The education ministry reported last month that high school English-proficiency scores fell far short of its goals. That report will come as no surprise to most people in Japan, but it is additional evidence that the English education system in Japan is still in desperate need of reform.
The test carried out last summer at 480 randomly selected public high schools found that third-year high school students’ English skills in listening, speaking, reading and writing were far below government targets. In each section, a majority of students scored at or below the equivalent of Grade 3 on the Eiken Test in Practical English Proficiency. The results were much lower than the government’s hope of having 50 percent of high school graduates scoring at Eiken Grade 2 or pre-2, the levels above Grade 3.
Students’ English proficiency was especially low on the more active, productive skills of speaking and writing. On the exam, 29.2 percent of students scored zero on the writing section and 13.3 percent also scored zero on the speaking portion. That is even more disappointing considering that only 20 percent of students even took the speaking portion at all. It is doubtful that the other 80 percent of students would have performed any better.
The difficulty with speaking and writing reveals once again that junior high and high schools continue to teach English to pass university entrance exams, instead of working toward students’ learning functioning and creative English. Speaking and writing skills require a lot of consistent practice to be acquired, even at lower levels. The students are not getting much practice in speaking and writing.
Speaking and writing must also be acquired in the context of realistic and useful content. It is easier to understand how grammar, listening and even reading can be learned through relatively passive methods with materials that have little or no serious content.
However, for students to really function in a language, they need active and regular practice in producing meaningful, content-filled communication. Communication that contains meaningful content connects language study with students’ innate curiosity and motivates them to keep learning.
The disappointing results show those conditions have yet to take hold in most public English classrooms.
Unsurprisingly, in a related survey of students’ attitudes toward English, nearly 60 percent said they did not like studying English. Students do not need to be entertained or to love English. If they are challenged in age- and level-appropriate ways, they will likely be less resistant.
Students’ receiving a zero in writing or speaking is evidence of tremendous resistance.
Surely such tests do not reveal all the learning that has taken place in classrooms. But if the tests indicate anything, it is that much more basic reform is needed in Japan’s English language classrooms.