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English skills of Japan's middle, high schoolers fall short of gov't target: survey

The Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology building in Tokyo's Chiyoda Ward (Mainichi)

TOKYO -- The English proficiency levels of junior high and senior high school students in Japan recorded in a survey in the 2021 academic year have again fallen short of the national government's goals, the education ministry said May 18.

    The Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology's survey examined the English ability of public junior high and high school students nationwide. A total of 47.0% of third-year junior high students had an English ability equivalent to at least Grade 3 certification in the "Eiken" Test in Practical English Proficiency, while 46.1% of third-year senior high schoolers had proficiency levels equivalent to Grade Pre-2 Eiken certification or above. Both groups failed to reach the Japanese government's target of 50%, which it aims to achieve by the academic year of 2022.

    When broken down by prefecture or ordinance-designated city, however, there were some cases where a rise in the language skills of instructors among other factors produced results, and significant differences were observed among local bodies.

    The survey was carried out in December 2021, targeting third-year students in all 9,252 public middle schools and 3,306 public senior high schools in Japan. The study for the previous academic year was canceled due to the spread of COVID-19.

    The government's "third basic plan for the promotion of education," which was confirmed by a Cabinet decision in 2018, outlines a plan to foster workers capable of performing on the global stage, and the Japanese government set a goal of having over 50% of students record an English ability of at least an A1 level on the six-tier Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR) scale, which is equivalent to Grade 3 Eiken certification, at the point they graduate junior high. The government also set a target of having at least half of graduating high school students score an A2 level or higher on the CEFR scale, which is equivalent to a Grade Pre-2 Eiken certification or above.

    The percentage of students who fulfilled the proficiency standards set by the government by either obtaining qualifications, including Eiken, or being assessed by teachers as having acquired the same level of proficiency, reached 47.0% for junior high students -- up 3.0 percentage points from the previous survey in the academic year of 2019 -- and 46.1% for senior high students -- up 2.5 points from the previous survey. While an upward trend has been observed since the survey's launch in the academic year of 2013, the government's target of 50% has never been reached.

    As for results by prefecture or ordinance-designated city, the city of Saitama saw the highest percentage of middle schoolers fulfilling the English ability goals (86.3%) for the second time in a row, followed by Fukui Prefecture (85.8%). In third place, nearly 20 percentage points behind, was the city of Fukuoka (66.0%). The difference between the city of Saitama and the local body with the lowest proportion of students meeting proficiency standards widened from 45.4 points in the previous survey to 54.4 points.

    The Saitama Municipal Government began offering English education from the first grade in elementary school in the academic year of 2016. It creates an integrated curriculum that covers the nine years of elementary and middle school education, and values the four skills of "listening," "speaking," "reading," and "writing" English.

    The Fukui Prefectural Government, meanwhile, has assigned assistant language teachers (ALT) to all schools, and maintains a high standard of English education through efforts such as activities of a voluntary research group to which all English teachers at public middle and high schools belong. The education ministry takes the view that such aspects led to the high achievements by Saitama and Fukui.

    The survey additionally examined the English ability of English teachers. For nationwide middle schools, 40.8% of English teachers had a B2 proficiency level on the CEFR scale (equivalent to Grade Pre-1 Eiken certification), or higher, while the proportion was 74.9% for high school teachers. By local body, Fukui Prefecture saw the highest proportions for both middle and high school teachers, at 64.8% and 96.9% respectively. The local bodies with the second greatest rate of qualifying instructors was the city of Hiroshima (62.0%) for middle schools, and Tottori Prefecture (96.0%) for high schools.

    The Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology commented, "Local municipalities and prefectures that have engaged in linguistic activities and efforts to enhance the English ability of instructors, even amid the coronavirus pandemic, have seen positive results, and we'd like to spread these favorable instances to other bodies."

    (Japanese original by Makoto Fukazu, Tokyo City News Department)

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