Why Can’t Many Japanese University Freshmen Speak English?

Steve Urick (Education Development Center)

__As someone who makes his living teaching English to Japanese university students, I get a firsthand look at the results of English education in secondary schools here in Japan. Each spring I typically teach three freshman classes, and especially at the beginning of the semester I make an effort to interact with students as much as possible. I do this to ascertain the general proficiency level of the class, as well as to learn about individual students’ ability. While there are always a number of students who are comfortable speaking English, there is another group which is usually larger—the false beginners. These are students who may have good listening and reading ability, but struggle with even the simplest types of oral communication. Most would agree that it is regrettable that many students are unable to answer simple questions in English, even after having spent six or more years studying the language. With regard to changing this state of affairs, there is good news and bad news. The good news is that the biggest cause of the problem is clear—it is the content of university and high school entrance exams. The bad news is that getting these tests changed so as to have a positive influence on secondary education is an extremely difficult task.

__It is not difficult to understand how negative washback from university and high school entrance exams works. These tests almost always focus on measuring students’ grammatical and lexical knowledge, as well as reading and listening ability. Even if MEXT demands that high school English teachers use English as the method of instruction, or requires “communicative” texts or curricula, there is immense pressure on secondary school teachers to resist. Their job performance is evaluated in large part on their effectiveness in getting their students into certain high schools or universities. Since the exams their students will take emphasize rote learning, and neglect speaking or writing skills, can we reasonably expect teachers to make these areas a central part of their teaching? The answer, of course, is no.

__Unfortunately, solving the problem is a lot more difficult than identifying it. The largest obstacles to implementing exams that measure communicative ability are cost and time considerations. Measuring test-takers’ writing and speaking ability requires first training raters to produce reliable results. Given similar output from students, different raters must be able to produce the same scores. After reliable raters have been trained and communicative tests are implemented, extra time is needed for the test itself, and for scoring. Given the scale and current format of the National Center Test for University Admissions, for example, it is impossible to imagine a speaking component being added. It simply wouldn’t be feasible.

__Yet, there are possibilities for positive change. One option would be using a test run by a company such as ETS (which administers TOEFL and TOEIC) or the Eiken Foundation of Japan. Another partial solution would be measuring and certifying students’ English proficiency as part of graduation requirements for high school. This would require training high school teachers to be reliable raters, or more likely bringing in raters from outside, but at least the time constraints that are part of the Center Test could be avoided. Beyond what I have mentioned here, there are no doubt other ways of implementing change. While it is not certain which measures will ultimately be taken to reform the English education offered to students in Japanese junior high schools and high schools, two things are important at this point in time. People need to have a clear understanding of the current situation, and the momentum towards taking action needs to be increased.

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