Journal of the Institute for Second Language Development

Journal of the Institute for Second Language Development




March 2006
Gender and Academic Performance in English Communication Courses
July 2007
A Case Study Of A Japanese Learner In The UK
September 2007
Student Opinions on the Use of Course Blogs for Overseas Study Preparation
September 2007
An Emerging Japanese English
February 2009
Observations on One Japanese University's General English Program
December 2013
Incentivization and In-class Participation in the Japanese University English Language Classroom


Observations on One Japanese University's General English Program


John Westby (Associate Professor, Meijo University, Faculty of Human Studies)


Philip Beech (Lecturer, Meijo University, Faculty of Human Studies)

February 2009


After years of teaching and encountering students in one university's general English program, we perceived declining language skills among the students as compared to students taught under an earlier curriculum. This paper is an attempt to explain some of the reasons for that perceived decline. We believe that the problems with the program are both conceptual and practical.

Conceptual Problems

The program claims to be based on the Common European Framework of Reference (CEFR) for modern/foreign languages adopted by the Council of Europe in 2001. As James Milton, head of the Applied Linguistics Department at Swansea University, points out, "The existing Framework has been constructed so we can, or should be able to, make interlanguage comparisons" (Milton 108). For example, students of English in France should be comparable with students of German in the UK. Since interlanguage comparability is the purpose of the framework, we believe that it has little relevance to the teaching of English as a foreign language (EFL) in Japan where as unlike in the EU no such comparisons are likely to be done or necessary.

The larger problem with CEFR is its reliance on competence statements to measure learning outcomes. Milton bemoans:

"The absence of any quantifiable or objective measures of language knowledge and competence in the CEFR…The attempt to make the Framework as inclusive and flexible as possible has resulted in an emphasis in the Framework document which is skills-based almost to the exclusion of the evaluation of language knowledge. It is almost as though it is a system which has tried to divorce competence from knowledge such as vocabulary knowledge" (108).

The Framework omits any "quantifiable or fixed measures of knowledge" including any vocabulary lists (109). This lack leaves the system open to abuse by publishers and ministries. Milton goes on to describe the problem:

"The danger with such a system, and the absence of quantifiable or fixed measures of knowledge, is that it is often possible to place a learner or an exam in any one of several bands. While the CEFR itself may be language neutral and apolitical, its application is not, and is in the hands of ministries and publishers who have their own agendas. Currently, the rationale for exactly what is placed where in this system often appears to have more to do with aspiration or convenience than with the scientific application of language descriptors" (109).

One publisher that has highlighted the adherence of its exams and materials to the Framework is Cambridge. Milton describes Cambridge's approach:

"Cambridge ESOL's hierarchy of exams pre-dates the language framework and appears to have been placed within the Framework system of levels almost regardless of the descriptors. There have been no adaptations of level or content that I am aware of to make the existing exams match the Framework descriptors" (109).

In fact, Cambridge's approach to the Framework could be described as a convenient marketing ploy. Milton concludes:

"For Cambridge ESOL, the Framework classification appears to be a convenient nomenclature for characterizing their exam hierarchy within an increasingly competitive international market. In Britain, faced with the same challenge of positioning an existing foreign language system within the Framework, the placements appear to be made in hope or intention rather than on any empirical basis" (109).

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