Second Language Acquisition - Theory and Pedagogy: Proceedings of the 6th Annual JALT Pan-SIG Conference.
May. 12 - 13, 2007. Sendai, Japan: Tohoku Bunka Gakuen University. (pp. 12 - 20)

MEXT-authorized English textbooks:
Designing a junior high school text series

by Thomas Hardy (Keio University)


This article explores the writing of a junior high school English textbook series and the theoretical and cultural issues encountered by one member of the writing team during the writing process. The importance of design – the organizing principles guiding thematic content, grammar, vocabulary, and overall narrative arc – in the writing process is outlined and some institutional factors shaping design issues are discussed. The major designs considered by the writers of this textbook series – geographic, linguistic, and gender – are outlined, with an emphasis on the importance of cultural issues involved in the design of a textbook writing process.

Keywords: junior high school textbooks, EFL textbook development, MEXT-approved textbook structure, educational textbooks in Japan

In writing textbooks, it is necessary to understand the nature, place and importance of design – the organizing principles guiding thematic content, grammar, vocabulary, and overall narrative arc of a textbook. Based the author's experience as a member of the team writing an English as a foreign language textbook for Japanese junior high school students, the constraints shaping the design of a textbook are discussed. Meetings to seek consensus on the overall design were held by the five core authors (hombu-in), who supervised a team of 33 writers and contributors (listed in the textbook credits). The editorial staff also made suggestions, most having to do with commercial concerns. The structures considered, and finally decided upon, by the writers and editors are outlined. A pedagogically sound and commercially viable text was created based on a design that was negotiated among the members of the writing team as they dealt with the competing claims of various stake holders, importantly including the Ministry of Education, Culture, and Technology (MEXT) and teachers.

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The focus of this paper is on design, which can be understood as the vision informing a textbook. Strunk, White & Kalman (2005, p. 101) express the importance of design in general terms:
Before beginning to compose something, gauge the nature and extent of the enterprise and work from a suitable design. Design informs even the simplest structure, whether of brick and steel of or prose. You raise a pup tent from one sort of vision, a cathedral from another. (p. 101)

In educational textbook construction, design has a significant impact on the curriculum development process. In one formulation (Nunan 2003, p. 5), curriculum consists of three main parts: syllabus design, methodology, and evaluation. Of the three, syllabus design is the most concerned with issues of design and is addressed in this paper.
A major focus of syllabus design is on content and the questions related to it. What content should be taught, and in what order? What are the justifications for selecting this content and order? Syllabus design can provide reasoned answers to these questions.
The present paper focuses on discussions among a team of junior high school textbook writers in Japan related to the over-all structure of a textbook series; syllabus design and related issues, such as the composition process and the relative influence of other text stakeholders will be considered.

Textbook design constraints

Two main constraints emerged from the directed discussions among the writers and editors concerning the textbook's design: first, the requirements of the Ministry of Education, Culture, and Technology (MEXT); second, the pedagogical constraints of Japanese junior high school classrooms. In addition, economic issues, including market constraints and sales positioning come into play. For the sake of clarity, this paper concentrates on matters related more directly to educational matters; the role of the market in textbook writing and design deserves its own paper.

MEXT requirements

"The [Japanese Ministry] requirements . . . are complex, detailed, and, based on the comments of writers and editors, more than occasionally opaque."
MEXT has a set of requirements laid out in the Course of Study (MEXT, 2003a). The requirements as published are complex, detailed, and, based on the comments of writers and editors, more than occasionally opaque. They form a constant background to the writers' and editors' discussions concerning the design of the textbook and are referred to regularly by the participants. Of the many items, two arose most frequently in discussions concerning the topic of this paper: grammar, and thematic content.
The Course of Study lists a set of grammatical structures that must be included in MEXT-authorized English language texts. However, MEXT offers no guidance as to the order or means of presenting them. The Course of Study and the Outline of Textbook Policy by MEXT (2003c) also offer only general guidelines concerning content and approaches to content. Sample exhortations include the importance of impartial judgments, respect for Japanese culture, and awareness of Japan's place in the world (MEXT 2003a: I.II.3.2: a-c).

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Pedagogical constraints

Japanese junior high school teachers also have requirements which must be built into the design of any successful textbook. In discussions, the writers and editors noted the following major points about Japanese junior high school teachers:
  1. Most are trained in grammar-translation and /or audio lingual methods. These methods emphasizing learning linguistics rules and making them habitual in order in to achieve fluency. Current language acquisition theories suggest that these methods are, in many ways, counter-productive if the goal is communicative competence. Richard and Rodgers (2001) offer a good a review of current theories and MEXT (2003b) describes the role place of communicative competence in Japanese EFL teaching. However, teaching habits are very hard to break and current teaching practices may have significant cultural components (Kurihara & Saminy, 2007) that further reinforce them. Despite periodic window-dressing measures initiated by MEXT, grammar-translation and/or audio lingual methods remain entrenched in Japanese junior high school EFL classes.

  2. Most Japanese junior high school EFL teachers have had very limited training in communicative language teaching (CLT). In fact, from conversations with practicing teachers, it appears that most conceptualize CLT as almost identical to audio-lingual teaching. The majority appears comfortable with this limited sense of CLT: it is what most teachers expect from textbooks and what they are best equipped to teach (Sato, 2002, p. 73-76).

  3. Classroom preparation is limited. Most teachers workloads and responsibilities are extraordinary: classes, homeroom, PTA, cleaning, and whatever else the local politicians and administrators at the board of education want (LeTendre, 2000). Textbook materials must be usable with little extra teacher preparation required.

  4. A teach-to-test culture pervades most junior high schools. Students, teachers, schools, and school districts are judged in relationship to their performance on various standardized tests and their students' rate of acceptance to competitive higher schools. These scores determine the success of teachers, schools, and the students the schools attract.

  5. Many junior high school English teachers in Japan have a rather fragile sense of their foreign language competence. Based on discussions with teachers using the text, they say that they are generally competent to teach English but that they lack confidence in their English abilities. As a result, many require textbooks that offer support: in familiarity of structures, in ease of use, and in offering supplementary materials. For textbook writers, this means constructing texts that are fully supportative, provide suggested questions for students, and give answers that are singular, unambiguous, and unexceptional (Higgins, 2003).

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Textbook design: approaches and responses

Within these constraints, the writers and editors discussed a number of different approaches to use in designing the textbook series as a whole, (as opposed to the content or format of individual chapters or sections, which methodological issues were decided at subsequent stages). The process of the discussions and decision-making was rarely focused or neat. In many ways, it resembled a wide-ranging dialog, with ideas raised, considered, tabled, and then raised again in following meetings, with the process sometimes extending over months. General design issues dominated meetings for 24 months. The first meetings focused on reviews of sales and the responses of teachers to the newly-released edition of the textbook. Over time, the focus of meetings shifted to the issues discussed in this paper. By the thirty-second meeting, nearly two years into the process, near-final decisions on issues of overall design had been reached and the focus shifted to methodological issues – the structure of materials within lessons – and the beginning of the writing process.
Many teaching methods, such as The Silent Way, and Suggestopedia, were briefly mentioned and as quickly dropped. This paper focuses on three sets of designs and approaches that received extended comments in the editorial meetings. One set of designs deals with the views of stakeholders concerned with the textbook series. Another set focuses on the use of language-based centered concepts and approaches. The last is concerned with content- and narrative-based issues. Each approach, its applicability to the perceived context, and the writers' responses, is considered in turn.

Stakeholder-based approaches

A long series of discussions centered on the stakeholders of the textbook – MEXT, politicians, special interest groups concerned with content-based materials, boards of education, principals, teachers, parents of students, and students. Also, omnipresent, though usually unmentioned, were the commercial interests of the publisher: an important matter warranting a separate study. From among these stakeholders, most of the writers' discussions centered on two groups: students and teachers. Regarding students, one set of issues focused on their likely existing knowledge of English. Due to changes in educational policy, some students will be taking junior high school English after having learned English in elementary school; other students will not. With student background no longer reasonably uniform, new issues are emerging regarding junior high school language learners in Japan, and the writers spent a great deal time discussing these issues.
A second set of discussions focused on students' likely uses of English. In response to perceived needs, some of the writers wished to place the textbook series in a country where English was a native language, such as Australia, Great Britain, or the United States. For examples, these writers drew on European Union textbooks set in the country of the target language (Italy for Italian, France for French, etc.). Other writers wanted to place the textbook in Japan. They argued that Japanese students would be most likely to use English in Japan talking with visitors to Japan, who cannot speak Japanese, about aspects of life in Japan.
A third design that was considered organized the series around the globalization of English as a native, second, and foreign language. In discussions, this slowly grew to a consideration of the use of English in inner, outer, and expanding circles of linguistic influence (Kachru, 1989; Crystal, 1997; Yamanaka, 2006).

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The final decision set the series in Japan, with occasional trips overseas or e-mail friends to enlarge the range of English speakers that students would encounter. It was also decided to include core characters, visiting characters, and settings from all three circles of linguistic influence. In short, the series became a pseudo-narrative with at least some story-like elements.

Language-based approaches

The writers considered a number of language-centered approaches, including functions (i.e. doing something in the target language, such as greeting, saying good bye, asking for help, and expressing an opinion) and notions (including abstract categories denoting dimensions of thought and meaning. such as time, space, and ways of classifying ideas). The use of lexical structures, as suggested by Willis (1990) and Lewis (1993), was also discussed. However, discussions inevitably returned to grammar and the ways grammar could be presented in a logical way to take learners from simple to the more complex forms.
Ultimately, a design based on grammar was adapted, moving from easier to more complex forms, since it most directly met the demands of MEXT and the expectations of teachers. This decision led to further discussions on what order to place the grammatical forms, and it was discovered that, as Ellis (1994) notes, the ordering of grammar forms is far from self-evident. Eventually, the ordering of grammar structures from previous editions was retained, though with some minor modifications.
Notions and functions were retained, but only as special one- or two-page supplements to be used as needed. Notional sections dealt with materials such as cardinal and ordinal numbers, and colors. Functional supplementary conversations were proposed, based on situations and functions such as asking for and giving directions and inviting.

Content-based approaches

Four major content and narrative designs approaches were considered. One dealt with the rituals and activities of the school year, such as entrance ceremonies, public holidays, and vacations. Another focused on travel requirements, such as obtaining a passport, using an airport, making host family introductions, and traveling around in a foreign country. A narrative approach envisioned the text series using story lines, with recurring characters who would change and grow over the course of each school year and the three years of the textbook series. Finally, the writers considered the possibility of shaping the text cognitively, moving from topics closest to the personal lives and knowledge of students to increasingly distant and abstract levels over the three years.
Among the content-based approaches, the final cognitive development option was chosen. The first book deals with issues concerning students' immediate life (such as family, friends, and school life); the second with issues of community and the place of students within it; and the third with wider social matters, including the world, the environment, war and peace, and abstract concepts such as courage.

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Designing a textbook: geopolitical setting, characters, languages, and identities

The stakeholder-centered discussions also highlighted two other areas requiring decisions: geographic setting and the languages to be spoken by the characters. The issues of gender, language, culture, and nationality, also, were carefully considered.

Geographic setting

A basic question was asked: Where should the dialogs take place? An English speaking country was considered, since the use of English is natural in that environment. This would also provide opportunities for students to learn about another culture. However, that option seemed problematic because setting it in a specific foreign country was also an endorsement, at some level, of that country's life, culture, and politics. The writing team therefore chose to set the textbooks in Japan, with the further reasoning that Japanese junior high school students are most likely to use English in Japan and thus parallel the real world use that students will encounter. It was argued that this would replicate the everyday use of English by normal junior high school students. This decision was based in part on focused discussions with and questionnaires from teachers currently using the textbook, in which a general preference for the familiar was voiced. The decision was also motivated by a desire to contribute to the construction of a more international and multi-cultural Japan. And finally, the writers noted the desire of MEXT to encourage respect for Japanese culture and awareness of Japan's place in the world (MEXT 2003a: I.II.3.2: b-c).

Characters and English: countries of origin and languages spoken

After discussing the role of English in the world, based in part on the writers' understanding of Crystal (1997), it was decided to consciously make use of the three circles of English usage as depicted in Figure 1.

Figure 1

Figure 1. Three circles of English usage as suggested by Crystal (1997)

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It was also decided that the country of origin of characters in the textbooks would be distributed evenly among these three circles of language use. The writers felt that including such speakers would be particularly useful for native Japanese teachers, who could take advantage of their non-native English speaker status and develop it as an educational resource (Seidlhofer, 1991, p. 240).
In deciding which nationalities should be included, some writers wanted a near global cast of characters with all continents and all major regions represented. Others suggested focusing on countries that shared a level of development with Japan, as they would share first-world cultural features and hence be easier for students to learn from and for teacher to teach. As a compromise, the writing team decided to focus, as far as possible, on Asian countries, supplemented by characters from other regions (notably Africa and South America) as the occasion permitted.

The resulting characters are listed in Table 1.

Table 1. The gender and nationalities of the characters in Takahashi et al. (2003)
Figure 1

Culture: the global and the local

The core writers were fairly sophisticated about issues of identity, language, and culture and the conflicts therein. They knew the works of Pennycook (1998) and Fairclough (2001) and brought their insights into the discussions. They were also responsive to the everyday realities of Japanese textbook writing and publishing and the nature of Japanese junior high school education (see LeTendre, 2000). These everyday realities set limits on how the global issues could be communicated in this Japanese context.
Similarly, the textbook depicted a range of Asian-Pacific characters living in Japan. Discussions of these matters started and ended with observations along the lines that, "we are all neighbors in Asia and should live peacefully together." Controversial topics, such as international political clashes over such issues as visits to Yasukuni Shrine visits and domestic responses the wartime experiences of Okinawans, were not broached.
Nevertheless, the writers, in good faith, attempted to raise global themes in the context of Japan. They created characters who came from a range of Asian and Pacific countries and attended a local Japanese school. By doing this, they worked on the edge of the possible to meet the competing claims of MEXT, school administrators, and politicians on the one hand, the interests of committed teachers and educators, the needs of students in a globalizing world, and the requirements of the publisher as a profit-making entity. The precise alignment of these stakeholders into various camps shifted, depending on the specific issues involved.

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"design is the backbone on which successful language textbooks are built"

The author has suggested reasons that design is the backbone on which successful language textbooks are built. A well thought-out design reassures learners and teachers that they are in the hands of a writer who knows where the textbook is going. Further, design provides the comfort of form and control while learners encounter unfamiliar sounds, lexical items, grammar patterns, and cultural expectations.
Within the limits of the MEXT guidelines and pedagogical constraints, the writers and editorial staff decided that each of the three major forms of structure they discussed – stakeholder-based, language-based, and content-based – would have a place in shaping the overall design of the textbook. They recognized that these simultaneous structures would occasionally be in conflict and that some of the conflicts could not be resolved and hence compromises and partial solutions were the best that might be expected.
For educational material writers, one basic point has emerged: The importance of design in composition. From this follows the need for writers to be open to the wide range of designs available and to consider each in terms of its appeal to the various stakeholders of the textbook.
With these considerations in mind, writing even something as circumscribed as a MEXT approved text for junior high school English students can become an intellectually challenging and rewarding experience.


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Higgins, C. (2003). "Ownership" of English in the outer circle: An alternative to the NS-NNS dichotomy. TESOL Quarterly, 37 (4), 25-50.

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MEXT (Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science, and Technology). (2003a, March). The course of study for foreign languages. Retrieved 2007 June 13, 2007 from

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Yamanaka, N. (2006). An evaluation of English textbooks in Japan from the viewpoint of nations in the inner, outer, and expanding circles. JALT Journal 28 (1), 57-76.

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