But that number might not tell the whole story of why so many were at a loss for words.

In April, Japan’s Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology conducted its National Academic Ability and Educational Condition Survey, a test to measure the abilities of sixth-year elementary school students and third-year middle school students (equivalent to the ninth grade in the U.S. school system) in a variety of subjects. Though the tests are conducted every year, this was the first time since 2019 that middle school students were tested on their English abilities, and the results weren’t pretty.

The English test was divided into four skill sets: listening, reading, writing, and speaking. Students faired the best in listening, with an average score of 58.9 percent for that category. That might not sound like much, but when you consider that the middle school students’ average score on the math section of the test (which is written in Japanese, of course) was just 51.4 percent, 58.9 for English listening looks pretty good.

Unfortunately, it was downhill from there. For English listening, the average score was 51.7 percent and for English writing 24.1 percent. Then, way down at the bottom of the four English language skills came speaking, for which the average score was just 12.4 percent. Even more startling: 63.1 percent of the test takers got a zero for the English speaking section, failing to satisfactorily answer any of the five questions it contained.

“The format of the questions [in the speaking section] was complicated, and it was probably difficult for the students,” said a spokesperson from the ministry regarding the results.

Numerically, the speaking scores seem dismal, but there might very well be some truth to the idea that the format didn’t do the kids any favors. One of the speaking section questions involved having students listen to a native English speaker talk about differences in disposable plastic bag usage between shoppers in New Zealand and Japan, after which they were given 60 seconds to organize their own thoughts on the topic before having 30 seconds to express them in English. Other questions were also designed with first listening to an English passage and then formulating a response.

As any parent who’s asked their teenager “How was school today?” and been met with a minute of stony silence before an eventual “…fine…I guess…you know?”, 14/15-year-olds aren’t known for being particularly eloquent or loquacious when talking to someone outside their peer group. “You’ve got 60 seconds to digest what someone just told you about the environment and form a meaningful response that you can condense down into 30 seconds” is a tall order for teens even in their native language.

▼ I’d bet that under those parameters, even a few adults’ responses would end up as something like “Umm…trees good…I believe.”

By comparison, at least one of the English speaking questions in 2019 had a much simpler setup. Students were asked to imagine that they were being interviewed by a foreign news crew, and to describe a dream or goal they have for their future, and what they need to do to accomplish it. Sure, it’s a bigger topic than plastic bag usage, but it’s also something students are more likely to already have a personal answer for, and removing the necessity to come up with the answer itself on the spot arguably makes it a more accurate measure of a student’s English speaking abilities than combining that with a trial of their aptitude at quickly forming an opinion.

This year’s test was also the first time that the English speaking section of the test was conducted online, as opposed to face-to-face with testing staff. While humanity as a whole has gotten more accustomed to voice/video chat than ever before during the pandemic, for many people there’s still an added layer of awkwardness and stress compared to a face-to-face conversation, which likely had a negative impact on test takers’ scores.

The combination of a less complicated question format and face-to-face speaking the last time the test was conducted might explain why the average score for the English speaking section was 30.8 percent in 2019, still low, but more than double the 12.4 percent for 2023.

That said, scores dropped for all four skills in the English section of the test compared to 2019, especially when students had to express themselves. The average listening and reading scores fell by 9.4 and 4.5 percent, while writing and speaking plummeted 22.3 and 18.4 percent.

It’s possible that the decreases can be partly attributed to the effects of the pandemic. Isolation at home and remote learning are, generally, not the most conducive conditions for language acquisition, particularly self-expression. Motivation also likely sagged for many students, since it’s hard to get excited about learning a foreign language when international travel is shut down. Still, it looks like educators and policy makers are going to have a lot of work to do bringing those scores up by the next time students’ English abilities get tested.

Source: Jiji via Yahoo! Japan News via Jin, The Sankei News, The Japan News
Top image: Pakutaso
Insert images: Pakutaso (edited by SoraNews24), Pakutaso
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