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Tuesday, Feb. 7, 2006

Practical reasons for praising entrance exams


By TIM MURPHEY
Special to The Japan Times

On Saturday, Jan. 21, history was made. And I was a part of it by simply taking a 30-minute listening test. It was the first time that the unified university entrance exams, prepared by MEXT's National Center for University Entrance Examinations, had included listening comprehension. This may very well mark a new age in teaching English in Japanese schools in which more natural -- and practical -- language learning will take place, rather than simply eigo juken (exam-oriented English).

Said Masumi Narishima, an English teacher at Tokyo Metropolitan Mita High School: "The listening test will certainly change the way of teaching of some Japanese teachers of English who largely depend on the yakudoku method [translation method]. I think this was a great step for Japanese English education."

I was pleasantly surprised by the test. It would have been satisfactory even without the small, hand-held Integrated Circuit (IC) players (think cheaply designed iPods). The recording was slow at first, and it picked up speed and difficulty gradually to test a wide range of listening abilities.

However, it was obvious that the test was nerve-racking, not least to the six teachers and administrators in the room. They had to hand out the IC players and read all the instructions to the 100 students gathered in the room. Imagine giving 100 electronic toys to 100 adolescents and asking them only to touch the buttons you tell them to, when you tell them to, while you explain the procedure for 15 minutes.

Of the 1,381 students taking the listening exam at our school, Dokkyo University, only one student complained of a faulty player. Reports stated there were over 400 faulty IC players used by the 551,382 English listening test takers all over Japan. With 594 universities (440 private, 82 national and 72 local) holding the exam, that is less than one fault per school.

MEXT (the education ministry) has tried several reforms in recent years to "cultivate Japanese who can use English," the mantra issued in the ministry's 2002 reform. None have had much effect, mainly because high-school teachers see their main goal as helping students get into good universities by passing entrance exams. Without a listening component in the exams, teaching listening skills has largely remained off the curricula of high-school English classes. MEXT has finally realized that the most powerful way to change teaching methods is to change the examinations. It is hoped the ministry will require listening comprehension on all English university entrance exams in the future.

The test questions themselves were easy at first and were repeated twice -- all four-option, multiple-choice answers. None could have been answered without some listening ability and usually all the wrong answers could be heard in the passage at some stage as distractions. It appeared that all of the wrong answers were possible up to a point in each recording.

Best of all, these listening passages were contextualized. That meant students could not just apply grammatical rules but needed to be familiar with how language is used practically to convey a variety of meanings in context.

For example, one of the questions asked students to choose a drawing after listening to the following four-line exchange:

A: What would you like to order?

B: I'd like eggs with toast and sausage . . . Nope, sorry. I'd rather have bacon.

A: OK. And coffee?

B: Sure.

Question: What does B order? Students had to choose from drawings with plates of: 1) eggs, toast and bacon; 2) eggs, toast and sausage; 3) eggs, toast, bacon and coffee; and 4) eggs, toast, sausage and coffee.

The English listening portion amounted to 20 percent of the total English score (50 points out of a 250 total) on the unified entrance exam. My bet is that the listening part will be a better indicator of high-level students than the other components (mostly reading and grammar-vocabulary questions) of the test because it involves higher level contextualizing skills in addition to reading, grammar and vocabulary. If the National Center shares this data with the public, as most professional examiners do internationally, it should persuade high-school teachers to really "cultivate students who can use English."

I asked students on their way out how they found the test. "Bimyo! (Hard to say)" said a female student. "Nantonaku (I think I scraped through)" said another.

Another young man said, "Listening is hard," delighted to have produced some English. He then walked out of the examination room having been a part of history. I hope.

Tim Murphey is a professor at Dokkyo University, Saitama.


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