Is Team-Teaching an Effective Strategy for English Education in Japan?

A Study of the Effects of the JET Program

on English Education in Japanese Secondary Schools

by Matthew Rooks ([email protected])


            The state of English education in Japanese secondary schools has long been a point of interest for those in the field of TESOL. The unique social structure, history, and basic educational philosophy found in Japan makes for an interesting challenge to those who teach English in Japanese secondary schools. The fact that Japan is a homogeneous society with a keen fascination for Western culture and the deep-rooted economic ties which exist make English an essential foreign language for many Japanese. Within the last 15 years, communicative English has become a key point for improvement for the Japanese Ministry of Education. In an effort to bring about change for Japan’s outdated grammar-translation approach to English education, the Ministry of Education founded the Japan Exchange and Teaching Program (JET).

The government-funded JET Program is responsible for bringing native-speaking English Assistant Language Teachers (ALTs) from all over the world to Japan to team teach with Japanese Teachers of English (JTEs) in order to facilitate communicative learning for Japanese students in secondary schools. While student exposure to native-speakers of English has increased in Japanese schools, many questions remain about the process of team teaching and its current state of effectiveness. How effective is team teaching in Japanese secondary schools, and what can be done to improve the effectiveness of team teaching?

The Japanese Ministry of Education concluded that by bringing native-speaking English teachers into the Japanese classroom, the language learning process would become more “humanized,” and less focused on the abstractions found in exams:

“The JET Program was started in 1987 with the purpose of increasing mutual understanding between the people of Japan and the people of other nations. It aims to promote internationalization in Japan’s local communities by helping to improve foreign language education and developing international exchange at the community level” (JET Guide 2004).

The largest program of its kind in the world, the JET Program now has over 6,000 participants in Japan. With team teaching lying at the heart of the creation of the JET Program, it would seem prudent to evaluate the effectiveness of team teaching as it is currently being practiced in Japanese secondary schools. In 1994, the Ministry of Education introduced the new Course of Study Guidelines, which, “for the first time in Japan’s history, emphasize the development of a student’s communicative ability in English as a primary goal” of secondary English education (Goold 1994).


Historical Background

In order to evaluate the effectiveness of team teaching and the changes that it has brought about, it is helpful to look at the history of English education in Japan. English has been taught at Japanese junior and senior high schools since the end of the Meiji Restoration in 1868. Unfortunately for foreign language learning, Japanese education has been deeply rooted in a system that emphasizes the importance of entrance examinations as a means for determining academic ability. This focus “seems to help propagate the heavy reliance on the grammar-translation method of instruction” (Brown & Yamashita, 1995) as well as memorization and rote learning (Browne & Wada, 1998). The examination system “has come to be so deeply embedded in both the society at large and the secondary education system within which students and teachers function” (Amano, 1994) that national education administrators have been hesitant in moving towards more modern methods of judging performance in foreign languages. Because standardized entrance examinations are fairly good indicators for a student’s ability in math, science, and Japanese, many administrators in the Ministry of Education see no reason to deviate from this method for judging English proficiency as well.

Because Japanese college entrance examination questions are mainly discrete-point and passive in nature (Brown & Yamashita, 1995), grammar rules and translation methods have taken precedence over actual human interaction in an EFL setting. The theory was that since most students would only be using their English to pass examinations, practicing English in communicative contexts was unnecessary. With the rapid pace of globalization and the importance of English as a language of international business in Asia, Japan has finally started to see the light, and is starting to foster more communicative methods of English education: namely team teaching.


The goals and foundations of team teaching

If the JET program has a prime directive for improving English education in Japan, it is team teaching. Team teaching is the process whereby a native English speaking Assistant Language Teacher (ALT) co-teaches with a Japanese teacher of English (JTE) to create a more communicative learning environment for students. The Ministry of Education defines team-teaching in Japan as follows:

“Team-teaching is a concerted endeavor made jointly by the Japanese teacher of English and the assistant language teacher in an English language classroom in which the students, the JTE, and the ALT are engaged in communicative activities” (Kachi, 2001, cited by Garant 1992).

The Ministry of Education goes on to define the overall objectives for English education in Japanese secondary schools, which are: “to develop students’ abilities to understand a foreign language and express themselves in it, to foster a positive attitude toward communicating in it, and to heighten interest in language and culture, deepening international understanding” (Ministry of Education, Science, and Culture, 1994).

In a homogeneous island-country like Japan, many Education administration officials view team teaching as the best possible way of “bringing the L2 community in the classroom” (Brumby & Wada, 1990) in order to foster a ‘practical and immediate motive to use the [English] language as a means of communication’ and provide “good opportunities for a better understanding of cultural differences for both students and teachers” (Ministry of Education, Science, and Culture, 1994).

By stressing the importance of facilitating English language acquisition while at the same time deepening cultural understanding, the JET program should, in theory, take on similar traits of Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development. By utilizing the JTE’s foreign language background and experience, this Zone of Proximal Development should theoretically be realized by offering Japanese students the chance to communicate with native-speaking ALTs. Language acquisition through multicultural exposure is not only beneficial to the students, but to the team teachers as well.

Because of the high demand for native-speaking teachers in Japanese secondary schools, the eligibility criteria for ALTs cannot afford to be too restrictive. The basic requirements for ALTs, as listed by the Ministry of Education are as follows:

ALTs should be:

“Interested in Japan, and be willing to deepen their knowledge and appreciation of that interest after arrival. ALTs should be under 40, be mentally and physically healthy, and able to adapt to living in Japan. ALTs should have excellent pronunciation, rhythm, intonation and voice projection skills in the designated language. Good writing skills and grammar usage are also a must. All ALTs must have a bachelor’s degree, and be interested in the Japanese educational system and particularly in the Japanese way of teaching foreign languages” (Ministry of Education, Science, and Culture, 2004).

It is apparent that no sort of TESOL or TEFL training is a prerequisite for incoming ALTs. Since no such training is required of JET participants, pre-service and in-service ALT training must be a major source of instruction for new ALTs.


Problems with the current state of team teaching

Despite the Ministry of Education’s “stated goal of developing students’ communicative competence in English, many obstacles still exist in secondary English education” (Browne & Wada, 1998). The definition of teacher roles, cultural boundaries, teacher qualifications, and the still ominous presence of entrance examinations in Japanese schools all pose significant obstacles for team teaching in classrooms. To what extent do these different aspects inhibit the potential of team teaching in secondary schools?

Because many JTEs are now sharing their classrooms with ALTs, the definitions of the roles that each team teacher will play should be concretely defined. The Ministry of Education defines the ALTs duties as:

“1. Assistance in classes taught by JTEs in junior and senior high schools.

2. Assistance in the preparation of materials for teaching a foreign language.

3. Assistance in the language training of JTEs.

4. Assistance in the instruction of foreign language clubs.

6. Provision of information on language and other related subjects for people such as Teacher’s Consultants and JTEs (e.g. word usage, pronunciation, etc.)

7. Engagement in local international exchange activities” (Ministry of Education, Science, and Culture, 1994).

While this list may at first glance seem rather comprehensive, these parameters are in reality quite vague, as terms such as ‘assistance’ are never clearly defined.

Tajino and Walker found that in terms of credentials, the team teachers “in the English language classroom in Japan are not equal in status. One gains certification through examination and is licensed by the local board of education to teach the English language (i.e. the JTE), whereas the other (i.e. the ALT) is uncertified, generally with little formal training or teaching experience” (116). In what ways should the ALTs assist JTEs in class? There is no specific instruction for ALTs pertaining to their tasks and responsibilities both inside and outside of the classroom, which often leads to disparate expectations for an individual teacher’s duties.

Another problem in Japan for team teachers is the issue of entrance exams as a barrier to teaching communicative English. “Despite the Ministry of Education guidelines and the large impact that the JET program has had, other pressures such as the need to teach the contents of the textbooks and the need to prepare students for entrance exams still affect classroom activities,” (Browne & Wada, 1998). Ultimately, JTEs still have to worry about fulfilling the tasks by which they are measured by: whether or not their students pass high school or college entrance exams. Because the overwhelming majority of these tests still focus on grammar points and translation abilities, communicative learning often takes a back seat to rote learning when the exam season draws near.

Too much one-way communication is another obstacle to be overcome in Japanese classrooms. The teacher-student relationship in Japan is historically one of little interaction (i.e. lecturing and note-taking). Therefore, asking students and teachers to start interacting with each other, especially in a foreign language, can be a daunting task for all parties involved. Cultural codes for respecting authority (like not looking a teacher in the eye when being spoken to) can make things like eye contact and dialogue with a teacher frightening prospects for many students.

The qualifications of JTEs are another source of complexity in the team teaching dynamic. Some view the mere introduction of the ALT into the Japanese English-language class as a sign of inadequacy on the part of the JTE. (Bullough, 2003). Although the qualifications for new JTEs entering into the public school system are stricter than they have been in the past, the reality is that there are many under-qualified JTEs currently embedded in the educational system. Many JTEs have never been abroad, and there are many JTEs who had never spoken with an NS before meeting the ALT assigned to their school. Because virtually all of the older-generation JTEs came through the grammar-translation/standardized examination English educational system, oral communication was not a priority for their English study.

Other problems with team teaching are found at “the practical level, many of which are centered on the relationship between the JTE” and ALT (Tajino & Walker, 1998). A simple lack of camaraderie between the JTE and the ALT is a source of complexity for team teachers. Given the busy schedules of teachers (JTEs in particular), there are often not enough opportunities for collaboration between ALTs and JTEs. Because team teaching relies on good relationships, the more interaction teachers can have with each other, the better they will perform in class (Bullough, 2003).

Lack of specific training for team teachers is another issue that must be addressed if the team teaching experience in Japan can be improved (Tajino & Tajino, 1999). A complete and utter lack of teaching experience and EFL training on the behalf of an astounding 98% of ALTs shows a clear need for more teacher training (Kachi 2001). While there are programs in place for training ALTs and JTEs, they often occur in separate seminars, instead of joint training where the JTEs and ALTs can learn together.

Poorly defined teacher roles, or what Tajino and Walker refer to as ”disparities in expectations” (116) are another source of difficulties for team teachers in Japan. There is a “great discrepancy between what ALTs think their role is and what JTEs expect ALTs to do in the classroom” (Kachi 2001). While ALTs are defined as cultural ambassadors and natural resources for native communication in English, JTEs often relegate an ALT’s duties to that of being used as ‘tape recorders’ and ‘game machines,’ where the JTEs assume the responsibility of being ‘interpreters’ (Tajino & Walker, 1999).        

            Another source of frustration for team teachers in Japan is the infamous bureaucratic educational system that makes even the smallest push for change at local levels an arduous, if not impossible task. Course curriculums, textbooks, and testing procedures are standardized in public schools, which leaves little leeway for creativity or tangential discussions in the classroom. Also, because teachers transfer from school to school every few years and are only fired under dire circumstances, younger, more qualified teachers are having a very hard time finding jobs in secondary schools.


Potential solutions

It is evident that the JET program must do a better job in providing clearer definitions of teacher roles, including a better balance and shared responsibility between the two teachers. With ALTs free from their ‘game machine’ and ‘tape recorder’ shackles, productivity and interaction between teachers and students could only increase. If JTEs could worry less about strict translation and focus more of their energy on actual communication in the classroom, everyone involved in the team teaching experience would benefit.

Taking English outside of the classroom and showing its uses in normal, everyday activities should also be something that ALTs and JTEs should focus on, not only with their students, but with each other as well. By showing students that English is useful for other things besides tests and homework, teachers could improve their students’ motivation and interest in learning English. This demonstration of the communicative potential of learning a foreign language would build upon the interaction experienced in an ideal EFL classroom.

A solution for the problem of teachers unfamiliar with team teaching would be the provision of more training for teachers. This would be especially helpful for novice teachers, where “seminars on methods and approaches for TT would be helpful” (Kachi 2001). Because there is currently an almost non-existent level of training for team teachers, providing pre-service training seminars as well as continual in-service training could only improve the techniques of team teachers, as well as foster a better rapport between JTEs and ALTs. While by no means a majority of ALTs or JTEs, there are some teachers with TESOL training currently working in the JET Program. If these teachers could share their knowledge with other teachers in seminars and/or meetings, everyone involved would benefit. Browne and Wada note that ALTs “who majored in TESL/TEFL and education at the undergraduate level clearly felt more prepared for the many challenges they subsequently faced as English teachers than those who majored in English literature or linguistics” (109). Why not utilize teachers with TESOL training to teach those who know little or nothing about second language acquisition theory, even if the training is at a basic or introductory level?

Annual and exit surveys or reports on TT experiences, which gleaned thoughts and suggestions from actual participants, would be an effective way to bring about change in a flawed program. Many of the policies currently shaping English education in Japan are administered by government officials who have little or no experience in actual EFL environments, which means that some of the policies enacted are ineffective and/or unrealistic. When seeking to make changes in a program, who better to ask for input than the teachers involved at the practical level?

            Eventually, a major shift away from exam-based teaching to communicative language learning will also be necessary in order to bring about real change in English education in Japan. On the surface, TT looks like a nice solution to the problems plaguing Japanese EFL classrooms. Unless the deep-structure of English education in Japan (i.e. examination-based education) is modified to become more interactive in nature, however, all of the ALTs in the world would not impact the improvement of the communicative abilities of Japanese students, who must employ rote memorization techniques in order to successfully answer many of the questions that compose the all-important entrance examinations.

One positive point of change in this restructuring of English education at the exam level is evident in some private universities, which have started to include listening comprehension components to their university entrance exams (Browne & Wada 1998).

If public secondary schools would follow suit and start to make some fundamental changes to the philosophy of EFL in Japan, TT could fulfill its true potential and become a major contributor in improving the communicative proficiency of Japanese students.



While there is still a long way to go to facilitate major changes in the Japanese English educational system, things have been improving. The mere presence of ALTs and the induction of TT in EFL classrooms throughout Japan offer students a chance to learn about different cultures while at the same time exposing them to natively spoken English. Day sums up this idea well with this question: “Could it be that the exposure to ALTs in middle school is, of itself, valuable not so much because of any formal pedagogical benefits per se, but because of the ‘humanization’ of English language teaching in the public school classroom and by extension, the humanization of contact with foreigners?” (1997: 131)

While it may be true that “during the early years of the JET program, the very presence of foreigners in the classroom and teachers’ room was enough to stimulate change,” (Browne & Wada, 1998) it is clear that ALTs could be utilized to a fuller extent through a more effective approach to team teaching. By implementing ALTs as cultural informants as well as natural conversation partners instead of limiting them to the traditional approaches, team teaching in Japanese secondary schools could reach its full potential and be much more beneficial and effective to everyone involved in the Japanese EFL experience.
















Amano, I. (1994) Education and Examination in Modern Japan. Tokyo: University of Tokyo Press.


Brown, J.D. and Yamashita S.O. (1995) English language entrance examinations at Japanese universities: What do we know about them? JALT Journal 17 (1), 7-30.


Browne, C. and Wada, M. (1998) Current Issues in High School English Teaching in Japan: An Exploratory Survey. Language, Culture and Curriculum (11), 97-112.


Brumby, S. and Wada, M. (1990) Team Teaching. Harlow, Essex: Longman.


Bullough, R. (2003) Teaching with a Peer: A Comparison of Two Models of Student Teaching. Teaching and teacher education (19), 57-73.


CLAIR. (2004) The 2004-2005 JET Resource Guide. Tokyo: The Council of Local Authorities for International Relations.


Day, D. (1997) Teaching English in Japan: A Professional Journey. Tokyo: University of Tokyo Press.


Goold, R., Madeley, C. and Carter, N. (1994) The New Mombusho Guidelines, Part 2. The Language Teacher (11), 3-7.


Kachi, R. (2001) A Tandem of Native and Non-Native Teachers: Voices from Japanese and American Teachers in the EFL Classroom in Japan. Minneapolis International Conference on Language Teacher Education.


Matsumoto, M. (May, 2000) English Education in Saitama Prefecture.


Stewart, T. (1997) An Alternative Team-Teaching Model for Content-Based Instruction. Asia-Pacific Journal of Teacher Education & Development (3), 211-243.


Tajino, A. and Tajino, Y. (2000) Native and Non-native: What Can They Offer? ELT Journal (1), 3-11.


Tajino, A. & Walker, L. (1998) Perspectives on Team Teaching by Students and Teachers: Exploring Foundations for Team Learning. Language, Culture and Curriculum (11), 113-131.