BY WALT GARDNER / SPECIAL TO THE JAPAN TIMES
LOS ANGELES – The hand-wringing in the wake of the disappointing results of the survey of 12,850 public junior high and high school students about English education is understandable. Despite earnest efforts by teachers to meet the goals established by the education ministry, only 36.1 percent of third-year junior high school students scored at Grade 3 or higher on the Eiken Test in Practical English Proficiency. The test, which comprises seven levels, with Grade 5 being the lowest, is widely accepted as evidence of English-language ability. However, it’s not the test but the instruction that is the likely cause of the lackluster outcomes.
If valid inferences are to be drawn from any standardized test, including the Eiken, teachers need to design lessons that provide students with practice specifically geared to the knowledge and skills being evaluated. For example, practice in grammar and reading will not help very much with speaking and listening. It’s not that the former is not important, but it is not likely to transfer to the latter.
This appropriate practice principle is the single most important strategy for teachers of any subject. For English-language learning in particular, it is indispensable. That’s because so much of foreign-language acquisition is determined by what the ear hears. There are many people who can speak a foreign language but can’t write it, or vice versa.
It’s here that English-language teachers in Japan can learn from athletic coaches. The closer what transpires in the training room mimics what is likely to transpire on the playing field, the higher the likelihood of transfer. This is called specificity of training, and is the basis for all successful teams.
Contrary to popular belief, applying this principle to the classroom is not teaching to the test. Instead, it means teaching to the broad body of knowledge and skills that a test is designed to measure. For example, if English-language teachers in Japan want their students to be able to understand and use language concerning familiar, everyday topics (Grade 3) on the Eiken, it behooves them to provide their students with practice doing precisely that. Students will not know what topics they will be asked to understand and speak about on test day, but they will have developed the wherewithal to do so because of the focused practice. Moreover, they will feel less stressed because of what they have learned.
The difficult transition from elementary school to junior high school English education in Japan is quite predictable. Children in elementary school in all likelihood enjoyed learning English because the overwhelming emphasis was on speaking. When they entered junior high or high school, however, they were suddenly subjected to lessons stressing grammar and reading. Not only were they emotionally unprepared for the abrupt change, but they lacked the proper cognitive foundation for doing so.
Unless the principle of appropriate practice is introduced in classrooms in Japan, the English proficiency of students will show little improvement toward reaching the government’s 50 percent goal by the end of fiscal 2017. The challenge is to get teachers to buy into this proven approach. Tradition dies hard in education. But once teachers see the benefits for their students and the satisfaction they derive from their students’ success, the battle will be less daunting.