To communicate in English, TOEFL is vital: LDP panel

Focus urged on speaking, not the written word


Staff Writer

English-language education at public schools should shift in emphasis to verbal communications skills, and for that purpose, universities must adopt the Test of English as a Foreign Language for entrance exams, the head of the Liberal Democratic Party’s education reform panel said.

If the TOEFL is introduced in line with the panel’s proposal, it would drastically change public English-language education at junior high and high schools, Toshiaki Endo, head of the panel and a Lower House member from Yamagata Prefecture, said in a recent interview with The Japan Times.

The panel is currently putting together a policy recommendation on improving students’ academic standards, including their English. Once it is finalized, the LDP is expected to formally propose it to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in the near future.

“Efforts have been made for years to improve (English-language education at public schools), but little has been changed,” Endo said, arguing such schools have failed to teach students practical English and train them to communicate in the language.

If TOEFL, which includes speaking and listening comprehension tests, is introduced for university entrance exams, it would force all high schools to teach English in a way that enhances communication skills more so that students have a shot at higher TOEFL scores, Endo said.

“There’s no other way left to change (the current English teaching system in state schools). We need to set an attainment goal” for students to achieve high TOEFL scores, he said.

Abe and education minister Hakubun Shimomura basically support the panel’s draft proposal on the introduction of the TOEFL requirement for college entrance, according to Endo, who added he hopes such reform will be implemented within five or six years.

Endo and many other Japanese adults have been long frustrated with their poor verbal communications skills in English, blaming it mainly on the apparent shortcomings of language education in the state school system, where much of its emphasis has traditionally been placed on written English.

Most Japanese don’t need to use English either at their workplace or in institutions of higher education, one of the primary reasons often cited for the poor language skill levels.

According to Endo, the apparent failure of public education is the main reason Japanese people’s English communications skills are poor.

“I myself studied English at junior high and high schools for six years, and I might have acquired English as cultural knowledge. But English for practical purposes should come first, and communicating should be the real purpose” of learning the language, Endo said.

After Abe became LDP president in September, the party started studying measures to revitalize the economy to drag it out of a decades-old slump. The LDP swept December’s general election and took power later that month.

With the nation’s rapidly aging population already beginning to contract, Endo pointed out that Japanese companies need to further their advance into overseas markets to survive.

Training human resources able to adapt to the global environment is one of the keys for Japan to achieve future economic growth, he said.

According to a draft proposal by the LDP’s education revitalization implementation headquarters, students should be required to achieve a certain TOEFL score for both entering and graduating from universities. Those applying for administrative jobs with the central government should also have obtained a minimum TOEFL score, the draft said.

The Eiken (Test in Practical English Proficiency) has long been more widely accepted in Japan as proof of English ability instead of TOEFL, but Endo said the LDP panel believes the latter is more communication-oriented.

Thousands of U.S. and European universities select the TOEFL as their principal English-language test for foreign applicants, another reason the LDP is leaning toward the exam, Endo said.

According to draft proposal, the government will designate about 30 universities that will provide special English-language education programs, including student exchanges with overseas colleges. More than half of lectures at those universities should be conducted in English, according to the draft document.

These academic institutions will be eligible to receive financial support from the government.

The panel’s proposal also said the government should give all English teachers at schools and students who wish to become educators in the language the opportunity to study abroad to up their language skills.

In reality, however, budget constraints mean the government will find it difficult to give all teachers and students such opportunities even if the LDP proposal is adopted.

  • WithMalice

    “I myself studied English at junior high and high schools for six years, and I might have acquired English as cultural knowledge. But English for practical purposes should come first, and communicating should be the real purpose.”

    I really hope that this is the way English education one day heads in Japan… however I fear that there simply isn’t the infrastructure at the moment. The government needs to address the issue of having teachers teaching English who can’t use English as a communicative tool themselves.

  • JusenkyoGuide

    I’d have to see it to believe it. After so many, many times of hearing this just to see what comes down the pipe as vague directives that go nowhere and do nothing, plus no real changes to the entrance exams for both high school and junior high so that students and teachers both feel compelled to focus more on test taking and written memorization… I’m not hopeful.

  • This is an excellent idea, but I fear it might be putting the horse before the cart. I understand the idea of pushing for change, but you can’t do that from the top down. Unless you implement a plan that a. lengthens the time in schools that English is taught to include all elementary schools (the earlier kids learn to speak another language, the better), and b. ensures that teachers have the time and support to learn a new teaching method, all you will end up with is another excuse for jukus to rob parents blind. If the high school students taking the tests have not been educated in the TOEFL system, it hardly seems fair to be examining them in it. This needs to be a two-ended strategy, one that is implemented over time. Set a target for when such examinations will commence, and make sure that the children who are taking the tests have had enough support throughout their school career to give it their best shot.

    I completely agree that something needs to be done about the speaking aspects of English education in Japanese schools, but I see that a policy like this can either be the answer or be the cause of great stress for both kids and parents – or produce a collective high-five among the juku industry.

    • Mark Makino

      “the earlier kids learn to speak another language, the better” – why do you think so?

      • Jusco

        Because it’s easier for a young child to learn an additional language than it is for an adult. In general, around the time a person hits puberty, the linguistic plasticity of the brain solidifies and it become immeasurably more difficult to learn a foreign language. If kids in Japan start learning communicative English from the beginning of elementary school, and are encouraged to speak it often, they’ll have a drastically improved chance of actually being able speak English by the time they graduate high school.

      • That’s why Korean mums are sending their kids to learn the “3rd” language as the earlier the better. Kids don’t have time to hang out with their friends, study until late….. I started learning Japanese in college and studied hard and now I have no problem having conversation with Jap people. This whole idea of critical period theory has to be reconsidered.

      • Jusco

        I agree that it puts more and more pressure on kids, and that that may not be a good thing. But, the idea of a critical period is, essentially, a linguistic fact. I’m sure your Japanese is good, but is it native level? Maybe, maybe not. A Korean background will be far more helpful in speaking Japanese than English one would be. There are exceptions, but 99% of the time it’s impossible for a person to acquire native-level fluency after they’ve passed this early period in their life. Whether it’s pronunciation or grammar errors, something will almost always keep them from attaining native fluency. Does this mean we shouldn’t try and learn foreign languages? Of course not! As you’ve suggested, as long as you can have a conversation then it’s all good. It’s simply easier to acquire a foreign language when you’re young; that’s all I’m saying.

      • Mark Makino

        I asked because there’s no research supporting this assertion in EFL contexts. It’s especially questionable when the number of hours dedicated to the language is as low as 40 per year.

      • Jusco

        That’s the rub. If the kids aren’t actively using English outside of class, which is probably the case, then it’s unlikely that early exposure to English language learning will change much. If they really want kids to be fluent in English, then they should start teaching other classes in English, such as math or history. This would be a radical change in Japanese education, but it would give them exposure and motivation to speak English well. Perhaps certain schools could offer this. Or they should just quit pushing EFL in general and let kids learn whatever language they want. I think there’s a systemic problem in the way English is taught in Japan, and that minor changes like using TOEFL or introducing EFL in elementary school in a limited sense will do little to change the problems.

  • I met plenty of Japanese people with a high TOEFL scores who couldn’t converse in English. The intention is good but the TOEFL system seems broken.

    • Hanten

      Perhaps it’d be better if that read, “I HAVE met plenty of Japanese people…”
      Up to a quarter of the total potential score in TOEFL can come from speaking. It is possible for any school using this test as a requirement to specify that the students must have gotten at least 50% in the speaking section. Of course, even a student with a high overall mark, including a great section result, will not have perfect English. It would be foolish for anyone to expect a new test to magically transform Japan into a nation of perfect speakers of English. I currently help students pass all levels of EIKEN and it is a very poor indicator of verbal skills. It seems designed to produce robots.
      TOEFL, however, seems to be the most balanced test of communicaative English: an area that I have specialised in for more than 10 years. I, too, would love to see more Japanese people with strong English communication skills. The way the system works here seems to be “top-down” in that the universities decide or are told what is deemed to be acceptable. Then the high schools preparing the students trying to get into those universities teach to their “acceptable” levels. That cascades down to the middle schools educating the students wanting to study at those high schools, and so on. What else can a political party’s education reform panel do? They’re not teachers, nor are they school management. They appear to be solely designed to make decisions about university entrance and exit requirements, then to recommend that funding is applied to achieve the result they want.

      • Grant E


        “”I HAVE met plenty of Japanese people…” vs. “I met plenty of Japanese people …”

        Well that really depends on what they meant, doesn’t it?

      • Mark Makino

        I agree, I think people are confusing TOEFL with TOEIC.

    • very true. I have a lot of friends who have a very high score in TOEFL but are having trouble with their speaking.

  • Phillip

    Here’s an idea: drop the Assistant Language Teacher nonsense, and the money saved can be used to send Japanese Teachers of English overseas to get the English ability that they should already have.

    We don’t see Maths or Science teachers without the necessary skills and abilities to do their respective jobs.

    • Jusco

      I agree that the Japanese Teachers of English should have better English speaking skills, but simply sending them overseas to study English will not allow them to acquire native or near-native levels of English fluency. I don’t know if I’ve ever met a Japanese person who came to America as an adult and was able to get rid of their accent or avoid frequent grammar mistakes. It’s simply too difficult for an adult to acquire that level of English, in general. There’s no doubt that JTEs should have better English speaking skills, but ALTs will always have a place in ensuring that Japanese students can learn native-level spoken English.

  • Ian

    I meant a Japanese girl who majored in English in Japan and who told me she was going to teach English in Japan. The problem with her Japanese English degree was that I had to use a Japanese interperter to understand her. When I asked about this short coming she and her Japanese friends said, in Japan they teach you read and write English but ignore the verbal skills.

  • If Japanese public language situation were same as Singapore, it could be possible, I’d say.
    But, in current situation, it seems to take so long time to achieve it.

  • Alex Yong, B. L.

    I think that the new draft proposal may not
    really be effective in increasing communicative English or overall English
    proficiency among Japanese students.

    In order to improve communicative English, the focus should not only be on
    reforming educational institutions but also in emphasizing every day usage.

    Even if the students achieved the minimum TOEFL score to enter higher education
    or the civil service, without the continuous use of English in everyday life or
    work, the level of proficiency would only decrease and return back to its
    current state.

    I did my Master’s degree in one of the MEXT selected “Global 30”
    Project university and from my personal observation, many Japanese students
    tends to avoid lectures conducted in English language or by foreign professors.
    Once, I attended a lecture with only two students (Myself and another foreign
    student). I think taking such a similar step would be a waste of precious
    financial resource.

    There is a limit to how much can be achieve by only reforming educational
    institutions. Support infrastructure outside of educational institutions should
    also be in place to encourage continuous use of English in everyday life and

    I think there should be more collaboration or partnership between education
    institutions – government agencies – public and private corporations to assist
    in achieving the national goal of improving communicative English. Steps taken
    by corporations such as Rakuten Inc to improve its staff’s overall English
    proficiency could also be one of the methods to contribute towards achieving
    this goal and should be taken into serious consideration.

    The only way to improve communicative English is to use it in everyday life or
    work and not just restricted to only scoring in TOEFL exam or to only use it
    within the school compound.

    Lastly, I also agree with Willhemina Wahlin’s opinion on starting English
    language learning from elementary school. Kids tend to learn foreign language
    better when they start from a young age.

  • Mark Garrett

    There’s a really easy way to ensure that no matter what test the kids take their scores will increase. Teach English right alongside Japanese beginning in first grade of elementary school. Giving students yet another test to prepare for is ludicrous.
    English should be given the same importance as any of the other core subjects.

    The days of not needing English are gone. For better or worse, English is the international language and needs to be spoken by all.

    Wanna make it easier for children to handle acquiring two languages at the same time? How about doing away with all of the countless hours spent learning the stroke order of thousands of Kanji? What a complete waste of time! This is 2013. No one writes anymore! Honestly assess how much actual time you spend using a pen or pencil every day compared with 20 years ago and then look at where we will be in another 5 years. There’s no reason why it couldn’t be taught as an elective. Hiragana and Katakana? Sure. But Kanji? No way.

  • uniquelanguages

    It was the same old story when we were operating in Japan. Too much emphasis on grammar in schools with schools like ours having to actually teach genuine spoken English. Let’s hope these new proposals change things.

  • Don Hinkelman

    The problem with this article is that it does not say why TOEIC, IELTS, and Eiken are poorer than TOEFL. It smells like a bandwagon rather than some hard research. It may be simply change for change’s sake.

  • EQ

    The title should be “To communicate in English, teaching it and learning it the proper way is vital”. Without a solid teaching foundation to support it, TOEFL, while a good idea, will never meet its objective.

  • I think it’s very difficult to throw stones when it comes to second language education. More time on verbal skills, TOEFL test relevancy, educate the teachers, etc. These are all viable topics to discuss here, any of them might have a strong impact on the entire system. The truth is that very few countries understand what to teach and how to teach it. I have taught English for 7 years and have encountered a lot of English learners. However, none get a greater result for the time put in than the Scandinavians. 5 years of English at high school and some of them sound so native that they are thought to be native speakers. Time for everyone, not just Japan, to start thinking about second language education reform.
    I do truly agree with Hanten about the government not being teachers and that needs to be taken into consideration too.

  • Train the teachers first. That has always been the problem. Teachers cannot teach what they don’t know.

  • Sarah Morrigan

    It’s kind of interesting how the nationalist LDP government is pushing for TOEFL, a test devised and owned by a foreign business Educational Testing Service (ETS). TOEFL is problematic in a sense that it is heavily rigged towards American English, whereas Japan’s other neighbours such as Australia, New Zealand, Hong Kong, and Singapore all speak a variation of British English.

    Nonetheless, it is a step up from the Japanese-made Eiken exams, and TOEFL scores are far widely accepted than other standarised tests such as the Oxford and the UNATE.

  • donkeyslobber

    excellent posts. [please don’t write and tell me to use capital letters because as mark twain may once have said: ‘i just don’t give a damned, comrade.] i was a toefl writing rater for 3 years. nobody actually understands what toefl is unless you have rated the exams. with all due respect. re: japan, i have been a business english writing tutor for Big4 attorneys in tokyo for 5 years. so, believe me when i tell you that i know from whence i speak. [let’s all not be too critical about each other’s english skills if we are native speakers since it is essentially childish.] japanese people have a unique inability to pronounce the letter ‘l’. there. i said it. poof. no dragons have appeared yet. this simple reality inhibits speaking skill acquisition enormously. if you can’t pronounce the words in the language and trying to do so causes embarrassment, then you’re not off to a great start. more to the point, if the purpose of this effort by the japanese government is to improve international communications then they had best be advised that the vast majority of corporate communication globally is performed in the form of writing. oh yeah…i forgot. the japanese already ‘learned that’ in school and now they are ready to speak more. how is one supposed to speak well when they have not yet mastered basic english grammar and usage, i.e., that which is needed to write effectively? so, if they don’t speak well are we going to be surprised? MANY american graduates do not write well, and i am speaking about the yanks themselves. you can find the studies online if you care to. the fact that many overseas students who earn high toefl scores nonetheless can’t understand lectures is an indication NOT that more speaking skills are immediately required [and listening comprehension is another world entirely that only immersion abroad can offer in terms of understanding a university lecturer], but that the ‘basic’ english skills need to be mastered first. in this regard, i suspect that korean students read a lot more english language books as part of their education. reading books is how most of us learn to speak and write english correctly. and since toefl essays are the part of the exam that most people have unexpected problems with, then perhaps we should all ‘get real’ about this situation. yoroshiku.

  • It’s “vital”, relative to what alternative?

    Whether you can or can’t do something is determined by whether you can or can’t do something.

    Taking a test that features questions like “How do you throw a basketball through a hoop?” might reveal some really
    educated answers from individuals that know about human kinetics, and who also could not shoot a free throw to save their life. It’s the same for using English.

    “Thousands of U.S. and European universities select the TOEFL as their principal English-language test for foreign applicants.”

    And wouldn’t it be an interesting study to find out “why” that is — instead of treating it as some immovable and reasonless fact of nature?

  • Toolonggone

    It should be vital in terms of assessing student’s English proficiency as a diagnostic tool. Expecting that the test requirement will change the entire English curriculum and teaching practice in Japanese classroom is quite a wishful thinking. It won’t make any sense to mandate the TOEFL requirement while turning blind eyes to the problems with pre-existing exam system and conventional teaching method. These are the ones that hamper student’s learning progress in English. Calling for communicative teaching method alone didn’t lead schools to shift from grammar-translation method. Neither did implementation of listening test in National Center Exams. Teachers are taking away student’s opportunity for meaningful practice by wasting away their time on reading poorly organized textbook materials and repetitive drilling on words and grammar. Testing alone will only lead to more drilling practice which will far more deviate from what the government is looking for.

  • Hiromi Maeta

    I agree that we should do something to change for the goal of Japanese learning English, but I think TOEFL or TOEIC should not be the goal. Learning English is not only to acquire the skills of communication, but also to know how to select or implement the necessary information in a certain situation in this complicated informative society. In school, the students should also learn how to cooperate with peers to solve the problems or how to reach the goal during the classes. However, if TOEFL become their goal, some of the teachers or students may try to study for only getting the scores directly, though it is not the nearest way.

    Why don’t they see the process of learning? I think they should think of the process as well as the goal at the same time. We need the communicative test which we can take regularly and whose cost is low on the process of learning English.

  • If I may, I’d like to put my 2 yen in. I’ve taught Eikaiwa, and I’ve seen the Japanese ESL system, and I myself have studied Japanese since Junior High. From my point of view there are two main issues with the Japanese system: One, everything is separated. School is for grammar and reading, Eikaiwa is for speaking. That *might* work, if you’re a dedicated junior/high school student, but it’s not the best system. You’re learning one thing at school and a completely different thing at Juku. Two, there’s no real-world APPLICATION of English! Oh, sure, NHK has “Let’s Play in English!” (what a joke), but there’s no reasonable amount of actual application. Kids are reading about pollution on Mt. Fuji and stories about bottomless pits and when you ask them “Do you understand this?” they say “Eh, not really.” In Eikaiwa they’re spending 40 minutes practicing something useful, and then they (very often) never see it again. They need real-world exposure to English — TV shows that are *interesting*, or acting out their favorite movie scene in English, or just TALKING to people.