Young Children and STEP Eiken

Unprofessional and Irresponsible

boy in corner

I’m going to be blunt here. I believe forcing young children to take the STEP Eiken test has a high chance of being pointless, counter-productive, and even irresponsible.

Yesterday I got involved in a debate on Facebook after someone reposted an update from the owner of an English immersion kindergarten announcing one of their six-year-olds had passed the pre-2 Grade of the STEP Eiken test. They also mentioned this same kindergarten had been in the news a while back for having a six year old pass the pre-1 Grade test.

Now, I don’t have a problem with the STEP Eiken test. My wife’s school is an Eiken test centre and I have been involved with various aspects of the test for the last decade. I think it does a perfectly good job of what it was designed to do: certify that (mainly) junior and senior high school students have acquired the grammar and vocabulary they are taught in school. The tests are designed to match up to school years as follows:

Grade 5 Eiken -> finished JHS 1st grade English
Grade 4 Eiken -> finished JHS 2nd grade English
Grade 3 Eiken -> finished JHS 3rd grade English
Grade pre-2 -> mid-SHS English
Grade 2 -> finished SHS English
Grade pre-1 -> university equivalent English
Grade 1 -> high proficiency in English for professional use

The tests seem to be most useful when applying to high school or university, or when working as an English teacher or public servant. It’s been around for a long time, and is probably the best-known English qualification in Japan.

Which brings us to young children.

Many parents, not knowing better, have an impression of Eiken as a general English test. In their eyes, passing Eiken means that someone has a certain English ability. They then decide that it would be good for their children to pass Eiken earlier than usual.

Now, for some students, taking the STEP Eiken test slightly early is not a bad thing. For the right student who is ready, it can be a confidence boost, a way to get used to taking tests, and a way to show parents that students have acquired some English skills.

The problem arises when parents take it too far and push their children into taking it too soon.


There is no point in taking the Eiken test very early. It is mainly used for recommended entry into high schools (passing the Grade 3 or pre-2 test displays a mastery of junior high school English) or universities (Grade 2 shows a mastery of high school English, while pre-1 or 1 show advanced English proficiency).

Passing the test at a very early age confers no advantage, and now that the tests have an expiry date on them just means that students will have to take them again nearer the time they will need to use them.

The only reason I can think of to take tests early is so that parents or schools can brag about it.


It can be stressful and uncomfortable for children to prepare for tests they are not ready for developmentally. Pencil use, writing their name and address, and filling in mark sheets correctly are all difficult for younger children. Beyond Eiken pre-2, the content of the tests takes an academic turn. Questions refer to social and environmental issues. Written and spoken tests expect a certain format for answers. Forcing children to conform to this is wasting time that could be used to learn English more appropriately, through stories, play, and interaction with teachers and peers.

I had a young boy come to an Eiken speaking test once and ask me in beautifully accented English to fill in his test card for him, because he couldn’t write his name and didn’t know his phone number. He failed the test as he didn’t seem to understand that it was a test and couldn’t stay on point. His English was beautiful but he wasn’t ready to take a highly structured test.

Another time I was ‘helping’ a ten-year old boy who had spent a long time in the US with the Eiken 2. As we worked through past papers, it became clear that he didn’t know the concepts, let alone the vocabulary, for a lot of the questions. It was heartbreaking, but at that time I didn’t have the experience or the confidence to stand up to his parents.


I believe schools and teachers have a duty to educate parents about the nature and purpose of tests so that they can make appropriate decisions regarding their children. Failing to do so, in my eyes, makes a teacher or school unprofessional, irresponsible, and even negligent.

There are a number of English tests developed specifically for young children, such as the Cambridge YLE, junior UN Eiken, or junior STEP Eiken tests. Students can also show their skills through performance, in-class assessment, or creating portfolios of their work. With so many appropriate alternatives, please think carefully before putting the wishes of parents or your own commercial interests ahead of what is best for each child.

What do you think? Am I being too harsh? Are there any good reasons for having very young children take the STEP Eiken?

totally agree. I had a parent bring an 8 yr old girl who had passed pre-second. Great I thought,
” What do you wanna do tonight when you get home”? ………………
What do you want to eat tonight? …………….
“What do you think about international travel”? “I think it’s good for Japanese people.
Her mother beamed proud smiles but the whole time I was feeling sorry for the young lass. She would have no way of fitting in with some native kids, they’d seriously think she was autistic or something.

At our school it’s introduced from JHS, naturally they cream it. Great they get confidence and motivation to study more.
Some parents ask about it for their E school children but I steer them away from it for precisely the reasons you have written.

Thanks Simon. I think most teachers get it, but when I see schools advertising the fact that they can get six year-olds to jump through the hoops it just makes me sad.

Feels a bit like training bears to dance using hot metal floors…

As you know, I think you’re spot on about parental education. Such education has helped us implement the Cambridge YLE successfully and talk many parents out of premature Eiken.

I think it’s one way to tell whether a school values education or just yen.

I completely agree with you, and I have tried very hard to convince parents that eiken is the wrong vehicle for testing early elementary school or below. I did so good of a job advocating for a dynamic, shared reading lesson for a 4-year-old gifted kid that his parent quit the school (thought the private fee was too pricey for that)…I later saw her then five-year-old at the eiken test site because my son was sitting the j-1. The boy was sitting grade 3. I cheerfully told him “have a good time with the test today!”. His facial expression was unforgettable. It was obvious he was not dragging his parents to the test because of his own passion. This was a kid who taught himself how to speak English beautifully from the Internet. He was brilliant, but I felt sorry for him because he had had a real passion for English – completely self-driven with the exception of the eiken tests that his mother needed for her own ego. Oh, and my son? At age 11, he wanted to sit eiken…but he is one of the few kids his age who liked eiken testing materials for English study better than anything else. He liked the articles…he said he learned a lot from them. Actually, they really are good at the j-1 level. Really nice graded reading for a kid who was bored to tears with the books for native English speakers written for elementary school age. I also taught an autistic six-year-old who passed the eiken j-2, He had no imagination…but a photographic memory and amazing math talent. He wanted to do it. He also enjoyed drawing maps as detailed as you could find on Google and writing Chinese characters …well enough to win a national calligraphy contest. But, these are admittedly rare exceptions.

We have a couple of English savants at our school: taught themselves to read in English before their classes got to phonics and borrow books every week to read at home. We support them but don’t push them 🙂

May I respectfully add my opinion? This one-sided accusatory narrative in no way represents the objectives and reasons behind our commitment to use Eiken as an efficient learning tool in our kindergarten and elementary classrooms. Your picture of the frightened boy at the top of your blog depicts a horrific image which bears no relation to the happy atmosphere in which our students become fluent speakers. There is no bragging from me or from our teachers, but a genuine pride in the success of our students every year. This year we posted a picture of our student with her pre-2 certificate on Facebook, the first time we’ve done that for 4 years, even though we have 2 or 3 students pass every year. I say this to debunk the bragging myth: it’s not true! Furthermore the accusation about monetary gain is also baseless. We don’t make an extra cent or yen on account of Eiken. Nor do we force anyone to take it. But I do disagree strongly with the suggestion that our students aren’t ready for it. They are totally capable of discussing the content because we don’t rely on Eiken mock-tests to teach. Our kids do not do robotic exercises. We read novels together and we discuss. The only Eiken practice they get is one hour a week, although parents often do more at home with their children. There is absolutely no pressure.
As to this being harmful in the future? How? I’m bewildered. In the last 10 years I’ve been teaching Eiken at elementary level. I haven’t met one single former student with any negative symptoms on account of Eiken.
Finally, 25 years ago I was an ALT and used to teach Eiken to junior high students. This is the area in which I believe Eiken is a joke as students can make an educated guess as to the answer without being able to understand the meaning.
My comments are written not only to defend the good work our teachers do but also in the hope that the naysayers above may realise that at least some of the accusations here are merely jumping on the bandwagon. We are not a school of spoiled brats and arrogant teachers. We are a school in the countryside preparing kids to go to a bilingual elementary school in the neighbourhood. Feel free to visit our school and make up your own mind if we are unprofessional, irresponsible and negligent.

Hi Colm

Thanks for posting. As you can probably tell, I don’t agree with you but I am very happy that you are here. I agree with everything you say apart from using the STEP Eiken with kindergarten age children. Why choose that particular test, which seems so unsuited to your goals and students? Could you not use a more child-friendly way of showing achievement?

I still haven’t heard any concrete reason for why you would choose the Eiken as opposed to something else.

Colm, we run an English kindergarten as well and have the students take the Cambridge YLE. I agree with Ben; why have your students take a test that is not suited to them?

Completely agree. I tell parents if their kids want to sit eiken, fine, but our purpose in teaching isn’t just to get them through a formulaic test. A school in our area is constantly bragging how its primary school kids pass Eiken 3 or pre-2 or whatever, but for a primary school kid to answer questions on the environment, social issues or even (as I have seen) on the benefits of long time rental of real estate versus full purchase is just completely unnatural. That would be something adults might discuss on your other blog! It is, as you said, just about bragging rights. Or a lack of understanding about the test. Incidentally, we have had young primary kids sit eiken off their own back and pass and you know what – when they get to junior high, their English is no better than the other kids who studied with us who never took the test, many of whom may well not have passed eiken in their early years.
There is an obsession (and not just in Japan) with getting kids to ‘achieve’ things earlier and earlier and it seems to me it is often not remotely beneficial to that child.

A number of years ago, some International Schools, like DISK, Doshisha Junior High School, required a minimum Eiken certificate of level 3 to be considered for acceptance into their program. I would expect the level has increased for various International Schools.

For my child, we decided on public Jr. High school, thus, my child’s Eiken 2, which he passed in Elementary School, was worth 20 additional points for his preferred private High School.


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