Teaching to the test not the right path

In his opinion piece on the disappointing Eiken test results, Walt Gardner offers up dubious advice (“Modify instruction to improve English skills” in the April 11 edition.)

He urges English teachers in Japan to teach to the test. That is, he proposes that English be taught not as a living language that is enriched by and enriches a unique literature but as a subject that’s reduced to standardized testing.

He justifies the use of standardized tests with a curious logic. “If valid inferences are to be drawn from any standardized test, including the Eiken,” he writes, “teachers need to design lessons that provide students with practice specifically geared to the knowledge and skills being evaluated.”

We should ask whether his “valid inferences” need to acknowledge the flaws of the Eiken test or, for that matter, any standardized test.

He tells us that the fault is not with the test: “It’s not the test but the instruction that is the likely cause of the lackluster outcomes.” But Gardner doesn’t know. He’s guessing. What’s at fault could be the instruction or the test. Or inadequate funding or motivation. Or a combination of several factors.

I’d like to suggest another approach: that English-language instruction undergo structural reform. If the government really wants to improve English-language skills, it should make English part of the country’s mental environment.

For example, NHK could broadcast news programs with English subtitles. If cooking shows had English subtitles, they might even find a hungry overseas audience.

The government could buy ad space on trains. The bilingual ads would carry quotations from British and American authors. One such ad might read: “Lilies that fester, smell far worse than weeds.” — William Shakespeare.

Not least, the government could make English-language proficiency a qualification for more types of government jobs.

Warren Iwasa
TOKYO

The opinions expressed in this letter to the editor are the writer’s own and do not necessarily reflect the policies of The Japan Times.