Testing children’s English ability

Japan’s obsession with testing is growing, according to new information from the Eiken Foundation of Japan. The foundation, which oversees one of Japan’s most oft-taken English exams, the Eiken, has reported that the number of primary school students taking the Eiken test in practical English proficiency has reached the highest number ever.

More than 200,000 primary school students sat for the exam in fiscal 2012, up 80 percent from 10 years ago.

The reasons why the foundation released the data by age group for the first time this year is unclear, but perhaps they would like to compete with the English exam currently being promoted by the Abe administration, the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL). In Japan, not only test-takers compete, but test-makers compete as well.

The competition for applicants, status and income in the massive testing industry has never been fiercer. The push for greater internationalization in universities and the workplace has unfortunately not resulted in improved English, but rather in more customers eager to display their English ability through such exams.

Now, students younger than ever are taking English exams. According to the new data, among the 2.32 million applicants for Eiken exams in fiscal 2012, 206,800 were primary school students. That included 2,410 five-year-olds, 4,200 six-year-olds and 7,516 seven-year olds. While that may be a tiny percentage of the roughly 6.8 million primary school students in Japan, it shows that a not-insignificant number of parents are deciding that their children need to display their English accomplishments in quantative measurements.

Taking exams is not necessarily harmful to learners, but when test results are overemphasized, motivation becomes misdirected. Students can mistake the language for a paper-based, correct-answer activity, rather than a real world communicative tool.

Over-emphasis of exam results at too young an age is neither productive nor helpful. It is one more way that learners pay a lot of money and get little in return.

Schools, teachers and parents should move away from the testing obsession. There is no good reason why 5-year-olds need to display their achievements through such exams. Instead, energy can be better focused on developing children’s positive attitudes, broader understanding and all-around language skills.

English should become a life skill, not a test number. The pressure on young children to be tested on yet one more part of their education does little to advance the long-term goals of producing workers and members of society who can function satisfctorily in English. Japan desperately needs people with such skills to remain competitive in the 21st century.

  • Sasori

    “How are you?”
    “Fine, thank you.”
    “See you.”
    In 10 years, this is all they will remember.
    So much youth, time and money wasted.
    They should just go to the movies.

    • Hanten

      Sasori, I teach kids English and at least half of my students are preparing for an EIKEN, TOEFL or TOEIC exam. My school is working hard to teach communication skills and these exams are a great tool for measuring them. Of course, they are not the only way to test how well students can make themselves understood nor are they a perfect method of determining how much a student understands.

      I agree that there’s a strong focus on the results of the exams in Japan and not enough effort being put into getting all of Japan’s English students speaking and listening to natural, communicative English. The younger they start to learn that using English is a great way to communicate with people from all over the world, the easy it will be for them to pick it up. Most importantly, the English teachers and the students need to have fun with it. When their skills are good enough, then they can go watch movies that are in English!

      • Sasori

        have you ever tried speaking with their parents? That is what I’m referring to, mostly.

        For the most part, I find that, after a certain age, the kids feel forced to learn English, and do so kicking and screaming (silently, of course).

        I’ve tried so many angles to get my ‘juniors’ engaged. Only the ones that went abroad for a brief period on an exchange, or something, have functional English and can engage.

      • sebby

        Absolutely. When I studied Japanese in university, I was hardly able to hold a conversation after two years of study. After coming back from exchange year in Osaka, I find myself to be near fluency because I managed to USE what I had learned as well as learn new things about the language and how to use it. The only way to improve is to use it and the problem with things like eiken is that you’re not really using it you’re just showing someone that you might be able to use it in a hypothetical situation.

  • Frank Thornton

    The test oriented approach here in Japan is very unfortunate. Sort of similar to the “There’s no need to travel abroad. I can learn everything I need to know using the internet.” kind of thinking. We all know Bruce Lee’s famous quote…

  • Roan Suda

    While I heartily agree that English should be a “life skill, not a test number,” I wonder just how “desperately” Japan needs large numbers of fluent speakers of any language other than Japanese. Much of English usage in Japan is strictly for decoration and self-promotion, with high eiken scores being a kind of intellectual Vuitton bag…Some years ago a huge and very expensive building was erected for the faculty at the university where I was a full professor. A high-sounding message was engraved on a plaque at the entrance in both Japanese and laughably mangled English. Clearly, no native speaker had been consulted. Why? Perhaps because the message was not intended to communicate anything. It was like a t-shirt slogan (“Beuatifor glass of erafant spinich aftanuun”). A committee had no doubt been set up, with the highest ranking and least competent professor given the honour of coming up with the nonsense that was ultimately approved.