Why Reference Standards Matter in Japan

We’re all familiar with terms such as “beginner”, “intermediate” and “advanced” when discussing the classes and textbooks that we assign to students. Less clear is how these terms describe, specifically, the current capabilities of our students or how they help us understand what we need to teach to equip our students with a more advanced set of capabilities.

In Japan, the government has decided to change the university entrance exam to include productive skills and to bring the mandatory teaching of English down to Grade 5 – both effective from 2020. The goal is for 50% of students to be at A2+ ~ B1 in all 4 skills by the time they leave high school. These are more realistic expectations than some other countries but are nonetheless a challenge given the current teaching context and awareness of what such standards mean.

We sat down with Jacqueline Martin to discuss standards and scores, the Global Scale of English, and how that fits with local standards such as Eiken and CEFR-J.


Q:
Why do we need reference standards to measure student progress?
Jacqueline Martin:
Without them it’s very difficult to understand what students should be expected to do at a certain level or what we should be teaching to help them reach a higher level. It may be the case that teachers in a particular school have a sense of level amongst their students but that sense of level may not travel well. For textbook authors and teachers who create learning materials they need a clear, granular, guide to what to needs to be learnt at any particular stage for a specified type of student.

Q:
Why are global standards important?
Jacqueline Martin:
As global mobility for work and study increases employers and educational institutions are asking for clear, reliable standards to help them with recruitment and admissions. And applicants want to be sure that the credentials they’ve worked so hard to get are recognized globally.

Q:
So surely the CEFR is what we need to look at?
Jacqueline Martin:
The CEFR was a huge step forward and a great achievement – but it was limited in that it applied to general English for adults and was framed in a European context. It was also rather imbalanced, in terms of the spread of objectives across levels and skills, especially at the top and bottom ends of the scale, and not easy to break down and use for teaching purposes. Its authors expected it to be built upon and improved.

Q:
Which, I assume, is where the Global Scale of English comes in?
Jacqueline Martin:
Yes, the GSE provides an extended set of CEFR descriptors that are more granular, that is, they give a much better insight into what students can do, and the GSE better addresses the imbalance that existed in the number of descriptors across skills and levels. It also takes into account how competence needs may differ across contexts – the differences in what you need to know if you’re a young learner, academic student or business person.

Q:
How does this fit with local standards such as EIKEN?
Jacqueline Martin:
We know that for optimal learning students need to link learning objectives to their personal context and experience — it has to be relevant and meaningful to them. Needs and cultural experiences are different globally and learners will find it easier to learn when learning experiences are adjusted and contextualised for their situation. Local standards do this.

Q:
But do local and global standards align?
Jacqueline Martin:
They do. Our studies have shown that there is a high degree of alignment in terms of what students need to know and be able to do in a language. This means that, in Japan for example, the huge EIKEN test can be usefully aligned to GSE. Our studies have shown that GSE descriptors can inform planning, teaching and assessment activities when used with local descriptors and core materials as they are aligned to the same scale.

Q:
That’s convenient.
Jacqueline Martin:
There is some work required to make sure this alignment works. The core learning objective should remain similar but the context in which they're presented and the opportunities for practice should be personalised to the experiences of students in that country. Making sure that the core learning objectives are not lost is hugely important and so we follow consistent guidelines as to how objectives should be localized. O’Sullivan and Dunlea have made a table of the degree to which tests can be localized without losing the original level, which we believe to be useful. In Japan Professor Tono has provided a great model for how localisation can (and should) be standardised when translated so that meaning isn’t lost.

Q:
So in the case of Japan, what’s the state of play in terms of aligning GSE with local standards?
Jacqueline Martin:
We’re continuing to share and evaluate descriptors to ensure both GSE and local standards are globally relevant and comparable — not only for speaking listening, reading and writing but also for vocabulary and grammar. We’re also working with teachers and researchers locally to confirm best practices around creating learning and assessment tasks aligned to the GSE descriptors. Finally we’re aligning materials and assessments to both local standards and CEFR/GSE.


About Jaqueline Martin


Jacqueline Martin has a BA in Psychology and Education, a PGCE in Primary Teaching and a CELTA qualification. After university she was a UK primary teacher and Adult English teacher. She has worked in Primary ELT publishing for 17 years, firstly at Oxford University Press and then at Pearson, initially in editorial and then in strategic roles including Publishing Director for Primary. In January 2017 she joined the Global Scale of English team at Pearson and has been leading on the development of standards and tools for Teachers of Young Learners and advising on curriculum development. She has visited, researched, commissioned and published courses for more than 20 markets globally including Japan.


Related links


There’s more information about the GSE’s Learning Objectives (Can-Do Statements) for Japan here: http://www.pearson.co.jp/en/company/gse/ecosystem/#objectives