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March 1999 - Issue No. #34 (p.19)

Designing an EFL Content Curriculum:

Focus on World War II

by Robert Gettings

Hokusei Gakuen Womens' Junior College, Sapporo, Japan

Recently, content-based approaches to teaching English as a Foreign Language (EFL) have gained popularity (Brinton, Snow, & Wesche, 1989). How can we design culturally-relevant materials that increase English ability, consider the students' culture and address social studies "target" cultures?

Culturally-relevant curriculum design necessitates a different pedagogical approach to each classroom. Even for the same language and content goals, cultural relevance depends on the social relationships of class members. The same lesson can't be repeated in a class with a different cultural mix and still remain relevant. Each individual in the classroom has a unique identity, history of learning and experience. In every class, there can be differences of gender, age, race, ethnicity, culture or experience among students or between teacher and students. The teacher must take all this into account.

As a first step, the teacher must critically reflect on the cultural schemata / background knowledge that influence both teacher and student understandings of themselves, their world, and the content and pedagogical conduct of the lesson (Freire, 1970, hooks, 1994). With this as a base, the teacher can begin to design activities that facilitate deeper student understanding. This is especially important in teaching social studies themes.

Government approved social studies curricula and textbooks have a great influence on our students. In Japan, one strong image in popular culture and in government texts is the image that Japan is a peaceful country that was the victim of a terrible atomic bomb. How accurate is this image? One of the biggest debates in Japan over social studies texts in the last fifty years has been on the information included about World War II. One example of this is the debate over the inclusion of the story of the Japanese Army's atrocities in Nanking, China in 1937-38 (Hane, 1986). Chinese texts state that the Japanese massacred 300,000 civilians after the capture of Nanking. Japanese high school texts approved by the Ministry of Education and Culture have either little or no information regarding this story. One text has only a footnote stating vaguely that "many" Chinese were killed and that this "became a problem" after the war at the Tokyo Trials.

Should a teacher enter into this type of cultural debate? After critical reflection, I decided to teach a lesson on different perspectives of accounts of World War II - this was in 1996, during a controversy over US military bases in Okinawa. The controversy surfaced soon after the rape of a young girl by three US soldiers. The author, a middle-aged American male, was teaching young Japanese female college students. Differences of gender, age, race, culture and national historical identity separated students and teacher. The students' and my schemata relating to war, rape, China, Japan, the United States and pedagogical culture also varied.

My students began by reading samples of high school history textbooks from Japan, from six Asian countries (translated into Japanese) and from the United States. They compared passages from the texts that focused on the start of the war, the Nanking Massacre and the bombing of Hiroshima. They discussed the differences in the texts and the choices the writers had made in information and wording.

They also read stories related to non-combatants, especially women, and the war: high school volunteer nurses in the Battle of Okinawa, comfort women, and student inter-views of older local women who had lived during the war. At the end of the unit they were asked what they'd include if they were to write the history of the war. What would they include about women? About Japan and the US? Would they write a different story for college or elementary students?

How might this approach change if the teacher were a Chinese man teaching Japanese women in Okinawa? A Japanese-Canadian teaching college students in Beijing? The complex web of schemata and social identities that teacher and students contribute make each class unique. Culturally-relevant content-based social studies curricula must be adapted to each of these individual classrooms.


Brinton, D., Snow, M. and Wesche, M. (1989). Content-based second language instruction. New York: Newbury House.

Freire, P. (1970). Pedagogy of the oppressed. New York: Continuum.

Hane, M. (1986). Modern Japan: A historical survey. Oxford: Westview Press.

Hooks, b. (1994). Teaching to transgress: Education as the price of freedom. New York: Routledge.

See also this issue: References on teaching WW2

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Kip A. Cates, Tottori University, Koyama, Tottori City, JAPAN 680-8551
E-mail: Work Tel/Fax: 0857-31-5650