National

Nationwide test results highlight Japanese students' poor English speaking and writing skills

by Magdalena Osumi

Staff Writer

Third-year students in Japan’s junior high schools struggle with speaking and writing in English, according to the results of this year’s nationwide achievement test conducted by the education ministry.

The test, conducted each April for sixth-graders and third-year junior high school students across the nation, is aimed at gauging students’ basic knowledge of mathematics, Japanese and their ability to apply those skills to solve complex problems. Starting this year, the ministry included English in the assessment for junior high school students, in line with the government’s plan to improve students’ abilities in the language. The test results were disclosed Wednesday.

The English test gauged students’ speaking, listening, reading and writing skills.

The students attained an average score of 68.3 percent in the listening section and 56.2 percent in the reading section. But they scored only 46.4 percent in writing and 30.8 percent in speaking.

The speaking score was only provided as a reference because not all schools conducted that section of the English test.

In the speaking section, many students struggled with improvised speech on randomly chosen topics.

In the writing section, many students had difficulty using their vocabulary and grammar skills or struggled with writing coherently, the results showed.

For example, only 1.9 percent of students answered correctly when they were asked which of two pictographs best symbolizes a school and explain their decision in 25 or more words.

By region, students in Tokyo, Kanagawa and Fukui prefectures topped the list with an average performance in English for reading, listening and writing skills of 59.0 percent.

“The test results confirmed that students have poor communication skills — in both writing and in conversation. … And we take it as reaffirmation of what has been long deemed a problem in English teaching in Japanese schools,” said Takeshi Hayashi, an official in charge at the education ministry’s National Institute for Educational Policy Research.

But Hayashi has high hopes that such problems will be addressed with the introduction of a new curriculum for junior high schools beginning in 2021 in which more focus will be put on speaking and writing.

“We noticed that students performed better in all sections, including writing and speaking if they were given an opportunity to practice those skills through drills at school,” he said, pointing to the connection between the quality of school curricula and the students’ abilities. “I hope the results will serve as a reference for each school to what needs to be improved.”

In a survey conducted along with the English test, around 90 percent of students said they had reading, listening and writing drills at school. But with regards to speaking, while 81.1 percent of students said they practiced oral presentations, only 65.6 percent said they learned how to express their thoughts and deliver speeches without notes.

And only 63.9 percent of students said they practiced expressing their thoughts and opinions in writing.

Their responses showed that many junior high schools have yet to introduce a balanced curriculum that would enable students to develop reading, writing, listening and speaking abilities at the same time.

The survey indicated that students who had opportunities to use English to express their thoughts in classes had a better perception of learning the language compared to those who didn’t. Among those who had those opportunities, 47.5 percent said they liked learning English, while only 18.7 percent said so among those who didn’t.

Information from Kyodo added