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My Bilingual Kids Are Formally Tested in Their Minority Language Ability for the First Time (And the Results Are Revealing)

UPDATE: Good news! My kids have officially passed their very first proficiency test in English, our minority language! And amazingly, their final scores—a combination of both the reading/writing test and the speaking test—were almost identical! My son’s score was 2445 and my daughter’s was 2439 (out of 2600 total points). Many thanks to you all for cheering them on! They had big smiles when they opened their large envelopes and found the certificates inside! :mrgreen:

EIKEN, Test in Practical English Proficiency

My son turns 12 in March and my daughter will be 15 in June. But until last month, they hadn’t been tested in any formal way to assess their ability in English, our minority language. So I signed them up to take the EIKEN test, which is a widely-used English test in Japan and is given several times a year in locations across the country.

The EIKEN test consists of seven “grades,” or levels: the lowest test level is Grade 5, then 4, then 3, then Pre-2, then 2, then Pre-1, and finally the highest test level, Grade 1. You can take the test of any level you choose (you don’t have to start at level 5 and work your way up), and ability at the higher levels is tested in two parts on two different days: the first part of the test assesses reading, writing, and listening; and the second part (but only if you pass that first part) is the test that assesses speaking.

Of course, I’ve long had my own estimate of their English ability, but I thought it would now be helpful, in these three ways, for them to begin challenging the higher EIKEN levels:

  1. The test results could provide further insight into the strengths and weaknesses of their current language ability.
  2. These tests would give us some new structure and goals for their language development. (Now that they’re getting older, and getting immersed even more deeply in their Japanese lives, it’s important for me to pursue concrete ways, that preferably have some continuity, to continue advancing their English side.)
  3. Passing test scores at the higher levels of the EIKEN test could potentially benefit them in the future when they seek to enter high schools and universities, or when they’re eventually looking for work.

The three highest test levels

Last year, with an eye on registering them for the first testing date in 2019, which took place in late January, I printed out samples of the three highest test levels from the EIKEN web site—levels 2, pre-1, and 1—and had them give these a try.

Since, in the past, I had helped a number of my students prepare to take various levels of this test, I already was pretty familiar with the range of difficulty and I was able to judge which level would be most appropriate for my own kids.

I say “level”—not “levels”—because Lulu and Roy, despite nearly a three-year gap in their ages, are now basically at the same level of general English ability. In a post I made in January 2018—My Bilingual Daughter Is 13. My Bilingual Son is 10. So Why Is Their Level in the Minority Language Basically the Same?—I explained the reasons why and stressed the point that Roy’s greater passion for books and reading has resulted in a greater quantity of input over a shorter amount of time. (Thus, doing your best to maximize your child’s “bookworm potential,” from early on, can have a hugely productive impact on his overall language proficiency through the years of childhood.)

After examining their sample tests, my sense of the appropriate test level for their current ability was confirmed: level 2 would be too easy; level 1 would be too hard; and level Pre-1 would be just about right.

To help you understand the sort of levels I’m talking about, here are vocabulary and reading samples from each of these levels.

Vocabulary and reading samples from EIKEN Grade 2

EIKEN Grade 2 vocabulary sample

EIKEN Grade 2 reading sample

Vocabulary and reading samples from EIKEN Grade Pre-1

EIKEN Grade Pre-1 vocabulary sample

EIKEN Grade Pre-1 reading sample

Vocabulary and reading samples from EIKEN Grade 1

EIKEN Grade 1 vocabulary sample

EIKEN Grade 1 reading sample

Results from the first part of the test

In the end, though, I didn’t register them for the level Pre-1 test; I signed them up for level 2. You see, even though I felt they could probably pass Pre-1, I wanted to ensure that their first experience of the EIKEN test would be a positive one, I wanted them to feel successful, and so I had them take the level 2 test instead. At the Pre-1 and 1 levels, it’s not only the difficulty of the material that poses a challenge; it’s also the fact that their youth is a disadvantage because their lack of life experience makes it even harder for them to comprehend the topics of the reading passages. (The vast majority of test-takers at the Pre-1 and 1 levels are older students and adults.)

The other day we received the results of their level 2 test in reading, writing, and listening. Their passing scores weren’t a surprise, but the results themselves were still quite revealing, in terms of their current language ability. The highlights:

  • Full marks for the test totaled 1950 points and the minimum for passing was 1520. Lulu earned 1789 points and Roy’s score was 1795—very nearly identical.
  • They both got a perfect score in the listening section. (Reading aloud to them each day, for years and years, surely helped!)
  • Roy’s score in the reading section was higher, but Lulu had more points in the writing section. (They had to write a short essay on the topic: “Some people say that playing sports helps children become better people. Do you agree with this opinion?”)
  • For both of them, though, the writing section produced their lowest scores. This didn’t surprise me—since our time for writing in English is so limited—but it’s still kind of frustrating. At this point, I don’t feel especially concerned about the ongoing development of their other English skills…but writing is a skill that requires a lot of practice on a regular basis. Without any formal schooling in this language, I’m afraid the practice they sorely need will continue to be insufficient and so my hope is that they’ll eventually have some opportunities to engage in high-level English in an academic setting. (While they do have English classes in their Japanese school, the level is very basic and the content can’t really stretch their ability.)

The second part of the test

This Sunday, then, is the second part of the test—the speaking part—and if they pass this, too, they’ll have passed the whole Grade 2 test. It shouldn’t be too difficult for them (reading a short passage aloud and answering a question, then narrating a three-panel illustration and responding to a couple of more questions), but I’ll practice with them on Saturday, so they’ll be familiar with the format.

The first test was held at a university on the outskirts of Hiroshima, which was a long drive for us. I haven’t yet checked where the second test will take place, but I’m hoping it will be a bit closer to home!

Please wish them luck! :mrgreen:

How about you? If it’s possible, would you like to have your kids formally tested in their minority language at some point?

10 Responses

  1. Good luck! I have been thinking about this a lot as my son is now school age. As he learns to read and write, it will be hard to keep up with both languages. Of course he can converse in either, but it’s hard to encourage both vocabulary growth and cultural literacy. You’ve done a great job with your kids so far!

    1. Thank you, Elizabeth. Yes, the literacy side of our bilingual aim can be a big challenge, but we can only continue doing our honest best, day by day. And if we stay proactive, and we persevere throughout the childhood years, they can indeed make a lot of satisfying progress over time.

      So I wish you all the best as your journey continues and…oh, Elizabeth, I just visited your blog and saw that you had surgery recently! It seems you’ve recovered well, but I’m sure that was a very tough time. Please take good care and have a healthy, happy year!

  2. Very interesting. How does this test fit into the Cambridge scale Cefr (European scale)? My daughter is also preparing for an English test (First). And in the last one also had lower scores in writing, so I’m curious to receive your suggestions on how to improve.

    Good luck for the rest of the test.

    1. Raffaela, hello! I hope you and your daughter are well!

      I’m afraid I’m not familiar with the Cambridge scale so I can’t really compare the tests. As for improving writing skills, I think there are two key aspects to this aim: the child should do as much reading (as a model of good writing) and as much actual writing as possible, on a continuous and long-term basis. The more these literacy activities are built into the child’s daily lifestyle, the more progress can potentially be made over time. My kids read in English every day, for around 15-20 minutes, and I also have them write in a journal at least 3 times a week (and I should really start pressing the importance of doing this even more often). The journal we’re using (and have used for the past couple of years, because it’s a big book with a lot of pages) is this one. I don’t like all the writing prompts it contains, and so I cross some out and just write in my own as well, but overall, it’s been a very good resource for us and it will one day be a wonderful keepsake of their childhood. (In fact, it’s 90% filled in now and they seem to enjoy re-reading what they’ve written earlier!)

  3. Thanks for sharing, Adam, and also for the test samples.
    Fingers crossed for the second part of the test!
    I’m very glad we have the possibility for my daughter to get formal schooling in her minority language.

    1. Mayken, thank you! We practiced a bit yesterday so I think they’ll do fine today (if they don’t freeze up from nervousness)!

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Welcome to Bilingual Monkeys!

I’m Adam Beck, the founder of this blog and The Bilingual Zoo, a lively worldwide forum for parents raising bilingual or multilingual kids. I’m also the author of the popular books Maximize Your Child’s Bilingual Ability and Bilingual Success Stories Around the World. I’ve been an educator and writer in this field for 25 years as well as the parent of two bilingual children, now 19 and 16. I hope my work can help empower the success of your bilingual journey.

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