National

Japan's latest English-proficiency scores disappoint

by Mizuho Aoki

Staff Writer

The government’s plan to improve the English proficiency of students has yielded dismal results, according to the education ministry’s latest survey of junior high and high school students.

The fiscal 2016 survey on English education, released Wednesday, showed that 36.1 percent of Japan’s third-year junior high school students had achieved an English proficiency equivalent to Grade 3 or higher on the Eiken Test in Practical English Proficiency.

That’s down 0.5 point from the previous year and well below the government’s goal of 50 percent.

The survey in December covered 12,850 public junior high and high schools across the nation.

Among third-year high schoolers, 36.4 percent scored the equivalent of Grade Pre-2 or higher on the Eiken, up 2.1 points from the previous year but again far short of 50 percent.

The government’s aim is to reach the 50 percent goal by the end of fiscal 2017, but the prospect of doing so appears increasingly bleak.

The Eiken test is widely used as official certifications of English-language ability. The test comprises seven levels, with Grade 5 being the lowest.

In addition to students with Eiken certificates, the ministry’s survey also counts students judged by teachers as having equivalent English proficiency.

Students with Grade 3 are “expected to be able to understand and use language concerning familiar, everyday topics, such as likes and dislikes, and basic personal and family information,” according to the Eiken website.

Students with Grade Pre-2 should demonstrate the ability to understand and use English “at a level sufficient to allow them to take part in general aspects of daily life,” the website says.

The prefecture with the highest ratio of proficient high school students was Toyama at 47.3 percent, followed by Fukui at 44.8 percent.

Among junior high school students, Nara topped the list with 48 percent holding the equivalent of Grade 3 or higher, followed by Tokyo at 47.1 percent.

In recent years, the government has focused on improving English-language education to foster international talent. These efforts include the introduction in fiscal 2011 of foreign language activities to fifth- and sixth-graders. Judging from the performance of third-year junior high school students — the first cohorts taught English in elementary school — it hasn’t been going well.

Kensaku Yoshida, director of the center for language education and research at Sophia University, pointed out the rocky transition from elementary school to junior high school in terms of range of content.

English activities focus on speaking and listening, and levels vary greatly from school to school, he said. Since junior high schools bring in students from different elementary schools, teachers often have difficulty figuring out an appropriate starting point for all students and end up focusing on just grammar and reading instead.

“The transition from elementary school to junior high school English education hasn’t been going smoothly,” Yoshida said. “Even though students get used to the language and have fun learning it in elementary school, they grow to dislike studying it after entering junior high school.”

The hope is that the upcoming overhaul to the elementary school curricula will change the situation, he said.

From fiscal 2020, English will for the first time be taught as a regular subject from fifth grade. Reading and writing will be introduced under unified teaching guidelines so students can achieve the same proficiency by graduation regardless of which school they attend.

The other crucial factor for improving proficiency is to change the current reading- and grammar-oriented high school and university entrance exams, Yoshida said.

“Without changing those exams, teachers have no choice but to focus more on reading and grammar for the sake of their students,” Yoshida said.

The latest ministry survey also found that 62.2 percent of public high school teachers had an English proficiency equivalent to Eiken pre-1 or higher, up 4.9 points from the previous year.

The same ratio for public junior high school teachers also rose, hitting 32 percent compared with 30.2 percent the previous year.

While this is an improvement, the proficiency ratios for both groups remain well below the ministry’s target of 75 percent for high school and 50 percent for junior high school teachers by fiscal 2017.

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