The Internet TESL Journal

Let's Write In English: Teacher, We Never Learned That

Susan Gilfert
sugi_ngo [at]
Aichi Gakuin University, Nagoya

Shigenobu Niwa and Shunichi Sugiyama
Kawaijuku, Nagoya

With the advent and quickly spreading use of the Internet bringing various corners of the globe together in one large community, comprehensible written communication of any kind is becoming critical to any modern person's array of social skills. English is recognized as one of the most widely-used languages in the world; therefore, comprehensible written English is not only a critical business skill, but also a generally-used social skill as well. University students are in a position to be on the cutting edge of acquiring these modern skills. Japanese universities are responsible for preparing today's youth for entering society as fully-functional and communicative members. Today's youth need to be able to communicate internationally; Japan can no longer afford the luxury of being the isolated nation it was before 1868.

But many Japanese students have great difficulty doing this. They are not taught to write in a coherent or communicative manner in their native language, never mind in English.

University entrance exams nominally reflect the standard of work required of students; such exams are recently testing for communicative writing skills in English, as well as in Japanese. This paper will present arguments for teaching communicative writing skills at the senior high and juku/yobikou1 levels of education. By preparing students well, they are not hindered in university, and can better function later in society.


Traditionally, Japan's English-language education system has placed greater emphasis on the passive skills of reading and translation rather than productive skills such as speaking and writing. About 130 years ago, when the new Meiji government took the place of the Tokugawa Shogunate, Japanese government leaders thought that it was important to introduce institutions from the West, and their concatenated advanced technology, to the underdeveloped country of Japan. Japanese students were required to gain the ability to read, and translate into Japanese, various material written in other languages such as German, French, and English. Reading/translating ability was regarded as more useful than speaking or writing ability. Even after massive governmental reforms of the 1940's, the educational system continued to place more emphasis on reading and translation. Teachers thought that it was their higher duty to help students gain the ingenuity to learn and refine technologies invented in the United States and European countries, rather than to force students to blaze into new territory alone.

Reform in 1989

This philosophy had been the mainstream until the Ministry of Education announced new guidelines for high school education eight years ago, in 1989 (see Figure 1). In the guidelines, the Ministry stated that more emphasis must be placed on oral comprehension (listening) and communication (speaking). New types of textbooks were designed, and eventually approved by the Ministry, to encourage students to listen to and speak much more English. However, writing in English is still not given much weight in general ESL teaching practice or curriculum.

A few special-use terms used in the chart require explanation here. A "Reading" class is one in which Japanese students are given a paragraph in English and asked to first read aloud, then translate the text--sentence by sentence or phrase by phrase. Coherent meaning from the complete text is rarely extrapolated. Various comprehension questions, generally focussed on specific details within the text, finish the exercise.

Figure 1
pre-1994       yr in high   # of hrs   post-1994       yr in high   # of hrs.
course title   school       /wk        course title    school       /wk

English I      1           4           English I       1            4
(Reading/Gram)                         (Reading/Gram)

English II     2           4           English II      2            4
(Reading/Gram)                         (Reading/Gram)

English IIB    3           4           Reading         3            4

English IIC    2 or 3      2            Writing        2 or 3       2
                                        Communication  1            2
                                        A level--simple, everyday conv.
                                        B level--speeches
                                        C level--discussion
                                  the school decides on which level they will teach
Figure 1 Change in English curriculum, pre and post 1994 (Monbusho, 1989, pp. 30-38

Students are carefully taught to regard the word of the dictionary as absolute, and to meticulously look up every single word in a sentence. Discussion of the ideas in the text, or relating the ideas in the text to the students' lives, is rare. A "Writing" class is one in which Japanese students are given disassociated English sentences and required to translate these into Japanese. The concept of several sentences combined in one paragraph--a topic sentence with sentences of supporting detail--is not explicitly taught. This important concept is not taught in Japanese-language classes, either. Students in "Writing" or "English Composition" classes memorize basic English sentence patterns, and practice by applying the patterns to Japanese sentences. Students are rarely taught how to relate one sentence to another, or how to create a coherent paragraph--the smallest unit of writing which conveys an idea to a reader. This is not communicative writing.

A couple of Monbusho-approved texts which we evaluated contain brief explanations of how to compose a paragraph in English, with a few examples. There are also a couple of pages on "How to Arrange Paragraphs" in logical order, with examples given of Chronological and Space ordering. However, the examples/practices given with this information seem far too limited in both number and scope to be effective. Furthermore, the texts which we evaluated are among the less-popular textbooks on the Ministry of Education approved list. Not that many schools choose these texts to work with.

At university, students are expected by their non-Japanese composition teachers (in most circumstances) to already thoroughly understand the concept of being able to write coherent paragraphs. Non-Japanese education systems teach students from a very early age that writing is communication, and students are taught how to write communicatively from junior high school or younger. This is the greatest difference in concept and method between writing classes in the West and "composition" classes in Japan.

"English composition" in Japanese high-schools usually means the translation of English into Japanese, and not communicative writing. Many Japanese students are startled by an exchange of e-mail for the first time, when they finally realize the value of writing communicatively. Such a gulf in basic terminology and usage--and expectations --is confusing to both students and teachers alike.

Current Entrance-Exam Conditions and Question Items

There are 95 national and 61 other public 4-year universities in Japan, and 603 private 4-year universities. These numbers do not include 2-year tertiary educational institutions, such as junior colleges or vocational/technical schools. All universities in Japan, both public and private, have some sort of entrance exam for students wishing to matriculate. The style of entrance exams are overwhelmingly paper exams, of general knowledge--or of specific knowledge of the faculty that the student wishes to join. Entrance-exam questions are nominally designed to reflect the standards used at university level. Students successful in passing the entrance exam for a certain school can expect to produce academic work similar to that shown in the entrance exam. English is a required subject of most faculties, so English-language tests show up on the entrance exams of many faculties.

According to a survey of the last 10 years of Obunsha manuals, the number of Japanese national universities which require applicants to write a passage of about 100 words in English has doubled, as shown in Fig. 2.

Figure 2
      The number at the top of each bar is the actual number of
70    national & selected public universities incorporating essays
      into the entrance exam.

40                                               39    x
                                            32    x    x
30                                     25    x    x    x
              22             20   21    x    x    x    x
20  15   18    x   19   18    x    x    x    x    x    x
     x    x    x    x    x    x    x    x    x    x    x
10   x    x    x    x    x    x    x    x    x    x    x
     x    x    x    x    x    x    x    x    x    x    x
0    x    x    x    x    x    x    x    x    x    x    x
   '88  '89  '90  '91  '92  '93  '94  '95  '96  '97  '98

Figure 2: The number out of 79 national and selected public universities which use an essay in the English-language section of their entrance exams.

In 1987, 14 out of 65 national universities asked entrance-examinees to create a short composition. Five years later, in 1992, that number went up by three, to 17 universities. It is interesting that, during this period, there were no municipal or prefectural universities reporting such test items. However, in 1996, 23 national universities and 7 prefectural or municipal universities adopted some sort of "free style" compositions in their entrance exams (Kiriki; see Figure 3). Especially in the Chubu region, half of all public universities, such as Shizuoka Univ., Gifu Univ., Aichi Teachers' College, and Nagoya City Univ. are in this category. By 1997, the number of public universities requiring writing in the entrance exams had increased significantly: 32 national and 9 public universities. (Kiriki, 1997) Note that these statistics include only public universities. Obunsha does not survey private universities.

For example, Gifu University asked applicants on the 1995 exam to write a letter introducing the members of a family shown in a picture. 20 lines were printed on the answer sheet, so the letter could have been as long as 100-150 words. But within the current English-language curriculum, very few high-school students are given instruction on how to compose a coherent paragraph. For the reader's edification, sample student answers are transcribed in the Appendix. Most of the applicants to Gifu University must have been at a loss as to how to respond and what to write when confronted with this exam question.

Figure 3


Hirosaki Univ. Yamagata Univ. Miyagi Teachers' College Saitama Univ. Utsunomiya Univ. Tokyo Univ. Hitotsubashi Univ. Tokyo Univ. of Arts & Sciences Tokyo Univ. of Foreign Studies Tokyo Institute of Technology Fukui Univ. Gifu Univ. Shizuoka Univ. Shiga Univ. Osaka Univ. Osaka Teachers' College Yamaguchi Univ.Okayama Univ. Hiroshima Univ.Kagawa Univ. Kyushu Univ. Nagasaki Univ. Tsuru Univ. of Humanities Fukui Prefectural Univ. Shizuoka Prefectural Univ. Nagoya City Univ. Kobe City Univ. of Foreign Studies Osaka City Univ.


Hirosaki Univ. Tohoku Univ. Miyagi Teachers' College Fukushima Univ. Saitama Univ. Utsunomiya Univ. Tokyo Univ. Hitotsubashi Univ. Tokyo Univ. of Arts & Science Tokyo Univ. of Foreign Studies Yokohama National Univ. Tokyo Institute of Technology Aichi Teachers' College Fukui Univ. Gifu Univ. Shizuoka Univ. Aichi Teachers' College Shiga Univ. Kyoto Teachers' College Osaka Univ. Osaka Teachers' College Osaka Univ. of Foreign Studies Kobe Univ. Shimane Univ. Okayama Univ. Hiroshima Univ. Kagawa Univ. Kyushu Univ. Nagasaki Univ. Kochi Univ. Saga Univ. Miyazaki Univ. Yamagata Univ. Fukui Prefectural Univ. Nagoya City Univ. Shizuoka Prefectural Univ. Kobe City Univ. of Foreign Studies Osaka Prefectural Univ. Osaka City Univ. Osaka Women's College


Hirosaki Univ. Iwate Univ. Tohoku Univ. Miyagi Teachers' College Akita Univ. Saitama Univ. Yamagata Univ. Utsunomiya Univ. Tsukuba Univ. Tokyo Univ. Hitotsubashi Univ. Tokyo Univ. of Arts & Science Tokyo Univ. of Foreign Studies Tokyo Univ. of Electronics and Communication Tokyo Institute of Technology Yokohama National Univ. Yamanashi Univ. Niigata Univ. Fukui Univ. Gifu Univ. Shizuoka Univ. Aichi Teachers' College Shiga Univ. Kyoto Teachers' College Osaka Univ. Osaka Teachers' College Osaka Univ. of Foreign Studies Shimane Univ. Hiroshima Univ. Kagawa Univ. Kyushu Univ. Nagasaki Univ. Fukuoka Teachers' College Kagoshima Univ. Tsuru Univ. of Liberal Arts Fukui Prefectural Univ. Nagoya City Univ. Shizuoka Prefectural Univ. Kobe City Univ. of Foreign Studies Osaka City Univ. Osaka Women's College

Figure 3 Universities which require students to write communicatively in English on an entrance exam (Kajiki, 1996 ~1998)

Learning to write in English is becoming more and more necessary in daily life. Universities are the place where students receive final preparation for daily life as members of society. Universities are increasingly requiring students to be able to write in English--but high school curriculums do not prepare students for university. Or for life.

A Modest Proposal

The Text

Why not teach students how to write in English? There are several excellent texts on the market now, including Significant Scribbles by Curtis Kelly and Ian Shortreed, published by Lingual House (ISBN 0-940264-30-7) and 20 Steps to Critical Writing by Haruhiko Shiokawa and Leo Yoffe, published by Kirihara Shoten (ISBN 4-342-77460-7). These texts are sufficiently bilingual for Japanese students and teachers who lack confidence in their ability to read English to understand the point of the exercise or lesson; yet non-Japanese teachers can understand and improvise on the structures and exercises easily. These texts have structure, yet not stiflingly so.

The Teacher

Many Japanese high-school teachers have little or no experience in writing English in free-style compositions, and would find a teaching assignment of Composition daunting, to say the least. However, younger Japanese ESL teachers have certainly had to write English-language compositions in their own university classes (usually for non-Japanese-native teachers). Some ESL teachers have even studied a year (or more) abroad in English-speaking countries, and certainly would have had to communicate meaningfully in English. These teachers have experience in English composition.

Not a few Japanese ESL teachers have Assistant Language Teachers (ALTs) assigned to them by the Education Ministry or their local school boards. Many times, the ALTs say that the supervising teachers turn them into human tape recorders--and they feel strange about this. The ALT might be very useful in a Composition class as a source of communicative information, rather than as a producer of phonological information, or the recipient of a scattering of phrases or questions from any given class.

The Standards for Evaluation

Given a teacher and a text, how about evaluating the students' products? Most teachers tend to agree that student papers are amusing to read but difficult to grade. Standards might be issued from the Ministry of Education. Such centralized control has both positive and negative aspects to it. On the positive side, all Japanese student compositions would be judged by the same standards. Japanese students are taught the same material in mostly the same manner. On the negative side, standards tend to squelch creativity and innovation.

Two methods of evaluating writing have been previously described (Gilfert & Harada, 1993), the holistic and the analytic. In a nutshell, the holistic method looks at the entire writing as communication; the analytic method looks, bit by bit, at all the rules of grammar & spelling, as applied to each word, sentence and paragraph. Analytic methods of grading are useful mostly to people who see trees, instead of the forest. The holistic grading method looks at the forest, the whole art of communication. Of the two methods, the holistic method is better. Writing should be done for communicative purposes, after all.

Teachers can calibrate themselves, or agree on certain standards within a corpus of student papers. Teachers agree before a grading session starts what an "A" paper is, a "B" paper is, and the rest of the grades and gradations. With calibrated teachers who evaluate with a good will and a deep store of humor, students' papers are not as difficult to grade as it might seem on the surface.


English composition classes--REAL English composition classes--need not be the nightmare envisioned by many high-school ESL teachers. By giving students a basic grounding in composition skills, teachers can prepare their students for university and for life as a productive member of society.



Question: What do you think Japanese will be like 20 years from now? Describe 3 ways in which Japanese society will be different in the year 2018.

(female) student to Medical faculty.
First, I imagine that Japanese society will make great progress in technology. There will be many automatic machines, computers which can work far faster than today's one, for example. Therefore, our daily like will be very convenient.

Second, 20 years from now, the rate of the elderly people may become higher, at the same time, the number of the newborn child may decrease more and more. Consecuently, a workable person will have to pay farther more tax for society than today.

I imagine the last description. Now, we are facing many problems of the environments, not only of Japan but also of the Earth. If these problems maintain today's situation, we would be in danger. Furthermore, if we continue to use natural resources which have their top, Japan would be very confused, because we are depending most of these resources on other countries.

(female) student to Medical faculty
First of all, in the future in Japan, the number of people who use cars will be decreasing. Instead, people who use trains will be increasing in number. Because recently we have realized how important it is to protect the natural environment. So, in the near future, more and more people will be careful about reducing wastes.

Secondly, the number of older people will be large and that of children will be small. In 2018, I'll be 38 years old. We will support a lot of older people who can't live without anyone else's help.

Thirdly, the height of the sea above the horizen will be large. So they will probably move to the places where are high land.

(female) student to Education faculty
I think Japanese will have big change 20 years from now. There are a lot of people who don't have work. or can't have work. In recently years, there are many things which made by machine. Another words, it don't need man's power. It will be able to do all man have done. Second reason is that there are a lot of people who don't want to warry. Paticular, woman dislike it. Because they want to work as well as men. As the result the number of children will decrease.

(male) student to Education faculty
First, some aminals will be died by natural destroy and the air will be dirty, and the river will be dirty.

Second, the number of the old-age people will be up and the number of the little children will be down. The reason why down is woman's no-marry and woman's late marry.

Finally, the car and the train and others will develop and the number of the walker will be down. I hope that people will walk more.

(female) student of Education faculty

First of all, the medical treatment and many technics will develop. Good substitute is found, so drug save us a lot of ill. Industry is more improvement.

Secondly, many houses will be billt in urban. But rural eria will decrease people. So, urban will more dirty than today. Contrary to rural won't make us living. Because young people will go to home to work city and senior poeple only remind there.

Thirdlly, many plants and creatures will distinct. Because of our many gabages and enviloment pollution.


1 A juku is a cram school used primarily by high-school students. Jukus are private companies, and frequently (but not always) commercial operations. Juku classes tend to be small; 10-20 students per class. Juku usually (but not always) use commercial textbooks. Juku classes supplement high-school classes, and tend to offer English-language tuition and Mathematics. Juku students are usually part-time, as the students are also high-school students. Junior-high school students and even elementary-school students will also take juku classes.

A yobikou is a large-scale educational foundation, but cram classes are held in much the same way as a juku. Classes are much larger; usually 30-200 students per class. Most yobikou students are full-time. These full-time cram students usually have high aspirations to get into prestigious universities, such as Tokyo University or Kyoto University. Not infrequently, these full-time crams-school students failed the entrance exam when they were high-school seniors, and must wait an entire year before the entrance exam is administered again. Yobikou use their own textbooks and curriculum, reflecting a full university curriculum.

The Internet TESL Journal, Vol. V, No. 4, April 1999