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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?

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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 ūüôā


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

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Okayama and Osaka Oxford Teaching Workshops

I would just like to thank everyone who turned out for the Okayama and Osaka Oxford Teaching Workshops. I had a great time meeting and talking to you, and the many questions really helped me see where my presentation needs more work ūüôā

As promised, here are the slides I used for my presention


Please feel free to get in touch if you have any questions.

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Tohoku (Sendai) ETJ Expo -Sunday December 2 at Tohoku Bunka Gakuen University

I’ll be presenting at the ETJ Expo in Sendai this weekend, talking about useful online resources to help students study more effectively.

The schedule for the event is here, and the map/directions are here.

My workshop is at 12:30 -hope to see you there!

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Annotated list of websites from the “SRS, RSS, LMS: Online Tools to Boost Learner Efficiency” presentations

Hi everyone

A friend from Sendai reminded me that I promised to post the list of websites from my presentation on the blog. Here it is:

Anki is a spaced-repetition program is an amazing listening resource: over 1200 short conversations with transcripts has short videos with interactive subtitles as well as vocab and pronunciation practice

Facebook needs no introduction

Google search settings have some interesting tools, like reading level

Google translate is partially useful

iTunesUniversity great content for advanced students and teachers can now use it to show their classes

Network (Oxford University Press textbook) new series based around social media

OxfordOwl incredible resources including Oxford Reading Tree ebooks with sound

pikifriends a closed social network for junior high schools amazing resource for reading online content a simple (paid) system for learning kanji a very powerful site for learning kanji and vocabulary -freemium but most of it is free

rikaikun for Chrome/rikaichan browser extension Firefox gives popup translations within the browser

skype for video calls phonics and reading practice for children great content for teachers and advanced learners you know this

Hope you find something useful in there.