Language Teacher Training Approaches in Japan: What Are the Issues?

Marcel VAN AMELSVOORT
2014 Kanagawa Kenritsu Kokusai Gengo Bunka Akademia kiyo  
Is there a problem? In November of 2013 at a high school in Kanagawa prefecture, 19 students sit for an English test. The test is a mid-term test in a course called Writing, yet the students have not done any writing compositions in class, nor is there any writing on the test, despite MEXT guidelines calling for more emphasis on language production and a call for more communicative activities (MEXT, 2011c). Instead, during the 45 minutes of the test, the students attempt to answer a series of
more » ... nswer a series of grammar-focused multiple choice test items. It is plainly a grammar test, and a difficult one at that. Later, the results reflect this. The basic class students manage an average of only 25%; another group, the advanced class, fares not really much better with an average of 46%. This scenario is not fiction, nor is it not all that uncommon, based on anecdotal evidence. At the same time, this event begs several questions. Why are grammar questions used for a writing class instead of writing questions? Why does the course itself not focus at all on developing English writing skills? Why is there such a focus on discrete grammar points on both the test and in teaching when it is so widely accepted in the field of second language acquisition (SLA) that this approach is only of nominal effectiveness? (Swan, 2006) . Why are the four teachers in charge of this course ignoring both MEXT directives, and established SLA theory? On the surface, it seems to make no sense. In 2011, MEXT revised the Course of Study, instructing teachers to teach lessons with more emphasis on integration of the four skills and greater use of the target language (L2) in class, particularly with a communicative focus (2011c). MEXT representatives have explicitly instructed teachers that "the purpose of studying English is not to build translation skills or knowledge of grammar, but rather to develop the ability to communicate in the L2" (Kogo, 2013, my translation). A related part of the same Course of Study document recommends greater use of the L2 in classes. It has been generally understood as a directive to "teach English in English," and teachers are aware that it is now both national and prefectural policy that they should conduct most, if not all, of their lessons using the L2 as the language of instruction (Yoshida, 2012) . And yet an internal survey in the same prefecture mentioned above found that only a small percentage of teachers were actually following these directives. Again, what are we Language Teacher Training Approaches in Japan -32 -to make of this? Both government policy and established language teaching pedagogy suggest one thing, and yet many teachers do another. Clearly, at least some new Course of Study mandates are not reaching classrooms as intended. The situation described above makes it tempting to just blame classroom teachers, but for policy to be adopted effectively there need to be clear, acceptable goals and clear, actional pathways toward those goals. From a teacher training and development perspective, however, it is self-evident that policy cannot be enacted if teachers do not understand the goals, do not know how to implement them, are incapable of implementing them, or choose to ignore them. This paper will take a critical look at the present in-service high school language teacher training system in an attempt to identify why it is failing to prevent the above scenario from being a common occurrence, and identify some possible directions for improvement. A Complicated Cultural Landscape English exists in Japanese society as a perceived need, though not always one that generally requires any degree of fluency in most peoples' current lives. However, against a backdrop of growing globalization, English proficiency represents very real opportunities; and globalization means more opportunities arise with more proficiency (Seargeant, 2011) . This has put increasing pressure on educational systems to change, but this also causes conflict, pitting opposing opinions and sometimes established norms against new needs. The resulting policy and the often insufficient measures taken to implement it often contain contradictory elements, as policy makers with different opinions and agendas try with varying degrees of success to balance the needs and fears of foreign language learning (Hashimoto, 2009) . For that reason, Japan has demonstrated a seemingly "love-hate" relationship with English over the years, or as Kachru puts it, "Japan has been one of the first countries to articulate positions about the acceptance of English and an identity with it, and about the rejection of the language and proposing a distance with it" (1997, pg. 68). This wide range in attitudes reflects both a struggle against the imperial ambitions of Europeans/American and at other times a struggle for imperialism in which English, and its teaching, have been put to work for the purpose of advancing state ambitions or suppressed in an attempt to preserve Japanese uniqueness (Shimizu 2010 , Fujimoto-Adamson, 2006 . It is, by any account, a cultural landscape with various and often contradictory messages, and long-term goals for English language education exist in the public mind only in a vague form. Of more immediate policy concern is the fact that Language Teacher Training Approaches in Japan -33 -different levels of high school have their learners on different learning trajectories. Some are focused on passing reading and grammar-heavy exams, while others have only unspecific academic goals. Japanese teachers of English in public high schools are both a product of this cultural landscape-having gone through as successful students and then received training in the system-and a part of its present manifestation, and as such were both deeply influenced by it and invested in it (Johnson, 2009). Attitudes toward greater use of English in the classroom and greater use of communicative language teaching (CBT) reflect some of the conflict that exists between experience and new requirements or between MEXT goals and school goals. Many teachers have a positive opinion of CBT, for example, but do not make use of it in their classes (Nishino, 2008) . And teachers often find their goals and those of their students are not the same, with students more interested in acquiring communicative proficiency while teachers are more concerned with meta-knowledge about the language (Matsuda, 2011) and giving more of their student charges the knowledge and skills they need to meet the entrance requirements of higher level universities, which often means passing reading/grammar/vocabulary tests. Complicating this, the last few decades have seen tremendous changes in technologies and economies that have greatly expedited the flow of information, communication, people, and capital within and between nations. This has created more access and more exposure to English: more access to different varieties of English, more access to new ways and genres of using the language, more access to new types of written discourse, more access to spoken forms, and more meaningful opportunities to use English, rather than just study it as a discipline unto itself. In many ways, the cultural context in which teachers find themselves working is changing and unclear, and the experience teachers have leaves them rather poorly prepared to deal with it. Thinking about this cultural context, the challenge for policy makers is this: how can national policy regarding English education be made clearer, aligning goals at all levels with meaningful outcome needs, and at the same time assuaging the fears of negative influences on the native culture and established practitioner teachers? Insufficient Pre-Service Teacher Training In terms of content knowledge of L2 language and culture (including functional language proficiency skills) and pedagogy/assessment knowledge, there are questions as to whether the current system is producing the type of teacher that MEXT needs in order to meet its present Language Teacher Training Approaches in Japan -34 -Course of Study goals, if we consider the requisite knowledge/skill level to be roughly that of an MATESOL program graduate (see Maggioli, 2013 for a detailed list). As stated above, current teachers are a product of the system in which they studied. In order to succeed in that system and become teachers, they excelled at discrete grammar knowledge, meta-knowledge about the language, vocabulary recognition, and translation. On the other hand, many never experienced communicative language teaching as students; for most teachers and particularly for those who have not spent time abroad, speaking is an underdeveloped skill. And their pre-service teacher training also likely did not prepare them enough for the way of teaching suggested in the new Course of Study. Compared to many other countries, the number of required courses and the amount of pre-service training in Japan are remarkably low (Wang et al., 2003) . There are almost no graduate teachers college programs, and for example, English literature majors who take only a couple of supplementary courses at university-with only a few hours on second language acquisition theory, and very little (if any) TESOL training-and complete a three-week practical placement training session can and do become licensed teachers. This practical placement training duration is considerably below the average of 17.4 weeks for the other countries surveyed in the Wang et al.(2003) ETS report: Netherlands, England, Australia, United States, Singapore, Hong Kong, and Korea. In addition, not all teachers have sufficient English language proficiency (as measured by standard proficiency tests). According to a 2012 MEXT survey, only 52.3% of high school teachers (self-) report that they have attained any one of the following levels on commonly-available standard proficiency tests: TOEFL iBT 80 points or higher; TOEIC 730 points or higher; and/or Eiken-STEP Pre-first grade or higher. 74.6% of teachers reported having taken one or more of these tests, meaning that at least 22% of teachers did not reach these minimal levels of proficiency. The remaining teachers did not take any of the tests, but undoubtedly many of them would not be able to attain these levels. As long as the teachers' role is simply to explain the language in the textbook, they probably have enough subject matter expertise to suffice (with a little preparation). But they are likely to feel less than comfortable with CLT and giving feedback on student-produced language, particularly as they are required to do so as part of relatively unfamiliar CLT activities, and are likely not confident at all about their own English language skills, particularly speaking skills. To reiterate, many teachers have limited experience with learning English in English or with CLT, limited training, and perhaps as much as a quarter of teachers have language skills that may limit their ability to adhere to the new Course of Study guidelines.
doi:10.20686/academiakiyou.3.0_31 fatcat:maqlp4cmyza4tcfkopnedyyzxu