swallow my pride and ask strangers to help me, and just give up on doing certain things. Carrying cups of liquid or plates with food is pretty much impossible.

6. People noticing you need help and offering it is priceless

It’s amazing how much it means for someone to notice that you need help and offer it. Not many people do. I will certainly try to be more aware and mindful in the future.

7. Being fit and healthy is priceless

We can protect ourselves from injury and minimize the discomfort/inconvenience by staying fit and healthy. I think everyone needs some form of weight training (to keep muscles strong and bones dense) and endurance training (to keep fit and healthy).

As soon as I get this cast off I am going back to the gym to continue my weight training (you can see the program I use here). As for the motorbike? I may stick to my bicycle from now on 🙂

Google Reader: the end of an era

google reader

This is only going to be of interest if you use Google’s excellent Google Reader service to consume your web content via RSS feeds.

If you have no idea what that means, stop reading now 😉

I logged into Google Reader a couple of days ago to discover that Google is planning to discontinue the service in July. Seems like they weren’t able to monetize it sufficiently, or there weren’t enough users, or something data-driven like that.

While I’m sure they have their reasons, I was unpleasantly surprised. I’ve been using Reader for years now to read blogs and webcomics and really like the simplicity, and how well it syncs across computers and mobile devices.

Fortunately I am not the only one with this problem, and it seems as though Feedly has decided that they would like to snap up all of the Google Reader customers. If you go to their website, you can sign in with your Google account and when the time comes they will migrate all your settings to their system.

I’ve been playing with Feedly on Windows and my iPhone since yesterday and so far it seems like a good solution. It’s not the same as Reader, but it comes close, and I’m sure it will be fine once I get used to it.

So as a public service announcement, if you need a replacement for Reader, Feedly seems like a relatively painless solution.

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