The Japanese government officially abandoned its plan to introduce private-sector English tests to measure “speaking and writing” ability in university entrance exams. The plan to revise entrance exams reached an impasse after eight years of discussion, and an alternate plan to boost English skills is a pressing need. Training English teachers and utilizing teaching assistants who can teach in English are possible solutions.
The expert panel for university entrance exam reform delivered an opinion to education minister Hagiuda Koichi on July 8. The Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT) had put off the introduction of private-sector English exams for 2021, but had left the panel to make a decision on introduction after 2025.
The panel concluded that it is “difficult to implement” [private-sector English exams], saying that such exams do not take sufficient measures to ensure fair grading and do not take economic disparities into account.
It is difficult to become fluent in English speaking and writing through learning English in school. The introduction of private-sector exams was aimed at improving students’ “speaking” and “writing” skills in addition to “reading” and “listening.” MEXT is searching for other ways to improve speaking and writing skills.
One plan is to incorporate study abroad in the curriculum of those studying to become English teachers. Hagiuda expressed his intent to review the teacher training curriculum by saying that “we must create an environment for learning practical English.”
Another plan which is expected to have immediate effects is to utilize teaching assistants who are proficient in foreign languages.
The Assistant Language Teacher (ALT) system deploys people whose native languages are not Japanese in classrooms to provide classroom assistance. Many boards of education post ALT in schools to teach correct pronunciation and to enhance international understanding.
There are 20,000 English ALTs across Japan. According to MEXT, over 70% of elementary schools utilize ALTs in over 50% of their language classes, while only 30% of middle schools and 10% of high schools do.
Keiai University Professor Kogo Hideaki, who has served as a MEXT curriculum specialist, says that “some middle school and high school teachers are reluctant to have ALTs in the classroom, putting forth the excuse that entrance exams focus on English reading and writing skills.”
Many tend to think that teaching speaking skills is not directly relevant to boosting their school’s track record of students going on to top tier schools, since speaking is not a component of entrance exams. In fact, high school English classes, with their increasingly technical content, are exactly those which need the assistance of native speakers.
Japan has a tendency to prioritize entrance exams. A student attending a major cram school in order to enter a top-tier middle school or university would attend three or four classes per week, whose cost may exceed one million yen per year. An enormous amount of money is paid to spend time in classes not directly relevant to global education.
Kogo says that a review of university entrance exams should be undertaken to emphasize “speaking and writing.” Kogo also said that the government should expand support more middle and high schools that would like to introduce ALTs to their classrooms.(Abridged)