Chronic Reforms and the Crisis in English Education


English teaching in Japan’s schools has undergone major changes over the past three decades in a push to teach students “practical English.” In the run-up to the Tokyo Olympics in 2020, these reforms are gathering pace, as the government looks to develop what it calls “global human resources.” But there are fundamental problems at the heart of the thinking behind these reforms.

In this article, I will attempt to look at the reforms that have been introduced to give students command of more “practical” English over the past few decades, and to consider some of the reasons why these reforms have led to a crisis in the way the language is taught and tested in Japanese schools.

Government-Led Reforms and Changing Curriculum Guidelines

The shift came about in response to proposals made by the Ad-Hoc Council on Education convened by Prime Minister Nakasone Yasuhiro in 1984. The Council’s Second Report, issued in 1986, called for fundamental reforms in the way English was taught. Many of the changes that have taken place over the decades are the result of these government-led educational reforms.

In the decades since the report, MEXT has instituted a series of reforms designed to teach students “English that can be used for communication.” In 2003, for example, a government action plan was introduced to cultivate “Japanese people with English-speaking abilities.” Among other provisions, the plan increased the number of assistant language teachers (native speakers who work as teaching assistants in public schools), introduced a listening test for the first time in examinations run by the National Center for University Entrance Examinations, and made English compulsory in elementary schools. These comprehensive reforms came into effect over a period of five years.

The current Courses of Study stipulate one lesson a week of “foreign language activities” for children in the fifth and sixth grades of elementary school. The chief aim of these classes is to familiarize children with English through songs and games and prepare them for more formal study of the language later in junior high school. The guidelines also dictate that in senior high school, English classes should be conducted basically in English; both these guidelines require substantial work on the part of schools and teachers in the classroom.

But things are about to get harder still, following the announcement of the new national curriculum guidelines that will come into effect starting in spring 2020.

What Will Change After 2020?

There are several main changes in the new guidelines. First, in elementary school, the current requirements for students in the fifth and sixth grades to take part in English-language activities are brought forward to the third and fourth grades. Fifth- and sixth-grade students will take English as a full-fledged subject. So far, the main objective at this stage has been to familiarize children with English in a relaxed and fun way, forbidding elementary school educators to make an advanced start on the curriculum of junior-high-school English by starting to teach children spelling or writing.

But since English will now become an official part of the curriculum, there will have to be government-approved textbooks, and children will naturally be taught spelling and basic grammar. They will also be assessed and given grades. During the four years of elementary school, children will be expected to acquire a vocabulary of around 600 to 700 English words.

There will also be a change to the way English is taught in junior high school. No longer will classes be taught in Japanese: as in high school, English classes will be conducted in English as a basic rule. At the same time, there will be an increase in the number of words students are expected to master, from 1,200 words at present to between 1,600 and 1,800.

In high school, the standard of lessons will be pitched at a higher level, and students will be expected to master a vocabulary of around 2,500 words (compared to 1,800 now). At present, students are expected to learn approximately 3,000 words in junior and senior high schools combined. But when the new curriculum guidelines are implemented, students will be expected to master a vocabulary of between 4,000 and 5,000 words throughout their school years, from elementary school through the end of high school.

Private Testers Take Over Assessment

In 2012, the government published a strategy for cultivating what it calls “global human resources.” This strategy has had a profound impact on English education in schools, which is naturally a vital part of the government’s efforts to improve people’s English skills. Following this, in 2014, the government launched the Top Global University funding project, which aims to enhance the international compatibility and competitiveness of higher education in Japan. The reality is that universities are requiring students to attain certain scores in private tests, such as the TOEFL and TOEIC, in line with the application requirements for funding. And even at schools that were not selected for the program, English teachers are exhorted to do all they can to ensure that students achieve better results on these tests. A similar situation prevails at the secondary level, where efforts to boost students’ English skills were strongly urged in 2013 by MEXT in its “English Education Reform Plan Corresponding to Globalization.”

More important than these changes are the reforms currently underway in the university entrance examination system. It has been argued that making fundamental changes to the style and content of English teaching in high schools is almost impossible without commensurate changes to university entrance exams. Accordingly, the current tests organized by the National Center for University Entrance Examinations will be scrapped and new standardized university entrance exams will be introduced in their place starting in 2020.

The standardized exams for the national language, Japanese, and mathematics will include some writing elements in addition to the usual multiple-choice tests. In mock tests carried out in 2017, it was revealed that the grading of these tests was quite uneven. Numerous questions have been raised about the need to improve the accuracy of grading, as well as the necessity of hiring competent graders, the amount of time required for marking the tests, how grades are adjusted, and what is to be done about regrading.

One particularly worrying aspect of the reforms is the drastic decision to hand over responsibility for assessing the English language ability of university applicants to varying private testing companies. The official exams given by the National Center for University Entrance Examinations are designed to match the MEXT Courses of Study, but it was claimed that the present national exams only assess two student skills, namely reading and listening, and are inadequate to measure all four skills (reading, listening, writing, and speaking), particularly speaking.

Yet, it was maintained, since tens of thousands of students take the official university entrance examinations every year, assessing the “speaking ability” of so many candidates at once would pose insuperable practical difficulties to the National Center. Thus, the use of tests run by private testing companies was justified by MEXT. However, the hasty decision, made without public debate, ignored two fundamental problems: These private tests are not designed with the Course of Study curriculum guidelines in mind, and they were not designed to be used in university entrance examinations.

Initially, the national standardized exam and private tests will be used concurrently, but the plan is to switch to using only private tests after three years.

Problems on the Ground

Teachers and specialists have pointed to several shortcomings with this plan. For one thing, the 23 different kinds of tests offered by the seven private test makers have different objectives, content, and difficulty levels. They are held at different times in different locations, and charge different fees. These factors, critics say, make it impossible to guarantee impartiality and fairness, and mean that English teaching in schools would be focused solely on techniques to pass private tests.

The Japan Association of National Universities also expressed concerns about the plan, and the University of Tokyo initially announced that it would not use private tests in deciding whether to offer an applicant a place. But on March 30, 2018, JANU published their guidelines on the use of private tests, offering a choice: “The basic approach is that national universities will choose one of the following methods, or combine the two based on their own policy priorities: (1) set a certain score of private tests as an eligibility requirement for applicants; and (2) add the score of private tests to the score of the official standardized exam. The differences among the various private tests are to be standardized based on a reference table using six levels of the CEFR (Common European Framework of Reference for Languages), which many fear could lead to further confusion.

The CEFR is a comprehensive framework of reference for various languages in terms of language learning, teaching, and assessment. It was developed to reflect the philosophy of plurilingualism upheld by the Council of Europe. The CEFR provides elaborate grids of Can Do descriptors to qualitatively assess language ability, which can be used for self-assessment as well. The six CEFR levels are broadly defined as Basic User, Independent User, and Proficient User. According to some research, most Japanese learners of English fall in the category of Basic User.

MEXT has overlooked the fact that the CEFR was not designed for college entrance exams in Japan. As such, serious questions remain about the appropriateness of using it as a reference table for various kinds of private tests, let alone the validity and reliability of using their scores in screening college applicants.

At the end of April, the University of Tokyo announced a new admissions policy that differed from its previous stance. In this latest announcement, the university said it would set up an internal working group to consider concrete ways of making use of private tests. This change of direction has attracted considerable criticism both within and outside of the university—given that none of the problems associated with using private English tests have been resolved, this latest announcement is tantamount to saying that the university intends to go ahead no matter what the consequences might be. It has been reported that professors responsible for English language education at the University of Tokyo have asked the university president to reconsider the decision.

These instances of confusion stem from a fundamental fallacy in the way private tests have been introduced. Many people involved with English teaching and testing are seriously concerned. The first lot of students who will have to sit the tests as guinea pigs in 2020 are understandably apprehensive. Rather than rushing to meet an arbitrary deadline, the Japanese government should take the time to carry out a proper debate and discuss the issues carefully until it comes up with a decent solution—improve the official standardized exams to somehow accommodate the four skills, or leave the speaking skill to each university to work on.

Failing Reforms

The question I would like to pose now is what has been achieved with the 30 years of reforms in Japan’s English language pedagogy.

The government outlined targets for students of passing the Eiken (Test in Practical English Proficiency) Grade 3 by the last year of junior high school and the Eiken Grade Pre-2 by the final year of senior high school. The aim was that by the 2017 academic year, 50% of students in each age group would be hitting these targets. But the Ministry of Education’s annual survey on the state of English teaching for 2017 reveals that in fact only 40.7% of junior high school students and 39.3% of senior high school students were reaching these targets. In this survey, even students who had not taken the Eiken tests were considered to have “reached the target levels” if they had passed another private test or were considered to “have attained an equivalent level of competence” in the judgement of a teacher. This leaves room for considerable doubt about the accuracy of the figures. But in any case, it is at least clear that the targets are not being met.

The top level in the Eiken test is Grade 1, followed by Grade Pre-1. This is followed by Grade 2 and Grade Pre-2, described as a level of proficiency that allows a learner to “understand and use English on a level necessary for daily life.” Various phrases are used to describe this level: “daily conversation,” “everyday language,” and so on. But the important thing to note is that the language in question is not especially difficult. Even so, less than half of all students manage to reach even this relatively modest level. It is therefore hard to say that the reforms have been a resounding success.

Recently, there have been serious concerns about the low English skills of first-year university students. English faculty across universities are complaining that many students enter school without a good grounding in the basics, and lack the grammatical knowledge and vocabulary to understand the English texts they read. As a result, they cannot answer questions, and are incapable of writing or speaking. Some universities are obliged to offer remedial classes to help with students’ poor grasp of high-school English.

The “Communication Equals Conversation” Trap

It is a given that in learning a foreign language, all four skills are important. However, in order to speak English well, students need to have at least a basic grasp of the grammar. Without this, they will never be able to string words together in a way that makes sense. The situation can be compared to sports: If you don’t know the rules, you can’t take part. This understanding of grammar and vocabulary is cultivated and improved by reading, which is the basis for other skills. Based on reading competence, students acquire listening and writing skills, and through using these skills they learn to speak and express themselves.

For simple situations like shopping or ordering a meal, it may be enough simply to memorize a few set phrases. But to understand what someone is saying, and to express one’s own opinions logically and persuasively in response, requires much more. If students can’t read or write, they are unlikely to develop the more robust skills required to engage in any kind of meaningful communication.

Reading is the starting point and the foundation in learning and using a foreign language. The reforms carried out over the past few decades chose to neglect this basic foundation, focusing instead on the idea that “communication” is simply everyday conversation. We are now starting to see the disastrous results of this decision reflected in recent surveys on the English proficiency of our high school students.

Annual surveys on the state of English education in Japan started in 2013; the most recent survey was the fifth. If it were a company, and the results of a reform fell consistently below targets like this, the company would inevitably analyze the situation, try to identify the cause for the failure, and take steps to put the firm on a better course. Unfortunately, English education in Japan has continued to press on with the same path of reforms for nearly 30 years, despite the lack of any improvement in results.

The time has come to take a fresh look at the reforms that have been carried out since the 1990s and to think seriously about whether English education in Japan is really heading in the right direction.

Foreign Language Education as a Window to the World

Very soon, Japanese students will study English for 10 years from elementary to high school, or for 14 years if they go on to university. They are pressed to study a subject that may hold little interest, and repeatedly told that failure to master English will doom them to failure in later life. It is no wonder that so many students end up hating the subject. Students are good at different things: Some are good at English, others prefer sports. This is healthy and natural, and part of the diversity of society. And the ability to communicate in English or any other language is not something so simple that it can be measured by a score in a private test. Plenty of Japanese people have gone on to have successful careers all over the world despite poor English scores in school. Communication is a holistic human endeavor that goes beyond simple linguistic competence. If a person excels in something, whatever that is, and happens to be faced with the need to use English, she or he is bound to be motivated to study the language, eventually leading to a certain level of proficiency.

In the end, English is simply one foreign language among many, and it is wrong to give students the idea that their lives are as good as finished if they can’t do well in English in school. Learning a foreign language is a lifelong experience, and it opens a window to other cultures; understanding other languages and cultures can make our lives richer and more rewarding. In the case of English, its position as a de facto international lingua franca means that a knowledge of English opens a window onto the world.

It is my sincere hope that future generations will be allowed greater freedom and more flexibility to engage with a language that differs markedly in its characteristics from Japanese. I hope they will be encouraged to study English not simply as a way of passing a test, but as the key to understanding and communicating with other people and other cultures—ultimately, for intercultural communication.

(Originally published in Japanese on May 30, 2018. Banner photo © Pixta.)

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