Thursday, September 20, 2018

Vocabulary in Textbooks: What Our Students Need and What They Get by Isra Wongsarnpigoon

by Isra Wongsarnpigoon

Bio: Isra Wongsarnpigoon is a learning advisor in the Self-Access Learning Center at Kanda University of International Studies. He originally came to Japan on the JET Programme and taught as a senior high school ALT in southern Chiba prefecture.

After his JET stint, he continued working as an ALT for the board of education in another city in Chiba, teaching in junior high and elementary schools. While at this job, he earned his M.S.Ed. from Temple University, Japan Campus. 

Aside from L2 (second language) vocabulary learning, his recent research interests include learner autonomy, learner motivation, reflective practice, and positive psychology.

Note: In this entry, I loosely describe a study that I presented at the 2017 JALT national conference. For a more detailed report, please read my paper (Wongsarnpigoon, 2018) from the post-conference publication.

Are any of these experiences familiar to you? 

  • Students asking the meaning of a word when you know for sure that they’ve already learned it and have had to be reminded of it before.
  • Looking at the textbook, questioning whether students really need these vocabulary words at this point, and wondering who makes these choices.
  • Wondering how effective it really is for X Sensei to bombard students with drills for every word in a unit at once and never go back to them again.

These all happened to me more than once and helped inspire my study. I was also motivated by another experience from a few years prior: When the 2012 editions of the English textbooks were published, I remembered my Japanese teacher of English (JTE) colleagues lamenting how much more vocabulary they needed to teach. The textbooks conformed with new MEXT guidelines, which set a vocabulary learning target of 1,200 words for junior high school—an increase of 300 from the previous guidelines (MEXT, 2008).

These various concerns made me curious about the textbooks’ contents, especially considering that they are a major source of vocabulary input for junior or senior high school students, many of whom intensely prepare for entrance examinations. I checked MEXT’s guidelines and discovered that while there was a set target number of words, the actual vocabulary selection was entirely left to individual publishers! It made me wonder: How useful were the words in the textbooks? Did the vocabulary suit students’ needs?


Before continuing, I’ll briefly mention some principles of L2 vocabulary learning that serve as the underlying foundation of this article, although I’m sure David Coulson’s vocabulary module will cover them also. First, a learner’s comprehension of a text greatly depends on the amount of known words in it. Laufer (1989) found that when learners knew 95% of the words in a text, they could achieve adequate reading comprehension. More recently, knowledge of 98% of the words is considered a more appropriate target for unassisted comprehension (Hu & Nation, 2000). This 3% difference can be visualized like this: When students know 95% of the words, one out of every 20 words, or one word every two lines, is unknown; when 98% of the words are known, one out of every 50 words, or one out of every five is unknown. That makes quite a difference.

These thresholds therefore underscore the importance of knowing the most frequent words in English. In a landmark study, Nation (2006) calculated what size vocabulary was necessary in order to comprehend various kinds of texts. The most frequent 2,000 words (generally known as high-frequency vocabulary) tend to make up about 80-90% of authentic texts. As such, beginners should focus on learning high-frequency vocabulary first.

The final major concept is that repetition is crucial in learning vocabulary. Students need to encounter a new word multiple times in order to learn it. Some researchers have written that seeing a word in context 10 times leads to learning (Webb, 2007), while others like Nation (2013) believe that at least 20 encounters are necessary. In any case, it’s clear that the more times students see a word, the better!

My Study

I built on these theoretical assumptions to investigate the vocabulary in the New Crown junior high school textbook series (Takahashi, et al., 2012). Since high school exams were often my students’ ultimate targets, I also wanted to look at actual exams, so I could see how well the textbooks’ vocabulary prepared students for them. I thus also analyzed the English sections of the public high school entrance examinations for several prefectures from 2015 and 2016.

For my study, I followed Webb and Nation’s (2008) procedure for analyzing the vocabulary in texts and used the computer software Range (Heatley, Nation, & Coxhead, 2002), which is available on Nation’s website. Range analyzes texts, provides various data about every word in the file(s), and also sorts the words according to preset base lists, usually lists based on levels of frequency in English. With this data, I checked the textbooks’ and exams’ vocabulary levels by determining what size vocabulary would allow students to reach those crucial 95% and 98% thresholds.

For the combined three volumes of New Crown, knowing the most frequent 2,000 English words would cover 95% of the books’ vocabulary, and the first 5,000 words covered 98%. These levels varied for individual volumes, though. In Volume 1 (for seventh graders), the most frequent 3,000 English words allowed 95% coverage, while the 98% threshold was reached at 6,000 words. In Volume 3 (for ninth graders), however, the first 2,000 and 4,000 words were needed for 95% and 98% respectively. This doesn’t necessarily mean that Volume 1’s vocabulary was more difficult; it may just reflect the kind of topics and grammar used in each book.

For the entrance examinations, knowing the most frequent 2,000 words allowed 95% coverage, and the first 3,000 words covered 98%. This result shows that the vocabulary levels of the exams were lower than that of the textbooks, so knowing enough vocabulary for the textbooks would conceivably be enough for the exams.

I then looked at data for repetition and recycling of vocabulary (i.e., how often students would see words and therefore learn or remember them better), focusing on the high-frequency first 2,000 words. New Crown contained 996 high-frequency words, but only about 37% of them appeared in every volume. In contrast, 171 high-frequency words (over 17%) were introduced in Volume 1 or 2 but never reappeared in later volumes. For instance, jump, from the most frequent 1,000 words, appeared in Volume 1 but was in neither Volume 2 nor 3. Another 42 high-frequency words (e.g., far) appeared in both Volumes 1 and 2 but not in Volume 3. Thus, for many valuable words, students might see them in a given unit but wouldn’t have later opportunities to strengthen their knowledge or memory of those words.

Next, although 321 of the most frequent 1,000 words were in every volume, only 58.6% of them appeared more than 20 times, as recommended by Nation (2013) for learning. Another 17.8% of them didn’t even reach the minimum 10 times that Webb (2007) recommended. Of the 47 words from the second 1,000-word level appearing in every volume, only 34% occurred over 20 times, and another 34% had fewer than 10 repetitions. In all, only 204 of the most frequent 2,000 words appeared in every volume and had a suitable number of occurrences. Conversely, over 51% of the high-frequency words in the textbooks appeared six times or fewer, so students would see them very few times and be unlikely to learn them from textbook input alone.

High-frequency words represented over 95%, of the overall vocabulary, so New Crown appropriately focused on the most useful words first. In an earlier study (Wongsarnpigoon, 2017), I tested some target learners and found that they were still in the process of learning those most frequent 2,000 words. Thus, the textbooks would make a good learning target. The entrance exams had slightly easier vocabulary than the textbooks and contained fewer total words than MEXT’s target figure, so conceivably, there might be few words on the exams that students had never seen in the textbooks.

Students didn’t have enough opportunities, however, to learn vocabulary through repetition. High-frequency words tended not to appear in multiple volumes and often were not recycled in later ones. Even though it’s possible that the exam takers might have seen all the vocabulary at some point in the textbooks, that doesn’t mean they learned them adequately. The textbooks aren’t enough to carry the students’ learning burden for these words.

What This Means for ALTs

There are several things ALTs can take from these findings. First, you can supplement textbooks by providing some of the repetition and recycling of vocabulary that is lacking. Of course, students don’t read through a textbook chapter once and move on as if reading a novel; they usually go through a chapter multiple times in class. Still, those repetitions are all in the same context, and once students finish that unit, they might never see some of those words again. If you use your own original materials or tasks in class, you can take the opportunity to recycle some older vocabulary. For example:

  • Include some previously learned vocabulary in example sentences or on worksheets.
  • In communicative activities such as interviews or roleplays, use topics from previous units or situations where previously learned vocabulary might be necessary or useful.
  • If you have a few extra minutes in class, do some review activities that revisit older words. I once had a JTE that would always give me 10 minutes at the end of class to do whatever I wanted; that would be a perfect situation to use some previously learned vocabulary.

Next, as an ALT, I tended to use communicative or meaning-focused activities in class. Researchers like Nation say, however, that learners need deliberate, explicit vocabulary learning along with the incidental learning that might happen through communicative activities. If you have a lot of freedom in class or teach with open-minded, flexible JTEs, you could work together to teach students about practical ways for deliberate vocabulary learning, such as the effective use of learning strategies, dictionaries, flashcards, or mobile applications. We can’t assume that JTEs know these things already, either. I once gave a workshop about effective vocabulary learning and spaced repetition to junior high school teachers, and it was clear that many of the principles were new to them. It might be educational for your JTEs as well to collaborate on sharing these ideas with students.

Finally, this kind of analysis can help you find out which words students might need more exposures to. For instance, a simple analysis of your own materials might show that certain valuable words don’t appear enough times, so you could use them more often in your activities to bring them to students’ attention. On the other hand, if you find that certain words appear often enough in the textbooks or are less important to students (for example, mid-frequency items), you might choose to use them less frequently and focus more on other, higher-frequency words.

Research like this not only allows us to look critically at published materials, it also helps us think about how we can support our students better. ALTs rarely have much control over the textbooks they use, so learning about what’s inside them is an important step in knowing how to supplement them. This will be even more crucial when the next MEXT guidelines are fully implemented, as the junior high school vocabulary target will rise again, to between 1,600 and 1,800 words (MEXT, 2017). With textbooks’ vocabulary input being insufficient and the burden on teachers high as it is, ALTs will have many opportunities to expand their roles in helping students’ vocabulary learning as well as develop their own professional practices.

Further Reading

Aside from my references, you might find these helpful:
  • If you interested in this kind of research, Webb and Nation’s (2008) paper and Chapter 9 in Nation and Webb’s excellent Researching and Analyzing Vocabulary both provide helpful explanations.
  • If you want to know more about vocabulary learning and research, Paul Nation's website itself has many useful articles and resources.


Alberding, M. (2006). What’s in your textbook? An analysis of the vocabulary in a second language learning textbook. In K. Bradford-Watts, C. Ikeguchi, & M. Swanson (Eds.) JALT2005 Conference Proceedings. Tokyo: JALT. Retrieved from

Beglar, D., & Hunt, A. (2005). Six principles for teaching foreign language vocabulary: A commentary on Laufer, Meara, and Nation’s ‘ten best ideas’. The Language Teacher, 29(7), 7-10. Retrieved from

Fujimori, J. (2005). The lexical composition of two oral communication I textbooks. The Language Teacher, 29(7), 15-19. Retrieved from

Hu, M., & Nation, P. (2000). Unknown vocabulary density and reading comprehension. Reading in a Foreign Language, 13(1), 403-430.

Laufer, B. (1989). What percentage of text-lexis is essential for comprehension? In C. Laurén & M. Nordman (Eds.), Special language: From humans thinking to thinking machines (pp. 316-323).

Clevedon, England: Multilingual Matters.

Laufer, B., Meara, P., & Nation, P. (2005). Ten best ideas for teaching vocabulary. The Language Teacher, 29(7), 3-6. Retrieved from

MEXT. (2008). Chuugakkou gakushuu shidouyouryou kaisetsu: Gaikokugo hen [Explanation of the junior high school course of study guidelines for foreign languages]. Retrieved from

MEXT. (2017). Chuugakkou gakushuu shidouyouryou (heisei 29-nen kokuchi) kaisetsu: Gaikokugo hen [Explanation of the junior high school course of study guidelines for foreign languages: 2017 notice] Retrieved from: /1387018_10_1.pdf

Nation, I. S. P. (2006). How large a vocabulary is needed for reading and listening? Canadian Modern Language Review, 63(1), 59-82.

Nation, I.S.P., & Webb, Stuart. (2011). Researching and analyzing vocabulary. Boston: Heinle.

Takahashi, S., Hardy, T., Negishi, M., Hidai, S., Matsuzawa, S., Saito, E., … Parmenter, L. (2012). New crown English series (Vols. 1-3). Tokyo: Sanseido.

Webb, S., & Nation, P. (2008). Evaluating the vocabulary load of written text. TESOLANZ Journal, 16, 1-10.

Wongsarnpigoon, I. (2017, February). Analyzing the vocabulary of an EFL textbook for young Japanese learners. Paper presented at the 19th Temple University Applied Linguistics Colloquium. Temple University Japan Campus, Tokyo.

Wongsarnpigoon, I. (2018). Vocabulary in junior high school textbooks and exams. In P. Clements, A. Krause, & P. Bennett (Eds.), Language teaching in a global age: Shaping the classroom, shaping the world. Tokyo: JALT.
Retrieved from 

-          A note from ALT training online’s David Hayter

If you have something 'ALT' to write about that hasn't been covered in these blogs, email me at so we can work together and spread your story. Don't have any ideas? ALT training online we have a list of topics to write about that need a writer. Email in your interest to write and we can set you up. 

For upcoming blogs see the blogs tab here:

Monday, August 20, 2018

Communicative Language Teaching by Lina Gordyshevskaya

by Lina Gordyshevskaya

Bio: Lina Gordyshevskaya graduated from the University of Edinburgh in 2015 earning an MA with honors in Scandinavian Studies. She obtained a TEFL certificate in 2015 and a CELTA in 2016.

Throughout her career, she has taught YL (young learners), teenagers, and adults of various levels in different contexts. Currently, she teaches EAP (discussion) at Rikkyo University in Tokyo and loves her job. She writes regularly for her blog, Side Notes on ELT.

Communicative Language Teaching (CLT) is self-explanatory: the underlying idea here is to develop learners’ communicative competence and provide them with an opportunity to communicate in their target language. CLT should be as student-centered as possible, and all new words and structures have to be contextualised (learnt in the context). Finally, the focus should be on fluency (how fast and effortlessly students speak) rather than on accuracy (how accurate their grammar and word choices are).

Now, in Japanese schools, students rarely have a chance to communicate in English since it is believed there that language learning is about grammar and vocabulary. While these two are undoubtedly essential components, it is obvious that language learning loses its meaning if learners have no chance to communicate in their target language.

What do Japanese students do in a typical English lesson? They keep silent and listen to the teacher. English grammar is explained in Japanese, and students end up doing endless grammar exercises (so-called grammar drills) and translations between their mother tongue and English. Accuracy is the only virtue cherished by Japanese schools. Students also have to memorise an impressive amount of English word lists taken out of context. The primary goal is to prepare them for the end-of-year exam, which typically consists of reading and listening (both of which are receptive skills). Therefore, communication is out of scope. Its value is diminished since a speaking component is not in the test, so why would they need to spend their time on it?

However, the huge number of so-called eikaiwas (English conversation schools) demonstrates the flaw of English school education: recent graduates realise that without being able to communicate in English, their grammar and vocabulary knowledge is almost useless to employers. The high demand for communicative lessons among working people is the reason why Japanese schools try to implement some communicative lessons with the help of Assistant Language Teachers (ALTs).

So what do you have to do? How can you implement CLT in your lessons?

First of all, I would recommend starting with tuning your students into thinking what communication is. They need to understand its importance. Ask them to brainstorm this word in groups and see what they come up with. Most likely, they will talk about various features of effective communication (e.g., eye contact, clarity, etc.) – that is a good start! Tell them about other features they might not mention as developing a conversation by asking follow-up questions and the need to check to understand (“Do you understand?”). It is hardly possible to teach your students how to be effective communicators without explaining what effective communication is. Since we are trying to follow the principles of CLT here, making students brainstorming the topic in groups could be an excellent way to create the need for interaction and teamwork.

Okay, your students understand now how to carry successful and effective communication. What is next? There is only one thing you can do: give them an opportunity to try it out! Make them communicate and let them learn from their mistakes. Let them develop and progress. Below is the list of some communicative activities you can use with your students. All of them are suitable for older elementary school, junior high school, high school, and university students.

1. Any kind of pair work. Ask your students to discuss something in pairs. Typically, pair work creates less tension since it is more intimate than group work. However, you have to be careful when pairing students up since if a talkative student is paired with a shy student the latter one will most likely end up keeping quiet. I often use pair work at the beginning of a lesson when I want to tune my students into thinking about today’s topic. For example, when we discussed social pressure, I asked them to talk in pairs and discuss how they would define ‘pressure’.
2. Any kind of group work. This is the same as pair work but can help students to develop their teamwork skills. My favourite kind of group work is a discussion. However, keep in mind that before asking students to discuss something in groups you need to prepare them for this kind of task. Ensure they understand the topic, give them an opportunity to exchange opinions in pairs first to generate some ideas and rehearse before the big task.
3. Concentric circles. Suitable for classes of 10+. Students stand in two circles, inner and outer. They have to discuss some questions or ideas. After each round, students in the outer circles make one step left; therefore, each student in the inner circle gets a new partner. It is also a type of pair work, but in this case, students have a chance to discuss the questions or ideas with different partners that might help them to widen their understanding of the topic.
4. Lines. Same as concentric circles, but in lines.
5. Fluency Activity. If you want to add some time pressure, consider trying out the so-called 3-2-1 Fluency Activity. It can be done both in circles and lines. The idea is that each round is shorter than the previous one: 3 minutes -> 2 minutes -> 1 minute. Students take roles of speakers and listeners. Speakers have to repeat the same ideas in each round, but faster each time. Listeners only have to listen and react (i.e., “yeah”, “I see”, “mhm”, etc.). After the speakers complete the 1-minute round, change the roles and repeat the procedure.
6. Gallery Walk (aka Stations). Can be done both in pairs and groups. The ideas are to prepare some posters with the questions you want your students to discuss. Put these posters on the walls or desks. Students walk around and discuss the questions. They have the freedom to stay at each station for as long as they want and move in any direction.
7. Role-play. I am not a big fan of role-playing and have hardly implemented it in my lessons, but it is a good thing to do if you have to work with some dialogues. However, it depends on the students. Japanese students are generally a bit reserved and might not be keen on acting. Although if you do it in pairs without asking each pair to perform in front of the class, they might feel less pressure.
8. Brainstorming. Brainstorming can be very student-centred and communicative! I have some groups that enjoy this kind of activity, so we always devote some time to it. Typically, I ask them to come to the whiteboard, give each student a marker, and then they write down everything that comes to their minds discussing it meanwhile. They might ask each other about the exact meaning of their ideas, develop each other’s ideas by adding more examples, etc. The only thing I have to do is just to stand behind their backs and watch how the whiteboard is getting covered with dozens of interesting ideas. However, if you have to teach big groups (8+ students), doing this activity as a whole class is not going to work. In this case, divide students into groups and give each group a blank A4 sheet.
9. Reporting. Another CLT-style thing to do is to ask your students to report to you after they finish the task. However, Japanese students tend to feel shy when put under the spotlight, so I found reporting not being as successful as I wished. I have some groups where it started working after some time, but the majority of groups still finds it challenging and stressful.
10. EFL/ESL Games. If you are teaching elementary or junior high school students, pay specific attention to various EFL/ESL games. One of my favourites is the board game with conversation topics. You can find a template online. Fill some cells with conversation topics (e.g., “favourite musician”, “ideal summer vacation”, etc.). Students play in groups; they have to roll a dice and move their tokens. The group that gets to the Finish cell first wins. Make sure to add some unexpected elements (e.g., “roll dice – go back”, “miss a turn”, etc.). You can adjust the topics to your students’ age and level.
11. Resource Packs. Finally, you can always find many other communicative activities in various activity books or so-called resource packs. For example, Discussions A-Z series can be a good source of multiple topics. It is graded so you can select the appropriate level. Other helpful sources are 700 Classroom Activities, 60 Activities and Games for Pairwork, Conversation Inspirations, Speaking Extra, Instant Discussions, Timesaver series (e.g., Speaking Activities, Personality Quizzes, etc.), and many others.

I hope these guidelines help you to make your classroom as communicative as possible. Keep in mind that communication, like any other skill, needs to be practised and developed. Be ready to face difficulties both at the beginning and on the way, but do not let them discourage you. Support your students and be enthusiastic – they will appreciate it. Many of my students appear to be anxious and stressed in the first weeks of the course, but as they progress, they start feeling more relaxed, and the necessity to communicate in English stops scaring them. Being there for them is one of the crucial parts of our jobs as teachers, as well as ensuring that they leave our classroom feeling that they can communicate in English.

Good luck!

-          A note from ALT training online’s David Hayter

If you have something 'ALT' to write about that hasn't been covered in these blogs, email me at so we can work together and spread your story. Don't have any ideas? ALT training online we have a list of topics to write about that need a writer. Email in your interest to write and we can set you up. 

For upcoming blogs see the blogs tab here:

Friday, July 20, 2018

(Extensive) Reading in Japanese Elementary Schools by Chris Cooper

by Chris Cooper

Bio: Chris is from Yorkshire in the UK. He has just started working as a lecturer at Himeji Dokkyo University (April 2018), teaching a range of English classes from 1st to 4th year students. Before that, he worked as an ALT in Okayama Prefecture for 8 years for Interac and as a direct hire.

Website: (English Links for Language Learners - still very much a work in progress!)

The Teaching Reading module is being written by Rob Waring, who is one of the world’s leading experts in the field of extensive reading. You will learn a lot more than I can tell you working through his module, but for now, this is my little story of how I got into teaching reading and extensive reading at elementary school.

I was an ALT, teaching mainly in elementary schools, from 2010 to 2018. During that time, I completed my masters in TESOL, which got me interested in Language Acquisition, particularly researchers like Stephen Krashen, who is famous for his work on comprehensible input and ‘i + 1’ theory (Krashen, 1982). In basic terms, he said that learners will naturally acquire a language by understanding what is said to them and what they read. Ideally, their input should be slightly above the level they understand. I think this is what set me on the road to extensive reading.

Until recently, and possibly still the case in some schools, there has been a fairly strict speaking and listening only policy in the Japanese elementary school English classroom. We know the alphabet exists, we will learn the names of the letters in order, but don’t show it to the kids too much, it might scare them, and for god’s sake don’t let them try to read the words.

I can see the logic to this policy. Children learning their first language (L1) listen and speak before they read. This is preceded by an 18 month to 2 year ‘silent period’ from birth. Some approaches, such as the original form of Total Physical Response (TPR) (Asher, 2012) even advocate transferring the 18-month silent period to second language (L2) learning.

Also, if you speak with local people in Japan from an older generation, they often describe junior high school English of the past negatively, wishing they had more communication in the classroom as opposed to reading and writing only. The recent elementary school policy may be a reaction to this (although I have no real evidence to support this!).

Some researchers suggest teaching reading from day one of L2 learning (Furukawa, 2008), and whilst this may not be appropriate for very young learners in kindergarten or elementary school, the tide seems to be changing towards a more balanced approach including literacy from an earlier age. Recent materials from MEXT have included alphabet writing worksheets, phonics jingles and two digital picture books, which have now been incorporated into the 3rd and 4th grade textbooks. My concern is, this is not enough.

Most teachers of young learners would probably agree that some form of phonics is a good idea. The new We Can textbooks cover the main letter sounds from each of the 26 letters of the alphabet, plus /ch/, /sh/, /wh/ and the two /th/ sounds. This is a start, but there are around 44 sounds in the English language (Underhill, 2008) and other approaches are more attached to these sounds than single alphabet letters. Jolly Phonics, using the synthetic phonics approach adopted by UK primary schools, teaches the 42 main letter sounds of English (Jolly Phonics, 2018) in an order which enables learners to read words from the very early stages.

Whilst English could be described as phonetically opaque, meaning some words have irregular spellings, according to Adams (1990), around 80-90% of English words do have regular spellings. For me teaching phonics is essential, but how exactly should we do it? The door is wide open for more research into what kind of phonics is suitable for Japanese elementary schools and how it should be implemented in the curriculum.

We know that children learn language by focusing on the meaning (Cameron, 2001; Moon, 2000). Whilst learning how to read individual words can be helpful when reading road signs or shopping, both of these points are covered well in the MEXT textbooks I think, the goal or meaning of reading is surely reading longer texts, like articles, letters or especially for children, stories. The We Can textbooks include ‘Story Time’ and whilst some include rhyme, and may be like poems, they miss out key characteristics of stories, like being genuinely interesting, or having a twist at the end (Cameron, 2001). Whilst their redeeming factor is they may be easy to decipher, I doubt children will enjoy them.

In my last three years as an ALT, I found myself teaching at a ‘Special English Zone’ school, which was a normal public school, but had more English lessons than usual, as the rest of the country will from 2020. It also had a bit of an English budget and as I sat at my ALT desk, contemplating holes in MEXT textbooks, how I could get my students reading and other things, one of my colleagues asked me for any recommendations about materials we could buy...and my answer was graded readers.

I have always liked the use of picture books and have found that if you are friendly with the school librarian and ask nicely, they will sometimes get you some nice books, which you can read to your students, but this was the first time we had purchased books for the students to read themselves.

My approach to introducing the books was very top down, simply handing them over to students, initially having them read in pairs and telling them it doesn’t matter if you can’t understand all the words as long as you can just about understand the story. As books at this level have lots of pictures, most students could do this. I found the following rules to be helpful and popular with my students (based on Furukawa, 2006):

1. There is no need to look at a dictionary while reading.
2. Difficult to understand parts should be skipped over.
3. If a book is uninteresting or too difficult, stop reading.

These rules seemed to relieve pressure and allowed many students to enjoy reading English books. During reading sessions, I would walk around to allow students to ask me how to read words they were struggling with, and I would encourage them to help each other too. I would observe if students seemed to be reading books at the right level for them, which was helped by checking the reading logs they were keeping, logging the titles of books, dates, a comment about each book and a rating from one to four on how much of the book they understood and how interesting they thought it was.

In the two years I tried extensive reading in elementary school, I found the level most appropriate for my students was level 1+ of the Oxford Reading Tree series and level 1 of the MPI Building Blocks Library. Some students were able to read slightly higher levels than that, around levels 2 and 3 of the same series.

Handing over books to students in this way can be quite a steep learning curve for them, and with this in mind, at my school we also did other activities to try to ease the path into reading. One was phonics, which I have already discussed, and another was getting the 5th and 6th grade students to read texts they were already very familiar with orally.

Specifically, one was the monthly song. Most elementary schools will sing a song every month in Japanese, but my school sang one in English, which the kids would learn by heart by the end of the month. We would always put a big illustrated print out of the song lyrics on the whiteboardwhiteboard, without drawing too much attention to it. Then at the end of the month I would prepare individual copies of the lyrics for the 5th and 6th grade students to read, fill in the missing words, or I would cut the lyrics up, to be rearranged like a puzzle. Here are some examples:

We had a similar approach with stories learned orally by heart from doing Joint Storytelling (Allen-Tamai, 2013), an approach where students learn a simple dialogue-based version of a story by doing gestures and initially repeating after the teacher, but eventually being able to tell the story as a class together. Again, we would hand out the written version of the story at the end for students to read, here is an example from part of Goldilocks and the Three Bears:

I always remember this one, because one student pointed at the word ‘knock’ and said, ‘Chris, Chris, this word is k-n-o-c-k, right’. Even though he knew the word orally from the story, he was reading the /k/ and /n/ separately. This was probably related to his phonics knowledge, but it made me think this kind of approach was helpful because there is less reading pressure when you read something you know, like a very young L1 learner might start reading a nursery rhyme or picture book that has been read to them many times. Where there is less pressure, there is possibly more room for noticing things about how the words are written. In this case, it was a good opportunity to share with the class that in English, when words start with ‘kn’, we don’t pronounce the /k/.

In March 2018, I asked students who had been reading graded readers for almost two years three questions (answers in brackets):

Did you enjoy reading graded readers?
1. No (0) / 2. A little (5) / 3. Quite enjoyed it (7) / 4. Enjoyed it (3)

Do you think reading graded readers is useful for your English education?
1. No (0) / 2. A little (5) / 3. Quite useful (1) / 4. Useful (9)

Would you like to continue reading graded readers in junior high school?
1. No (0) / 2. A little (6) / 3. Quite (6) / 4. Yes (3)

Whilst my sample was very small, only 15 students in this class, I think what these results show is that these learners thought reading graded readers was beneficial for them. Also, none of them were completely averse to reading English books, which I thought might be the case when I started using graded readers. I would like to see more teachers try reading in their 5th and 6th grade classrooms around Japan, to see if their learners find them to be beneficial too. Linking elementary school to junior high school reading with the interesting reading material that graded readers provide, could make more learners interested in reading, rather than only reading the textbooks’ often dense and difficult to decipher texts.


Adams, M.J. (1990) Beginning to read: Learning and thinking about print. London: MIT.

Allen-Tamai, M. (2013). Story Trees. Tokyo: ShoPro.

Asher, J. J. (2012). Learning Another Language Through Actions (7th ed.). Los Gatos, California: Sky Oaks Productions, Inc.

Cameron, L. (2001). Teaching Languages to Young Learners. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Furukawa, A. (2006). SSS Extensive reading method proves to be an effective way to learn English. Retrieved from

Furukawa, A. (2008). Extensive reading from the first day of English learning. Extensive Reading in Japan 1(2). 10-14.

Jolly Phonics. (2018). Teaching literacy with Jolly Phonics. Retrieved from

Krashen, S. D. (1982). Principles and Practices in Second Language Learning. Oxford: Pergamon.

Moon, J. (2000). Children Learning English. Oxford: Macmillan-Heinemann.

Underhill, A. (2008). Interactive phonemic chart: British English. Retrieved from

-          A note from ALT training online’s David Hayter

If you have something 'ALT' to write about that hasn't been covered in these blogs, email me at so we can work together and spread your story. Don't have any ideas? ALT training online we have a list of topics to write about that need a writer. Email in your interest to write and we can set you up. 

For upcoming blogs see the blogs tab here:

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

EMI in Japan by Nicola Galloway

by Nicola Galloway,
The University of Edinburgh

Bio: Nicola Galloway is a lecturer in Education (TESOL) at the University of Edinburgh, where she teaches on the MSc TESOL, organising a course on Second Language Teaching Curriculum and Global Englishes Language Teaching.

Prior to taking up her role in Edinburgh, Nicola spent over 10 years in Japan, working in tertiary school systems. She was an ALT in Gunma Ken from 2001-2003 and the focus of her MSc TESOL dissertation was on evaluating the JET Programme in relation to Global Englishes.

She is co-author of Introducing Global Englishes (Routledge, 2015) and Global Englishes for Language Teaching (Cambridge University Press, 2018) and sole-author of a research monograph entitled Global Englishes and Change: Attitudes and Impact (Routledge, 2017). She has published Global Englishes-related research in System, ELT Journal, Journal of English as a Lingua Franca and Englishes in Practice.

She led a British Council ELT Research Award, which explored English Medium Instruction in China and Japan and is currently working on establishing a global online network on EMI and Global Englishes (Teaching English and teaching IN English in global contexts). She holds a PhD from the University of Southampton and her thesis looked at the influence of Global Englishes instruction on students’ attitudes towards the language they learn in Japan. 

Intro by Nathaniel Reed

We are very lucky to have a leading authority in global Englishes education write this guest blog for us about a topic that is increasingly relevant to our everyday teaching lives. Using English only in the classroom and teaching other subjects through English has been a goal released by the Japanese Ministry of Education (MEXT) incrementally. In 2014 the ‘English only in high schools’ reform was enacted (from the policy; English Education Reform Plan corresponding to globalisation, 2014). In 2020 all junior high school English classes are taught in English only too (some cities and prefectures from 2018).

We all, very likely, teach other subjects to a greater or lesser degree in our classes every weekday; if you do a little math, practice the past tense simply by asking questions about history, or ask about capital cities and world languages with interrogative questions, you are using English to teach other subjects - and this comes under CLIL (there is an entire module dedicated to this on the free ALT training course. Teaching other subjects is called English as a Medium of Instruction (EMI) and is becoming a cornerstone of English education in Japan.

Japan’s escalator system of education: ES, JHS, HS and university (rather than a gap year or starting work at 16) means that the percentage of students that go to high school (which is not compulsory) and university is quite high. By 2013 a third of Japan’s nearly 800 universities offered undergraduate EMI courses (a rise of 50% since 2005) (Brown, 2015). There are two main considerations for us when teaching in compulsory education and high schools: washback and teacher roles. You may well have read about the influence of ‘Washback’ in the dedicated blog and discovered the influence of tests on teaching and learning in Japanese schools. A summary of washback goes; education in Japan appears to be designed for students to pass tests. If tests don’t test speaking skills, those skills are not practiced in schools - this is called negative washback. However, with the advent of EMI in universities, we are now preparing our students to learn other subjects through the medium of English - positive washback. As English teachers, we powerfully influence the effect of positive washback and our student’s future academic life.

We know then that the roles of teachers are very much changing; we are teaching a lot more than just vocabulary and grammar. Speaking to other subject teachers in your schools is a starting point to put together materials for your classes; ask the social studies teacher what they’ve taught recently, then incorporate that content in your English class, as one example. By speaking to content teachers you can reinforce learning and provide valuable, meaningful English input.

From here, Dr Nicola Galloway brings us into the much wider picture of EMI and Global Englishes - enjoy!

Blog entry:

There has been a 1115% growth in English Medium Instruction (EMI) programs in Europe in 13 years (Wächter & Maiworm 2015), and rapid growth globally. It is both a global phenomenon and a growing field of research. In the field of higher education, institutions are increasingly turning to Englishisation as part of their internationalisation agendas. EMI courses and programmes are becoming the norm in many places where English has no official status, such as Japan. However, provision is fast out-pacing empirical research. This sparked my interest in investigating EMI in addition to my previous experience working in an EMI university in Japan, where I designed English for Academic Purposes (EAP) and English for Specific Purposes (ESP) courses for students enrolled on an EMI programme in international business. As I began researching the topic, I became concerned that despite an incredible growth in provision, there didn’t seem to be any monitoring systems, nor did universities have clear objectives or defined learning outcomes, making it difficult to assess whether such programmes were meeting their objectives. I was also interested in the impact this growth might have on the primary and secondary school sector in Japan and elsewhere.

EMI policies exist, but to my knowledge, universities have not developed clear learning outcomes. As such, it is difficult to measure their effectiveness. Research overall on the effectiveness of EMI, including the impact on students’ learning (of both content and English), staff experiences, university reputation, and different pedagogical approaches, is limited. In a recent British Council sponsored study, I explored EMI in higher education in Japan and China. It responded to Dearden’s (2014, p. 2) call for a “research-driven approach which consults key stakeholders at a national and international level” by providing insights on staff and student perceptions. In addition to providing insights into the driving forces behind, attitudes towards, and approaches to EMI, the study also raised questions as to whether approaching EMI monolingually is the best way forward, drawing on Global Englishes research showcasing how English functions as a global lingua franca.

I found that the Chinese institutions used much more of the student’s mother tongue within the classroom compared to the Japanese institutions that I visited, despite teachers reporting the contrary. It was also interesting that staff felt the use of the students’ mother tongue was a useful pedagogic tool, but were concerned when and how to use it. They also expressed concerns that students may develop a dependency on it. On the other hand, the students saw this as a sign of their teachers’ lack of English proficiency. This finding poses some interesting questions about the nature of EMI policy. Should it be a monolingual endeavour? Should we raise students’ awareness of the valuable use of their mother tongue, and also that English is now most commonly used in multilingual encounters? Should we train students to use English as a lingua franca with other international students and lecturers before entering an EMI university and, if so, how do we do this? I am currently analysing the data in more depth to investigate many of these topics.

One of the key driving forces behind monolingual ideology in EMI contexts is the belief that English-only in EMI will benefit English language development although, as mentioned they are not stated in clear objectives or learning outcomes. This is rather different to other content related language teaching models like Content and Language Integrated Language (CLIL). However, many universities do refer to the English language learning benefits of EMI, indicating that they think students will improve their English skills alongside their content knowledge. It is surprising, then, that despite the goal of improving students’ English skills, many do not offer suitable, and specifically subject-specific, language development support alongside EMI classes. There seems to be an assumption that just because a student has achieved a certain score on an English proficiency test, such as TOEIC, IELTS or TOEFL, they can function in EMI settings; they passed the test and, therefore, they must be capable of academic study in English. Some universities do offer structured language support, and I hope that the Teaching English and teaching IN English in global contexts network will provide a platform for such programmes to showcase good practice. Overall, more research is needed to measure language proficiency gain, particularly in institutions where this is the key driving force behind the policy. Rogier’s (2012) study in the UAE revealed that on average students gained a mere one half on an IELTS proficiency band over four years of EMI study, which can be achieved with 200 hours of study in a general English course (Rogier, 2012). In China, Hu, Li, & Lei (2014) found that EMI students made the same English language proficiency gains on two tests as those taking the comparative programme in Chinese at the same time as taking general English classes. Of course, there are studies which report more positive results, but there is a lack of studies to support the belief that EMI should be a monolingual endeavour to promote English language proficiency gains.

More research is also needed on how English is used in these programmes, particularly given the linguistic diversity of many cohorts of students. The switch to English in these settings does not necessarily mean a switch to ‘native’ English. Promoting an English-only policy in EMI is not reflective of how the language us used in these settings. Today, multilingualism, not monolingualism is the norm and it functions as a global lingua franca. In ‘international’ universities, many of the students are from diverse linguistic and cultural backgrounds and, therefore, students will use the language as a lingua franca. They will not only be communicating with ‘native’ English speakers, nor will they be communicating in ‘native’ English. More work is needed on EMI language policy.

There is an increasing literature reporting on the positive effects of using students’ mother tongue in the classroom (see Auerbach, 2000). Despite policies promoting the ‘English Only’ approach, Hall & Cook's (2012) study with 2,785 English teachers in 111 countries found that own language use is an established practice, noting that the need to maximise new language in the classroom does not preclude the use of the learners’ own language, as it may provide efficient shortcuts within the learning process, be more related to the learning processes the learners are using, or be more relevant to their external learning goals (2001, 2002)(p.282). As noted, my own study revealed interesting insights into staff and students’ perceptions of language use and I’d like to see more research on how languages are used in these programmes. There is a growing body of research in the field of translanguaging (Creese and Blackledge, 2010; Garcia and Li, 2014) showing the beneficial effects of moving across languages in communication. The spread of English as a global language has resulted in the emergence of a number of related fields of research, including English as an International Language (EIL), English as a Lingua Franca (ELF) and World Englishes (WE). These have been grouped together under the one umbrella term of Global Englishes (Galloway and Rose, 2015) in its exploration of the impact of the global spread of English on English users and learners. Global Englishes research is very relevant to those researching EMI, particularly given the calls for change to ELT practice to reflect the changing needs of English language learners in today’s globalised world. However, English-only ideologies remain strong; this is evident in the global EMI movement. In pre-university contexts in places like Japan, the ‘native’ speaker ideal also remains strong. I hope that practitioners in diverse contexts who recognise the changing needs of their students will be able to encourage a shift away from the ‘native’ English model. Intelligibility, not ‘native or near-nativeness’ is important to function in today’s globalised world, and it is about time that ELT caught up with how the language is used outside of the classroom. I am hopeful that research in both of these fields (GE and EMI) will grow. EMI contexts are emerging lingua franca settings and, as such, they are attractive research settings to look at policy and practice. With more research, universities may also be in a better place to devise clear objectives, learning outcomes and academic and linguistic support for their students.


Brown, H. (2016). English-medium Instruction in Japan: Discussing implications for language teaching. In P. Clements, A. Krause, & H. Brown (Eds.), Focus on the learner. Tokyo: JALT.

-          A note from ALT training online’s David Hayter

If you have something 'ALT' to write about that hasn't been covered in these blogs, email me at so we can work together and spread your story. Don't have any ideas? ALT training online we have a list of topics to write about that need a writer. Email in your interest to write and we can set you up. 

For upcoming blogs see the blogs tab here:

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

ICT and the Cutting Edge in Japanese Public School English

by Jessie James Lucky

This is the third part of a three part series.
Be sure to check out part one - What is Kenshu? Teacher Training in Japan and part two - Kenshu for Me: My First Few Years in Japan

Bio: Jessie is an ALT from Portland, Oregon, USA. He got a certificate in TESL from Portland State University and worked as an adult educator as well as technical trainer for a national bank in the US before coming to Japan.

Jessie has lived in Japan for over 14 years and currently spends most of his time working at two schools in the Kumamoto area. He has a wealth of teaching experience. Outside of school, he teaches students of all ages and levels. More recently, he’s been teaching business English for working professionals, students facing entrance exams or TOIEC tests, students preparing for work and study abroad, as well as community English classes for senior citizens and young kids.

Outside of the classroom, Jessie has a lot of hobbies. These include Capoeira, canyoning, waterfall climbing, instrument making, and heavy metal to name a few. 

In my last ‘kenshu’ we were exploring the use of ICT (information and communication technology) and did an English Lesson using it. As I discussed in my earlier posts, no other ALTs were invited to or participated in this training or the meetings that were related to it. Although all the Japanese teachers of every subject, including English, did.

I was the only foreigner invited, and probably only because I was in the actual lesson. As I said in my previous post, I was barely listed on the lesson plan and as you might expect awkwardly included in the post-lesson meeting Q&A. I did not participate in many of the pre-lesson meetings, although I was invited by my teacher to most of them. In some cases, we agreed it was better I wasn’t there for different reasons.

The town that I work for has elected to take an early lead in ICT implementation in Japanese public schools G1-9 (elementary and junior high school). We have tablets in every classroom, digital textbooks, touch screen projectors and network access in every classroom. We have added this technology just over the last few years. Our job was to include this technology in our lesson and it went fantastic in my opinion.

We have tablets in every classroom, digital textbooks, touch screen projectors and network access in every classroom.

It is my belief after participating in this kenshu that ICT will spread to G1-9 public schools all across Japan over the next 5 to 10 years. One of the biggest issues is not, in fact, acquiring the hardware or software. One of the biggest obstacles is training the teachers in its use and keeping them motivated to use it.

ICT is kinda like the ALT acronym, except that it doesn’t get bored if you forget it’s there, it just collects dust. ICT will be a great tool for ALTs too...but we are unlikely to be trained in it along with our Japanese counterparts. We are unlikely to be invited to their kenshu for ICT. If you are an ALT do yourself a favor and try to get invited.

One of the biggest issues is not, in fact, acquiring the hardware or software. One of the biggest obstacles is training the teachers in its use and keeping them motivated to use it.

Even if you are computer literate you will face some difficulties using ICT in your lessons if your Japanese counterpart is not competent or willing. In this case, your understanding of Japanese culture and ability to help your fellow teachers understand and utilize ICT will be of utmost importance.

Our schools use ICT support specialists. We found in our research that such specialists are of critical importance. It’s not enough to give the schools hardware and software, they need to know how to use them. It’s not enough to just train them, they need ongoing help and support.

We found in our research that such specialists are of critical importance. It’s not enough to give the schools hardware and software, they need to know how to use them.

The on-site staff that comes to the school at least once a week really ensures that teachers can and will continue to use the technology. These people probably won’t speak English, so if you want to use ICT it will be helpful to speak as much Japanese as possible so that you can communicate with these individuals to navigate the specific hardware and software available to you. At the very least a good relationship with your JTE who can work with the ICT specialists on your behalf and bridge the communication gap for you will be necessary. (Easier said than done, I know.)

Some things you can do with ICT if/when you get it in your school

This is in no way meant to be an exhaustive list, but rather a quick list of things I have done and am doing personally using the ICT that is available to me.

#1 Copy yourself

You no longer need to go to class just to pronounce things for people. You can record it and they can watch that.

Today’s tablets and cell phones almost universally come with mics and cameras. You can record anything, anywhere, any time.

File sizes, formats etc. are an issue. As time progresses these issues will be more easily overcome. ICT support specialists can also help.

#2 Record your students

Never have time to talk to each student individually or listen to all their presentations? This is where ICT can help.

The Japanese school day can be hectic and difficult to schedule one-on-one encounters with students and teachers. I’m having some students at schools I’m not at that day record their tests and speeches and I evaluate them later in my off-time.

It’s like written homework that they do on their time and you mark on yours, except its done with an audio-visual piece and focusing on listening/speaking skills.

#3 Have your students record and watch themselves

Many kids are much more interested in making a recording than standing in front of people. Kids that will shut down in front of the class will smile, laugh and put all their effort into a video, especially if their friend is holding the tablet for them while giving them cues.

I honestly found it amazing to watch. They really like recording themselves. They can also re-watch their own videos, watch their friends’ videos etc.

Like anything else, not all kids are the same. Some will be shy and not want to do it. Over time, they will get used to it. Novelty and dislike will both wear off and it will become a routine, but useful, tool for spoken language practice.

#4 Use Powerpoint and other multi-media presentation software

You can get all dirty writing with markers and chalk. You’ll also bore the kids with a very two-dimensional visual experience (unless you can draw well with chalk, but it’s time consuming). You can use ICT to create and present colorful, engaging audio-visual slides, songs, videos etc. to go with whatever you are teaching.

ICT presentations take time to make, but once you’ve made them, they are faster and easier to use than chalk or just standing and using your voice box alone. In the long run, they are easier and require less of your effort and time to create a higher quality lesson.

#5 Present student work

As the hardware becomes available students can use their own tablets and/or you can use a projector to show the students their peers’ work. You can also use this to show your own work when going over the answers to tests and quizzes or to give examples of more creative writing tasks.

You just need a projector or screen large enough for everyone to see and the tech to take a picture of the students’ writing/tablets for them to write directly into. If you have a tablet and the kids don’t, you could use your tablet to take and send the picture to the device which is feeding into the projector.

#6 Drilling software

There is a wide plethora of free and at-cost software for drilling English. My school purchased some and the kids use it. There are also free sites online. You can find links to some of them here on this website in the following link ---

#7 Digital textbooks

You can use materials to present to the class which correlate directly with their textbooks if the school acquires the digital rights. It is also possible, if the students have tablets, for them to look at the textbooks for themselves and go through some of the activities including audio-elements that are not possible with the paper text.

#8 Quiz games

You can create a quiz game using tablets where the students write their answers and they are projected on the board in a game-show format. You can even do wagers etc. Jeopardy style. The kids love it, its fun, and you can focus on written English, grammar, culture, listening etc. as you see fit. It’s adjustable for all levels.

This is the third part of a three part series.
Be sure to check out part one - What is Kenshu? Teacher Training in Japan and part two - Kenshu for Me: My First Few Years in Japan

-          A note from ALT training online’s David Hayter

If you have something 'ALT' to write about that hasn't been covered in these blogs, email me at so we can work together and spread your story. Don't have any ideas? ALT training online we have a list of topics to write about that need a writer. Email in your interest to write and we can set you up. 

For upcoming blogs see the blogs tab here: