Curriculum Innovation, Testing and Evaluation: Proceedings of the 1st Annual JALT Pan-SIG Conference.
May 11-12, 2002. Kyoto, Japan: Kyoto Institute of Technology.

Themes to content:
Curriculum innovation at Ritsumeikan University

by Anna Seabourne (Ritsumeikan University)

Incorporating content into language teaching is on the increase in Japan (Cohen, 2002; Stewart, 2000). In addition, more and more students want to include an overseas element in their undergraduate or postgraduate studies.
How can institutions and instructors address these goals in the current Japanese educational environment? This paper will introduce a new cross-faculty International Institute program at Ritsumeikan University and explain how it fits into the curriculum as a whole. It focuses on attempts to negotiate the shift from theme-based learning to teaching authentic academic content in English, and highlights the challenges of introducing students to new learning styles within the Japanese context.
"This paper . . . introduce[s] the new cross-faculty International Institute program at Ritsumeikan University and explain[s] how it fits into the curriculum as a whole."


There are a number of models of language teaching incorporating content, both in EFL and ESL and a corresponding number of related terms, which include: theme-based, content-based, sheltered, English for specific purposes, English for Academic Purposes, adjunct, full or partial immersion, sustained content study, English for intellectual purposes etc. The same terms may refer to different styles of teaching, depending on the educational context and the emphasis on English over content or vice versa. (Kasper, 2000; Stewart, 2000).
The purpose of this paper is not to enter into a discussion of these differences, or to examine the theoretical background, but to describe how one program has evolved from its original conception as an extension of undergraduate study which takes primarily a theme based approach, to one where English is the medium of instruction, but the primary goal is communication of the content. For the purposes of this article, the following distinction will be made:

Theme-based: Teaching with a primary goal of developing language skills; content is secondary.
Content-based: The primary goal of the lesson is communicating the content.
Language work is included to provide a supportive learning environment.

Over the course of study at the institute, the aim is to progress to an increased focus on content, as in Figure 1.

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Figure 1: Transition from focus on language to focus on content.

The International Institute at Ritsumeikan University

This institute is a cross-faculty program co-ordinated by the International Relations faculty, as seen in Figure 2.

Figure 2: The structure of Ritsumeikan University's International Institute.

In their second and third years, students study academic subjects in English in addition to their majors. There are three programs:

The majority of the students are selected for the respective programs through the University's entrance examination. A few, such as returnees, transfer in at the end of their first year. The program is aimed at students who have a TOEFL® score of at least 450. In principle, students who complete the programme should be able to graduate at the end of their third year, allowing them to enter graduate school a year early, or to study abroad.


The basic idea behind the program was to provide an intermediate step for students aiming to enter international careers or to undertake further academic study in English at undergraduate or postgraduate level in Japan or abroad.
The first Institute students entered Ritsumeikan in the academic year 2000. By the autumn of that year, course titles and provisional content had been decided and the first Institute instructors hired. The following spring, the first Institute students started their Institute curriculum in their second year. They are currently in the first term of their third year. A general introduction to the Institute can be found on the University's web site.

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The program is offered at the Kinugasa campus, across the Social Science, Letters, Law, International Relations and Policy Science faculties. In their first year, Institute students take the same course of study as regular students, i.e. academic study in their faculties. They also take the regular Ritsumeikan first year English classes, which differ from faculty to faculty, but which generally include four lessons a week first semester, (two with a native speaker of English and two with a Japanese instructor). Some faculties have separated the Institute students; others incorporate them into their regular, streamed classes.

Sample first year course description

The following description is taken from the University's guide for teachers (LERC, 2002).

Faculty of Law 1st semester required for all first year students
English I Strategies for Active Communication (1st stage)
Twice a week with the same teacher (Japanese).
Integrated skills, focus on reading and writing.
English II Workshop (1st stage) Twice a week with the same teacher (native speaker of English).
Integrated skills, focus on speaking and listening, content-based. Culture.

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In the second semester, students in this faculty take two courses in a similar format once-a-week.

Student intake

The Institute's three programs take students from the different faculties as shown in Table 1.

Table 1. Number of students from each faculty in each Institute program.

Program Social Science Letters Law International Relations Policy Science Total
International Civil Service 35 35 35 105
International Community 35 35 70
International Law and Business 35 35

In their second and third years, students continue to study content in Japanese relating to their major. They also take core Institute classes, which consist of academic content relating to their program taught in English, and other Institute courses in English or Japanese. These include subjects such as International Peace Studies; Anglo-American Law of Contract; Multi-ethnicity and Nations; and Third World Politics (Seabourne & Wakana, 2002). Over the two years they are required to complete 30 credits in order to graduate from the Institute. Students should be able to complete the program by the end of their third year. There are no Institute classes in the fourth year, which means that students are able to study abroad, or if they have completed sufficient credits to go straight into graduate study.


There are around twenty-five students per class. The faculties have allowed students who have not achieved the required minimum score to enter the Institute, but this has caused problems and is currently the subject of negotiations between the Institute and the faculties. The actual TOEFL® scores of students range from around 340 to 620. Each program is streamed into four or five groups.

Second year courses

Institute courses aim to use students' existing English skills to tackle the study of academic subjects such as international politics, globalisation, law, economics, in a supportive environment but at a level of content equivalent to undergraduate study in an English-language-speaking university. The core courses this year aim to introduce students to the educational models they are likely to encounter abroad. This means that they are required to do a substantial amount of homework (mostly reading) outside class and to actively participate in discussion.
One way of supporting this has been to use student journals, including a vocabulary section based on ideas from Josh Kurzweil's Personal Vocabulary Notes (Kurzweil, 2002). In addition, students are expected to develop their awareness of international issues relating to their study interests through following current events in the media. As the students continue to study in their own faculties, they are bringing different perspectives to their Institute classes. This has led to a cross-fertilisation of ideas and an enriched exchange of opinions between students who have covered different academic content in their Japanese courses. Appendix 1 offers a description of the second and third year International Institute courses taught by native English speaker instructors.

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In the twice-a-week course, a modular approach has been adopted. The instructors teach two-week modules, then move to another class. This allows each instructor to teach a topic area of the course which falls within their areas of specialisation, furthermore, it exposes the students to a variety of presentation styles. The modules taught this semester were:
The first semester has now been completed, so it remains to be seen whether students will be able to apply what they have learnt when they are required to do so in an in-depth group presentation to their classmates in the latter part of the course and write a ten-to-fifteen-page academic paper on the same subject. There is still an element of language support in the third year, but students are expected to be more self-reliant in terms of study skills.

Lessons learned


At the start of the program, the instructors were given little more than the course titles and a sketchy outline of the expected course content. The description below is an example of the information provided for the second year once a week courses.

Economics through English; Politics through English; Law through English (once a week/2 credits/1 semester; approximately 25 students per class)

The objective for these once-a-week content-based courses is to enable the students to become familiarised with the specialised vocabulary related to the respective fields, so much so that the students are able not only to read about these areas without checking the dictionary but also to be able to use it in their presentations and writing. There will be a list of recommended textbooks unless the instructor has other recommendations, which recommendations also require prior formal approval. (Wakana, 2001, p. 10)

This presented a considerable challenge in terms of creating courses to match the institution's briefing, students' goals and instructors' areas of knowledge. Consequently, the goals have evolved during the first year, as the instructors have become more aware of the students' background knowledge and abilities. Fortunately, despite the phrase "formal approval" above, the International Institute director has given the instructors a great deal of freedom to explore different approaches and texts. The course goals now aim at maximising use of academic content and the improvement of language and academic study skills. For example, this is taken from the course description for the Politics through English course as taught this semester.

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  • To introduce the core concepts and essential vocabulary of politics
  • To develop students' ability to discuss political issues in English
  • To enable students' to use essential political vocabulary with confidence
  • To deepen students' understanding of what it means to live in a democratic society
  • To provide a framework for comparison of the politics of states around the world
Issues Discussed in Class

What is politics? What does it mean to be a citizen of a state? What does it mean to be patriotic? What is the role of the individual in politics? How did the state evolve? What is society made of? How is power balanced between states? How can you get involved in politics? What are justice, freedom and democracy? Why do we have political parties? Can we study politics objectively? What is the future of politics? These are just some of the questions which will be read about and discussed in class.


Actually finding out what students know was not always easy. There is a list of other courses which students study once they are in the Institute, but very little information on what they have studied in their faculties in the first year. The Ritsumeikan prospectus gives some information, but it is necessarily brief. In addition, because of the mix of faculties, it is common to find some students in the class who have an extensive knowledge of the United Nations and approaches to the study of international politics, whereas others have only the background from their high school history lessons. This is proving to be less of a problem for students in the third year, as all of them have covered similar areas in their second year Institute courses.
A further challenge has been for the instructors to update and extend their own knowledge. The students ask challenging questions4. Even teaching in your own content area requires a great deal of background reading. This means that the program largely reflects the knowledge areas of the current instructors. One area of the program that has suffered from this is the International Community program. It was not entirely clear what Community was supposed to cover. It has been interpreted as covering areas such as international non-governmental organisations, development, refugees, human rights and humanitarian action. As the current instructors are on short-term (three year plus one) contracts, this could lead to problems in maintaining consistent content coverage in the future.

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In fact, there was no "list of recommended textbooks", and finding suitable textbooks in the limited time available was challenging, especially given the time lag in requesting sample copies from overseas. ELT texts are not appropriate, however, the ELT publishers' representatives are a good source of further information on what is currently being used in schools and universities abroad as they have access to educational catalogues from the US or UK. Searching for undergraduate syllabi on the Internet has also proved a useful starting point to discover what kinds of texts are being used or recommended to students. The US based Social Studies School Service offers a variety of materials, including video, some of which were used for second year courses (SSSS, 2000). Although the materials reviewed by the JALT Global Issues in Language Education Newsletter are sometimes not at a high enough level, it is a valuable resource for starting research (Cates, 2002). The United Nations web site has an excellent series of resources for teachers and students (UN, 2002).
Searching for texts is a time-consuming process. In addition to surfing the web and asking for sample texts to be sent to Japan, all the instructors have also spent time in academic bookshops in their home countries.
In terms of resources in the classroom, we are fortunate to have rooms with overhead projectors, facilities for using MS PowerPoint® (though we use our own laptop computers), boards, video, projectors, etc. During the first year, some of the classes were scheduled in classrooms without these facilities. It is worth noting that a weekly request for equipment to be moved to the rooms soon resulted in classrooms being made available! Teaching a high level of content is of course possible without all the technical wizardry, but it certainly makes things easier. Being able to have the main points of the lesson on PowerPoint® on screen, to use the chalkboard to explain vocabulary and to switch to displaying a handout on the OHP is extremely useful.


In general, students are highly motivated and have produced excellent work3. However, there are some students who are not likely to complete the program. Control of which students enter the program rests with the faculties. Once admitted, they are expected to work hard. Instructors have been briefed to not lower their standards or expectations for students (especially those in the lower level classes) and they have support from the university to not pass students who do not meet the course criteria. This means that students whose attendance is low or who do not complete the heavy workload fail the course. At this point, they have the choice to opt out of the Institute and return to study solely in their faculties, in which case they will graduate in their major. Some students have already opted to do this.
Unfortunately, there is a serious flaw in the mechanism. Students cannot be made to leave the program; they have to actively apply to do so. There are a small number of students who have failed one or more of their second year courses. They have been invited for interviews with the course director, and have either failed to respond completely, or have continued in the Institute despite the likelihood of failure. It remains to be seen what will happen to these students at the end of their third year.
Highly motivated students in the lower level classes are not a problem. Indeed more than one student last year jumped two class levels due to improved TOEFL®scores. At the time of writing, a number of students have been accepted for short study abroad and internship programs, while others are considering postgraduate study abroad.

Conclusion - evolution
"At the moment, the success or otherwise of the program is relying mainly on anecdotal evidence."

The Institute has yet to have students who have completed the course. At the moment, the success or otherwise of the program is relying mainly on anecdotal evidence. It remains to be seen whether student TOEFL®scores improve significantly and where graduates from the program find work or further study opportunities. However, the number of students applying to the Institute is increasing, and the motivation, knowledge and English level of the second year students in 2002 are without doubt higher than the students who entered the Institute classes last year. As the program continues to evolve, the next challenge will be to evaluate the International Institute's effectiveness in delivering an academic curriculum in English.

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1. The following is an unedited sample from a second year student's journal entry -

Some people say that because of social and cultural internationalisation, our identity (as Japanese) is gradually weakening. But my opinion is that it is not necessarily true. If there are not transnational relationships between cultures, societies or economies, we wouldn't have as much sense of identifications of our selves as now. Moreover, "identity" is something that forms and develops itself by accepting different things from outside. I think that we have pursue more peaceful, effective and productive way of internationalization, and it's also for the sake of identity of each of us (on the earth).

2. Some recent examples of questions include, "What is the difference between a nation and a state?", "Why is Britain not part of the Euro area?", "Does providing a haircut come under the laws affecting sale of goods or sale of services?"

3. Titles of the third year papers include From nuclear deterrence to nuclear abolition: The historical backdrop on (sic) nuclear proliferation and the movements for nuclear abolition; Environmental issues and globalisation: Comparing global and local issues; Globalisation and regional integration: The foresight of the WTO and the EU; Globalisation and poverty: Free trade to fair trade.

This paper is based on a presentation at the 2002 CUE conference given by Jay Klaphake, Anna Seabourne and Mark Selzer.


Cates, K. (2002). Global education resources. Global issues in language education newsletter, 46, 23.

Cohen, K. Cooney, B. L. & Seton, C. (2002, *MONTH*). Global communications; Can we follow through with the success of our first year? Paper presented at 2002 CUE Conference on Curriculum Innovation, Kyoto, Japan.

Kasper, L. F. (2000). New technologies, new literacies: Focus discipline research and ESL learning communities. Language Learning & Technology, 4 (2), 105-128.

Kurzweil, J. (2002). Personal Vocabulary Notes. Retrieved July 12, 2002, from Techniques/Kurzweil-PVN.html.

Language Education Research Center. (2001). 2001 Guidelines: Important information for native-speaker English teachers at Ritsumeikan University. Kyoto: Ritsumeikan University.

Social Studies School Service. (2000). Global Education. Culver City: Social Studies School Service.

Stewart, T., Sagliano, M. & Sagliano, J. (2000). An alternative team teaching model for content-based instruction. Asia-Pacific Journal of Teacher Education and Development, 3, 1. Retrieved February 1, 2001 from teamteach/ alternate.doc.

United Nations. (2002). Cyberschoolbus: United Nations - global teaching and learning project. Retrieved July 10, 2002 from

Wakana, M. & Seabourne, A. (2002). International Institute Instructor's Handbook 2002. Kyoto: Ritsumeikan University.

Wakana, M. (2001). International Institute Instructor's Handbook 2001. Kyoto: Ritsumeikan University.

2002 Pan SIG-Proceedings: Topic Index Author Index Page Index Title Index Main Index
Complete Pan SIG-Proceedings: Topic Index Author Index Page Index Title Index Main Index

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