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. 7 - 11)
MEXT-authorized English textbooks:
The writing and screening of a Japanese high school text series
by Clive Langham (Nihon University School of Dentistry)
This paper describes the process of co-authoring a series of Japanese Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT)-authorized
high school textbooks with a group of EFL teachers in Japan over a period of twenty years. The process described runs from the first meeting between
the publishers and the co-authors, through publication of the textbook, to post-publication issues, including subsequent revised editions and discussions
about the lifespan of a textbook. The MEXT screening process is explained and details are given of the co-authors' appearances before the screening panel.
Advice is given for materials writers interested in writing textbooks for the Japanese high school market.
high school textbooks, EFL textbook development, textbook screening, educational textbook revision, MEXT
In Japan, only textbooks approved by MEXT can be used in English language classes at elementary, middle and high schools. Authorized textbooks have shown significant improvements in quality, but still have serious shortcomings. Bowles (2001) reports on problems with vocabulary in junior high school textbooks, while an analysis of five Oral Communication (OC) textbooks found most exercises to be mechanical and structured, without the opportunity for cognitively complex language activities (McGroarty & Taguchi, 2005). The chance to be involved in writing MEXT-authorized textbooks is an attractive one, since it offers the possibility of influencing what is included, how it is presented and, ultimately, what happens in English classes at primary, middle and high schools in Japan.
"[being] involved in writing MEXT-authorized textbooks . . . offers the possibility of influencing . . .
what happens in English classes at primary, middle and high schools in Japan."
This paper describes the standard textbook format and the authoring process. It also explains the screening process, gives examples of errors, and focuses on types of post-screening procedures. Issues concerning the sales and lifespan of textbooks are discussed, and advice is given for authors interested in entering the field.
The curriculum and authoring team
Editorial meetings were held monthly on weekends or holidays at the publisher's headquarters in Tokyo. Since most meetings took all day, a lot of time was spent in the early planning stages of this project to establish the syllabus, topics and exercises. Once these were decided, each member of the group was assigned a number of units to write. Since our group was quite small by normal standards, it meant that each person had three or four units to write for the 15 unit book. Most MEXT-approved texts have an average of 8 co-authors, although some have as many as 15.
The units for this text went through numerous drafts and revisions. At some meetings, little or no progress seemed apparent and frustration levels were, at times, quite high. Most materials writers will probably agree that this is part and parcel of the publishing process. The entire process from the first meeting between the coauthors and the publishers to use of the textbook in schools was as follows.
November 1999: First meeting
April 2001: Textbook submitted to MEXT
March 2002: Authorization granted
April 2003: Used in schools
MEXT and textbook format
Production of high school textbooks is governed by various rules that are set out in a document called Taiyou no Meyasu [A Guide to Textbook Format] which has been put together by MEXT and the Japanese Textbook Publishers Association since 1961.
There are quite a number of constraints that must be kept in mind. Rules cover the following: front and back covers, color pages, size, number of pages and type of paper. Until 1999, high school textbooks were mostly black and white, and terribly dull-looking. After that time, several rules were relaxed and color was allowed.
Ancillary tasks beyond the textbook itself: the teacher's manual, teaching procedure, workbook, tests and listening materials
One thing to remember is that there is more to writing a textbook than just the textbook itself. A teacher's manual is required, which must be in Japanese. The publishers our group worked with had a standard teacher's manual for use as a model. It involved a lot of needless repetition and we struggled to fit our units into it.
For the four units that were my responsibility, the material for the teacher's manual was written in English and translated into Japanese by other members of the group. There was also a 'teaching procedure in English'. One of the editors had the idea of providing a booklet in English that Japanese high school teachers could read from in class. In this way, for teachers not particularly confident in English, classes could be conducted entirely in English. It went something like this: "Good morning everyone. Today we are going to study Lesson 4. The title is 'How do you get to school?' Let's check the vocabulary." In other words, a complete script for teaching every unit in the book was required. This became my responsibility and, according to the editors, the 'teaching procedure in English' was well-received by high school teachers.
Next, there came a call for a workbook. The workbook consisted of a review of the main points of each lesson in the textbook in the form of grammar, writing and listening exercises. It took about a month, off and on, to write. Other members of the group read it through, made comments, and it was revised accordingly.
Mid-term and final tests were written and added to the teacher's manual. Again, such extras made the textbook itself more attractive to hard-pressed high school teachers. More recently, with the introduction of a listening test on the English section of the National Center Examination for university entrance in Japan (Sage & Tanaka, 2006), a similar test has been added to our book.
When the dialogs for the textbook are recorded, the co-authors are expected to go to the recording studio to make sure that things are recorded properly. The actual recording is done by professional recording artists, but it was necessary to check what was going on. Mistakes can and do creep in and it is necessary to listen both to the recording as it is being done, and the finished product.
The textbook screening process
All Japanese high school textbooks are screened by MEXT before they can be published. MEXT explains the rationale for this in the following way -
The School Education Law provides that the use of textbooks is compulsory and, as a rule, textbooks must be authorized by the Minster of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology. In the process of authorization of textbooks, books compiled and edited by the private sector are examined to decide whether they are appropriate for use as textbooks through the careful deliberations of the Textbook Authorization Council. (MEXT, 2007).
When a textbook is finished, it is sent by the publishers to MEXT for screening by the Textbook Division of the Elementary and Secondary Education Bureau. The screening process is extremely important as without approval the textbook cannot be sold. The textbook is read through by a panel of three full-time members of staff at the Textbook Division who are responsible for screening junior and senior high school textbooks. These people are called senior textbook specialists, and generally come from prefectural high schools or national colleges of technology. The textbook is also sent out to a team of part-time reviewers, normally native speakers, who check it through and send their comments back to the screening committee.
After screening has been completed, the Textbook Division notifies the publishers of the date for the announcement of the results of the screening process, which are given in person (by two members of the screening panel) to the editors and co-authors. This process usually takes about an hour.
Examples of some of the errors arising from the screening process
In the 2001 screening process for the second of our texts, five errors and five recommended revisions were pointed out, as follows.
- Two typographical errors
- Mistake in the directions to a listening exercise
- Mistake in the use of the definite article
- Two problems with vocabulary
At a screening of a previous book in 1992, problems had arisen over a photograph. A conversation about the World Cup required a photo to be put alongside the text. One of the editors managed to get hold of one which went into the draft. When it came to screening time, it had to be changed, as the name of a sports manufacturer appeared on the shorts of one of the players in the picture. Even though it was just the first two letters of the name and only visible under fairly close scrutiny, it was considered advertising and had to be changed.
- Two problems with illustrations
- Three problems with usage
On the subject of errors and the screening process, according to one of the editors, it is not uncommon for a textbook to have in excess of ten errors, with the majority of them involving problems with usage.
Post screening procedures
Immediately after the results of the screening process have been announced, it is common to go back to the publisher's headquarters to decide what to do about the comments received. The rule is that after getting the results, the publishers have 35 days in which to submit a revised version of the textbook. If more problems arise with this revised version, the committee will telephone the publishers and a further 35 days will be granted for corrections. After the corrections have been made and the book is authorized, the co-authors can relax. Or can they? Once the book is actually in use in high schools, the publishers receive quite a few questions from teachers using it. These have to be answered by the co-authors. Questions received by the publishers concerned subjects such as pronunciation, word stress and usage. On one occasion, there was a request for more example sentences, as well as a request to translate student-generated sentences written in Japanese into English. In all, we received five questions, but another group working on a different textbook had more than twenty.
Factors affecting the sales and the lifespan of Japanese high school English textbooks
"There are 19 publishing companies that put out English textbooks for high schools [in Japan], and for the oral communication syllabus
there are currently 21 different textbooks for high schools to choose from."
Sales figures can be misleading. One year, our book reached third place in its category in terms of sales figures, selling about 70,000 copies. That might sound good, but what this does not tell you, is that the book in first place sold three times that amount and consistently held that spot for over 10 years. The book in 21st place in that category sold 2,734 copies in the same year. There are 19 publishing companies that put out English textbooks for high schools, and for the oral communication syllabus there are currently 21 different textbooks for high schools to choose from. One factor affecting sales is that many teachers like to use a different book each year. This is because they are worried that test material might be passed on by senior students to juniors. For this reason, there seems little chance teachers will use the same book year in year out. Of course, it goes without saying that the bigger publishers have larger sales forces and can concentrate more resources on advertising and promoting their textbooks, which in turn probably leads to higher sales.
In principal, textbooks have a lifespan of four years and then, after revision, a further four years, making a total of eight years (MEXT, 2001). This, of course, only applies as long as there are no major changes to the high school curriculum by MEXT. Our group's first book lasted 8 years. Our second book has just come out in a revised edition, and is likely to be affected by proposed educational reforms. Revisions can be cosmetic and not much work, or require almost a completely new textbook.
Advice on how to enter the field of MEXT textbook authoring
It is hoped that some of the information provided here, although it is mostly anecdotal, will be of interest to anyone considering co-authoring a high school textbook. The chief author of such a book is normally responsible for recruiting a group of co-authors. Therefore a good method of entry is to make yourself known to textbook authors. Incidentally, the chief author is always first on the list of authors given at the back of the book, and in the event of deciding to send in a sample of your materials, this would be the best person to send them to. Materials should be addressed to the chief author care of the publishing company. Some publishers actively approach people who are members of academic societies, publish articles in journals and are well-known in high school education circles in Japan. For native speakers, publishers are seeking people who can function reasonably well in Japanese, with considerable background in English language teaching and who are probably long-term residents of Japan.
It is important for people active in groups such as the JALT Material Writers SIG to involve themselves in MEXT-authorized textbook writing in Japan, which now includes elementary, as well as middle and high school. In doing so, authors can work with Japanese teachers of English, as well as Japanese publishers, and perhaps make a significant difference at grass roots level to English education in Japan.
Is the writing of a MEXT-authorized textbook worth the effort? On the whole, yes. However, the tasks involved are numerous and time-consuming: long meetings, a lot of work on the textbook itself and supplementary materials; not only writing one's own materials, but also checking that of others; proofreading, trips to recording studios and MEXT, and generally quite high levels of frustration. A MEXT-authorized textbook is certainly a useful addition to your CV, and is also likely to have some influence at a job interview, particularly when applying for employment at a high school. On the other hand, in applying for a university position, school textbooks are usually not included as an academic publication. Would it be better to spend the time writing research articles? Unless the work can be done very quickly, it is difficult to do both properly. With writing materials, there is a danger of it taking over one's whole life, so it is really necessary to try to strike a balance between research work and materials writing.
Bowles, M. (2001). Problems in treatment of vocabulary in approved junior high school Textbooks: Informing teachers.
ETJ Journal, 2 (2), 18-20.
McGroarty, M. & Taguchi, N. (2005). Evaluating the communicativeness of EFL textbooks for Japanese secondary schools.
In C. Holten & J. Frodesen (Eds.) The power of context in language teaching and learning. (pp. 211-224) Boston: Heinle & Heinle.
Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science, and Technology. (2001). Textbook Q and A.
Retrieved October 2, 2007 from http://www.mext.go.jp/a_menu/shotou/kyoukasho/010301.htm
Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology. (2007).
Formal Education: Elementary & Secondary Education: 3. Textbooks. Retrieved May 25, 2007 from
Sage, K. & Tanaka, N. (2006). So what are we listening for? A comparison of the English listening constructs in the
Japanese National Centre Test and TOEFL-iBT. In T. Newfields, I. Gledall, M. Kawate-Mierzejewska, Y. Ishida, M. Chapman, & P. Ross. (Eds.)
Authentic Communication: Proceedings of the 5th Annual JALT Pan-SIG Conference. May 13-14, 2006. Shizuoka, Japan:
Tokai University College of Marine Science. (p. 74 - 98). Retrieved Sept. 1, 2007 from http://www.jalt.org/pansig/2006/HTML/SageTanaka.htm