STEP up to Help Students Pass the Eiken English Proficiency Test

On March 13, 2018

Junior high school students solving English problems.

Often as an English teacher in Japan, especially in the early days, you will hear all kinds of buzzwords, abbreviations and short forms being thrown around — TOEIC (Test of English for International Communication), TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) and IELTS (International English Language Testing System). Unless you studied for a teaching credential before coming here — which in all honesty the vast majority of new native-speaking English teachers haven’t — you’ll most likely be unsure what many of these points actually mean.

One such word that often came up in my case was “eiken.” If you work with junior or senior high school students and in some cases even older elementary students, then there’s a good chance you will be called upon to coach your students for this test at some point.

So what is the Eiken test and why is it so important to your students? Let’s dig a little deeper.

The Eiken Test in Practical English Proficiency is an exam that caters to all levels of study: from school students all the way up to English language teachers.. It’s often called the STEP Eiken in reference to the previous name of the Eiken Foundation — the Society for Testing English Proficiency

In some respects, it’s similar to the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT) although unlike the JLPT, which lacks a speaking component, the Eiken requires verbal answers — so it is stronger in this regard. However, it is still mostly about reading and response rather than spontaneous conversation and communication.

Having seen both exams in detail, my personal opinion is that the Eiken Test gives a more accurate measure of a student’s all-round language ability than the JLPT. It is, however, still a standardized test and as such, it has its flaws. I spoke with one of my Japanese colleagues who passed the level 1 Eiken a few years ago (the level needed for English teachers). She remarked that the test is especially useful for students seeking to enter into the more prestigious high schools or universities, as passing the higher-level tests will often grant students exemptions from the English portions of entrance tests and interviews.

On the downside, she feels (and I’m inclined to agree with her) that the test is poorly designed in some areas. It was her opinion that the test puts too strong a focus on memorizing specific speech patterns and responding to external stimuli rather than creatively using your own acquired English ability. She says the key to passing the Eiken lies in acquiring good test-taking technique rather than English language competence.

Like the JLPT, the Eiken begins at level 5, considered the easiest. Here is a breakdown of the different levels and how they correlate to English ability.

  • Grade 5
    Beginner, knows some basic English phrases and speech patterns.
  • Grade 4
    Beginner (advanced) similar to level 5 but with slightly more complex grammar and structure ability.
  • Grade 3
    Suitable for junior high school graduates. This is the level where most junior and senior high school ALTs will begin to have an involvement with the test.
  • Grade Pre-2
    Suitable for high school students. In much the same way as the N3 level bridges the difficulty gap between the old Level 3 and level 2 Japanese tests, the same goes for the pre-2 and pre-1 grades in Eiken.
  • Grade 2
    Suitable for high school graduates. This is where things start to get tough for the students.
  • Grade Pre-1
    Advanced level, seen as a benchmark for Japanese who wish to teach English professionally.
  • Grade 1:
    Expert level. Honestly, some of the questions and vocabulary to know for the Grade 1 are ridiculously obscure. Pass this, and you’ll probably have a wider vocabulary range than many native English speakers!

The test is held three times per year in Japan: January/February, June/July and October/November.

As outlined above, for junior and senior high school teachers, you will most likely be concerned with the level 3 and level pre-2 tests.

The test has two sections, taken one month apart. The first part deals with vocabulary, reading, listening and writing. In most cases, your Japanese Teachers of English (JTEs) will handle the preparation for this by themselves. However, for the speaking section, you may well be drafted into the lineup to help. This will probably require coming into school a little earlier than usual or staying a bit later than normal. It’s up to you to make the call as to whether this is acceptable for you or not. Personally, I have no problem with it. It’s only for a few weeks of the year and it could make a big difference to your students’ futures. It’s one of the few occasions where I believe a simple ALT really can make a big impact.

So, how can we help our students to best prepare?

It’s one of the few occasions where I believe a simple ALT really can make a big impact.

The official Eiken Website has downloadable test guides and sample materials to help you practice with your students. As I’ve outlined previously, my own view and that of my colleagues is that this test is more about learning the tricks of the trade than it is about improving overall English ability. There are certain question-and-answer patterns that repeat throughout the various grades. The best way to memorize these patterns is through continuous practice using as many different past papers and sample question cards as possible. You’ll very quickly notice the patterns as you go through a few different test papers. Familiarize yourself with these patterns and make sure the students know them, too.

Another big part of the test is confidence. If your students go into the exam feeling nervous, they will most likely under-perform — especially when it comes to the speaking section. When giving feedback, be careful when you point out student errors that you don’t come down on them too harshly. Also, you must emphasize to the students the importance of fluency. If they make a mistake, they must not dwell on it. They must keep moving forward with the test. I’ve spoken before about the problem of overcoming students’ natural shyness and reluctance to speak in Japan. It is not so much a problem specific to English study as it is a cultural one. In either case, it needs to be knocked aside to give your students the best possible chance of passing the test.

So, when you practice, don’t just focus on the questions. Take students through the whole test-taking experience. Have them wait outside until you call them in. Talk them through how to introduce themselves to the examiner, the manners and procedure to follow on the day of the test and how to project confidence, even if they themselves are nervous.

The Eiken is all about good preparation and confidence. As teachers, we can help our students with both. We can lead them to the door, but the students themselves are the ones who have to walk through it. It’s really about getting them confident enough to turn the handle.


Teacher, journalist and now blogger.

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