English Education in Japan Part II

High School to University

   In the last article, I discussed English education up until college admission and pointed out some problems—most notably how unbalanced assessments affect the ways young people study English and teachers teach the language.

   Here, I would like to mention the status of college education in our country. For better or for worse, college admission is the climax of many young people’s academic lives, and naturally, many college students study much less than they did in high school—partly because of the rebound from the hard work and partly because it is much easier to graduate from most colleges in Japan than in other countries. Some go so far as to say that the college years are four years of a moratorium period, where young people can heal the wounds from the battle of the entrance examination and prepare for another battle in their business life.

Many native speakers teach conversational skills in colleges, but most classes teach only basic English because many students have not received enough speaking education during high school. They also only receive one or two lessons a week, which is not enough to improve their speaking skills. The exception are those students who aim to study at colleges abroad. They take four-skills exams, such as the TOEFL iBT or IELTS. Some make tremendous efforts to get a good enough score in the speaking section, which the statistics show is the biggest weakness of Japanese students. Many others give up because they cannot get a good enough score. The gap between these four-skills tests and the Japanese college entrance examination is just too wide for most students to bridge. There is another problem associated with the commonly used TOEIC listening and reading test. The test was developed by ETS and can fairly assess listening and reading skills. ETS officially states that this test can assess learners’ listening and reading skills; its ratings range from level A1 to level C1. The perfect score is 990, and the median value is 500. The maximum score for the listening and reading parts is 495 points each. TOEIC, a globalized test which was suggested by a Japanese businessperson, started in the 1980s and spread across borders. In the 1980s, people still believed that they could assess speaking and writing skills with multiple-choice questions. Thus, the name of the test was not TOEIC Listening and Reading but simply TOEIC (Test of English for International Communication). Japanese companies snapped up this test because it could conveniently assess all employees’ English skills for personnel allocation. Companies started using the TOEIC to recruit new graduates. Nowadays, most companies require their candidates to have scores of around 700. As we all know, the world has moved on to four-skills assessment, and few experts believe that a two-skills multiple-choice test can assess overall English skills. However, many Japanese companies still embrace the myth. Of course, ETS has transformed the TOEIC into systems that assess four skills: listening, reading, speaking, and writing. ETS has also developed a more accessible version called TOEIC Bridge, which can test four English skills with accuracy. However, many Japanese companies still use only the TOEIC Listening and Reading test, putting their faith in the myth that it can assess overall English skills. Once again, this outdated belief is having huge negative repercussions for college students studying English—not to mention company employees. It is not unusual for college students here to start working at companies straight out of college. The job-hunting period begins as early as students’ third year of college. Although they are generally not serious about college studies, many students study seriously for the TOEIC listening and reading test because they must submit the results in many cases. Thus, many colleges offer their students TOEIC preparation classes because the companies their students enter are concerned with their evaluation. So here again, the vicious two-skill cycle continues before and after they enter companies. Combined with what I described in the first article, I hope this article can help you understand how big a quagmire Japan’s English education is. I believe the only solution to save students from this abyss is to change the assessment systems in classrooms, entrance examinations, and companies. I have been working toward this goal for many years, but the changes are very slow, reminding me of the Japanese expression “ishibasi wo tataite wataru.” It means “knocking on a strong stone bridge before crossing it,” metaphorically describing excessive cautiousness to resist change. Let us hope people will not be washed away by a flood of globalization while hesitating to cross the bridge.

日本の皆様へ

合衆国認定NPO ELT Societyでは、世界の教育者との情報交換の場、学びの場を日本の皆様にも提供しております。皆様の研究や学習に役立つウェビナーやコンテンツを引き続き提供して参りたいと思っております。英語評価に関する最新の情報を学びたい皆様は、ぜひ会員登録をお願いいたします。

 

安河内哲也

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