Shijo-Saiaku no Eigo Seisaku (English Education in Chaos: Confusion and Dishonesty in Japanese Government Policy – “Four skills”—the misleading buzzword)
During the summer of 2017, a news headline read “Four skills to be introduced into university entrance exam!” Many people must have reacted with bemusement, thinking “Four skills? Which four skills?” or “What’s actually being changed?” Such a reaction is only natural, as the much-touted buzzword “four skills” is something of a will-o’-the-wisp; it is impossible to pin down. Yet under this very slogan, university entrance exams are set to undergo a major transformation, one that will profoundly affect countless individuals. In this book, I analyze Japan’s misguided educational administration and explore ways in which we can protect ourselves from this dark age in the history of education.
Advocates of the reform claim that the existing university entrance exam (the National Center Test) is inadequate in that it measures only two English language skills—reading and listening. They argue that we must now put more weight on testing speaking ability, and that we should therefore introduce tests developed by private-sector organizations, as these tests cover the four skills (reading, listening, speaking, writing). However, this is false publicity. You will not get a dramatic improvement in English proficiency just by splitting the test into four components. The advocates also point to the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR) and argue that Japan must get in step with this framework. What they fail to mention is that the four skills model is increasingly seen around the world as obsolete. Indeed, to quote from the horse’s mouth, the CEFR’s Companion Volume with New Descriptors states that the model has “increasingly proved inadequate to capture the complex reality of communication.” In other words, the four skills model has been misused—or possibly abused—in the defense of the reform. Insisting that the four skills be given equal weight is wrongheaded, and it is merely rhetoric intended to justify the use of tests provided by private-sector testing organizations.
Among those who attended the advisory panel or other committees involved in the reform’s consultation process, there were many who had vested interests, including members of the very same private-sector organizations who will be providing the tests. During the consultation process, the introduction of the private-sector tests was ramrodded into the policy without addressing the matter of whether the new tests will actually lead to an improvement in English abilities. The reform will not only widen the disparities among students’ abilities; it will fail to guarantee fair testing.
The one genuinely new feature of the new tests is that they will include a speaking section. Performance in such tests would be affected to a great extent by psychological factors, making it difficult to score them accurately. Moreover, many students will be at a disadvantage due to a disability or mental health issues of various kinds. I might add that there is no sign that such issues were ever addressed during the consultation process.
Some will argue that the reform is a response to the criticism that the current system of English education is flawed, but the question is: what made it flawed in the first place? The flaws are the result of the approach taken by the Ministry of Education, Science and Culture since the end of 1980s, in which it emphasized conversational English. Without ever reflecting on and learning lessons from this misstep, the government is heading down the very same path—this is the height of folly.
In the closing section of the book, I propose what I believe to be the proper way to learn English. In my view, students should focus on listening and steadily acclimatize themselves with the rhythm of spoken English. Instead of going overboard with obscure and fanciful methodologies, one should aim to hone the core essentials of English.
(Written by Masahiko Abe, Professor of Graduate School of Humanities and Sociology / 2018)