This article was taken from a Japanese Newspaper, called the Daily Yomiuri:
Prof probes 'grammar control'
Now a professor at Fukuyama Heisei University in Hiroshima Prefecture, Toshiaki Ozasa once served as the principal of Hiroshima University's affiliated high school. In that role, he says, he might have been questioned by the then Education Ministry if his school's entrance exam had included an English sentence like the following:
"The athlete has been studying English since 8 o'clock."
Why would it cause a problem? "The sentence is beyond the official curriculum guidelines for middle school as it uses a present perfect progressive form," Ozasa said. "We're 'supposed to teach' no more than present perfect by that point."
Ozasa was speaking during a convention of the Japan Association of College English Teachers (JACET), held Sept. 6-8 in Hiroshima under the theme "English Education at the Tertiary Level: in Search of a Consistent Curriculum from Elementary School through University."
In his lecture titled "English Language Teaching in Japan: A Diachronic and Synchronic Perspective," Ozasa described the nation's English education at the secondary level as something "totally tied up" in rules, and stressed that teachers simply went along with this situation.
However, "These 'absolute rules' taken for granted were not actually a matter of course when considered from either a historical or international perspective," he said. "I have no intention of criticizing or placing blame, but just stress that there has been a historical necessity behind it."
Serving as president of the Society for Historical Studies of English Teaching in Japan, Ozasa has collaborated with other experts in examining English textbooks used at the secondary school level since the Meiji era (1868-1912). He focused on the first five grades of secondary education under the previous system implemented until the end of World War II, and the corresponding levels under today's system, namely from the first year of middle school to the second year of high school.
In the beginning of the Meiji era, U.S. primary school textbooks were imported for use in foreign-language classes for Japanese secondary school students. English Readers: The High School Series, written by a British educator, was the first original series issued by the Education Ministry in 1887.
Ozasa did not find major attempts to control grammar in these early textbooks. For example, even the first volumes of these series weaved "be-verbs" and other verbs throughout the passages.
Ozasa believes Masakazu Toyama (1848-1900) was the first educator in Japan to implement grammar control. Writer of the Seisoku series published in 1889, he later became the president of Tokyo Imperial University, the predecessor of present-day Tokyo University, and an education minister.
Unlike its predecessors, Seisoku's first volume did not weave be- and general verbs together from the beginning. When looking into how frequently three grammar indexes--past tense, verbals and present perfect--were used in each lesson, Ozasa found that the book enforced control over use of past tense and present perfect.
Textbooks made since Seisoku also employed grammar control, which was gradually strengthened. Eventually, out of the first 11 volumes published from 1916 to 1951 surveyed by Ozasa, six took control over use of all the three grammar indexes.
"As you can see, the nation's grammar control was established bit by bit over a long period," Ozasa said. "It can be described as a kind of culture in our English education."
The speaker also touched on studies by his fellow researchers that compared a Japanese textbook series for middle and high school published from 1986-87 with textbooks published from 1999-2003 in four other Asian countries.
When it comes to control over the three grammar indexes, only Japan set regulations over all three, while Thailand and China did so regarding past tense and present perfect. However, a closer look revealed that their controls were not so strict and allowed some "exceptions"--although past tense and present perfect were basically not used over certain lengths of lessons, a few would still slip through.
"This is the biggest difference between Japan and other Asian countries," Ozasa said. "Japan has established strict grammar control, but other Asian countries are rather flexible, sometimes using the target grammar ahead of the time when they [officially] think it's necessary."
Ozasa also has looked into vocabulary control--counting how many words secondary school students have been exposed to since the Meiji era, and also enumerating how many words their Chinese and South Korean counterparts today are exposed to.
Textbooks were generally thick tomes in the Meiji era. The first volume of one imported series consisted of just 5,600 words, but that number skyrocketed to 106,000 by the fifth. The English Readers series had nearly 40,000 words in its first volume, growing to nearly 70,000 in the fifth.
As time went by, however, Japanese textbooks tended to contain fewer words. Seisoku started with about 14,000 in the first volume and ended with nearly 34,000 in its fifth, while the recent 1986-87 series offered only about 1,500 words to students in the first year of middle school and about 8,500 to those in the second year of high school.
When looking into neighboring countries' textbook series, the word counts were much higher than those of the Japanese series. Ozasa described the Chinese and South Korean figures as "roughly corresponding to our Meiji and Taisho (1912-26) era levels, respectively."
The studies also examined the number of new vocabulary in each volume as well as the ratio of new words to total words, through which Ozasa came across an irony of Japanese textbooks.
Because Japan has cut the number of new vocabulary items students must learn, the recent Japanese series had new vocabulary appearing more frequently, making it difficult for students to read passages because they could not guess the meaning of new words from the context, Ozasa said.
"We've taken control over grammar and word lists to make our textbooks easier for students to use," Ozasa said. "But such efforts have produced textbooks that are unnatural and difficult to read. It's quite ironic."
Education system review needed
Ozasa said his studies suggest that before the end of World War II, the textbook screening system did not check for control over grammar and vocabulary. "It didn't matter, probably, because only a limited number of students could attend secondary school in those days," he said.
After the war, secondary education became common--compulsory education has been extended to middle school, and almost every student goes to high school today. "In this sense, it's inevitable that the authorities would intensify their control over what is studied and make textbooks easier, so as to prevent students from dropping out," Ozasa said.
As a result, "Japanese textbooks today are the easiest, from both a historical and international perspective," he concluded. "Nonetheless, there's the harsh reality that many of our students find it difficult to catch up with even these textbooks."
Since World War II, Japan has had a "single-track" English education system in which students are supposed to learn the same content in the same class hours. "I believe the time has come to discuss this system," Ozasa stressed. "It wouldn't involve English education alone, but the basics of our education system as whole."
The expert also suggested that now is the time to examine introducing a "multiple-track" education system that would accommodate various learning styles--motivated students should enjoy high-level learning, both in quality and quantity, while slow learners should be guaranteed to receive fundamental learning.
"Anyone who mentions this has always been rapped as it's regarded as a taboo in our educational system," Ozasa said. "But someone has to talk about the elephant in the room."