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:
- The test results could provide further insight into the strengths and weaknesses of their current language ability.
- 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.)
- 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
Vocabulary and reading samples from EIKEN Grade Pre-1
Vocabulary and reading samples from EIKEN Grade 1
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!