Hiroshige Yazawa, Yoshiaki Takeuchi and Hiroyuki Mochizuki / Yomiuri Shimbun Staff Writers
The following is the first of a two-part report on efforts that some higher educational institutions–mainly in the Kansai region–have been making to improve their English programs.
OSAKA–Launched in 1979, the Test of English for International Communication (TOEIC) has become one of the most popular proficiency tests of the language in Japan, with 1.72 million people taking it last year. Not only business entities, but also an increasing number of universities, have been using the test.
Mie University, for example, has been requiring all of its freshmen to enroll in a “Pre-TOEIC” course since 2005. To get credit for the course, a student must score no less than 400 points on the test.
TOEIC’s listening comprehension and reading test, which has been administered since its establishment, has a possible score of 990. A score of 400 points assumes a command of basic conversation.
“If you spend too much time on one question, you could end up not having enough time to score on easier ones,” a teacher told the 40 or so freshmen in the class. “You should always be aware of how much time you’re taking.”
Immediately after matriculation, the school’s freshmen are required to take the TOEIC to be placed in the appropriate course. They learn about the test format and recent trends ahead of retaking the test in January. By the end of their freshman year, they must earn at least 400 points.
“We can’t let up even for a second in this course, because we get quizzed every week,” said Hiroki Nagae, one of the 40 freshmen enrolled in the class. “But this course is worth the challenge.”
Seiki Ayano, the professor responsible for English education for the university’s freshmen and sophomores, says there are several advantages of including TOEIC in the English curriculum.
“The test enables students to get an objective assessment of their English skills, and it also serves as an indicator on how to study the language,” the professor says. “In addition, [good] TOEIC scores can be a big help during a job hunt.”
According to the Institute for International Business Communication (IIBC)–the administrator of TOEIC in Japan–during the 2008 academic year, 449 universities (about 60 percent of the nation’s higher educational institutions) used the test’s scores as a criteria for issuing credits to their students or giving students special treatment on entrance exams. The number of such institutions has increased by more than 100 since the 2002 academic year.
In addition, 82 institutions used it as a placement test for their English-language programs.
“TOEIC started as a way to evaluate whether test-takers had sufficient English skills to work in business,” an IIBC official says. “We didn’t expect the test would become so popular among universities, which traditionally focus on academic English.”
Hiroshima University, meanwhile, in 2003 began requiring all of its students to take the TOEIC four times over the first three years. Last year, the university–which foots the bill–shortened the requirement to only the first two years of school. During the period, the students are expected to have a score of at least 600, the level considered necessary for communicating in an overseas environment.
The target seems a bit ambitious, considering that the nation’s senior class averages about 500 on the test. Still, about 10 percent of the students reach the target every year.
The university, however, has found that the mandatory study has not always helped raise the overall level of English skills among its students.
Under the initial format, students got an average of around 440 points in the test they took at the end of their sophomore year, improving by about 20 points over the first test they took upon enrollment. However, the average score at the end of their junior year–during which English was no longer mandatory–fell to a score lower than the average of their first test.
“Students just don’t study as hard with electives,” says Prof. Hiroaki Maeda at the university’s Institute for Foreign Language Research and Education. “We need an approach that gets our students to really think about why they are studying English.”
Experts have described this introduction of TOEIC by universities as a shift from traditional translation-based approaches to one that focuses more on communication, such as speaking and listening comprehension.
Prof. Kenji Kitao of Doshisha University in Kyoto, however, says that while it is important for universities to foster communicative competence among their students, it should only be a technical aspect of its teaching.
“If teachers fail to encourage their students to better understand the language and culture they are studying,” he says, “I don’t think we can call it an academic education.”
Source: Daily Yomiuri (Oct. 15, 2009)