English skills of Japanese students fail to meet government targets

JIJI

All four English skills — reading, listening, writing and speaking — of junior high and high school students in Japan have failed to meet the government’s targets.

Data released by the education ministry Tuesday showed that starting English lessons in elementary schools and classes taught in English has not produced major results so far.

The figures come from a survey conducted last June and July on around 90,000 students at about 500 public high schools and some 60,000 students in 600 public junior high schools. The participants were chosen at random.

The survey was conducted for the first time on students in their final year of junior high and the second time on students in their final year of high school.

Under the basic educational promotion plan, half of junior high school students across Japan are expected to have English proficiency equivalent to Grade 3 by fiscal 2017 in the popular Eiken English proficiency test when they graduate.

Similarly, half of high school students are supposed to have English proficiency equivalent to Grade 2 or Grade Pre-2 in the Eiken test by the time of graduation.

However, the proportion of students in their final year of junior high school who reached the targets was 26.1 percent for reading, 20.2 percent for listening, 43.2 percent for writing and 32.6 percent for speaking. In the writing category, 12.6 percent got a score of zero.

According to the survey, 56.1 percent of the junior high school students said they like English.

The students in their final year of junior high are the first generation in the country that received English classes when they were in elementary school. The hours of English classes and the number of English words taught in junior high school were also increased for them.

A ministry official said some teachers and experts noted that junior high school students are more willing to speak English.

Some 10 to 30 percent of high school seniors passed the targets. The proportion of those who surpassed the goals increased some 7 percentage points from the previous year for reading and writing and advanced some 5 points for listening. The rate for speaking skills was unchanged. The ratio of students who got no points for writing fell to 18 percent from 30 percent.

These high school students are the first generation to receive English education under the ministry’s new curriculum guidelines, which include the introduction of classes taught wholly in English.

A ministry official said their improvements came from the change of the English class system, but the scores were low and it can’t be said the change is achieving the desired results.

The survey found that 44.5 percent of final-year high school students like English, up some 3 points from the previous year.

Around 40 percent of junior high and high school teachers conducted integrated lessons of the four skills, including discussions on listening content.

The ministry official said the number of schools conducting English speech and discussions classes is still low. A lack of teachers’ skill is considered one factor and better training programs are needed, the official said.

  • Max Erimo

    And who is surprised. There is no link or consultation between the elementary school education curriculum and that of junior high school. Also the government pshes targets for communication while continue to foster an outdated exam system for high schools and university focused solely on test marks involving written exams. There is no longer any need for the juken system. There are not enough children to warrent it. Focus should be shifted to more important areas, such as making sure s5udents are actually learning.

    • budiamond

      Right? Recently I’ve seen an improvement in first grade junior high school students’ English when they’ve JUST entered junior high, but since there is literally no change in how English classes are taught (or what is taught) by the time they reach third grade they are literally no better at English than the third graders of five years ago.
      My first graders frequently out perform my third graders in basic spelling and especially in listening and speaking. Kids are coming from elementary to JHS and unlearning English, not improving.

  • Max Erimo

    And who is surprised. There is no link or consultation between the elementary school education curriculum and that of junior high school. Also the government pshes targets for communication while continue to foster an outdated exam system for high schools and university focused solely on test marks involving written exams. There is no longer any need for the juken system. There are not enough children to warrent it. Focus should be shifted to more important areas, such as making sure s5udents are actually learning.

  • Chris Clancy

    Gotta laugh. The vast majority of Japanese teachers of English at the 7 high schools I’ve taught at regularly over the past 2 1/2 years do not even come anywhere near teaching classes primarily in English. I work with teachers now who do not want to teach English in English! I’ve bemoaned the general lack of teachers’ skill for years. The best possible training program would be to get the bureaucrats in charge to open up to the idea of employing foreign English language teachers.

    • Kevin

      Totally – bring in the Philippines teachers.

    • Jay

      Japanese teachers refuse to cede control over curriculum, and continue to insist that their grammar-based approach–English in Japanese–is necessary . . . (for them to keep their jobs).

  • FunkyB

    As a side note, one other source of trouble is that many HS students can’t execute discussions, presentations or academic writing properly in Japanese either, because none of that is being taught. Since they can’t do these higher level activities in their native language, it’s next to impossible for them to do them well in English.

  • Ahojanen

    Better test schoolteachers as well, and fire them if they fail to meet the government-imposed target.

    • doninjapan

      Insanity prevails in the Japanese school system when it comes to English.
      Would you hire a math teacher who can’t do division? But schools the nation over have “English teachers” who can’t communicate in the language they’re supposedly teaching.

  • Oliver Raizon

    When will they realise throwing money at the JET Programme and other potentially worthwhile ventures will have no effect unless the way English is taught changes? Scrap the textbooks with out-of-context, uninspiring content and bring the English classroom into the 21st century with songs, videos, conversation, etc.!

    • doninjapan

      I know that this is going to be met with some resistance, but I see the JET program as part of the problem. Too often it’s used as a crutch, and is part of what is a very flawed system.

  • Toolonggone

    Government’s ELE policy is designed to fail. It is featured with lack of empirical evidence for achievement level, ambiguous goal-setting, poorly written textbook materials, over-reliance on standardized tests, total disregard of classroom environment(i.e distribution of resources, student-teacher ratio, etc.) and emotional stress for entrance exam. I couldn’t give them any grade other than an F.

  • TGM

    Meanwhile the vast majority of people in anglophone countries hardly speak any language except English. The answer is simple. English is simply not needed for most Japanese people. The education policy is rather a small factor to determine people’s English proficiency.
    Said that, IMO, “English” teachers without practically enough English abilities and the English teacher hiring practices, which do not prioritize applicant’s English level, are the big elephants in the room.

    • doninjapan

      Your first point: on an individual basis, I agree. However, as a nation – they absolutely do need to have more English speakers who can communicate successfully in a wide variety of situations, and that’s only going to happen when the education system addresses what you state in your second point.
      And on that, we agree completely. As I said earlier, who’d hire a math teacher who can’t teach division?

  • Buck

    I don`t see lack of teacher skills to be a major problem. Most teachers know the language fairly well and are good at explaining English grammar. Honestly, a major reason most students perform
    poorly is because there is no push factor, no stick and only carrots. In Japan, junior high schools cannot fail English. They are literally allowed to sleep all class or even read comics without penalty. Even if they get a zero in English class they will still continue to the next grade. They can literally graduate without learning a single word. If a student sleeps, reads, draws, or does whatever they want during the class, the teacher cannot punish them. Teachers in Japan are basically powerless to force students to pay attention. This when combined with the fact they can never fail, leads to many students not learning any English at all. Why is this never mentioned? I feel like I am the first commenter to point this out. Of course Japanese students are poor at English; they literally do not need to learn a single word to graduate.

  • Zargos

    Maybe if you let Teachers like me get the high school jobs instead of a Japanese person that often times doesn’t even speak English (yes, I have seen schools of students learning English from people that can’t even speak the language), then you wouldn’t have this problem. Instead those like me work at crappy companies that use us and pay low wages so they can get a fat profit and drop us if we get too pushy with fairness.

  • Zargos

    Maybe if you let Teachers like me get the high school jobs instead of a Japanese person that often times doesn’t even speak English (yes, I have seen schools of students learning English from people that can’t even speak the language), then you wouldn’t have this problem. Instead those like me work at crappy companies that use us and pay low wages so they can get a fat profit and drop us if we get too pushy with fairness.

  • Zargos

    Maybe if you let Teachers like me get the high school jobs instead of a Japanese person that often times doesn’t even speak English (yes, I have seen schools of students learning English from people that can’t even speak the language), then you wouldn’t have this problem. Instead those like me work at crappy companies that use us and pay low wages so they can get a fat profit and drop us if we get too pushy with fairness.