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Which English Test is Best Suited for Your Students? A Teacher’s Guide

To really help students improve their English, understanding the different tests and assessments is key.

By 8 min read

When I first started teaching here, I was amazed at just how many different English tests there seemed to be.

Sometimes, here in Japan it can seem like there are more tests than there are teachers, with no single, unifying standard to compare them all. Each different school has their own set of criteria and minimum standards. For English teachers, four main exams tend to come up the most: TOEIC, TOEFL, Eiken and IELTS.

These tests each have their own pros and cons for students in Japan. As a teacher, especially if you are working at an eikaiwa (English conversation school) or a private junior/senior high school, you will be asked, from time to time, to advise your students on which of these tests is best for them.

Let’s take a look at each of these tests individually as we weigh up the pros and cons.

1. TOEIC

The Test of English for International Communication (TOEIC) is perhaps the most laborious of the tests, with two different exam papers covering the four core skills of reading, listening, speaking and writing.

The listening and reading test is a separate paper from the speaking and writing test, which was only introduced in 2006. It comprises 200 multiple choice questions, with two hours given to complete the test.

The speaking and writing tests are administered separately, and unlike the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT), the test taker does not need to sit the speaking and writing test when they do the listening and reading test, or vice versa.

This is where, as a teacher, we are faced with a dilemma. On one hand the TOEIC test is widely accepted by Japanese employers as a sign of English proficiency in job candidates. However, the reality is that it often produces very uneven students who could be strong in one or two of the four core skills but severely lacking in the others.

… the TOEIC test is widely accepted by Japanese employers as a sign of English proficiency in job candidates.

If your student just needs the requisite certificate to get a job, but won’t actually be required to converse in English on a daily basis, then the TOEIC test is probably good for them. However, if they actually care about developing effective communication skills, then I wouldn’t recommend it.

Also, an additional note: While the TOEIC test is widely respected in Japan, its reputation abroad has been tarnished in recent years by a series of cheating scandals. Of these, probably the most notable occurred in 2014 when a number of students from India and the surrounding region were found to have obtained grades far in excess of their actual English ability via a rogue institute, where invigilators were being bribed to waive the usual rules for sitting written exams.

As a result, the test is no longer accepted as a measure of English ability when applying for a U.K. visa. Your students will need to bear this in mind if they want to study or work in the U.K. in the future. Of course, this whole episode has also negatively impacted the perception of the TOEIC in some other countries, too. However, it remains popular among Japanese employers and to date there have been no such instances of cheating reported in Japan.

2. TOEFL

The Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) is often compared and contrasted with the TOEIC test. Indeed, there are a number of crossovers, however it should be noted that the TOEFL is decidedly more America-centric, originally being devised in the 1960s as a means to test the English abilities of foreign students seeking entry to U.S. universities and colleges.

Unlike the paper-based TOEIC, the TOEFL is typically taken on a computer with answers entered directly into a program via keyboard and mouse rather than being handwritten via a test paper. Its sections are also shorter and more clearly defined.

While the TOEIC asks a total of 200 individual questions, the TOEFL requires students to listen to and read several passages, answering a series of questions on each one as they progress. The reading section takes about 60 to 80 minutes with the listening section taking up to 90 minutes.

The TOEFL is aimed more at students and is used as a measure of assessment for their university entry.

After a short break, students will then take a 20-minute speaking test, followed by a 50-minute writing task.

The TOEFL is aimed more at students and is used as a measure of assessment for their university entry. Because of that, TOEFL scores are only valid for two years. As TOEIC scores are often required mainly for job applicants in Japan, the test scores remain valid until the candidate takes the test again and achieves a higher score.

Make sure your student knows what score they will be required to get for the school or college they wish to attend before they start preparing for the test.

3. Eiken

While both the TOEIC and the TOEFL are widely recognized among both the corporate and academic sectors, the Nihon Eigo Kentei Kyokai, or the Eiken Foundation of Japan, produces the Jitsuyo Eigo Gino Kentei (Eiken) test. As such, this test is the only English proficiency test that carries the Japanese government seal of approval and is overseen by the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT).

Unlike TOEFL and TOEIC, which are aimed primarily at students university aged and above, many Eiken candidates are junior high school age — some even younger.

The grading system for Eiken is, in some ways, similar to the JLPT. There are a series of different test levels that candidates can take ranging from Grade 5 (complete beginner) up to Grade 1 (near native level).

From an English teacher’s perspective, the Eiken is a wide-reaching and easily accessible exam that’s administered four times per year. Students have ample opportunity and motivation to level up as they progress.

… the Eiken is a wide-reaching and easily accessible exam that’s administered four times per year.

However, the test does have some of the same fundamental flaws as the TOEIC and TOEFL. An over dependence on fixed answers, according to the examiner guides, can sometimes lead to students with a more developed vocabulary being penalized for going “off script.”

For example, last year a student of mine was penalized for answering a question like this: “On Wednesdays, I like to go for a walk with my dog.” The answer key gave the following answers as acceptable for maximum points: “On Wednesdays, I walk my dog.” Or “On Wednesdays, I take my dog for a walk.”

Common sense tells you that the answer my student gave is grammatically correct and means the same thing, but sadly — common sense isn’t a prerequisite to be an Eiken assessor!

Also, particularly in the lower levels, the test is less about language ability and more about memorizing and applying set answer patterns based on the dialogue they are given.

It’s a classic example of studying to pass a test rather than studying to actually develop an aptitude for the subject at hand. It has its uses, but unless your students are applying to an institution that specifically requests an Eiken grade, other tests will probably serve them better.

4. IELTS

The International English Language Testing System (IELTS) is perhaps the most multicultural of the exams mentioned here. It was developed as a three-way cooperative project between agencies in the U.K., Australia and New Zealand. However, American English does have an input too, with American accents accounting for around 20 percent of the listening component of the test.

Of all the tests covered here, IELTS is — in my opinion — the most practical. Each of the four core skills are individually assessed. Also, since the aforementioned scandals with the TOEIC test a few years ago, IELTS is now the only international English exam accepted for U.K. visa applications. This could, of course, change over the next few years, if and when Britain ever does actually leave the EU.

From the test-takers viewpoint, the IELTS is also far more streamlined with all four sections taking a little over 2 1/2 hours to complete. Also, with the speaking segment comprising a 12- to 14-minute conversation with a native speaker, there is room for students to show off their full vocabulary range and for assessors to apply “common sense” in grading.

No exam system is perfect, but it’s my opinion that the IELTS gives the fullest and fairest measure of a student’s true abilities. The major downside to it, however, is that it has yet to gain wide recognition in Japan and remains a distant fourth behind the other three exams mentioned in terms of popularity.

… the IELTS gives the fullest and fairest measure of a student’s true abilities.

Ultimately, the test you should encourage your students to study depends largely on their situation and their intended goals.

If they plan to stay in Japan and use English at work, then the TOEIC is probably their best bet.

If they wish to study abroad in the U.S. or work for an international firm where they will have to converse in English every day, then perhaps the TOEFL or the IELTS would be best suited for them.

For school students looking to dip their proverbial toes in the waters of English language testing, then the Eiken is a good way to start.

If your students truly care about becoming a strong, well-rounded communicator in English — be it for a personal, professional or academic purposes — then the IELTS test is the best all-round assessment available.

Of course, these are just my own thoughts so please feel free to contribute your own ideas on the pros and cons of each English language test in the comments section. Which one do you recommend and for who?

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Japan101: Teaching English

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