High school students struggle with speaking, writing English


The education ministry said Tuesday that students in their final year of high school largely fell short of government targets in English proficiency in a recent test and had particular difficulty with speaking and writing.

A related survey of the students’ attitudes found that nearly 60 percent do not like studying English, the ministry said.

The test, carried out between July and September last year at about 480 randomly chosen public high schools across the country, measured third-year students’ English skills in listening, speaking, reading and writing. About 70,000 students took the test, but only 17,000 took the speaking portion.

In each skill section a majority of students scored at or below the equivalent of Grade 3 in the Eiken Test in Practical English Proficiency, a widely administered English test carried out by a ministry-backed foundation — 87.2 percent for speaking, 86.5 percent for writing, 75.9 percent for listening and 72.7 percent for reading.

The results are significantly out of step with a government target aiming to have at least 50 percent of high school graduates holding an English proficiency of Eiken Grade 2 or pre-2, the next two levels above Grade 3.

Of the examinees, 29.2 percent scored zero on the writing section, and 13.3 percent scored zero on the speaking section.

Ministry officials said they want to remedy the situation by improving lessons.

In the accompanying attitude survey, 58.4 percent of students said they either do not like or do not particularly like studying English. Students who got lower scores in the proficiency test were more likely to say they dislike the subject.

  • GBR48

    To provide the best options both for individuals’ future employment prospects and for the national economy, the government probably need to implement a more flexible system, nationally.

    Find out early on which students have an aptitude for languages, and then offer English and Mandarin to fluency as widely as possible. English because it is the default global second language, Mandarin because Japan is going to be knee-deep in Chinese tourists and ex-pats over the coming decades.

    For those who are really going to struggle, offer a simplified ‘get-by’ course of words and phrase, much as tourists would learn Japanese words and phrases, to allow them to cope in employment situations where they will encounter English- and Mandarin-speaking customers. And then supplement this with free adult-education and evening classes, so that those who wish to extend their basic skills have the option to.

    This recognises that second-language acquisition is difficult and for some, impossible. Implement a system that offers the most benefit, to the most students.

    In general, a great deal depends on the quality of teaching and the enthusiasm of individual teachers, with coursework generating interest through inspiring content. Dumping a load of young foreigners who can’t speak Japanese into Japan’s classrooms is of limited value, beyond that of zoological specimens, particularly as they will have a range of confusing accents and may have no professional training as teachers. If not specifically trained to teach languages, they will offer a daily mish-mash of confusing idioms and slang, and do little to supplement coursework.

    If you want to teach a nation to speak another language in school, you need enthusiastic, fluently bilingual teachers and coursework that inspires students. Most European countries manage this. Even in the UK, which is notoriously monolingual, all language teachers are fluent in the languages they teach, typically equipped with degrees in the language and post-graduate teaching qualifications. I would hope the same is true in Japan.

    The language education thing has been dragging on for far too long in Japan. Given the government’s repeated willingness to throw public money at problems (something that does not happen in most of the West), this should have been fixed by now. Somebody with real competence needs to be placed in a position of power and authority and given the funds to sort this out.

    • Inter Idoru

      Your suggestion has some merit.

      Another consideration is: students go to a grammar/translation class 5 times a week. They diagram sentences, translate archaic English sentences in to Japanese ~ all in prep for entrance exams.

      They only have a conversation class once a week ~ and no times a week if their scheduled class falls on a national holiday or school event. Functional conversation, reading and writing for pleasure or life skills is not the focus. It is on “pass the uni entrance exam.”

      Until universities go to an entrance exam that tests functional speaking, functional reading/writing, the schools will continue to teach grammar terms, straight translation, and vocabulary memorization. And English skills will still not improve.

      • keratomileusis

        It’s true. No wonder kids hate English. And don’t forget the “unscramble the sentece” exercises. Useless! Can you imagine learning French or Spanish in this way? In spite of these pointless mental gymnastics, almost every adult student I meet misuses “will.” “I will go to a meeting at 12.” I guess it’s not only history books that need revision…

        Last point, the government has poured billions into the JET programme but is not using JETs to develop proficiency by having them evaluate productive skills using simple proficiency rubrics. Because productive skills are not tested, nobody cares.

  • What Japan really needs, as well as the U.S. and U.K., is to lessen the emphasis on the Grammar-Translation Method, or even ditch that method altogether, and instead focus more on Extensive Reading. Get students started with basic grammar, and then get them reading and listening to a wealth of English material as soon as possible, as well as practicing their writing and speaking skills. Get them to actually USE the language, instead of just having them answer questions in a textbook and memorize a list of vocabulary.

    And do whatever else those (non-UK) European schools are doing right, too.

    • Boey Kwan

      Agreed, and in case you’re interested, I heard a speculation a long time ago :)

      Apparently, one of the reasons students in the Japan education system begin their English classes in the 5th grade rather than at an early age, is that a long time ago the Japanese government and population were afraid that teaching little children English would take away from the kids’ Japanese proficiency skills.

      Their parents failed to realize that kids are smart enough to differentiate between two completely different languages, plus enrolling pre-school children in English classes like some Hong Kong parents do for their kids, improves literacy in both Cantonese and English.

  • Paul Johnny Lynn

    Agreed. hardly “news” at all, as anyone who is in, or has been in, the eigo business will attest. The problem could be fixed from tomorrow, but like so many other things, change is anathema.

  • fireaza .

    And it’s no wonder. Japanese students start learning English so late in their schooling and what they do learn is dry, difficult and scary. I’m an ALT in Japan, and I see a number of kids who are terrified of English from bad experiences when they first started learning.

    The good news is there an effort to fix this. As of this year, they have started teaching elementary age students. I’ve personally taught grades as young as 2 and 3. This means kids have more time to become accustomed to the language and they can take it nice and slow with the basics. We also make heavy use of games, which makes learning English much less intimidating and dare I say fun.

    I’ve seen elementary students radically improve their English abilities since the the beginning of the school year. Their abilities are higher than a lot of current junior high students in a lot of ways. And more importantly, the students are confident in their abilities and they like learning English. Hell, my grade 5 class was able to perform and entire play in English including two songs. And they had a blast doing it!

    Screw ability and comprehension, give the kids confidence and drive to learn at an early age and they will go far.

  • We provide English courses to schools in the Netherlands. These students are often demotivated, however we have successfully managed to break that circle and schools that were struggling with English are now doing well.

    If the government or individual schools would like to contact me, I can arrange that all Japanese students that have access to a good internet connection reach A1 before 11 years old.