Name sounds less confusing in Japanese, huh? Kinda like the New 3DS.
Japanese English Textbooks
I don’t think I’m making a wild claim when I say that many of the textbooks they use for Japanese junior high school EFL (English as a foreign language) classes aren’t amazing. Most schools use one of the big three published EFL books: New Horizon (33.8%), Sunshine (24.8%), and New Crown (24.2%). New Horizons actually had a greater market share around 2006 when almost 43% of schools used the textbook, and while they are still the leader, their popularity has fallen slightly.
While all three textbooks have their fair share of problems, I will defend New Horizons as the one with the least amount of problems. It tends to be the most clear, with the most natural English, even if there are occasional holes in places (“clam chowder in bread bowl” anyone?). I’m also biased in that I’ve used it for 3 years, while the others I’ve only flipped through to gather information about them.
In truth, the problem with most of the textbooks is not so much the textbook itself, but the teacher following the textbook to the letter. Using the textbook as a guide is fine, but it becomes a problem when the only activities and English practice is from the book. And then, when they deviate from the book, they do it to make a student write the same word twenty times.
The two solutions to this problem are:
1) Teacher education
2) Better teaching materials
Most teachers I talk to explain that their “skills development meetings” are boring and they try to sleep through them. They don’t seem to look at new ways of teaching. Experimenting can also be seen as rash, while nobody will complain when you follow the rules. Additionally, and perhaps most importantly, teachers often have to worry about club activities and other extracurriculars, and while they have to stay at work until late, from my observations, they don’t usually use that time to develop their skills. So, teacher education has a long road ahead of it.
On the material side, since teachers religiously follow the textbook, any changes will become new activities. There is no escaping them. This certainly pressures the textbook companies to come up with something good, since whatever they put in will be consumed, regardless of student want or need. But, if the materials are good enough, theoretically any teacher could be a good teacher.
With that in mind, how does the new New Horizon textbook hold up?
New Horizon, 2016 Edition
So, let’s look at the textbook itself. The one on the left is the old 2012 edition. The one on the right is the new 2016 edition.
Wow! So shiny! Not that it’s easy to tell from the picture, but trust me. The colors for grade two and three seem to have switched, and the art is a little more fantastical (the boats on the 3rd year book are flying through the sky), but the covers are the least of our improvements.
The books are roughly 20-30 pages longer. The textbook still isn’t a thick book like Genki might be for a Japanese learner, but it’s still a substantial boost of 15% or so to the length. I’m not trying to imply that a longer book is necessarily better—a shorter but more concise book can be great—but a longer book does usually include more English and more examples, which is very useful for students.
One potential problem of this approach is that the teachers I’ve encountered take roughly one class period for one page. This means they end the year with about one or two weeks of class to do with as they please. This book might be just long enough that they have no room to experiment. Though, given the way some teachers experiment, maybe that’s an improvement.
Inside, like the cover, the art is a huge upgrade.
While some of the art is still a throwback to the older books, and indeed there are sections of the textbook that remain almost unchanged, the new art is pleasant. Some of my students were flipping through the book just to see the art. Then, because they’re at some weird part of the textbook, they start reading. You could argue that simple art is better, as this one review of Genki argued. But I think the new art is an improvement.
One side effect of the new art is that some of my Japanese coworkers and students were saying the characters all look Japanese. Which is funny, because so many people in America think anime characters look white. I guess the only constant is that anime characters look like whoever happens to be watching.
If you look at the picture above, you might also notice how multicultural the new cast is. While the previous book had just Japanese students and an Australian and an American, the new cast has a Brazilian, a Canadian, and an Indian. Gotta say, I never expected I’d see the day when an Indian was a character in a Japanese textbook, but here were are, and I’m happy to see it.
Beyond those characters who come together for the conversations, another conversation section has a girl named Erika, whose father is a white American and whose mother is Japanese. Having a half-Japanese American girl talk about her life is a great way to bridge the gap and humanize some of the half-Japanese population in Japan. That’s not to say that half-Japanese children have historically been terribly treated in Japan, but they often aren’t considered “real Japanese”. Perhaps this book will help. Perhaps it won’t. But I think it’s a good effort.
On the grammar side, a lot of it is relatively unchanged. I think it’s better, but I don’t have any concrete examples to provide. One specific shift is that it assumes some exposure to English in elementary school. So, unlike the previous book, it doesn’t reteach some things that were learned in the past. In a junior high school where the elementary school English education was lacking, it could be a problem. But it wasn’t a problem here.
One big improvement: more emphasis has been put on speaking. Each book starts with a Unit 0 which has students make a presentation to the class. Some more of these projects are littered throughout. Creating the presentation has given my students a little more confidence. Can’t argue with that.
In general, there are a lot of minor upgrades. The dictionary at the back is easier to read. The aforementioned art. The choice of material. Having students debate the pros and cons of robots in daily life seems a much more relevant fit than the pros and cons of printed and electronic dictionaries.
The New Horizon Software
So, this doesn’t apply to everyone, but by far the biggest upgrade came with the New Horizon software for the classroom. As a school that has a TV screen in each room and tablets for every student, this new software is a huge bonus.
When reading the textbook, the software can read the line like a karaoke passage, with the word being highlighted as it’s pronounced. Grammar points can be explained in their own concise way. Words can be reviewed with ease.
Flashcards have been made digital and can be reviewed with many different settings. Random, of course. Pronouncing the English word while showing the Japanese equivalent. Changing how long the word stays up on screen. It’s not perfect, but it’s less cumbersome than the physical flashcards from before. I understand that losing physical flashcards might be a contentious point, but I think it’ll improve our efficiency.
My favorite feature of the software: the number of bonus features. Videos showing daily life and various other activities. Grammar explanations from the people who made the textbook. One video showed a typical American high school and I was surprised at how candid it was. It looked just like I remembered, good and bad.
After looking at the software for the first time, my teacher remarked, “Well, I guess they don’t need me anymore.” While I don’t think it’s at the level that it can replace a teacher, it’s a pretty nice piece of work.
Simply, I love the new textbook. It remains to be seen how effective it will be in its entirety, but for now, I’ve seen positive effects. Due to the lack of equipment at an underfunded school, I can see where this year’s textbook might only be a minor improvement. But with a school that can use the software, I think this upgrade will be very welcome and help the students reach closer to their potential.