Testing English versus teaching it

The Liberal Democratic Party’s panel on education has announced it will propose that all students in Japan take the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) to enter and exit university. The new proposal also includes a requirement for all aspirants to central government positions to take the exam from fiscal 2015.

As part of efforts to improve the low level of English in Japan, the proposal, with a proposed ¥1 trillion budget, is directed toward a crucial issue for Japan’s future. However, the proposal offers no genuinely effective measures for improving the teaching and learning of English in Japan.

That need for better English in Japan is urgent. According to data from the Educational Testing Service (ETS), which makes and administers the TOEFL exam, out of 33 Asian countries in 2011, only Cambodia and Laos ranked lower than Japan. Those results are a national shame that holds Japan back from more fully engaging with an increasingly international world.

But Japan desperately needs to improve how English is taught, not how it is tested.

Imposing TOEFL as a crucial requirement for educational and professional advancement may only exacerbate current problems. Dropping another test onto the plate of overburdened students, teachers and administrators ignores the basic systematic and substantial changes that are needed to improve English education. Producing university graduates capable of working in international environments requires much more than upping test scores.

The proposal that all public and private universities designate minimum TOEFL scores for each department and only allow applicants who achieve those scores to take entrance examinations will shift the focus to English that is testable, quantifiable and publishable. Because the scores would vary between institutions, high English and low English schools would diverge, adding to the educational hierarchy. Setting minimum TOEFL scores for enrollment and graduation without the educational means to reach them will only worsen the “teach to the test” mentality.

The proposal did not specify how the ¥1 trillion budget would be spent. Most importantly, it did not address who would pay for all these TOEFL tests. Currently the official price for the exam is set at $225 per person.

Under the proposal, all students would need to take the exam at least twice, before being allowed to take entrance exams and before being allowed to graduate from university.

Adding those testing fees onto other entrance exam fees would be an unfair burden for many students. If the government is planning on paying for all that testing, it will not be spending money on teachers, resources or learning materials.

The greatly increased use of TOEFL will be a tremendous windfall for ETS, a private organization based in the United States that is registered as a nonprofit. Nonprofit or not, the global testing industry is large, global and highly profitable.

Both ETS and Japan’s cram school industry must already be preparing for an upsurge in TOEFL-takers.

The countries in Asia with the highest TOEFL scores do not use the exam in this proposed way. Instead, those countries emphasize communicative competence and active language acquisition from an early age.

The Asian countries with better English test scores support their English teachers with better resources, training and pay. Before Japan can hope to raise its students’ average score of 69 (on the Internet-based TOEFL for 2011) to Singapore’s average of 99, Malaysia’s 89, or even South Korea’s 82, it will need to make substantive and meaningful changes in its English education.

The four skills the TOEFL tests — speaking, listening, reading and writing — are basic to being competent in English. However, after the four-hour exam is finished, students need real-world skills to function in international contexts. Such exams do not test the ability to use English in presentations, response writing, or in-depth discussions. Nor do they address cultural awareness, self-confidence or other broader communicative skills. Those English skills are what students will need in the real world, but unfortunately they are not easy to test quantitatively.

To develop classes where students can learn more than test-taking skills, teachers need to have support to develop their own education, experience and training. The proposal mentions nothing about increasing spending on teachers, but in the long run, helping English teachers improve their English level and teaching methods would be the best initial investment.

Teachers need to know how to focus less on multiple-choice answers and more on English in living contexts, so that students can do the same.

Schools also need help and budgets to create English-rich environments where students can discover positive motivations to keep studying. The proposed ¥1 trillion would fund a lot of study excursions, engaging materials and online English exchange communities.

Developing lifelong learners of English, not just one-time test takers, will establish English as a core component of Japanese education and will produce workers capable of handling increased internationalization in the future.

Rather than herding students toward more testing, what is really needed is a proposal that supports and develops all the facets of learning effective, communicative English. The LDP proposal shows that the party seems to understand there is a problem, but it is far from finding the right solution.

  • kyushuphil

    Of all the native Japanese English teachers that I know — some several dozens — none travel, none read any of the great novels, essays, or poems, old or new, from English speaking countries. None appear in class — ever — eager to discuss the latest international films or music based on the international language, English.

    Somehow the Japanese colleges of education teach only non-curiosity. They teach only mechanically to follow the exercises in state textbooks all one more stupid than the other. They spend nearly all their time in English classes speaking only Japanese.

    Yes, this editorial wisely recommends emphasis on teaching over testing — a most droll, academic point, so long as the ed factories here keep pumping out the near-dead.

    • Masa Chekov

      I don’t know any Japanese people who do not travel. The cleaning ladies in my office travel internationally, even. I wouldn’t say many are good English speakers but to say they do not experience the world outside Japan seems silly. Certainly a MUCH higher percentage of Japanese people travel internationally and experience music, movies, etc in a foreign language than does, say, the average American.

      If you haven’t found Japanese people who want to discuss the latest foreign movie or music, I suggest you broaden your circle of friends.

      • kyushuphil

        My “circle of friends” includes many professionals in Tokyo, Osaka, and Kobe, as well as Kyushu.

        These professionals, all with ten years of English learning in Japanese schools, all feel great shame at the failure of this education to give them much English ability. Same goes for the many Japanese professionals I met in America, and in Europe, prior to my coming to Japan.

        Going to international conferences, and other business meetings, these Japanese can read a bit of English — that’s what ten years gave them — but are all crippled at speaking, writing, and listening.

        The average high school student in Europe has better English skills and motivation than the average Japanese teacher of English here in Japan. There are real, systemic problems here, realities unenlightened by your knowledge of cleaning ladies traveling in shepherded tour groups.

      • Masa Chekov

        Well Phil, I went to a scientific conference at a major university here last year. In this 2 day conference 90% of the presenters were Japanese graduate students and Japanese industry professionals. All of both the written presentations and talks (15-20m in length each) were in English. All were able to communicate just fine.

        Is that representative? Perhaps not. Nobody would argue that the average English skill of Japanese professionals is on par with even the rest of Asia, let alone Europe. But it’s ludicrous to say that no Japanese professionals can communicate in written and spoken English – it’s simply not true. In my field I constantly meet Japanese professionals who can communicate very well in English. So if you do not, I again kindly suggest you broaden your circle of friends.

      • kyushuphil

        Rest assured that all in the Japanese ministry of education feel your optimism.

        In their view, nothing needs to change. Nothing will change. And the good ol’ boys will go on drinking, ever cementing circles of friends quite along your own happiness & salute-the-status-quo scenario.

      • Masa Chekov

        What optimism? I am merely pointing out that there are many Japanese professionals with adequate to excellent English communication skills. I make no claims as to the quality of English education in Japan in general (which I know absolutely nothing about).

        But if it is obvious as you contend that the status quo for English education is inadequate – which may very well be the case, if English education is a priority (and I am not sure it should be, but that’s neither here nor there for this discussion) – it is equally obvious that not every Japanese professional’s English skill level is low (as you have contended). I could provide literally hundreds of counterexamples.

  • Ted O’Neill

    The same old canard about low TOEFL scores in Japan.

    Sample bias.

    Who takes TOEFL in Japan and who takes TOEFL in Kyrgyzstan? If you look at “The TOEFL Test and Score Data Summaries” at http://www.ets.org/s/toefl/pdf/94227_unlweb.pdf you will find that ETS does not give information about test takers: how many, purpose for taking the test, and preparation.

    ETS does not give those numbers there.

    A reasonable reader might guess that a larger percentage of the general population can afford to take the rather expensive TOEFL test in Japan; often because they are required to–not because they have any intention of actually studying abroad; and therefore the test takers are less well prepared than the smaller number of test takers in places like Laos, DPRK, Turkmenistan, or Uzbekistan.

    This plan would actually have the effect of *lowering* the national TOEFL score in Japan as every university-bound high school student takes TOEFL at the start of third year.

    Language education (not just English–Chinese, Korean, or Spanish anyone?) can be improved in Japan, but this initiative has nothing to do with that.

    Nice payday for ETS and their friends, though.

    • Hi Ted! :)

      Do you think that Japanese students should only study TOEFL if it is in their own professional interests, which seems to make sense. Mandatory study of a language seems disastrous to me, too.

      Do you have a solution, though, for how Japan can get its citizens to speak better English? Or do you think the gov’t should not be pushing for better English at all?

  • John L. Odom

    Adding to the test burden of already over-tested Japanese students is not helpful. English teachers should be rewarded for foreign study and experience. Many of the Japanese English teachers I have known can barely make themselves understood when speaking. They are speaking and teaching a peculiar Japanese dialect of English that cannot be understood in most of the English-speaking world. Provide opportunities for Japanese teachers of English to travel and enroll in schools in English speaking countries. Give them financial incentives to participate in such programs.

  • Andrew Livingston

    I disagree that what needs to change is how it’s taught not how it’s tested, though I agree this is the wrong direction.
    How English is taught depends entirely on how it’s tested. Teachers all teach to the test because that’s what is going to allow their students to be successful. Adding another test only exacerbates the problem further.
    We do need to change how English is tested, because proper changes in that area such as a much larger focus on verbal communication will allow a stronger shift to occur in how English is taught.

  • Hanten

    I feel the frustration of the editor here. I have taught English to students from all over the world and the Japanese students have generally been very sweet but terrible communicators. Sadly, when anyone is planning on spending a massive amount of money to improve any skill, exam results are a neccessary evil as they can give proof of the success or failure. Not just just of individual students but also of entire programs. There are many other tests that also test the four skills of reading, writing, listening and speaking. Of course, none of them are perfect tests but at least TOEFL now uses accents from several English speaking countries and students have to use each skill in combination with others.
    It would interesting to know the average TOEFL scores for the Japanese-born English teachers. Only rarely did I meet English teachers studying in English speaking countries to improve their skills and hardly any of them were from dear Japan. From the dozen or so – of experienced educators – I met, my hopes for English education in Japan were always set quite low. If the teachers can barely communicate what they had for breakfast what hope have they of preparing students for a life of being global citizen?
    Perhaps an obstacle course should be set. Japanese teachers using their English to negotiate their way through a maze. Like a foreign university. Understanding that should be enough proof that their English is up to standard.
    They’ve inherited a system that seems dysfunctional to the core. They’ve passed lots of exams by using textbooksand curriculums that native speakers laugh at and now they’re responsible for getting students to do the same.

  • 。。

    Katakana English is the largest impediment to learning the language in Japan because English-speaking people can NOT comprehend it. Other non-native speakers mispronounce English and can still be understood, but Katakana does not approximate the sounds closely enough to be recognised. What is needed is a system of vocal sounds to be added to Japanese, and a re-writing of the current “spelling” (pronunciation) of English words with closer attention paid to the actual sounds of of the words.

    • guest

      How about considering the huge amount of English words already in the Japanese language as a bridge to learning English rather than a barrier. Maybe research into lexical similarity can show that the differences between English source words and English loanwords in Japanese are not so great, especially with words of high frequency.

  • I was recently at home in Canada and talking with university teachers who repeatedly told me about foreign students who could get high enough scores on TOEFL to qualify to study at Canadian institutions, but once there were completely out of their depth. Having a high TOEFL score does not guarantee survival in an English-medium environment. I agree with the editor’s proposals for change. Forcing TOEFL tests will not solve the problem.

  • Marcel Durand

    Teach English the way it is spoken, orally no less.

    • Guy Takamatsu

      I agree. Maybe there could be “sister school” or “sister classroom” connections. Instead of “pen pals,” why not “video pals” or “Skype pals?”

  • disqus_5SsumOMi0c

    Three years in Japan, I know that Japanese are so good in English. I was surprised with presentation skills in English by Japanese students. Anyway, I love Japan

  • Christian Hermansen

    Regarding the government’s proposal I am puzzled as to why it wants to waste tax payers money this way. Why keep English as the bench mark for academic talent? How many university graduates does it anticipate pursuing an academic career overseas? Even if every single Japanese master English well enough for enrolling Oxford U. or Harvard U., what will be the benefit for this country? Will it make it easier to care for the growing number of elderly? Will Tohoku prosper? Will getting rid of the Katakana pronunciation – irritating as it is – improve the business moral or feed Japanese with locally produced food for the benefit of the global environment?

    If indeed the government finds it crucial to improve the English skills of the population, it should spend the money at an earlier stage than the university. And then eliminate English for the entrance examinations. The university students I teach have passed a rather difficult test of English, but are mostly very hesitant to speak when asked a simple question. Therefore, it would make more sense to bring them up to a communication level before getting into the university and there have them use English like they use Japanese, if relevant to their studies.

    Finally, if the government wants more students to study at overseas universities after graduation from the Japanese, why doesn’t make a scholarship fund for one-year language courses in the host country, be it South Africa, Venezuela, China, Russia or the US? Getting rid of “English as the academic language” may make it easier to reform English teaching at all the elementary levels.

  • Toolonggone

    So much for the idea of testing English abilities in Japanese assumption. This is getting tedious. The fact of the matter is NOT if TOEFL is appropriate measurement to assess student’s learning progress or not. It is what and how
    schools teach English as an academic subject as well as for the practice of communication in real life. Students who have substantial amount of academic education based on language instruction and training at elementary and/or secondary school should be able to get a hire score in the test because they are trained in a way to nurture their essential skills in communication to their fluency and eloquence. It is not vice versa. Boosting a test score through cramming for the exam only makes you a test-smart. It doesn’t make your English good, after all.