Friday, April 20, 2018

What is Kenshu? Teacher Training in Japan by Jessie James Lucky

by Jessie James Lucky

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 a 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. 

Hello there! I would like to share with you some things I’ve learned about ICT in Japan, but first I’d like to go over some realities as to why many ALTs might miss this kind of information.

What is kenshu? (研修)

For those who don’t already know, kenshu is the Japanese teachers’ primary method of professional development.

There are other terms, and transliterations into English that could be used and different kinds of events and activities that take place besides just 'kenshu' but I will use it here as a blanket term. Another term which is relevant is the 'kenkyu jugyo' (研究授業) or research class, usually translated as demonstration class. It is when you prepare a special lesson to test or highlight specific teaching methods, points or resources etc. and other teachers come to watch. Kenkyu jugyo and kenshu tend to go hand in hand and I include the jugyo as a part of the bigger picture- the kenshu, meaning professional development.

Lectures and conferences are not that popular for Japanese G1-12 public school educators, although they do exist. Those lectures and conferences that do take place tend to focus on other aspects or issues in education like human rights, bullying, community involvement etc. There are not a lot of subject-specific lectures or conferences for Japanese G1-12 public school teachers that are well attended. Most Japanese teachers’ professional development for their primary subject takes place at mandatory kenshu. Lectures may take place at kenshu that are subject specific, but usually, there are speeches by other teachers who may have attended some other kenshu that may have had an expert lecturer. Each municipality sets the rules and decides how much of this takes place each year, but it is safe to assume that every Japanese English public school teacher will be subjected to several mandatory hours, if not days, of kenshu every year. It may not be apparent by looking at the way they teach sometimes but Japanese junior high school English teachers are receiving ongoing mandatory skill development.

Each municipality sets the rules and decides how much of this takes place each year, but it is safe to assume that every Japanese English public school teacher will be subjected to several mandatory hours, if not days, of kenshu every year.

Beyond mandatory kenshu, there are opportunities for Japanese English teachers to participate in things like JALT, to take English lessons, to travel, attend lectures, take TESL certification courses, study for and take standardized English tests etc. But very, very few do. Even those who might want to often cannot because they are so busy with their regular job responsibilities.

ALTs don’t participate in most kenshu, why not?

The answer to this question, in my view, starts with the question; what is an ALT? The Japanese G1-12 public school English education has struggled with this question, and that is putting it nicely. ALTs were first included/brought in as a remedy for some of the issues in their system, namely lack of spoken language accuracy and fluency, everything but meta-linguistic memorization (also inaccurate but they were/are good at it). We were brought in as a band-aid. The ALT has become something more than that in some places. In other places, there are entire municipalities that no longer use or hire ALTs. Some no longer see the band-aid as necessary or effective. If you haven’t heard this before, brace yourself- ALTs aren’t meant to be teachers. We usually are not staffed in the same way the Japanese teachers we work with are. We are not usually seen as professional human resources. We are for the most part seen as teaching TOOLS. The primary verb used in association with what we do and provide is ‘fureai’. ‘Fureai’ is the word you would use to describe what happens with animals at a petting zoo. It is very different than the relationship between teacher and student in Japan. They might use ‘fureai’ to describe encounters with guests from a field outside of teaching, like police or firemen etc. interacting with students. The verb implies a difference and unfamiliarity between the two interacting parties but does not directly imply any intentional sharing of knowledge, teaching ability or leadership. No quality but difference is required for ‘fureai’ to happen.

If you haven’t heard this before, brace yourself- ALTs aren’t meant to be teachers.

In short, we are there for students to experience interacting with us, nothing more. Our unique claim to fame is providing authentic native-speaker sounds. The way only a lion can roar, the way only an elephant can trumpet out its nose, so too can only the native-speaker make those ‘yo-sugite-wakaranai’ (too good to understand) English sounds. That is right, for many Japanese, the English sounds you make are seen as unobtainable for Japanese teachers of English, often even at the University level. Requiring us in classes assumes their native (as in native to Japan) teachers can’t do it.

So our role is having a quality that Japanese believe they cannot achieve. What kind of kenshu do you require to do what you can already do? So what, if any, professional development would apply to a teaching tool known as ‘the ALT’? None.

You don’t speak Japanese. They don’t speak English. (assumptions, yes)

Another reason ALTs are not traditionally included in the same kenshu as native Japanese teachers are is that since you aren’t Japanese, it was assumed you can’t speak or learn to speak Japanese. Areas that are more exposed to foreigners have moved on past this for the most part, but especially in less-exposed areas, it is common to meet people amazed with foreigners who speak Japanese. Following this, there isn’t much effort or intent on the part of Japanese to teach their language to foreign residents.

As much as administrators assume the foreign teachers can’t speak Japanese they assume (when they probably shouldn’t even accept) that their Japanese English teachers can’t speak English.

In most countries, any kind of meeting or training for English teachers would probably be possible to conduct in English. This should easily bridge the gap between English teachers whose first language is not the same. Unfortunately, in public schools in Japan, getting qualifications and credentials to work as an English teacher does not require much mastery of the actual English language. As much as administrators assume the foreign teachers can’t speak Japanese they assume (when they probably shouldn’t even accept) that their Japanese English teachers can’t speak English. Thus, the kenshu is provided almost exclusively in Japanese so that English teachers who don’t actually know English can participate. The ALTs, who they assume can’t use Japanese, are thus excluded...from English teaching kenshu. Some Japanese English teachers will complain if kenshu is done in English. Some Japanese teachers of English are capable of and interested in participating in English language kenshu etc. but they are not the norm. Some Japanese teachers are less interested in challenging themselves in English than their own students are.

What exactly are they doing at kenshu where they can’t speak English?

It all boils down to the Japanese belief that bilingualism isn’t possible for most people. When talking with Japanese educators about the shortcomings of their mandatory English education, I often hear the same thing. It sounds like an excuse at first, but I don’t think that it is. They will state that their goal is not a high level of English or fluency, but that their goal is to make the students familiar with English and to give them a ‘base’. They will say that only those motivated and capable need to be fluent, which sounds reasonable enough. Part hard work, part natural talent. They don’t realize/believe that everyone can learn multiple languages to fluency through effort and exposure alone. This includes people employed as English teachers. Some non-native speakers of English, who are not Japanese, are also devalued in Japan as language educators because of this core belief that their English is somehow flawed.

Japanese teachers’ competence and professional advancement are mostly based on the opinions of their seniors almost to the exclusion of actual results.

Because of this belief, there isn’t a lot of pressure (but it has been increasing lately) on the JTEs to be competent English speakers. There isn’t much pressure for them to bring their students to fluency or competence either. As obsessed with Japanese educators are with test-scores, the students’ test scores are not a primary rubric when evaluating the teachers themselves. Japanese teachers’ competence and professional advancement are mostly based on the opinions of their seniors almost to the exclusion of actual results. Kenshu can be seen as more of a task than an opportunity. Great kenshu lessons and impressive results don’t go unnoticed though. Many of their seniors will look at actual results when making evaluations. Making good small talk, doing things in a way the current boss arbitrarily likes, getting on the bosses good side etc. are also of equal import. Assuming the teacher is particularly concerned with advancement. Many teachers are overwhelmed with their work and just happy to get through each day. Taking on extra work, yakuwari (jobs/roles at the school) is another way to advance...which is unlikely to improve core-subject performance. Some teachers are more focused on other aspects of their work and don’t see English as a priority for them or their students, even though they are English teachers.

The ALTs role in all this? My advice is to learn Japanese language and culture. Your job is to make sounds and then, like everyone else, just get along. With wisdom to it, the Japanese place a lot of value in getting along.

What training and kenshu IS done for ALTs?

It varies widely across Japan. There is no standard. In most areas, as much as half of the mandatory kenshu (delivered on a yearly schedule) for JTEs will include training for ALTs. For the most part, the ALTs’ tasks and training will be conducted separate from that of the Japanese teachers, for reasons explained above (language barrier). It varies by prefecture and program (like JET or dispatch companies). They usually receive a week or two of training with other ALTs when they first come to Japan, although some will only receive a day or two, even if they've never worked in Japan before. There will then be two to three 'meetings' or 'kenshu' a year with other ALTs and they may or may not participate in one or two of the Japanese teachers' kenshu for their local area. The dispatch company 'meetings' can often focus more on life in Japan and administrative issues, all of which are important and helpful but not necessarily 'professional development' for a would-be language teacher.

For the most part, the ALTs’ tasks and training will be conducted separate from that of the Japanese teachers, for reasons explained above (language barrier).

Often the ALTs will join 'kenkyu jugyo' but their role in planning, post-lesson discussion and kenshu will be limited or non-existent. The JTE usually authors the lesson and the ALT will not even attend any of the meetings about the lesson before or after with the other teachers and BOE officials involved. Even if the ALT helps author the lesson they will not be given credit or named in the official lesson plan and documents submitted as anything other than the lesson's ALT which is about as important as being the textbook or one of the chairs the students sat on.

What has my experience been with kenshu?

That does it for the basics of kenshu. I’ll share with you my own experiences with kenshu over the last 14 years in part two.

This is the first part of a three-part series. Be on the lookout for the second part, "Kenshu For Me: My First Few Years in Japan" on May 2nd and the third post about technology in the classroom later in May.

-          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:

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

The Challenges of ALT Training by David L. Hayter

by David L. Hayter

Bio: David L. Hayter is a Lead ALT in Mie, Japan. Before coming to Japan in 2014, he worked in various positions throughout the Southern California area gaining experience in industries ranging from customer service and corporate retail management to market research and private security.

During his time as a student at CSU Long Beach, he studied history, international studies, and Japanese. He was an active member and leader in the CSULB Shotokan Karate Club and oversaw the operations of the student government's radio, television, and print publication while serving as a trustee on the ASI Media Board.

As a lead ALT, he has taught all levels from kindergarten through the ninth grade. Besides teaching junior high school English classes, his other responsibilities include designing and delivering training programs for newly hired ALTs, providing them with continued support, and assisting in the planning and presenting of in-service workshops for JTEs (Japanese teachers of English) in elementary and junior high school.

Outside of work, he is an avid cook, gets beat up on Overwatch, trains hard, helps run the ALTTO Blog as the Community Media Manager and writes for his own blog, Yokkaichi Connections.

Imagine, if you will, the perfect ALT training environment.

Multiple ALTs can regularly meet in a common workspace to share ideas and materials. Classrooms equipped with state of the art teaching equipment are readily available. JTEs (Japanese teachers of English) and students come to those classrooms eager to try out new teaching and learning methods. Teaching consultants and coaches watch these lessons and offer feedback based on their years of experience.

This perfect environment does exist, somewhere, in the Twilight Zone.

It would be nice, wouldn't it? As ALTs, we often are provided with minimal training. At the same time, we are also expected to produce some fantastic results.

In this post, I'll outline:

  1. The challenges we have in our training.
  2. What you can do to overcome them.

The Challenges

At my current employer, we are fortunate enough to have a month of training in August for new and re-contracting ALTs. Veteran ALTs teach our new ALTs the basics of doing their first self-intro lesson, general lesson planning, and some information about how to live and work in Japan. Although this training is more than what others get and has been improving over the years, it still has a long way to go.

Here are some of the issues we face:

1. No clear organization

No matter what organization you're a part of, they all follow the same principals. The key to running any organization successfully is to have clearly defined roles, clear communication, and accountability.

Keys to organizational success
  • Clearly defined roles
  • Clear communication
  • Accountability

As numerous sources have pointed out, the roles of ALTs are not clearly defined (although you can find some of the roles you may fill here). This means that we have to train ALTs for virtually any situation.

Communication between JTEs and ALTs varies depending on the individual. The JTEs are often busy with other duties so communicating with ALTs sometimes doesn't rank too high among other priorities.

Accountability is another problem. Think about some of the classes you've taught or work you've done at other jobs. If you performed well, was there a reward? If you failed to hit your mark, was there a penalty? There really aren't many incentives to do better other than personal satisfaction so it can be tough to bring about change in our work environments.

2. We don't have dedicated trainers

We provide our new ALTs the best training we can. However, none of us were specifically trained in how to train other ALTs. We just try to remember what others have done before us and adjust it as best as we can.

One thing I learned from working other jobs and my own research is that most good training involves three steps: observation, education, and then following-up with the employees to track progress.

Keys to training success
  • Observe
  • Educate
  • Follow-up

If any of these are lacking, then the training process is incomplete. We need to observe how people work, educate them about the standard we'd like to meet, and then follow-up to ensure progress is being made. Without having someone dedicated to this task, it doesn't really happen.

3. Lack of facilities

In our training period, it can be difficult to get access to rooms for training and meetings. Other departments and community organizations book the same rooms that we use for training.

We have mock classes in small meeting rooms, but these don't really prepare our ALTs for what it's like to teach in a classroom.

We also talk about teaching in our office, but we share this space with other civil servants. If our conversations get too animated, we'll bug our neighbors!

4. No chance to practice with Japanese students and teachers

The classroom is just one part of the equation. The other part is working with the students and teachers.

Successful training environments recreate the real working situation as much as possible.

In our training, we often have one person present an activity while another ALT acts as a JTE and the rest of us act like students. It's better than nothing, but nothing like the real thing. Successful training environments recreate the real working situation as much as possible.

The Possible Solutions

This wouldn't be much of a blog if I just listed a bunch of problems and didn't give you any info on solutions, right? If you try to do the following things, you can get ahead and stay ahead in the ALT world.

1. Commit to improving yourself despite your challenges

It can be easy to throw your hands up and say, "So what?" No matter your experience or skill level, everyone can improve their work. Your JTEs and students will really appreciate your efforts. You can also help others develop their own skills. There are only benefits to gain from committing to your own professional development.

2. Organize what you can, as much as you can

This can be tricky, but fix what you can and skip over what you can't. We are often given a lot of responsibility without any actual authority (something Jon Taffer likes to call a stupidvisor). Don't spend your time trying to change things that are probably never going to change.

  • Define your roles as best as you can. This might mean meeting individually with your JTEs. Think about what work needs to be done before the class, during the class, and after the class. Decide who is going to do what, when it will be done, and how you're going to do it.

Decide who is going to do what, when it will be done, and how you're going to do it.

  • Keep the lines of communication open. Be honest (but nice) about how the whole process went. Is there anything you can improve on? What is it? How about your JTE? What went well? How can you keep it? These are questions you should ask yourself constantly. It can also help to engage in some small talk before, after, or between classes. Focus on building a good working relationship with your JTEs. Your life will be a lot easier!

  • Hold yourself accountable. Someone else might not do this, so you're going to have to do it for yourself. If you fail to fulfill your role, identify what contributed to that and how you can avoid it in the future.

3. Be your own mentor

If you constantly reflect on how you're performing, you'll start to become your own mentor.

If you can mentor yourself, you can mentor others!

A mentor is someone who watches how you work, listens to your problems, and gives you some advice on how to advance your career. They should be equal parts cheerleader and drill sergeant.

By constantly looking for ways to improve, you'll not only do better in your current position but will also be better prepared for your next career step. If you can mentor yourself, you can mentor others!

4. Reach out to others

Training on your own is no fun. Reach out to other ALTs and/or JTEs to see how they work and learn about some of the solutions to problems they've come up with. You can learn a lot by talking to others. Some good places to do this are online forums or the ALTTO Facebook group. If you have the time, you could record yourself teaching and show it to others.

5. Never stop learning

Training is an on-going process. If you're not moving forward, you're getting left behind. In the ALTTO Facebook group, Sam Eek Sha said, "If you are a serious, passionate learner, then every day is a chance to train."

"If you are a serious, passionate learner, then every day is a chance to train." -Sam Eek Sha

There are always new teaching methods and materials being developed (did I mention you can get top-notch, free training at ALT Training Online?). If you are a continual student, you'll always be on the lookout for new ways of doing things for the benefit of your students and JTEs. It's a win/win!

That's it!

So what did you think about our training? How was your training? Do you agree with my solutions? Leave a comment below!

-          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:

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

An Elementary School ALT - Thoughts and Feelings by Martin Moran

by Martin Moran

Bio: Martin Moran is an ALT from London, UK. He taught English to foreign exchange students in London before coming to Japan in 2011. He has since been teaching in elementary schools in Niigata City and from this year has begun teaching in both elementary and junior high schools.

Seven years ago I stepped off the bus and turned up to school for my first day as an ALT at an elementary school in Japan. ‘Don’t be late’ was the only advice I had received. I was so nervous about being late that I ended up getting there a whole hour early. I spent the time sat on a bench in a little park close by wondering what the day ahead might have in store for me. I was terrified! I had been in Japan only a week, could hardly speak any Japanese, was mostly ignorant towards Japanese culture and hadn’t been in an elementary school since I was twelve. Now I’m ever so slightly older and wiser and I’d like to tell someone else sat on that bench a few things I’ve come to think and feel over the years resulting in lessons learned and realisations made.

You are not the only one. You may be the only foreigner in the school but you won’t be the only person foreign to the school. At the start of the school year, due to Japan’s policy of periodic personnel shuffling, about a quarter of the teachers will be new to the school. A few of them may be fresh out of university and taking on their own class for the first time. Your vice principal may be running a school for the first time. Spare some thought! And every child will have a new HRT (home room teacher) which if you can remember yourself from your childhood takes a bit of getting used to. Basically, everyone is dealing with their own settling in issues. No one has any time or interest in scrutinising every little thing you do. You are not joining a play halfway through, you will be there writing the script from the start so you don’t have to burst in the door jazz hands blazing. Just shuffle in with the others and find your feet at your own pace.

Teach in a classroom. Sounds obvious? Well, in many of the schools I have worked in they have this idea of ‘English should be fun, so let’s have English lessons in a playroom!’ Now, if I have a chance of voicing my opinion, I always say I think that having the lessons in a classroom is better. It’s both more comfortable and productive. In a playroom children unsurprisingly tend to want to run around and play. The clue is in the name. And have you ever tried writing on something on the floor? It’s not comfortable or flattering! In their own classroom children are comfortable, relaxed and have any necessary tools at hand. Tell your schools that desks and chairs can be fun too! The playroom will still be there and can be used for selective lessons which suit such an environment. I’ll be using it this week for my 6th grade classes to practice their skits as there will be plenty of room for each group to move around and will allow for their acting skills to flourish.

Make your own way to the classroom. Another often held idea is that you should be picked up from the teachers’ room and escorted to the classroom by two students, one on each side so you don’t escape. This is a huge waste of time. In my experience this has reduced the length of the lesson from anything from five minutes to forty minutes. Lessons are only forty-five minutes long! Now, I always tell my schools that I think it’s better if I make my own way to the classroom. If the teacher teaching the class before you has a thing for overrunning, there’s nothing like you making faces at the kids through the window to make them wrap things up pronto! I never want to sit in the teachers’ room again watching the clock tick over and putting lines through activities in my lesson plan. You’re a big boy/girl now, you can make it there on your own.

Call people by their name. Students and teachers alike, addressing people by their actual name is a great way to show warmth and build relationships. Of course you will come up against the great barrier of undecipherable kanji code. You can ask your supervisor for a copy of the ‘map’ of the teachers’ room and ask them to write the names in romaji so you can read them. Keep it on your desk for a quick reference when you want to ask someone something or just have a chat. As for the students, they can make English name tags to wear around their neck or fastened on their usual name tag. You can make a lesson out of making them and ask their HRT if they can wear them every time they have your class. You’ll even start remembering some of them when you see them in the corridor. You can see their little faces light up as they hear their name. Think about how much nicer it’s going to be for you to be called by your name and not ‘the ALT’, or even worse, ‘the foreigner’...

Let go of the reins. Don’t try and control everything. Being someone who likes being in control and leaving nothing to chance, this took me a long time to accept. I would always try to force my lessons in a way I had imagined they would go or in a way it had gone with another class. Remember you are dealing with a room full of independent, self-aware beings whose moods can change minute to minute. A lot like yourself perhaps. When you walk into their classroom you don’t know what has been rocking their world that day. Maybe someone has been shouting at them for the last hour! Don’t just force them through the meat grinder of your one-fits-all lesson plan. Guide them through the lesson instead of pushing them through it. Look at them. Listen to them. Oh the inquisitive little things! You may end up going off on some weird and wonderful tangents. Nothing wrong with that in my book. My new book.

Reject the red mist. Do you remember any stupid things you thought, said and did when you were their age? Keep that in mind when one of them says or does something that grinds your goat. Act the age you are now and give them a break. Try to find non-aggressive solutions to conflicts.

Raising your voice will only raise your blood pressure. Don’t get into a war of vocal attrition with a room full of kids. You will lose! Find another way of getting their attention.

Fight your pride, not the HRT. Sometimes it’s difficult having two teachers conduct the lesson because you both will have your own style of teaching. An easy way of dealing with this is for one teacher to seize control and conduct the lesson entirely. That’s why in the majority of team teaching lessons the ALT is either the sole teacher or the ALT is simply the human tape recorder drilling vocabulary on cue. But neither of these are examples of team teaching in the ideal sense. Don’t try to exclude a HRT who is trying to get involved in the lesson. This is what I used to do. Back to my control issues. I used to actively cut the HRT out from the lesson by not involving them in the planning stage and/or speaking over them if they tried to get involved during the lesson. What an ass I was! I was happiest when they would just concentrate on crowd control and leave the teaching to me. The students and myself were missing out on another professional’s input because I thought I knew best. Equally, if you are faced with a HRT who doesn’t appear to want to get involved in the lesson, encourage them to do so. Ask them questions in the lesson, get the students to ask them questions, ask them to do demonstrations with you. Don’t let them get away with just sitting at the back of the classroom marking science tests. We should be team teaching. Whether you or they like it or not! You may think you know best but they probably think they do too. Thrash it out. This will mean that your lessons will differ greatly depending on your relationship with the HRT. That’s fine, we’re learning to let go.

It’s not how you fall it’s how you bounce back up. You will have bad lessons. And it will hurt. Try not to dwell on them or take them home with you. Remember, it’s not all about you! A lesson is a shared experience and everyone in that room sees and feels it in a different way. Analyse it, make a mental note of any mistakes you think you may have made and move on. We go again.

Be yourself. I spent a lot of time when I started out trying to be what I thought they expected an ALT to be like. I played games I didn’t want to play and sang songs I didn’t want to sing. Have you noticed that if you force yourself to smile too much, your face begins to hurt? In the same way that you shouldn’t make students do things they don’t want to do, don’t make yourself do things you don’t want to do. I personally have an aversion to dressing up in fancy dress for some reason. But I wore a Santa outfit for a Christmas lesson at the request of the HRT. When asked another time to do that I said no because I wouldn’t feel comfortable doing that. But I suggested instead that I bring my guitar and I’ll play Christmas songs for the kids to sing, now there’s something we can all enjoy! If you try to be someone you’re not, your awkwardness will fill the void. Instead, let your true personality shine through. The world will follow.

Having made that last point, as you are not me your thoughts and feeling are going to be completely different. Feel free to take on board or reject any or all of my advice at will. Try things, make mistakes, find your truth and then write your own guest blog for ALT training Online! Thank you for reading mine until the end, I’ll look forward to reading yours. You are about to be drawn into a wonderful whirlwind of noise and tension, laughter and tears. You will learn things about people and yourself that will shape your life. Load up on slow release carbs, put on something you don’t mind getting covered in chalk and strap yourself in. You’re in for one hell of a ride. And whatever you do, don’t be late.

-          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:

Sunday, January 21, 2018

Washback by Nathaniel Reed

by Nathaniel Reed

Bio: Nathaniel Reed has been teaching English in Japan for 9 years. In 2015 he completed his MA in Applied Linguistics, writing his dissertation on the roles of ALTs. During this research he started to understand how deep the unclear objectives of ALTs are. Also, how much potential ALTs have. He embarked on a journey to bring ALTs together and collaborate constructively. This graduate course and people he met with similar interests gave birth to the ALT Training Online idea. Along the way of putting the free ALT online training course together, he has met more of the finest educators in Japan specialising in language education in Japan. Together with these people, the course, website, guest blogs, resources, Facebook group etc. have just been growing and growing. Hundreds of ALTs have been involved in various ways to date, I hope you get involved too.

  • This blog entry has a number questions. Please write your answers at the foot of the blog; writing the question number first followed by your answer. 
  • Read other ALT responses and get more insight to what other people are up to around Japan. If you're not an ALT, your reading this and responses are very welcome too, sometimes it helps to get an objective point of view.

Last weekend I was having a coffee with my friend Bobby, an ALT of 20 years. We talked about his two children; one is preparing to go to university, the other to high school. The older son knew he failed the test to get into a good university, so he opted to take a year out to study for tests to enter a mid-tier university the following year, but knows this university will limit his job opportunities. Bobby said that his younger son would be going to a high-level high school, which (his son believes) will lead to a secure job. He said that the younger son had been going to cram school (juku) since elementary school and was an active member of school clubs – he ‘followed the school system as it is designed’. The older son wasn’t interested in studying after school, or the ''strict regime'' (as he put it) of clubs, but actively pursued his interest in computer programming – arguably a wiser choice for his future skill needs. The conversation then centered around the cost of this additional education, which had been enormous for him, especially as throughout his two decades of dedicated service he has never received a pay raise or bonus. As I researched for this blog entry I found his story about the pressure of tests on children to be very common and the influence of tests on the education system and families vast.

This blog entry provides a contemporary discussion of the evolving field of washback in Japan with specific attention to language education and ALT roles.

I don’t know what images come to mind when you read the word ‘washback’ (also called ‘backwash’), but in education it refers to the ‘force’ of tests – not drinking from the same bottle as your friends! Washback has three general areas of study revolving around the extent to which exams influence:

1. how we teach (teaching methods)
2. what we teach (vocabulary and grammar – for language teachers)
3. the impact of tests (on schooling, individuals, families, economy and society).

No matter how long you’ve been working in Japanese schools (or even if you don’t) you’ll be aware of the high number of tests students take. But to what extent do tests and their content guide what we teach and how we teach it? And what are the wider impacts that stem from their social importance, design and content?

[Remember to write your answers to these questions at the end of this blog].

1. In what ways does teaching language in Japan differ from language teaching you’ve personally experienced (as a student) in other countries?

2. Have you ever walked around your school and observed even part of a solo (i.e. non-team taught) English class? What methodology is the teacher mostly using? Are they speaking much of the target language (English)? Why/not?

3. What methodologies are you using in (solo or team-taught) classes? What grammar points and vocabulary items are you teaching? Why?

4. In the lead-up to entrance exams (to go to high school and university) do you notice any behavioral changes in your students?

l  Note: a test takes place outside a designated exam period. An exam is a test that takes places within a designated exam period.


Before entering our discussion of the washback effect in Japan, let’s take a quick look at assessment in general: what it is, and how it influences teaching. Assessment types range from classroom-based to large-scale assessments. In the right proportions, tests are used to measure achievement, proficiency or progress; to diagnose learner errors; and (importantly in Japan) to conduct placement and selection (Brennan, 2006). They are administratively useful and would be inefficient if all learners passed. They are also a well-known shortcut to extrinsic motivation – just think about the days leading up to any exam you’ve ever taken and the amount of class time/homework dedicated to the test. However, tests are bound to authority. They lead to teacher-centered lessons and an overuse of them is seen as, for example, the teachers’ failure to raise intrinsic motivation. They are also seen as a straitjacket by Prodromou (1995) as they don’t account for individual learning styles and discourage ‘weak’ learner’s potential for growth. As a result, discussions about assessments circle around the quality of educational standards and (particularly in Japan) the admission system to high schools and universities that students spend much of their education preparing for.

What is Washback?

To help us appreciate the influence of washback in Japan, let’s look at how the understanding of washback has evolved. Some of the early work on washback considered it to simply be:

-         The influence of testing on teaching and learning (Gates, 1995).
-         The direct or indirect effect of examinations on teaching methods. (Prodromou, 1995).

These, and similar definitions, were later criticized for being too simplistic, and for being based on observations rather than empirical evidence. In their edited book ‘Washback in Language Testing: Research Contexts and Methods’ (2004), Cheng and Watanabe state that although washback is coming to be studied more additional empirical research is still needed. (Complete the Doing Research module to develop the skills to conduct your own research and meet other ALTs to collaborate with).

Since these early studies, teachers and researchers have been investigating the extent to which washback influences what we teach, how we teach and its impact empirically. These studies are beginning to help us understand how far the influence of testing goes, namely; the magnitude of its effect on individuals, education and the wider society. This blog entry will overview the most commonly discussed influences of the testing system in Japan. Information put forward here serves as a starting point for your own considerations and to open discussion amongst us all.

Negative and Positive Washback: In language classes

How washback effects school systems, teaching and learning, individual choices, behaviors, cognition, cultures, economies and societies is called the ‘impact’ of washback. To ease us into understanding the scope of impact, let’s first look at negative and positive washback: two terms that have become standard in any discussion on washback.

The washback effect is generally considered to be either negative or positive.

Negative washback is considered harmful and has, at least, two general paths of enquiry:

-       When test content is based on a narrow definition of language ability and so constrains teaching and learning as teachers only teach these skills (Taylor, 2005)
-       Closely related is, when teachers focus too heavily on test preparation and neglect other areas of studies.

Practically speaking, if only one of the four basic skills (listening, reading, speaking or writing) is tested, then there is pressure on the teachers to only practice that skill. For example, to prepare for the university entrance ‘center test’ (senta shiken) teachers are inclined to practice more reading skills as these are tested more. Also, if the outcome of tests influence student’ futures (high stakes), teachers are inclined to spend more time preparing for them – as we shall see, not only class time is spent on test prep in Japan, but also outside of school.  

In 1988 Gary Buck concluded that ''There are probably many reasons Japanese high school graduates cannot use English for even the most basic purposes, despite receiving hundreds of hours of classroom instruction, but surely one of the most important is the washback effect of entrance examinations (to high school and university) on the classroom''.

5. Now in 2018, 30 years later (or whenever you read this), is this statement still relevant? Why (not)?

-       Consider these two common classroom practices:
       In class, a teacher asks an individual student a question from the book, waits for a response then asks another learner. The obvious goal here is to find out what learners know, but the lack of involvement by the rest of the class makes this activity more of an assessment than teaching. Other students can get bored, switch off and become disruptive as a result of this covert testing. Have you seen teachers’ use the textbook as a test book like this? How could you check student comprehension and progress differently?

         Practicing with past papers can promote language acquisition. Past papers can give learners a solid framework of test structure, format, types of questions asked, vocabulary and grammar. Learners develop a schema for the test and lower their anxiety before test day. Is there a tipping point, when students are only doing this, and not receiving language lessons?

Positive washback is the reverse; it’s considered beneficial and also has, at least, two paths of enquiry:

-      When a testing procedure encourages ‘good’ teaching practices (when more than one skill is tested in language classes).
-     When learners become more aware of the connection between tests and instruction, and naturally work towards increasing their intrinsic motivation to prepare for tests.

An example of positive washback in Japan was the introduction of a listening section to the high-stakes university entrance tests in 2006 (the first change in 150 years). This change of adding a listening section affected all levels of schooling, with audio being used more in classrooms (be aware of the use of CD players and tablets in your schools). Before this listening test was introduced, listening skill was measured indirectly by learners marking where the accent fell on words, by pencil – by reading them.

2020 sees the introduction of a speaking section to the entrance exam. The speaking test should result in more speaking through positive washback. However, a key point for us to consider is the lack of consultation government ministries make with teachers. There is a long history of policies being introduced to Japanese public schools without thorough preparation to successfully implement them. As a result, numerous research by academics, companies and independent researchers conclude that native English speaking teachers are playing an increasingly instrumental role in improving skill areas, in both students and teachers (Amaki, 2008. Aoki, 2014. Meerman, 2003. MEXT, 2011a. MEXT, 2011b. Miller, 2017). Increased attention to listening and speaking skills is a result of positive washback, and trained teachers are needed to implement these changes – a reason for this ALT training course.

6. Do any teachers you work with still teach learners to identify where pronunciation falls on words by reading them? Why? Does simply speaking more English by teachers equal more listening practice? – (See the Listening module of the course, particularly Paul Nation’s four strands).

7. How do you promote an equal balance of the four basic skills (listening, speaking, reading, and writing) in your students?

-       Consider this teaching practice:
        Testing values correct answers, and penalizes errors, but in teaching we should be interested in the process by which students arrive at the wrong answer. Doing this, we learn how students are learning from our instruction, leading us to continually adjust our teaching to be more effective. One way to raise awareness of written errors is to provide learners with quality feedback on tests and class work so they can identify areas they need to practice more on. Teachers adopt a system of codes, writing a ‘code’ letter next to an error. The student identifies the type of error and corrects it themselves, e.g.: S = spelling, P = punctuation, SS = sentence structure, L = letter written incorrectly, and so on. Teachers can adapt their codes to their students and teaching context. These codes can be displayed on a notice board at your school, next to your post box and in the library. Students are empowered to correct their own mistakes, and the deeper processing involved promotes not just language skills but also skills that the Ministry of Education asks us to promote, such as; critical thinking, cognitive abilities and responsibility. A practical example: sometimes I assign homework (an extension of class work – writing a few sentences using the target grammar/learning outcome) that students complete and put in my post box. I collect it, mark it using these codes, and put it in their class cubby hole (all schools have these next to the staff room) for them to collect. Students from each class later show me their changed sentences or ask me about my comments

Negative and Positive washback summary

Four key point are:
1.      If tests are not well written, washback is usually negative. If they are well written, the washback effect is usually positive.
2.      Language tests in Japanese public schools do not test the four skills and a result is more teaching and learning of limited skills.
3.      Students spend a lot of class time preparing for tests.
4.      Entrance tests in Japan have high stakes and strongly influence high school, university and career opportunities.

Tests are powerful instruments and affect all levels of learning, to varying degrees. If tests are ‘good’ then using class time to focus on what they assess would be a beneficial activity. This is called Measurement Driven Instruction (MDI). If tests measure limited skills then, through washback, student ability will be limited. When considering tests, the two key forces we need to think about are validity and the roles of exams. Validity is arguably the most important criteria for a test’s quality; does the test measure what it claims to measure? What is the goal of the test? – if these are clearly defined and have constructive purpose, then the teaching and learning leading up to them (should be) beneficial to individual ability and skill development. But test content and design in Japan has its critics, and the importance placed on them influences individuals, families, finances and society. These factors come under the umbrella of the impact of washback, which is where we go next.


This section overviews the discussion of impact. Lynda Taylor (2005) tells us that washback and impact are highly complex phenomena. She goes on to say that there is no short definition for impact beyond it ‘describing (the) consequence of tests’. So, to get the ball rolling on this unclear topic, let's take a quick look at: what affects testing and what testing affects.

·      A suggestion made by Alderson and Wall in 1993, which is now accepted, was that the failure of a test to promote positive washback may not in fact be due to problems in the test but to other forces in society.
·      The inverse being that the skills not taught in schools though negative washback fail to prepare and produce well-rounded individuals capable of moving the global society forward.
·      …… We can see a vicious cycle here.

These two points make clear that social forces affect tests, and the quality of education students receive affects social forces – but this is all very general, and discussing influences both ways could lead to a book-length blog entry! So, not to take up your time, this section will outline points directly relevant to your work as an ALT in Japanese public schools. We’ll look at five main areas that can help you make informed teaching decisions and start your own inquiry into the impact of washback:

1.     Exams in Japan.
2.     Impact of washback on: teaching, learning, individuals and Japanese society.
3.     The counter argument - that washback is becoming less forceful in Japan.
4.     The importance of open discussion of washback for educators.
5.     What you can do.

1.     Impact of: Exams in Japan

Alderson and Wall (1993) state that before a test has any impact on the classroom it is mediated by a number of factors, such as the place of exams in society, teachers’ competence and resources available. Leaving the ability of teachers’ and resources aside for the moment, Japan is often referred to as an exam-based society. Seargeant (2009) states that the exam system in Japan ''plays an important structuring role in society in enabling the reproduction of hierarchies in university and company status'' (p.52).

Exams perform such a central role in Japan that the expression ‘exam hell’ (juken jigoku) was coined sometime in the 1960s by the Japanese media to describe the intense pressure and stress that students experience in their lead up to high school and university entrance exams. This is perhaps most vividly exemplified, unfortunately, by the number of suicides leading up to exams and following the publicly displayed, results (''Child Suicides'', 2015. Ito, 2017) – for advice and training on looking for signs and English speaking support numbers, see the “Working in Japanese Schools” module.

Shadow education (education outside of school - gakkōgai kyōiku) exists because of the exams system in Japan and was a ¥10 Trillion ($90 billion) industry in 2005 (Sato, 2005). Families who can afford to send their children to cram schools (jukus) give their child a higher chance of exam success. However, the costs are both financial and emotional. In 2007, the average cost spent on exam-related expense for private universities (that 70% of students go to) was ¥231,900 ($2,058) (Kamiya, 2009). The stress children and their families go through as exams come up is explored by Lewis (2015) who writes about the role of TV advertisements, and the hotel costs families endure to be near the place of the test.

Entrich 2015 (who has written a lot on shadow education in Japan) summarizes that: ''In Japan the fierce competition in gaining access to the next level of schooling intensifies the impact of educational decisions on students' future careers….families are forced to decide whether or not to invest in shadow education''. By 2012, 41.9% of elementary school students, 70.2% of junior high and 33.8% of high school were enrolled (Entrich, 2015). Children from households that can’t afford shadow education, like the oldest son of Bobby at the start of this blog entry lose out (McCurry, 2017). From this bigger picture we can see that high-stakes exams increase social and educational inequalities in Japan. A key contributor to financial disparity, which was made clear in a 2016 Unicef report: ''Japan has one of the worst wealth inequality and highest rates of child poverty in the developed world…. ranked 34th out of 41 industrialized countries'' (Osaki). By 2017 1 in 6 children under 17 were living in relative poverty. Statistically that means 5 or 6 students in each of your classes may not, for example, have had breakfast, don’t have school supplies like pens, or are exhausted from taking care of their family. Consequences of socioeconomic disparities are useful to bear in mind whilst teaching and interacting with students.

Lewis (2015) highlights a number of pressures that tests inflict. For example, students are asked which high school they would like to attend from the 7th grade (you will see these meetings throughout the year in your schools when student’s parents come to meet with teachers). This focus matters as the high school they attend ''follows them around for life'' Lewis (2015). ''In Japan, a large part of your success in life depends on which university you went to…. it's a passport you have to have, and the race to get it starts early in life.'' Although still relatively true, this was written in 1983 (Fiske).

Tests, and how they are prepared for are often given as a chief reason why the level of English in Japan is so low (Miller, 2014). And, as we saw from positive and negative washback above, if tests, evaluate reading comprehension with fill in the blank (cloze-type) questions, then reading skills are more likely to be the focus in class. If the tests, evaluated speaking, then there would be reason for communication skills to be taught and practiced more. On comparing how eight countries assess English skills of students (France, Germany, Japan, Italy, Spain, Sweden, Holland and South Korea), Hosoki (2011) found that Japan is the only country that doesn’t assess speaking and listening skills equally. Other researchers have similar findings, and usually point to TOEIC and TOEFL scores to show the level of speaking ability in Japan. When results are released each year, Japan ranks consistently at the bottom, despite it being ''one of the most common assessments used by schools and employers to evaluate the English abilities of students and employees'' (Tokunagawa, 2007).

Note: 3 major English language tests used internationally

TOEIC(Test of English for International Communication), tests language ability to work internationally.
TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language), tests language ability to study in an English-speaking country. 
IELTS (International English Language Testing System), tests language ability to study or work where English is used as the language of communication. 

2.     Impact on: Teaching, Learning, Individuals and Society

In a culture where tests have high stakes, their content and question types powerfully influence teaching and learning styles. At one extreme, elementary, junior high and high school are said to only prepare students for entrance tests, and not be for education (Exam change, 2013), another reason for the $90 billion shadow education industry. Hamp-Lyons (2007) put it that syllabi and teaching methods are determined by assessments and that teachers often ‘feel powerless’ in making instructional decisions. Prodromou (14) points out that teachers are trapped in an examination cycle.

The teaching method used to prepare students in Japan for English exams is called grammar-translation (yakudoku). Yakudoku requires no teacher training, students translate sentences word for word then re-arrange them to suit Japanese sentence order (Hino, 1988). This teaching method has a 1,000 history of use in Japan and has been called a didactic style of teaching not in line with modern understanding of how languages are learnt (Shimahara, 2002). It is restrictive not only in terms of language learning, but also skill development.

This discussion of exams impacting the quality of education is common in Japan. For example, the center test for entering university was introduced in 1990 and some years later Matsutani (2012) pinpointed the mid-1990s as when teachers started noticing the decline of university students' capabilities as a result of their schooling. Example questions he provides, from an astronomy professor at Tokai University, include ‘to which direction does the sun set?’. A quarter of the 667 freshman and sophomores answered incorrectly. And only 54 percent correctly answered ‘Which of the following – the sun, the moon or Mars – orbits the earth?’. For an easy read on educational quality in Japanese public schools, and why it is like it is, see Momoki Shiro’s 2016 article here.

To develop your teaching abilities beyond the four language skills, as the Ministry of Educations asks us too, see the “Materials Developmentand “CLILmodules

The dated grammar translation method for teaching language is part of wider teaching practices in schools. The term used for ‘learning’ for entrance exams in Japan is ‘benkyo’ and has been called ‘quasi-learning’ by Sato (2011). Benkyo is contrasted with the learning and development of skills needed in the 21st century like critical thinking, discussion and creativity. You could ask your students where they learn, and the ones that go to juku might say they don’t learn much in schools, that they can concentrate more at juku and that the teachers care more for them (Sato, 2005) (What do your students say?).

Consider these two experiences that have been regularly reported since 1987 from Native English Speaking Teachers (NESTs’) as ‘ALTs’ are otherwise known:
-         Lessons are often cancelled by the Non-Native English Speaking Teacher (NNEST) so that they can prepare students for upcoming exams.
-         When preparing for classes, NNESTS say to the NESTs something along the lines of ''you can do anything you want in this class''.  

8. Do these practices mean that by not needing to follow the curriculum the native speaker English classes are viewed as being less important to the students’ educational development, or the opposite, that NESTs are completely trusted and respected professionally? Or somewhere in between?

l  (The terms Non-native Speaker and Native Speaker are problematic but used here as the Japanese government currently uses this distinction to label language teachers). Our title “Assistant Language teacher” has changed over the years and between regions, but NEST has remained constant, and adopted from here.

These experiences suggest that lessons focusing on test preparation using yakudoku are more important than the skill development we are asked to teach by the Ministry of Education. We’ve seen though that NNESTs may perceive that they have little choice whether to prep for tests or not. The difference between what happens in schools and what the Ministry of Education asks for is called the ‘Policy practice Conflict’, and has an expansive literature.

9. How do you develop 21st century skills in your students?

Consider the way desks are arranged (this one comes from Prodromou, 1995). In testing, desks are arranged in straight lines with a space between them large enough to stop students communicating with each other. He goes to say that this arrangement of desks obstructs the process of learning, and gives a powerful message about the teachers' methodological assumptions (namely yakudoku). Exam-style seating arrangement in classes encourages teacher-led classes, discourages communication and obstructs the development of skills like collaboration, building rapport and discussion.

10. Is this seating arrangement a common feature at your schools? Is it perceived as a constant reminder of tests? Something else?

11. How does the seating arrangement differ from your educational background?

12. Do you change seating arrangements regularly? If, yes, how do you arrange desks, and how do you decide (methodology? activity type?...)

The change of education style from elementary to the exam focus in junior high is referred to as the chu-ichi gap. The chu-ichi gap is given as a primary reason for junior high students becoming demotivated to study English (this finding comes from Hamada and Kito 2008). Other demotivating factors affecting attitudes towards English, that these researchers found, include:

-       Learning environment and facilities
-       Teacher’s competence and teaching style
-       Little intrinsic motivation
-       Non-communicative methods
-       Textbooks and lesson

You could also read Kikuchi (2009) to further appreciate demotivating factors students experience when learning a second language in Japan.

Language teachers have to consider individual differences and learning styles when lesson planning and instructing. The mixed levels of students is increasing in Japan primarily as a result of family incomes and immigration. We've seen that families who can afford shadow education give their children an advantage. Another quickly growing reason for mixed levels in classes is attributed to immigration and people settling down in Japan. A result is that some students are native English speakers from first-grade junior high school. Other students in the same class may not have mastered the alphabet as they haven't attended any shadow education, or had exposure to English in their daily life. On this topic, there is an ever-increasing number of students that lack Japanese language skills in public schools, totals as of May 2016 were: non-Japanese citizens 34,335 and Japanese citizens 9,612 (Yoshida & Aoki, 2017). For these students, any instruction (in Japanese) is, at worst, ineffective.

13. How do you account for the different learning styles? (logical, visual, verbal, aural, kinesthetic)

14. How do you manage and effectively teach mixed level classes?

Gainey and Andressen (2002) see the high-stakes tests, and teaching methods to prepare for them, as restricting the development of individuality and creativity needed in the modern world. They also found the focus of tests and resulting teaching methods to be working to harm the mental health of students. Burns (2010), invites you to ask a Japanese person to ask their opinion on something and he blames their inability to do so on the impact of the exam system – which, he claims, strips any creativity into oblivion. LoCastro (1990) found that the overuse of yakudoku serves a wider purpose, that it ''functions to isolate students from foreign values by preoccupying them with reading and translating''. This is explained by the attention paid to the correct Japanese translation of the English sentence students are provided with. Japanese language teachers have told us that ''learning Japanese is an important part of what we are attempting to achieve in English reading classes'' (Gorsuch, 1998). These research findings highlight the impact of tests at the individual level that work to influence the rate of social development in modern Japan.

Since the 1960s students refusing to go to school for extended periods has been widely discussed. School refusal (toko kyohi) is almost always to do with school pressure rather than problems at home. Some of the 26,000 elementary aged students and 108,000 junior high cases in 2002 were a result of bullying resulting from pressures relating to exams (Hays, 2014). The 2020 teaching guidelines from the Ministry of Education (The Course of Studies) brings testing into elementary and the age of studying English lower. Teachers may start noticing behavioral changes in the years that follow.

After leaving school - Japan has an estimated 1 million people who don’t leave their rooms for years and decades. The word to describe these people, which comes from the Japanese language, is hikikomori. Sociologists, health care workers, psychologists etc. continue to research underlying cause(s) of this unfortunate phenomenon, and most attribute education as a primary cause. Furlong (2008) states that keeping up with peers in a highly pressured exam system is ''frequently associated with the hikikomori phenomenon''. Behavioral changes of students’ in Japan have been widely discussed for decades. American born Lou-Anne Wesler taught for two years in Japanese schools and said that she observed a ''real difference'' in students as they approached the time for high school entrance examinations…''they become dead-faced. You teach, and there's no response.''(Fiske, 1983) also see Burns, 2010. For some insight into how the impact of washback affects parent’ behaviors see (Walton et al. n.d.).

15. At this point, consider how these demotivating factors from junior high students in Japan relate to the impact of washback.

-       Society
In this final subsection of looking at the impact of washback on teaching, learning, individuals, and society we’ll elaborate a little on the wider impacts of the discussion above.

We’ve seen that education impacts families, their finances and behaviors. The race to get children into good places starts early. In Yokohama, parents camped out for 10 days to enrol in private kindergartens in Kohuku New Town in Tsuzuki and Aoba wards (Hays, 2014). Those of you with children will likely know how common actions like this are. And those that teach at higher level schools probably know that families buy houses to be closer to schools they want their children to attend.

The power of jukus on family finances was outlined above, and public opinion shows that investment here increases social inequality (Entrich, 2015) and educational inequality (Entrich, 2017). Though, for better or worse, jukus form an important social setting too. Students’ make a lot of their friends at juku, and for this reason they enjoy going there. Also, due to the quality of education provided there (noted above), school teachers consult jukus on which high school they should recommend to their students.

At the higher levels of education though, this intense education can have the opposite effect of ‘enjoyable’ socialization. If students fail university entrance tests they can opt to spend a year going to a juku, to prepare them for the test next year, like the eldest son of Bobby. These institutions are called yobiko and the students that go there are referred to as ronin (master less samurai warrior). Students often live in dormitories and give up their social lives to study/memorize 6 days a week.

Lastly here, families can perceive formal schooling as not providing sufficient learning. By schools prioritizing non-educational things students have to do (student meeting, schedule writing, preparing for ceremonies, time that club activities consume, and so forth). There is an unwritten rule that school education will not prepare a student sufficiently to let them survive in the tough business world (Entrich, 2013). In the same article Entrich recounts from juku owners that students have to attend juku if they want a good job. In 2005 The Japan Times ran an article ''Cash in on failure of public schools'' where Minako Sato writes from the viewpoints of parents and their children.  The ¥800,000 annual fee is justified by parents as without attendance, their children wouldn't be able to enter ''a good university''. Also, parents and students are satisfied with juku teachers that ''take really good care of them''.

3. Impact: Maybe it’s not washback?

This section looks at arguments opposing the strength of washback in Japan – the opposite of what this blog entry has explored so far. A balanced view is provided by discussing the view that the impact of washback may not in fact be as strong a force in determining teaching methods and quality of teaching in schools. By looking at both sides of the coin in this blog entry you may consider your teaching options and understand what is happening in your work environment more thoroughly. Practical teaching applications are provided in section 5 below.

The evidence above pointed to the high stakes entrance test as the primary force dictating, what is taught, how it’s taught and the controlling grip that tests have on individuals and the Japanese society. We've seen that exams affect; classroom seating arrangements, teaching methodologies, skills taught (i.e. more reading and less speaking), individual cognitive and social skill development, stress levels, family spending, socioeconomic inequalities, educational inequalities and the structuring of social/professional hierarchies. – but are the tests really to blame? And is all washback negative?

- Population Decline

This morning (January 17, 2018), I spoke to an NNEST about the third-grade students at the school we were working in. About 70% of them went to high schools for interviews today. The NNEST sighed and said that these students don’t need to take an entrance exam, and that 99.9% of them will enter the high school of their choice. I asked about the students’ motivation to study and he said that in recent years, he has seen a noticeable decline. Last week I met the mother of one of the students at this school too (she works in a local shop). She was beaming with happiness as she told me that her son was going to an interview, and would enter the high school of his choice – before the interview had even taken place. (A week later, I saw her again, she was noticeably extremely happy, she personally escorted me to what I wanted to buy on the way telling me that her son was accepted into the high school, and thanked me many times, bowing as she did so).

As the population shrinks in Japan (a daily discussion in the media here), the qualifications for entry to high school and university are lowering, if needed at all. By 2010 less than half of higher education institutions actually had an entrance test as open admissions have increasingly become the norm (Fujita, 2010). Other methods of entry include teacher recommendations and interviews. In spite of the population decreasing, university enrollment remains constant: universities are struggling to survive and need students to study there.

Kamiya (2009) says that this change in demographics and exam entrance procedures marks the end of 'exam hell'. From this view, population decline seems to be positively affecting the impact of washback on individual well-being. However, we are warned by Masatani (2012) that the resulting educational environment has significant concerns on the quality of education. He tells us that current practices mean that high school students who don’t study can enter universities, and university students who don’t study can graduate. He continues that ''university students in Japan probably face the loosest academic requirements for graduation'' and calls this ''a global rarity''.

Related to demographic changes is a shift in the job market. The past story we are familiar with was the ‘job for life’ one. In the past, students experienced exam hell to get into top high schools that led to top universities and secure jobs. But with the range of application procedures to tertiary level education and changing job market means that the influence of exams is not as powerful as it was. As with other developed countries, small and mid-sized companies in Japan are scrambling to attract talented graduates and offering a range of incentives, such as higher pay. See, for example, Nikkei,2017. Jobs being no longer for life, and changing population trends contribute to changing exam practices that pave the way for different impacts of washback.

- Changing Tests

As pointed to throughout this blog entry, if test content and design change, then (depending on the strength of washback) so should teaching practices. 2006 saw the addition of a listening section, by 2020 a speaking section, and 2024 a change of the test itself to private sector exams (Osaki, 2016). Changing the test to a private test obviously faces challenges like higher costs and logistics. But also offers the potential for educational equality through standardization and curriculum reform (as a result of positive washback). But which test to choose from?  The current Prime Minister (Shinzo Abe) wants TOEFL to be THE university test (Hongo, 2013). However, a 2016 study on Japanese university students found IELTS to create positive washback in terms of preparation strategies, language ability and especially productive skills (that students in the study said had been neglected in their previous school education, Allen, 2016).

-       Teaching Practices

Bern Mulvey (the module writer for the Writing module of this ALT Training course) wrote an 18-page article that intricately examines the ''non-exam related motivations for the continued use in Japan of seemingly ineffective foreign language reading pedagogy''. He argues that the influence of exams that apparently ''perpetuates inadequate teaching methodologies and frustrates any attempts of reform'' is misplaced. Using plenty of published literature and teacher interviews he very clearly shows a mismatch between exam content and classroom practices; what is being taught and how it is being taught. The article is open access, to read his findings see Mulvey, 1999.

Society, students and teachers are multidimensional, and behaviors are influenced by a huge variety of forces. The level to which test design and content affects teaching practices may not be so high (and misunderstood by educators). But the perceived importance placed on tests and focus on them is very much a guiding force for instruction. However, many other forces are at play when it comes to teaching and learning in Japanese public schools. Ideologies, incomes, teacher ability and the training they received are amongst those that influence the what, why and how of our teaching in Japanese public schools. This blog entry is really the tip of the iceberg of past research and present thought. To move forward we really must talk about every aspect of what is happening in our schools and our students (our own children too). Reasons for open discussion amongst ALTs are in the next section; these are followed by ideas for what you can do.

4. The importance of open discussion of washback for educators

Recent years have seen increasing changes to our teaching context that require us to understand the washback effect and impact in more detail to improve our teaching abilities:

-       More NESTs are teaching solo: although widely reported on since the beginning of NESTs in Japan, in 1987, this teaching practice has annually occurred exponentially. Reasons sustaining this situation include: skilled, qualified and experienced NESTs, the lack of clarity over what ‘team teaching’ is and how to do it effectively, labor laws, as well as the workload, teaching ability, and language competence of NNESTs. In 2014 the Japanese Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT) announced that they are working towards making solo teaching official (AJET, 2014). And the Ministry of Education planned to grant teaching licenses to ALTs (Tope, 2003). One of many papers on the topic of ALT centered teaching is Miyazato (2008) who concluded that low confidence in English language ability can cause NNESTs to be ''peripheral participants'' in a team teaching context. You may know that Boards of Education (that allocate NESTs to schools) differ in their approaches to the roles they permit NESTs to perform (e.g. to solo teach or team teach), Okayama is one BoE that started favoring solo teaching, from 1987 (Kurashiki, 2009). For more on solo teaching, see the September 2017 guest blog.
-       Growing number of qualified NESTs: The Japanese government initially intended ALTs to come to Japan, teach, and then leave at the end of their contracts (McConnell p100). By 2008 the House of Councilors stated that ''Japan is becoming a country of immigrants, and foreigners are a part of Japanese society''. They stressed the need to redesign the current approach to foreigners in Japan (Gottlieb, 2012. p136). It is clear that ideologies of social integration and multiculturalism have changed a lot since the 1980s when the current NEST system started. Japan now enjoys a large number of qualified, experienced NESTs living in Japan with Japanese language abilities and cultural understanding. Boards of Education are publically announcing their preference to employ such teachers too (Tope, 2003). Related to this, more NESTs, with advanced Japanese language skills, are taking the teacher qualification and becoming licensed teachers.
-       Japan is no longer centralized. Historically, Japan was a well-known centralized developmental state (Jacobs, 2003). There was a time when you could pick up a textbook and know for certain that every child in the country was studying a certain page. We know that this is not the case anymore, individual schools and classes differ very much in their rates of progress and use of textbooks. In the modern era, individual schools, municipalities, cities and prefectures have increasing jurisdiction over decisions they make There are, of course, a great many outcomes and ramifications of this sociopolitical shift, as explored through the ALTTO modules, but relevant to this blog entry is the increased autonomy NESTs have in classrooms.
-       Changes to the Course of Studies (CoS): The CoS is the series of guidelines released by the Japanese Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT). The CoS is revised about every 10 years and, for language teachers, English ability has been a particular focus of interest. More recent CoSs emphasize that listening and communication skills be taught more – a trend that raises with each publication (the current CoS for kindergarten, elementary and junior high school, for all subjects, is here). The Courses of Studies that the Ministry of Education sends to school are guidelines for education. As they are guidelines/suggestions, they are widely interpreted. Each school you work in and teacher you work with are likely to have different approaches to what to teach and how to teach – advanced schools may race through text books to focus on exams, other schools may use a lot of supplementary materials and go off the book, some school may only use the book.

5. What you can do:

After reading this (rather long blog entry) you may be full of motivation to do something positive to support your students, but not know where to start. Here are some ideas to consider. Share your own ideas, and experience using these, on the facebook page.

-       Check tests that NNESTs have written (this is a very regular comment on blogs and forums made by parents - that the spelling and questions etc. on tests their children bring home are written incorrectly). If somebody at your school is writing a test, supportively make clear that you're available to check the content – and how much you want to. A casual suggestion may be read as you being polite and not actually wanting to check it.

-       Discuss washback with teachers you work with: Ask if they teach using ‘yakudoku’? why (not)? How they view communicative lessons? How they view native speaker classes – you will always get a candid response to this.

-       Are there any differences between age groups of NNESTs and their approach towards teaching – are younger NNESTs employing more speaking practice than older teachers? Notice this and consider constructive ways to talk about how changing exam practices could be reflected by your teaching, discuss the potential you’d like your students to reach and why they deserve it.

-       All washback researchers call for more studies of actual observations and classroom data, to test washback empirically. NNEST research does exist, but it’s a little thin on the ground. We're in the classrooms, so are in the ideal position to analyze and publish what is happening. You can learn how to do research (and get published) in modules 21 and 22 of the course. You could see your local JALT chapter and talk about funding too, grant info is here. 

-       Find a balance in how you teach (Nishino, 2008). Abe (2013) pointed out that ''Japanese students find it difficult to accept the individualism and freedom derived from Western values''. She suggests that a flexible approach is needed in the classroom: ''learner-centered some of the time and teacher-centered at other times, depending on the type of activities employed''. This is in line with balancing the four skills too. Also see Joseph Shaules module, especially on cultural psychology and neuroscience.

-       NESTs’ have repeatedly been found to be more successful in raising intrinsic motivation to study in students by our approaches and attitudes (Sasaki, 2008). Share ways you do this. Also complete the MaterialsDevelopment module for ideas to make your materials more intrinsically motivating.

-     Be aware of the stress your junior and senior high students are going through. They may not always express it, but an awareness of it can help build rapport, earn respect and help you to teach more effectively. You are a teacher, but that doesn’t mean you have to be strict all the time, or the opposite. Humanise your teaching.
-       Think of constructive, and culturally appropriate, ways to encourage smarter study and exam prep. Include the importance of sleeping (you could show this TED talk in your English club – it has Japanese subtitles). Some tips are from Macomber (2016).

-       As exams approach, be understanding of the pressures most students are going through. Support emotionally and intellectually. Speak to the students. Speak to other teachers about the students.

-       Language instruction has been around for millennia. Teaching practices have gone though many changes, theories and approaches as our understanding has evolved. In the 21st century we are well and truly in a post-methods era; we adapt our instruction style to meet students needs and abilities most effectively. The 21st century also requires additional skills to be developed (as noted throughout this blog post) that are now integral to our language teaching. Expressing ideas, reading techniques (such as guessing from context), giving opinions, computer literacy and raising self-belief are amongst an increasing spectrum of skills needed to not just survive, but thrive in our global community.
Note: Not everyone goes to high school (as it is not compulsory), and the number decreases yearly. Although pretty high (around 97%), don’t assume everyone is going as you could hurt feelings.

We very much look forward to hearing your own inspiring thoughts, ideas and actions to raise student potential in our teaching context. Comment on the use of these too in the Facebook group.


‘’Exam hysteria’’, and the impact of washback on the economy, education system, families and society and exam hell that students go through is unarguable. When planning for lessons and teaching, not considering these fundamental factors would be a mistake.

There is a lot of research both ways;
-        Entrance tests dictate what is taught and how it is taught in schools.
-     Entrance tests do not dictate what is taught and how it is taught in schools, other forces are at work.

So the question; is it the quality of education, or the impact of entrance exams that drives the multibillion dollar shadow education industry? is not answered here. But a solid path to develop and share your own understanding is provided. The most recent book on this topic (at the time of writing) is Steve R. Entrich's 2018 'Shadow education and social inequalities in Japan: Evolving patterns and conceptual implications'.And an interesting blog site on juku is Julian Dierkes Jukupedia.

The topics discussed here and the references below will give you somewhere to start your own inquiry to understand more. Share your opinions, findings and questions on the ALTTO Facebook group – let’s teach effectively together.

-       Could you pass the English section of the university entrance test? (Hongo, 2015)

-          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:

References – I purposefully used a lot of references here to initiate your own appreciation of washback, and its impact. The more you know as an ALT, the more you can support your students and co-workers, and move education forward.

Abe, E. (2013). Communicative language teaching in Japan: current practices and future prospects. English Today, 29(2), 46-53.

Amaki, Y. (2008). Perspectives on English education in the Japanese public school system: The views of foreign assistant language teachers (ALTs). Educational Studies in Japan: International Yearbook. 3. Retrieved from  

Aoki, M. (2014, January 2). Schools fret about assistant teachers ahead of proposed 2020 reforms. The Japan Times. Retrieved from

AJET. (2014). Assistant language teachers as solo educators. Retrieved from 

Anonymous, (2015, August 19). Child suicides tend to occur at end spring or summer school holidays: study. The Japan Times. Retrieved from

Anonymous, (2013, February 3). Entrance exam change needed. The Japan Times. Retrieved from

Alderson, C. J., & Wall, D. (1993). Does washback exist?. Applied Linguistics, 14(2), 115-129.

Allen, D. (2016). Investigating washback to the learner from the IELTS test in Japanese tertiary context. Language testing in Asia 6(7).

Brennan, R. L. (2006). Educational Measurement (4th ed). Brennan, R. L. (Ed.). Westport, CT: Praeger.

Burns, K. (2010, June 16). Japan and its standardize test-based education system. Japan Today. Retrieved from

Buck, G. (1988). Testing Listening Comprehension in Japanese University Entrance Examinations. JALT Journal, 10. Retrieved from

Cheng, L., Watanabe, Y.. & Curtis, A. (Eds.). (2004). Washback in Language Testing: Research Contexts and Methods. New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum.

English Language Testing Service. (2018). About the TOEFL iBT Test. Retrieved from

English Language Testing Service. (2018). The TOEIC Tests. Retrieved from

Entrich, R. S., (2013). Juku – A necessary evil?. Retrieved from

Entrich. R. S., (2015). The decision for shadow education in Japan: Students' choice or parents' pressure?. Social Science Japan Journal, 18(2), 193-216.

Entrich, S. R. (2018). Shadow education and social inequalities in Japan: Evolving patterns and conceptual implications. Berlin: Springer.

Exam change (2013, February 13). Entrance exam change needed. The Japan Times. Retrieved from

Fiske, E, B. (1983, July 12). Japan’s schools: exam ordeal rules each student’s destiny. The New York Times. Retrieved from

Fujita, H. (2010). Whither Japanese schooling?. In Gordon, J. A., Hidenori, F., Kariya, T., & LeTendre, G (Eds.), Challenges to Japanese education: Economics, reform, and human rights (17-53). NY: Teachers Collage Press.

Furlong, A. (2008). The Japanese hikikomori phenomenon: Acute social withdrawal among young people. The Sociological Review, 56(2), 309-325. 

Gainey, P., & Andressen, C. (2002). The Japanese education system: Globalisation and international education. Japanese Studies, 22(2). 152-167.

Gates, S. (1995). Exploiting washback from standardized tests. In J. D. Brown & S. O. Yamashita (Eds.), Language testing in Japan (101-106). Tokyo: The Japan Association for Language Teaching.

Gottlieb, N. (2012). Language policy in Japan: The challenge of change. Cambridge: Cambridge University press.

Gorsuch, G.). (1998). Yakudoku EFL instruction in two Japanese high school classrooms: An exploratory study. JALT journal, 20. Retrieved from 

Hamada, Y. and Kito, K. (2008). Demotivation in Japanese high schools. In K. Bradford Watts, T. Muller, & M. Swanson (Eds.), JALT2007 Conference Proceedings. Tokyo: JALT. Retrieved from

Hamp-Lyons, L. (2007). The impact of testing practices on teaching: Ideologies and alternatives. In Cummins, J & Davison, C (Eds.), International handbook of English language teaching (pp.487-504). MA: Springer.

Hays, J. (2014). Absentee students in Japan. Retrieved from

Hino, N. (1988). Yakudoku: Japan’s dominant tradition in foreign language learning. JALT Journal. 10(1), 45-53. 

Hongo, J. (2013, March 25). Abe wants TOEFL to be key exam. The Japan Times. Retrieved from

Hongo, J. (2015, January 19). Could you pass the English test on Japan's national college exam?. The Wall Street Journal. Retrieved from  

Hosoki, Y. (2011). English language education in Japan: Transitions and challenges. Kyushu International University. 6(1). 199-215. Retrieved from

IELTS (2018). IELTS is the high-stakes English test for study, migration and work. Retrieved from  

Ito, M. (2017). Confronting youth suicide: Seeking ways to stop young people from taking their own lives. The Japan Times. Retrieved from

Jacobs, J. K. (2003). Devolving authority and expanding autonomy in Japanese prefectures and municipalities. Governance An International Journal of Policy, Administration and Institutions. 16(4), 601-623.

Kamiyama, S. (2009, January 20). ‘Exam hell’ now not so hot. The Japan Times. Retrieved from

Kikuchi, K. (2006). Revisiting English Entrance Examinations at Japanese Universities after a Decade. JALT Journal, 28(1), 183-204. Retrieved from  

Kurashiki. (2009). Change you can believe it. Retrieved from

Lewis, C. (2015, February 15). Spare a thought for the junior-high students going through 'exam hell'. The Japan Times. Retrieved from 

LoCastro, V. (1990). The English in Japanese university entrance examinations: a sociocultural analysis. World Englishes. 9(3), 343-354.

Macomber, H. (2016). Hacking finals: Tips from neuroscience to study smarter. Retrieved from

Matsutani, M. (2012). Student count, knowledge sliding. The Japan Times. Retrieved from

McConnell, D. (2000). Importing diversity. CA: University of California Press.

MEXT A. (2011a). Five proposals and specific measures for developing proficiency. In English for international communication. In Commission on the development of foreign language proficiency. Retrieved from

MEXT B. (2011b). English education reform plan corresponding to globalization. In MEXT topics. Retrieved from

Miller, K. K., (2014, October 7). What’s wrong with English education in Japan? Pull up a chair. Japan Today. Retrieved from

McCurry, J. (2017, January 17). Japan's rising child poverty exposes true cost of two decades of economic decline. The Guardian. Retrieved from

Meerman, A. D. (2003). The impact of foreign instructors on content and student learning in Japanese junior and senior high schools. Asia Pacific Education Review. 4, 97-107.

MEXT (n.d.). Improvement of Academic Abilities: Course of Studies. Retrieved from

Miller, K. K., (2017, February 27). Kyoto Board of Education administers English test for teachers with disheartening results. Japan Today. Retrieved from

Miyazato, k. (2008). NS-NNS relationships: A case of AET-centered team teaching. In K. Bradford Watts, T. Muller, & M. Swanson (Eds.), JALT 2007 Conference Proceedings. Tokyo: JALT.

Mulvey, B. (1999). Perspectives: A myth of influence: Japanese University entrance exams and their effect on junior and senior high school reading pedagogy. JALT Journal, 21(1). Retrieved from

Nikkei Asian Review. (2017, June 2). Japan’s small companies make big push to land recruits. Nikkei Asian Review. Retrieved from

Nishino, T. (2008). Communicative language teaching: An exploratory study. JALT Journal 30(1), 27- 50. Retrieved from

Osaki, T. (2016, April 14) Japan ranked 34th out of 41 developed nationsin UNICEF child poverty index. The Japan Times. Retrieved from

Promromou, L. (1995). The backwash effect: from testing to teaching. ELT Journal, 49(1), 13-25.

Sasaki, M. (2008). The 150 year history of English language assessment in Japanese education. Language Testing. 25(63).

Sato, M. (2005, July 28). Cram schools cash in on failure of public schools. The Japan Times. Retrieved from

Sato, M. (2011). Imagining neo-liberalism and the hidden realities of policy reform: Teachers and students in a globalized Japan. In Blake Willis, D., & Rappleye, J. (Eds.), Reimagining Japanese education: Borders, transfers, circulations and the comparative (225-256). Oxford: Symposium books.

Seargeant, P. (2009). The idea of English in Japan: Ideology and the Evolution of a Global Language. Bristol: Multilingual Matters.

Shimahara, N. K. (2002). Teaching in Japan. Routledge Falmer.

Shiro, M. (2013, February 2). Exam hell and the crisis in history education. Your doorway to Japan. Retrieved from

Taylor, L. (2005). Washback and impact. ELT Journal, 59(2), 154-155

Tokunagawa, M. (2008). Students’ assumptions for TOEIC classes. JALT 2007 In K. Bradford Watts, T. Muller, & M. Swanson (Eds.), JALT 2007 Conference Proceedings. Tokyo: JALT. Retrieved from

Tope, A. (2003, October 23). Japan rethinks ‘goodwill’ assistance. The Guardian. Retrieved from 

Walton., Thai., Leonard., Munoz. (n.d.). Parents’ role. Retrieved from

Yoshida, R. & Aoki, M. (2017 June 13). Number of foreign students at public schools who lack Japanese language skills hits record high. The Japan Times. 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: