5 Jun 2017, 6:21pm
STEP Eiken tests
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Changes to the STEP Eiken Tests (June 2017)

There have been a few…

The STEP Eiken Test is probably the best-known and most widely-recognized test of English for Japanese schoolchildren. It is closely tied to the school curriculum and the organization that produces it is trying to get more involved with university entrance tests once they are mandated to be 4-skills (from 2020).

Recently there have been quite a few changes to the STEP Eiken tests, most of which took me by surprise, so this post is to give other teachers a heads-up as to what has changed and what the latest version of the test looks like.

It seems as though the Eiken Foundation is trying to make the tests more rigorous in line with the new Course of Study and objectives for English education in Japan (particularly with regards to the upcoming changes to the university entrance tests).

I’ll describe each level in detail below, but the general changes are:

  1. the test seems to have gotten harder overall (the vocabulary and reading sections seem more difficult to me)
  2. there are new written sections in levels 3 and pre-2 (2, pre-1, and 1 already had a written section)
  3. there are new, optional, online “speaking” tests for levels 5 and 4
  4. the interview tests for levels 2, pre-2, and 3 are more rigorous: you now have to pass each section in order to pass the test. Merely getting a passing score is no longer enough to pass (we had a student fail with 20 points last time)
  5. interview examiners can no longer keep the interview cards and manuals, which is going to make practicing more difficult in the future 😉

Grade 5

The grade 5 test is 25 minutes for the paper and 22 for the listening. It consists of:

15 vocabulary questions (choose the word that goes in the blank)
5 conversation questions (choose the phrase that goes in the blank)
5 ‘rearrange the sentence’ questions (put the words in order)
10 listening questions with reference pictures
5 listening questions where you choose a written answer
10 listening questions where you answer about a picture

Overall I think the test seemed similar to previous years. No huge changes.

Grade 4

The grade 4 test is 35 minutes for the paper test, and 28 for the listening. It consists of:

15 vocabulary questions (choose the word that goes in the blank)
5 conversation questions (choose the phrase that goes in the blank)
5 ‘rearrange the sentence’ questions (put the words in order)
10 questions based on reading passages (one easy, one medium, and one difficult)
10 listening questions with reference pictures
20 listening questions where you choose a written answer

The reading section seems to have gotten harder in this test. The final text was really hard.

Grade 3

The grade 3 test is 50 minutes for the paper test, and 25 for the listening. It consists of:

15 vocabulary questions (choose the word that goes in the blank)
5 conversation questions (choose the phrase that goes in the blank)
10 questions based on reading passages (one easy, one medium, and one difficult)
1 writing exercise where students have to write 25-35 words and answer a question giving two reasons. The question this time was: “Where do you want to go during your summer vacation?”. They seem to be using old questions from the level 3 speaking test for this section.
10 listening questions with reference pictures
20 listening questions where you choose a written answer

The reading section seems to have gotten harder in this test. The final text made me think. The new writing section is going to trip up students who haven’t done much writing or practiced for this section of the test.

Grade pre-2

The grade pre-2 test is 75 minutes for the paper test, and 25 for the listening. It consists of:

20 vocabulary questions (choose the word that goes in the blank)
5 conversation questions (choose the phrase that goes in the blank)
5 vocabulary and phrase questions (choose the words that go in the blank in longer passages)
7 questions based on reading passages (one easy, one medium, and one difficult)
1 writing question where they examinees have to write 50-60 words and answer a question giving two reasons. This time the question was: “Do you think it is better for people to eat in restaurants or at home?”.
10 listening questions with no visual reference
20 listening questions where you choose a written answer

Overall this test felt slightly harder. Again, the writing question is similar to past interview questions for grade pre-2. The pre-2 test feels too long now. I think they have given too much extra time for the writing section.

Grade 2

The grade 2 test is 85 minutes for the paper test, and 25 for the listening. It consists of:

20 vocabulary questions (choose the word or phrase that goes in the blank)
6 vocabulary and phrase questions (choose the words that go in the blank in longer passages)
12 questions based on reading passages (one easy, one medium, and one difficult)
1 writing question where they examinees have to write 80-100 words and answer a question giving two reasons. This time the question was: “Today, more and more young people are starting their own companies. Do you think this is a good idea?”
30 listening questions where you choose a written answer

Overall this test felt slightly harder. Again, the writing question is similar to past interview questions for grade 2. This test also feels a bit too long.


I haven’t seen the new grade pre-1 or 1 tests yet, but I presume they haven’t changed as much. You can see past papers and a lot more information at the STEP Eiken website.

Anything to add? How are you finding the new tests?

Hi,
I think the most important thing to note for grade 3 is that the narabikae section has gone and that the essay is worth as much as much as the reading section. 550 points for each of the 4 sections.

That’s a great point. I believe students also have to pass each section now in order to pass, right?

So they can’t just ace the listening and bomb the reading?

That started last year with the new scoring system. I think it is good to include writing and I see why they did it but..25 -34 words of writing doesn’t compare to 40 mins of reading exercises.
My students write a diary every week so I’m hoping the writing will be a positive for them. Time will tell.

Thanks for that detailed breakdown of the tests. I haven’t checked out the lower level tests for a long time. It’s good to get a heads up so that I can be aware of what my students are experiencing. We don’t have mandatory testing in my school, but some families seek out the test for the challenge. I think adding more meat to the lower-level tests is a good idea, though. I never saw any value in Level 5. At least Level 4 allowed students to demonstrate grammar knowledge, reading ability and a bit of vocabulary. Nice to see the added emphasis on writing, especially since the questions appear more based on communication than translation.

Ha ha, indeed. For us level 5 was a kind of participation badge 😉

We don’t mandate the STEP Eiken, but probably have over a hundred students take it at our school each year (mostly in the January session).

We try to encourage the ones that won’t pass not to take it until they have a better chance, but at the end of the day it’s the parents’ decision.

I think the new test format is going to reduce the chance of students passing when they don’t have the complete skillset.

Thanks for the heads up Ben. As much as I hate English being taught primarily to pass tests I do see the necessity to prep our students for them. Most of our students aren’t interested in taking Eiken but I do recycle practice tests to the 14 and 15 yr olds to get them thinking more about High School Entrance exams. Surprisingly they like the practice however, probably as it’s a nice change from having to listen to my bovine voice. cheers

7 Jun 2017, 4:32pm
by Trevor Lawless

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I’ve never had that much to do with Eiken, but recently some of my students have been taking it. I know this is a general question, but what do you think are reasonable expectations? If I teach kids once a week, eikaiwa style, from grade 1 or 2 I think they could take Eiken 5 in grade 4, Eiken 4 in Grade 5 and maybe Eiken 3 in grade 6. Does that sound reasonable? Is that the kind of thing parents expect in your experience?

Hi Trevor

Sorry for the delay, I’ve been out of the country!

Some parents expect something like that, but I see it as my job to talk them out of it and make sure they understand exactly what eiken is and what it is for.

I always explain the following to parents. Sometimes it helps, sometimes it doesn’t 🙂

1. we only want students to take the test if we are pretty sure they will pass
2. the test is not the goal, it is a side-effect
3. eiken 5 is based on the JHS1 curriculum, 4 is 2nd grade, 3 is 3rd grade, pre-2 is SHS2, and 2 is university entrance level.
4. there is no point in taking the test as early as possible, as they now expire two years after passing and are no longer accepted as qualifications
5. we sometimes have students do a practice test so that they can see their level (f it’s too low we can stop them from getting stressed by taking a test that is too hard for them) as well as get used to the format, etc. This is done outside of class time

Hope that helps!

You can see past papers online and get a feel for how well your students might do on the test.

The main point is it’s not a general test of English, it’s a test of the school content so might not be appropriate for younger kids.

Did you see this earlier post on eiken? http://sendaiben.org/2016/03/07/young-children-and-step-eiken/

Thanks Ben.

Yes, I read your earlier post about very young learners taking the Eiken test. I agree with you, I wouldn’t recommend very young learners take the test.

The first couple of years of my program are focused on basic communication and confidence in English (mainly Genki English) and phonics (mainly Think, Read, Write), so it’s got little to do with Eiken style English.

At about grade 3/4 we move more into a balanced four skills program, Dolphin Readers, Maple Leaf Learning materials, AGO cards, so I think kids are naturally picking up the English and other skills needed for Eiken.

I’m not focused on Eiken, but I just wonder what kind of level people usually reach with their students at about the time they are finishing elementary school.

We find many of our normal ES kids took (and passed) eiken 5 or 4 before entering JHS. I usually try to discourage them from taking it before 5th grade or so.

HOWEVER, the new format of the tests means that students must pass all sections in order to pass.

Many of our students would ace the listening and struggle with the vocab/reading. This was okay as they could pass with the average score.

This is no longer the case, so I would expect more students to fail the test in the future.

For eiken 3 and up, they also have the writing section.

Thanks. Yes Eiken 3 may be bit of a stretch for the average ES student now and would probably require too much focus on preparing for the test. 5 and 4 are probably reasonable expectations from parents if Eiken is how they judge things.

 

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