Achievement Profile: Setsuko Toyama
Writing Materials to Help Teachers Engage Young Learners
Setsuko Toyama has been active in ESL/EFL in Japan for a number
of years. She is one of the premier authors of English textbooks
to help Japanese children learn American English. Ms. Toyama is
a tireless advocate of high-interest, content-based English
instruction, and is a frequent presenter at conferences, workshops
and displays. She prepared her answers to her ESL MiniConference
Online interview questions from the road, during an Oxford University
Press sponsored campaign to promote her new, six-level "English Time"
series for children. ESL MiniConference thanks Ms. Toyama for taking
the time to share her thoughtful insights and valuable time.
Some Setsuko Toyama links:
Oxford University Press Kids' Club Summer Camp (2002)
Events with Setsuko Toyama
(Oxford University Press Japan)
NEW English Time!, with Susan Rivers
Journeys Listening/Speaking 1, with Carl Adams (1997)
An ESL MiniConference Online interview
with Setsuko Toyama:
What is your main ESL activity now? What are your
principal projects, and what is on the back burner?
I am working on the last leg of my writing for English Time series, a
new 6-level-course from Oxford University Press. The levels 1and 2 were
launched last fall and I am now working on songs and chants for level 6.
I'm also writing a Japanese teacher's guide for an OUP Elementary School
Pack. This year quite a few public elementary schools are starting on
some English Program in the framework of "studies for international
understanding" and homeroom teachers are looking for ways to incorporate
English teaching in their curriculum. I believe the English Time wall
charts can be strong vehicles to teach practical and meaningful English
in natural contexts and show every day life of North American culture.
I am also running around the country (as well as overseas) to conduct
teacher training workshops. This year so far, I've done 20 workshops and
30 more to go. Sometimes, I get very tired physically but meeting
teachers in different places and working with them toward the same goal
of making English teaching more and more children-centered keeps me
going. I think I am one lucky person, getting to travel so much and
meeting so many people.
How did you start your ESL career? Who influenced
your decision? What were some important formative
experiences in the early stages of your development?
I didn't even major in English at university so when I started
teaching, I didn't know how to teach. Niigata JALT chapter kicked off
and I joined. I learned so much from every meeting. I've been going to
JALT annual conference since 1987. Yoko Matsuka "discovered" me and got
me to work as an instructor for her phonics seminars. It was wonderful
training on the job. Other people "discovered" me and asked me to work
on projects. I was so fortunate to be asked to work on adapting
Addison-Wesley Big Book Program to EFL environment in Japan. I wrote a
teacher's guide in Japanese and conducted workshops in many cities. The
teacher's guide is still doing well and using picture books in
children's classes is still the biggest interest for me. I believe
children learn most in a context.
When I started teaching, my English had French accent. (I majored in
comparative studies of cultures and my thesis, please don't ask me why,
was analysis of modern French theater.) Benay Lappe straightened my
pronunciation and showed me a great model of a teacher. I also learned
so much from Carolyn Graham's work and since I met her in person at
TESOL 1991, she has been a great mentor and friend.
Then I co-authored Journeys Listening/Speaking 1 for young adults with
Carl Adams. This was my first time to author in English and I realized I
truly wanted to work for false beginners more than anything else. The
series editor, Steven Brown, adequately said, "Beginning students have
brains and hearts. They live in an interesting world that they are
interested in." I bring this into teaching children but with Japanese
children, I'm aware that I have to work on expanding their interests to
Lesley Koustaff, whom I worked with on the SuperKids series, is a tireless
perfectionist has become a life-time friend. Being an editor for an EFL
project was like studying for masters degrees. You keep asking, "What am
I doing here? Why am I doing this?" all the time. It's all for the
learners. I've also worked on numerous projects for Japanese publishers
but working for ELT publishers was more demanding in that I had to keep
making my thoughts 100 % clear all the time both to the team and to
myself, while with the Japanese team a lot of efforts were made to make
the working process conflict-free.
What are the four or five language/culture backgrounds
with which you are most familiar as a teacher? Which
ones are you familiar with from the perspective of a
language learner yourself? What insights have you
gained in how to meet the needs of English learners
from these cultures and language backgrounds?
I was educated and trained totally in Japan. I learn languages more
easily than other people. My late father was in the trading business and he
brought American business associates to our home once in a while and I
was a bit accustomed to say something in English on those occasions. I
thought I'd have to speak English when I grew up, looking up at my
father as a model. I started studying English in junior high like
everyone else but the difference was I was able to use what I learned. I
also read a lot ever since I started reading. I'm talking about the late
60's so there were not many English books around. But I just wanted to
read English books like my father (he looked so cool!) so I got hold of
anything in English. I kept this all my life and sometimes I'm speaking
and using some words I don't know when and where I learned. I think I
internalized so much from my reading.
I'm aware that I am an exception so I try not to expect the same of my
students. However, I try to use my experience when I write materials and
plan lessons. Comprehensible input is crucial. Situational dialogs are
important and directly usable and make learners very confident.
I studied French and am studying Korean at this moment and I am
observing my process and try to use it in my teaching.
If you had to give three pieces of advice to a
new ESL teacher, what would they be?
1. Look at the students as they are. They are people before they are
your students. Respect their thoughts, culture, and feelings.
2. Know your own strength and weakness. A teacher himself/herself is a
resource. Try to know yourself better. How do you approach learning a
foreign language? Is that reflected in your teaching? If so, in what
3. Think of a teacher's role as an advanced learner who coordinates the
learning and lead the classroom activities and not as a "giver of
knowledge" from a step higher.
What do you see as the most important issues
facing the ESL/EFL teaching profession today?
I am not an academic and my answer may not be addressing the whole
field. I think teachers have to keep learning and developing. In Japan,
the opportunities for public school teachers to receive training are
limited. Teachers are burdened with miscellaneous tasks other than
brushing up on their skills and teaching methods and techniques. There's
still a lot of grammar-translation teaching going on. Teachers in
private sectors are not doing much better. There's a lot of
repeat-after-me going on. I hope more and more teachers keep training
themselves so they can conduct meaningful lessons that zero in to
Interviewed by Robb Scott
2002 ESL MiniConference Online