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 schoolgakkōgai 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.

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: alttoblog@gmail.com  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:  http://www.alttrainingonline.com/blog.html

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. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0266078413000163

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 https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ842867.pdf  

Aoki, M. (2014, January 2). Schools fret about assistant teachers ahead of proposed 2020 reforms. The Japan Times. Retrieved from https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2014/01/02/national/schools-fret-about-assistant-teachers-ahead-of-proposed-2020-reforms/#.Wk4XqFT1XUI

AJET. (2014). Assistant language teachers as solo educators. Retrieved from http://ajet.net/downloads/reports/2014/ALTs_as_Solo_Educators_ENG.pdf 

Anonymous, (2015, August 19). Child suicides tend to occur at end spring or summer school holidays: study. The Japan Times. Retrieved from https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2015/08/19/national/social-issues/suicide-among-children-tends-occur-long-vacation-study/#.Wk3KW9Jl8nS

Anonymous, (2013, February 3). Entrance exam change needed. The Japan Times. Retrieved from https://www.japantimes.co.jp/opinion/2013/02/03/editorials/entrance-exam-change-needed/#.Wk66WVWWbIW

Alderson, C. J., & Wall, D. (1993). Does washback exist?. Applied Linguistics, 14(2), 115-129. https://doi.org/10.1093/applin/14.2.115

Allen, D. (2016). Investigating washback to the learner from the IELTS test in Japanese tertiary context. Language testing in Asia 6(7). https://doi.org/10.1186/s40468-016-0030-z

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

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Hongo, J. (2013, March 25). Abe wants TOEFL to be key exam. The Japan Times. Retrieved from https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2013/03/25/national/abe-wants-toefl-to-be-key-exam/

Hongo, J. (2015, January 19). Could you pass the English test on Japan’s national college exam?. The Wall Street Journal. Retrieved from https://blogs.wsj.com/japanrealtime/2015/01/19/could-you-pass-the-english-test-on-japans-national-college-exam/  

Hosoki, Y. (2011). English language education in Japan: Transitions and challenges. Kyushu International University. 6(1). 199-215. Retrieved from https://ci.nii.ac.jp/els/contentscinii_20171220111728.pdf?id=ART0009882896

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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. https://doi.org/10.1111/1468-0491.00230

Kamiyama, S. (2009, January 20). ‘Exam hell’ now not so hot. The Japan Times. Retrieved from https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2009/01/20/reference/exam-hell-now-not-so-hot/#.Wk7Z2FWWbIU

Kikuchi, K. (2006). Revisiting English Entrance Examinations at Japanese Universities after a Decade. JALT Journal, 28(1), 183-204. Retrieved from http://jalt-publications.org/recentpdf/jj/2009b/art3.pdf  

Kurashiki. (2009). Change you can believe it. Retrieved from http://kurashiki-prgrm.livejournal.com/

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Macomber, H. (2016). Hacking finals: Tips from neuroscience to study smarter. Retrieved from http://columbialion.com/hacking-finals-tips-from-neuroscience-to-study-smarter/

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

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          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 alttoblog@gmail.com so we can work together and spread your story.

Don’t have any ideas? 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:  http://www.alttrainingonline.com/blog.html

This Post Has One Comment

  1. MGov

    This was an excellent article! It really made me think. Heres my answers for the first 4 questions. The other questions felt a little geared towards middle school students, so I wasn't sure how to effectivly answer.

    1.I think that Japanese language learning focuses a lot on reading and writing, however lacks the basic foundations of learning to read and write. Phonics and basic reading skills aren’t taught to students extensively. They are shown a word and expected to learn to read it based on repetition and from that derive reading patterns. This method can be frustrating for lower level students or for people who like structure. While focusing on reading, conversational and speaking skills are left at the wayside, seen as secondary because many tests don’t focus on speaking. In every other language learning setting, conversational skills come first and reading and writing follow (in the arguably more natural flow of second language acquisition). Japanese priorities handicap students to receive high scores on tests and forever not have the confidence to use English on their own.

    2.I have witnessed a solo taught class at a school I don’t work at. Taught entirely in Japanese and with no context for the English being taught. She focused on the 訳読 method, and only did a few sentences of the textbook reading. The students also thought and processed all English information into Japanese. As the teacher in question was the head of the English department, I feel like this must be indicative of the way students are taught in my area.

    3. I teach in team taught classes at an elementary level. We use the new we can textbooks and let’s try. I follow the grammar points that are recommended by the textbooks and focus a lot on speaking and vocabulary. Since it is national curriculum I follow the Mext guidelines and adapt things so students can more easily grasp the grammar and extensive vocabulary that is expected of them this year. They also have to learn phonics and reading skills (reading English short stories) as the skills required for reading in a second language are different.

    4.4. As I teach in elementary school, I have a lot more room for fun so I don’t worry about entrance exams yet. However from the last semester of 5th grade to graduation (6th grade) students progressively become more quiet and less willing to be actively involved in the English classroom. They still love English but it’s harder to get them to present their ideas in class and get them to try when they know it might be wrong. They are more conscientious of their mistakes.

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Nathaniel Reed

Nathaniel Reed started his ALT journey in 2014. He was mid writing a dissertation for an MA in Linguistics and it struck him that there was no training for this new job. Even low-level jobs have some kind of training to help you do the job effectively, and teachers are dealing with people’s lives.