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Speaking Assessments by Japanese English Teachers Pre and Post Implementation of CEFR in the Midst of a Global Pandemic

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Abstract

Amid a global pandemic, while schools in many parts of the world were closed to adhere to quarantine orders, schools in Japan resumed face-to-face classes after only a month of closure with strict adherence to COVID-19 guidelines and standard operating procedures (SOP). This study examined how speaking assessments were administered face-to-face for Grade 5 and 6 elementary school students prior to and after introducing the Common European Framework of Reference (CEFR) and amid a global pandemic between April to October 2020. The paper also reports the challenges and strategies employed in carrying out the speaking assessments following the CEFR while adhering to the SOP. The study employed a qualitative research method that utilised semi-structured interviews to elicit information from four teachers who taught in eight schools within Niigata City, Japan. Findings suggest that prior to the implementation of CEFR, not all teachers carried out speaking assessments. However, the implementation of CEFR emphasised the need to teach speaking and carry out speaking assessments. The CEFR also served as guidance for the teachers in preparing the assessment scoring rubrics. The results also showed that the speaking assessments were implemented individually instead of in groups before the pandemic and the presence of the masks, which increased the student's anxiety and affected their performance. However, the teachers employed various strategies to overcome the challenges by modifying the assessment tasks and utilising web conferencing technology.
Pertanika J. Soc. Sci. & Hum. 29 (S3): 335 - 349 (2021)
ISSN: 0128-7702
e-ISSN: 2231-8534
Journal homepage: http://www.pertanika.upm.edu.my/
© Universiti Putra Malaysia Press
Article history:
Received: 16 July 2021
Accepted: 04 October 2021
Published: 30 November 2021
ARTICLE INFO
DOI: https://doi.org/10.47836/pjssh.29.S3.17
SOCIAL SCIENCES & HUMANITIES
E-mail addresses:
emmchoong@gmail.com (Emily Ee Ching Choong)
pravina@usm.my (Pravina Manoharan)
rsouba@unimas.my (Souba Rethinasamy)
* Corresponding author
Speaking Assessments by Japanese English Teachers Pre and
Post Implementation of CEFR in the Midst of a Global Pandemic
Emily Ee Ching Choong1, Pravina Manoharan2* and Souba Rethinasamy3
1Niigata City Board of Education, 951-8063 Niigata City, Niigata Prefecture, Japan
2School of The Arts, Universiti Sains Malaysia, 11800 Gelugor, Penang, Malaysia
3Faculty of Language and Communication, Universiti Malaysia Sarawak, 94300 Kota Samarahan,
Sarawak, Malaysia
ABSTRACT
Amid a global pandemic, while schools in many parts of the world were closed to adhere
to quarantine orders, schools in Japan resumed face-to-face classes after only a month of
closure with strict adherence to COVID-19 guidelines and standard operating procedures
(SOP). This study examined how speaking assessments were administered face-to-face
for Grade 5 and 6 elementary school students prior to and after introducing the Common
European Framework of Reference (CEFR) and amid a global pandemic between April to
October 2020. The paper also reports the challenges and strategies employed in carrying
out the speaking assessments following the CEFR while adhering to the SOP. The study
employed a qualitative research method that utilised semi-structured interviews to elicit
information from four teachers who taught in eight schools within Niigata City, Japan.
Findings suggest that prior to the implementation of CEFR, not all teachers carried out
speaking assessments. However, the implementation of CEFR emphasised the need to
teach speaking and carry out speaking assessments. The CEFR also served as guidance
for the teachers in preparing the assessment scoring rubrics. The results also showed that
the speaking assessments were implemented individually instead of in groups before the
pandemic and the presence of the masks, which increased the student’s anxiety and aected
their performance. However, the teachers
employed various strategies to overcome
the challenges by modifying the assessment
tasks and utilising web conferencing
technology.
Keywords: CEFR, English as a foreign language,
Japan, pandemic, speaking assessment
Emily Ee Ching Choong, Pravina Manoharan and Souba Rethinasamy
336
Pertanika J. Soc. Sci. & Hum. 29 (S3): 335 - 349 (2021)
INTRODUCTION
The year 2020 saw a complete shift in
how teaching and learning were viewed,
particularly in classrooms where the face-
to-face mode of delivery was either the
only or preferred method of instruction. The
COVID-19 pandemic induced a drastic shift
in learning systems as schools, colleges and
institutions of higher learning adjusted their
mode of delivery. They tried to implement
and adapt to entire online teaching. While
schools worldwide were forced to close and
shift all face-to-face classes to the virtual
realm (Ghazi-Saidi et al., 2020; Gross &
Opalka, 2020; Zhang, 2020), schools in
Japan faced a slightly dierent predicament.
All schools in Japan were only closed for
one month (from March to April 2020)
and after that were ordered to reopen.
COVID-19 guidelines were implemented
in all schools nationwide to ensure the
safety of students and teachers. It included
wearing masks at all times and avoiding
the 3C’s—close contact, closed places and
crowded places. These regulations were in
line with the guidelines issued by the WHO
(2019). Therefore, in April 2020, teachers
and school administrators resumed face-to-
face classes and continued administering
assessments while adhering to WHO’s
guidelines.
To add to the whirlwind of uncertainties,
the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports,
Science and Technology (MEXT) of Japan
decided to follow through with an English
Education Reform plan that was announced
in late 2019. This new plan which took eect
at the start of the new school year in April
2020, included a curriculum designed based
on the Common European Framework of
Reference for Languages (CEFR) which
is often used as the point of reference for
language policy and language education
across the globe (Byram & Parmenter, 2012;
Little, 2007). In addition, this plan was to
make English a formal graded subject for
elementary school students in Grade 5 and
6 (age 11 to 12 years old) nationwide and
ensure standardised assessments across the
board. Prior to the 2019 plan, English was
taught in classrooms as a foreign subject but
was not formally graded for Grade 5 and 6
students (Carreira, 2006).
In April 2020, the new directive based
on CEFR standards required English to be
taught for 70 hours, which is approximately
two hours per week of ‘English as a
formally assessed subject’ for years 5 and 6
(Nemoto, 2018). The plan comprised new
methodologies of delivering and assessing
English lessons for elementary Grade 5 and
6 students based on CEFR. The directive
from the Board of Education is for teachers
to achieve a higher tier of A1 by the end
of the school year (March 2021). A1 is the
basic user level and refers to the ability
“to understand and use familiar everyday
expressions and fundamental phrases aimed
at the satisfaction of needs of a concrete
type. At this level, students should be able
to introduce themselves and others, ask and
answer questions about personal details such
as where they live, people they know and
things they have. Students should also be
able to interact in a simple way, provided the
other person talks slowly and clearly and is
prepared to help (Council of Europe, 2020).
Speaking Assessments by Japanese English Teachers
337
Pertanika J. Soc. Sci. & Hum. 29 (S3): 335 - 349 (2021)
While this new directive by the
ministry was a commendable effort, its
implementation in the middle of a global
pandemic posed a problem on how the
new curriculum and assessment would be
executed, as the conventional classroom
setting had now changed. Although CEFR
provided a framework for assessing language
(listening, speaking, reading and writing),
many schools in Japan were left with no
concrete outline on assessing speaking tests,
particularly amid a global pandemic. While
textbooks and manuals were provided, the
teachers interviewed for this research felt
that there were no proper directives on
eectively conducting speaking assessments
for their students based on CEFR while
simultaneously ensuring they abide by the
new COVID-19 guidelines. Therefore,
because previous assessment methods could
not be administered due to new COVID
guidelines, teachers were compelled to
develop innovative speaking assessment
strategies to ensure students were assessed
based on CEFR standards.
Over one year, there have been
numerous articles, blog posts and YouTube
videos on how teachers worldwide have
adopted and adapted to conduct eective
online assessments for students. However,
literature on face-to-face assessments
in schools during the global pandemic
is scarce, simply because educational
institutions from kindergarten to colleges
and universities converted their conventional
mode of delivery to online lessons during
the pandemic. Hence, a study on how
teachers who continued to conduct face-to-
face assessments and developed alternative
assessments strategies is vital. Furthermore,
it presents a crucial understanding of
how speaking tests were administered
successfully despite COVID-19 SOP
restrictions and how such strategies can
be continued within the new normal post-
pandemic.
This paper, therefore, aims to examine
how Japanese English teachers administered
speaking assessments for Grade 5 and 6
elementary school students in eight schools
within the Niigata Prefecture, Japan prior
to, and after the implementation of CEFR
amid a global pandemic. The paper further
discusses the challenges teachers faced in
conducting speaking assessments and their
strategies to overcome the challenges of
conducting speaking tests while following
the CEFR framework and adhering to
COVID-19 guidelines.
Objectives
This paper aims to address the following
objectives;
1. to discover how Japanese English
teachers administered speaking
assessments before the CEFR
framework was introduced.
2. to discover how Japanese English
teachers administered speaking
assessments after the CEFR
framework was introduced during
the pandemic.
3. to identify the challenges faced
by Japanese English teachers
in assessing speaking during
the pandemic and the strategies
they developed to overcome the
challenges.
Emily Ee Ching Choong, Pravina Manoharan and Souba Rethinasamy
338
Pertanika J. Soc. Sci. & Hum. 29 (S3): 335 - 349 (2021)
LITERATURE REVIEW
The Common European Framework of
Reference
The Common European Framework of
Reference (CEFR) for Languages comprises
learning, teaching and assessment. It is
often referred to as the globalisation of
language education policy (Behforouz,
2020; Byram & Parmenter, 2012). It was
developed by the Council of Europe and rst
published in 2001. It promotes transparency
and coherence in language education.
The framework can be applied to the
teaching and learning of any language.
Thus, it is no surprise that it is an exclusive
neutral reference in all educational sectors.
According to Little (2006), CEFR has been
translated into 37 languages, including
Japanese. In some countries, the CEFR has
helped “to develop both strategic language
policy documents and practical teaching
materials. In others, it is becoming the most
reliable reference for curriculum planning”
(Martyniuk & Noijons, 2007, p. 7). CEFR
is a descriptive scheme that is particularly
useful in analysing the second language (L2)
learners’ needs, specifying their learning
goals, guiding the development of learning
materials and activities, and providing
orientation for assessing L2 learning
outcomes (Little, 2006). CEFR includes six
reference levels, and they are A1 (Beginner),
A2 (Elementary), B1 (Intermediate), B2
(Upper Intermediate), C1(Advanced) and
C2 (Prociency). Within these levels, A1
and A2 are regarded as basic users, B1 and
B2 are independent users, while C1 and C2
are referred to as procient users.
English Education in Japan
Japan is one of the countries with limited
opportunities to practise speaking English
in a real-life context due to the lack of
people who use the language daily. Besides
social circles, independent studying and
extra English classes at an eikaiwa (英会
or English conversation school), students
are presented with little opportunity to
acquire the language outside the classroom
(Nemoto, 2018). Moreover, there is no need
to use English to communicate when the
native language of Japanese is used daily
(Tsuboya-Newell, 2017).
English is regarded as a Foreign
Language (EFL) in Japan, while Japanese
is the first language (L1) and the main
medium of instruction for all subjects in
schools. However, literature has shown
that there has always been little exposure
for Japanese students to engage with the
English language outside the classroom
(Mahoney & Inoi, 2015; Negishi et al.,
2013; Nemoto, 2018). As a solution, in
2002, Japan introduced English activities as
a part of the government’s integrated studies
initiative for elementary school students
(Nemoto, 2018) to have more practice with
the language. Then in 2011, a new subject
called Foreign Language Activities was
introduced in primary schools across Japan
to encourage more engagement with the
English language (Negishi et al., 2013).
However, research has shown that the
eorts did not yield very promising results,
as Japanese students are still not competent
in the language. It poses an issue especially
when Japan aims to have a bigger global
Speaking Assessments by Japanese English Teachers
339
Pertanika J. Soc. Sci. & Hum. 29 (S3): 335 - 349 (2021)
presence and ensure the Japanese people can
communicate more eectively in English
(Nemoto, 2018). In a study on the challenges
in increasing the teaching hours of English
in Japanese schools, Nemoto (2018) noted
that there was an inconsistency with how
lessons were delivered across the nation
since English activities were introduced in
2002. He revealed that dierent teachers
adopted dierent instruction and content
delivery methods, tweaking lesson plans and
developing rubrics for assessments.
As a result, it created various
learning experiences in the classroom
and inconsistent assessments that did not
accurately measure learning outcomes. To
address this discrepancy, in 2011, Grade
5 and 6 students underwent 35 hours of
English classes per year (approximately one
hour per week) with lesson plan guidelines
provided for teachers to ensure some
consistency in the teaching of the language
(Mahoney & Inoi, 2015). In addition, it
allowed all students to receive an equal
number of contact hours with the language
across the country. Teachers were also
given a clearer idea of how to conduct the
lessons from the guidelines given. However,
because English was not a formal subject
within the curriculum, there was still no
standardised testing and grading of the
students, despite the increased hours and
guided lessons (Mahoney & Inoi, 2015). In
addition, Mahoney and Inoi (2015) noted
that some teachers had trouble assessing
learning outcomes in the classroom as there
were reports of teachers conducting their
tests. However, because the students were
not formally graded, these tests were again
not standardised.
MATERIALS AND METHODS
This research employed a qualitative
case study research design using semi-
structured interviews for data collection.
The qualitative approach was most suited
as it allowed the researcher to gather
detailed information on how assessments
were carried out prior to and after the
implementation of CEFR.
The following were the main questions
asked during the interview;
1. How did you conduct speaking
tests prior to the implementation
of CEFR?
2. How were speaking tests conducted
after the implementation of CEFR?
3. How did the COVID-19 guidelines
aect the way speaking tests are
done?
4. What were the challenges you faced
in conducting face-to-face speaking
assessments while adhering to
COVID-19 guidelines?
5. What strategies did you employ or
develop to overcome the challenges
you faced?
Context of the Study
It must be noted here that the implementation
of CEFR and the introduction of formal
testing were all part of the government’s
plans to reform the English education
system in Japan even before the pandemic
hit. However, instead of putting the plans
on hold, the Japanese government decided
Emily Ee Ching Choong, Pravina Manoharan and Souba Rethinasamy
340
Pertanika J. Soc. Sci. & Hum. 29 (S3): 335 - 349 (2021)
to proceed and directed all schools to
ensure CEFR standards were met as schools
resumed face-to-face teaching after a one-
month closure. Therefore, the introduction
of CEFR coincided with a period when
the entire world was aected by a global
pandemic. Hence, when discussions
in this paper refer to testing after the
implementation of CEFR, it also refers to a
period where testing was conducted within
a classroom with COVID-19 SOPs in place.
The introduction of CEFR provides
a more comprehensive approach to how
language is learnt and taught, as the equal
focus is placed on four skills of English.
Figure 1 shows the expected improvements
in English language proficiency for all
school levels. For Elementary students,
the new CEFR standard requires students
to master between 600 to 700 new words
during their elementary grade, which
lasts for four years. It is a challenging feat
particularly when students were not required
to remember new words or be tested on them
in the past.
Participants
From April 2018, to improve the way
English lessons are conducted, the Niigata
City Board of Education hired teachers
who have an additional licence for teaching
English only [gaikoku-go senka kyō or
国語専科教] (Niigata City, 2020). These
teachers are referred to as “MEXT (Ministry
of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and
Technology) teachers”. It was done to ensure
that teachers conducted English lessons with
a specic qualication for the subject. From
April 2020 to March 2021, there were 24
MEXT teachers in Niigata (Niigata City,
2020).
Data were collected from four Japanese
English language teachers in Niigata City,
Japan. All four teachers have a bachelor’s
Figure 1. Improvements expected from the reformation of English education in Japan (Niigata City, 2020)
Speaking Assessments by Japanese English Teachers
341
Pertanika J. Soc. Sci. & Hum. 29 (S3): 335 - 349 (2021)
degree, have vast experience teaching
English at elementary schools and a teaching
licence for elementary schools in Niigata
City. Their names have been omitted from
this paper to maintain the teachers’ privacy,
and they have been allocated numeric
numbers and referred to as Teacher 1 to
Teacher 4. Teachers 1, 2 and 3 are MEXT
teachers who work at two or three schools
in Niigata City. Teacher 1 has 34 years of
teaching experience in elementary schools
and two years as a MEXT teacher. Teacher
2 was an elementary school teacher before
becoming a MEXT teacher for the rst time
in April 2020. Teacher 3 has junior high
school teaching experience and became a
MEXT teacher in April 2019. Teacher 4
has an elementary school teaching licence
and has been appointed as the teacher in
charge of English at her school. The teachers
have conducted speaking tests for over 400
students from April to October 2020 based
on the CEFR framework.
Instrument
This research employed semi-structured
interviews, and the teachers were asked ve
open-ended questions to elicit information
on how speaking assessments were carried
out before the pandemic and how COVID
guidelines affected how speaking tests
were carried out during the pandemic.
These questions were supported by follow
up questions that were aimed to gather
additional responses where necessary.
The researcher had previously worked
with these four teachers, so this qualitative
method was the most appropriate.
Furthermore, it presented a comfortable
environment and allowed the researcher to
have an open conversation with the teachers
as they shared their information freely. The
interviews with the teachers were conducted
individually at their respective schools. The
data were then analysed based on emerging
themes from the research objectives and
expounded in this paper’s findings and
discussion section.
FINDINGS
This section of the paper will present the
ndings based on the responses given by
the teachers for the questions posed to
them. The findings are presented within
subheadings based on the objectives of this
paper.
Speaking Assessments Prior to the
Implementation of CEFR
Prior to the implementation of CEFR,
only two of the four teachers interviewed
for this research carried out speaking
assessments for their students. Teachers 1
and 3 acknowledged that although speaking
was not a priority among the four language
skills before the new school year (April
2020), they still tried to conduct speaking
tests to gauge their students’ competency
level. Teacher 1 for example noted that
she conducted her speaking tests in groups
to help students motivate one another.
She focused on collaborative work where
students were asked to answer as a class
or in small groups. She also used her own
rubric to mark students’ verbal ability.
Although not aware of CEFR at that time,
Emily Ee Ching Choong, Pravina Manoharan and Souba Rethinasamy
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Pertanika J. Soc. Sci. & Hum. 29 (S3): 335 - 349 (2021)
she noted that a rubric for assessment guided
teachers and students as they knew what
they were being tested on. “The rubric
was very helpful as it helped me gauge my
students’ speaking ability and areas that
they needed extra help with”.
Teacher 3 also had a similar rubric when
assessing speaking. He said, “I designed a 5
point Likert scale to assess their competency
level. Most of the students were between 1
and 2” (1 being very weak and 5 competent).
Teacher 3 was always more concerned with
students using the language confidently
rather than grading them on accuracy. When
explaining the importance of understanding
the context of the language, he noted that
“there is no point in them memorising the
sentences for the test if they don’t know what
they mean”. Therefore, his assessments
before the implementation of CEFR was not
based on language accuracy but rather on the
ability of the student to speak in context. “I
want them to enjoy speaking English and not
be afraid of the language”. For example,
he said, “when I ask the student…how are
you today? A simple answer of OK, tells
me that they understood my question…and
that is more important”. Teacher 3 also
asked students to design their posters or
notes and present them to the class. These
presentations were mainly done individually,
but students had many opportunities to work
in groups prior to the presentations. Teacher
3 found this helpful technique for students to
speak English using the target grammar or
vocabulary depending on the lesson’s topic.
Speaking Assessment After the
Implementation of CEFR During the
Pandemic
After CEFR was introduced, all four
teachers noted a guide for what to look out
for in assessing their students. For example,
Teacher 3 noted that “with CEFR I knew
the kind of level the students had to meet
with CEFR I am able to design lessons that
will give my students enough practice in
A1 level so when they are assessed, they
are assessed fairly” Teacher 2 who had
not conducted speaking tests before the
implementation of CEFR found it rather
tricky to develop assessments that would
meet CEFR standards. She did, however,
acknowledge that “CEFR presents teachers
with a good framework for assessment”.
When explaining how she conducted her
speaking tests, she explained that she
struggled a little with developing a rubric
that would test the level of all her students
in her class as they have varying levels of
competency. Therefore, she had to provide
enough materials to help them understand
the target language before assessing them.
When asked about how students reacted
to speaking assessments now being a
compulsory graded English language
component, all four teachers noted that
students were naturally more anxious during
the assessment. “In the past, my students
were not particularly concerned with their
pronunciation,” said Teacher 1. However,
she noted that when grading became
compulsory, students were hesitant to speak,
and they would stop and correct themselves.
To her, this was a good mechanism, as
Speaking Assessments by Japanese English Teachers
343
Pertanika J. Soc. Sci. & Hum. 29 (S3): 335 - 349 (2021)
“self-correction is an important element of
language acquisition”. She also noted that
regular assessments were an eective way
to prepare students for tests. First, however,
she explained that “they need to familiarise
themselves with the process”. This point was
also expressed by the other three teachers
when asked about students’ reactions to
the mandatory testing put in place by the
ministry.
Challenges Faced and Strategies
Developed
All four teachers noted that although CEFR
presented them with a clear guideline to assess
speaking, they felt that the COVID-19 SOPs
made it very challenging for speaking tests
to be carried out eectively. In adherence
to the COVID-19 guidelines, there was no
physical contact between teacher and student
or even between themselves. The lack of
physical contact in the classroom posed a
challenge as it was dicult for teachers to
conduct group assessments. To overcome
this, Teacher 3 used Zoom to stimulate a
video call environment for the speaking test.
It was a new experience for his students.
It piqued their interest, and “they actually
enjoyed their assessments because they were
eager to see me on a computer screen…and
because we conducted the assessment on
Zoom, I was able to have group assessments
where the students were asked to pose
simple questions to their friends and they
were graded based on CEFR A1 level of
competency”. It was an eective mode of
assessment as the teacher was adhering to
COVID-19 guidelines.
Teacher 3 believes that being correct
with grammar usage is not necessary. He
stressed that “assessments are of little
benet if the students merely memorise and
do not understand the subject matter”. To
stress this point further, he gave an example
of an assessment strategy he used on one
of his zoom sessions, where he asked his
students to say how they all felt about being
at home during the one-month lockdown. He
highlighted how the “students were happy
to share their experiences and I was grading
them on the side but because it seemed like
a sharing session, they were freer with the
use of the language and were not afraid of
how they presented themselves”.
These thoughts were also shared by
Teacher 2. She believes that it is important
to provide students with an environment that
encourages them to use the language and
make mistakes. Therefore, the importance of
being able to convey meaning is prioritised
in her classrooms. She said, “I follow the
guidelines on CEFR but I have to adjust
it to my students’ level and allow them
to gradually progress”. She noted that
although the intended level was for the
student to reach A1, she presented students
with an opportunity to practise the same
target language a few times. She noted that
with the mask on, it was dicult for students
to see her mouth movement. Therefore, she
deliberately slowed down her speech and
enunciated every word. This method proved
effective as it helped train the student’s
listening along with their spoken ability.
When I conducted speaking tests before
the implementation of CEFR I would make
Emily Ee Ching Choong, Pravina Manoharan and Souba Rethinasamy
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Pertanika J. Soc. Sci. & Hum. 29 (S3): 335 - 349 (2021)
students watch my lip movement and also
made them place their hand in front of
their lips so they could feel the dierence
in air pressure when certain words are
pronounced. However, during the pandemic
this was a little dicult to execute so I made
them sharpen their listening skills”.
Three out of the four teachers
interviewed noted that they found it dicult
to accurately link assessments to CEFR as
many teachers claimed that students still
required much work with their spoken
skills before they could be accessed. These
teachers, therefore, administered more vocal
exercises and varied lessons before they
began to test their students. For example,
in explaining her challenge in adhering to
CEFR standards, Teacher 4 said, “I cannot
test my students when they are not ready”.
She, therefore, noted that her students
were given ample practice, and she even
conducted mock assessments to prepare her
students for the actual speaking test.
Another challenge that all teachers faced
was the presence of the mask. All teachers
noted that the mask posed a hindrance
in identifying what students were saying
accurately. For example, Teacher 2 noted
that “it is dicult to understand them under
the mask as pronunciation is muffled”.
While Teacher 1 said, “before the pandemic,
it was easier to understand what the students
were saying during the speaking assessment
as we could see their facial expressions…
during the pandemic, the masks partially
covered the students’ faces, and this posed
a problem for us teachers”. However, the
presence of the mask indirectly compelled
teachers to focus on speaking elements of
the assessment, which are more in line with
the CEFR descriptors that do not include
facial expressions but instead focus on the
tone production of the students, such as
pronunciation.
Nevertheless, to overcome the issues
caused by the mask, some teachers made
their students temporarily remove their
face masks and wear a face shield, so
their oral region was not blocked. It
enabled the teachers to hear the students’
responses clearly and view their non-verbal
expressions. Another strategy utilised was to
speak slowly to the students. It was to enable
the students to understand what the teachers
were saying and respond accordingly. This
method was in line with CEFR’s A1 level,
where the student should interact with the
other person provided the person speaks
slowly and clearly. It was reiterated by
Teacher 2: “I had to speak extra slowly to
make sure students understood me…. I also
made sure students enunciated their words
underneath the masks”.
All the teachers interviewed for this
paper brought up the issue of anxiety among
students during speaking assessments. Two
issues caused speaking anxiety. Firstly, in
adhering to COVID -19 guidelines, teachers
were only allowed to administer speaking
tests individually (in smaller classrooms).
Teachers 2 and 3 both noted that many of
their students were afraid to speak alone
as speaking tests in the past, although not
graded, were conducted in groups where
students were encouraged to converse
with one another. They concurred that
Speaking Assessments by Japanese English Teachers
345
Pertanika J. Soc. Sci. & Hum. 29 (S3): 335 - 349 (2021)
students were less motivated because group
assessments were no longer permitted for
classrooms with small spaces. According
to the teachers, this aected the grades of
the students. In addition, Teacher 2 pointed
out that COVID-19 guidelines limited the
type of assessments that could be carried
out. The distance between the teacher and
student also made it uncomfortable for shy
students to speak, which increased their
anxiety levels. Moreover, the teacher had to
make the students speak louder, which they
were uncomfortable with.
To ease anxiety levels among students,
Teacher 2 converted her assessment session
into a role-play session. Students were
placed at a safe distance and were required
to ask the teacher simple questions of A1
level while pretending to be a journalist.
This exercise “broke down their anxiety a
little as the focus shifted from the speaking
test to questioning the teacher…and they
loved it”. In addition, they were not aware
that they were being assessed for the session,
which made it a lot more relaxed for them.
It indirectly presented a less intrusive form
of assessment, a new method developed
by Teacher 2 to ensure her students were
comfortable during the speaking assessment
and not fair badly.
In classes that allowed for more than one
student for speaking assessments, Teacher 1
found that continuing pair practice at a safe
distance helped students prepare better prior
to the speaking tests. In addition, it allowed
students to gain condence before being
graded. To put students at ease even further,
she designed the speaking test in a way
that was similar to how the pair practices
were conducted prior to the pandemic. The
familiar environment of speaking to their
friends helped students develop fluency
through repetition and ease their nerves.
Given that every learner learns dierently,
Teacher 4 noted that “some students were
more confident with individual tests and
were happy not speaking in front of the
entire class”. The students mainly relied
on notes written to help them during the
speaking test and were less nervous during
the assessment process.
DISCUSSION
While CEFR provides a clear framework
for language teaching and assessment,
responses from the teachers showed that
on several occasions, the teachers resorted
to their methods on how to conduct
the speaking tests in line with CEFR
standards. However, teachers also fell back
on their primary needs and goals for their
students within the English classroom.
Similar to Nemoto’s (2018) findings on
the inconsistency of how the lessons are
delivered in the classroom, the pandemic has
kept the board and teachers from resolving
this issue immediately. However, despite
these inconsistencies, due to the introduction
of the CEFR framework, teachers developed
new strategies to ensure speaking tests are
carried out eectively based on a globally
accepted framework.
The dierent strategies employed by
the teachers were innovative ways to ensure
they continued to assess their students’
speaking ability based on CEFR’s A1
Emily Ee Ching Choong, Pravina Manoharan and Souba Rethinasamy
346
Pertanika J. Soc. Sci. & Hum. 29 (S3): 335 - 349 (2021)
level while at the same time adhering to
COVID-19 guidelines and SOPs. Although
two out of the four teachers interviewed
did not conduct assessments prior to the
introduction of CEFR, they did however
acknowledge that CEFR provided them
with a clear framework. The role of the
teacher as the interlocutor in the role-play
sessions meant that the student was not
placed at a disadvantage. This is because,
the student is assessed on a more neutral
ground as the teacher was able to adjust the
conversation accordingly and this would not
aect the student’s performance. Ensuring
that the assessments were carried out in a
fun and safe manner was another strategy
that worked to the advantage of the student
as it helped calm their nerves before an
assessment. The views of Teacher 3 on
wanting to keep assessments fun and not
stressful validate claims in previous research
on reducing examination-oriented learning
(Esther, 2012; Leong & Rethinasamy,
2020; Van Lier, 2004; William, 2011) and
emphasise the need to focus on the learning
experience and provide a more systematic
way of assessing, recording and reporting
students’ learning.
With the case of the masks, while the
apparatus might have hindered speech
quality, it does not limit all the functions of
communication entirely. The mask addresses
extra-linguistic strategies that educators can
use to their advantage in the classroom.
It further emphasises the importance of
non-verbal communication features in the
language, often overlooked by students
learning English, let alone speaking. It
is an area that has received significant
attention, particularly in scholarly work
discussing second language learners and the
importance of non-verbal communication
(Carreira, 2006; Richards & Schmidt,
2010; Van Lier, 2004). Therefore, despite
the COVID-19 guidelines, teachers could
still conduct these speaking tests even
with the mask hindering the view of the
organ we use to communicate. Having
their students pay more attention to other
aspects of the spoken language like sound
production rather than lip movement was a
good way to bring more awareness to the
spoken aspect of English and to the dierent
phonetic sounds that may not be evident in
the student’s mother tongue. In addition,
the continuous repetition of such words
indirectly provided more opportunities to
improve language acquisition and build
confidence in speaking. This method by
the teachers was also in line with CEFR’s
A1 level, where the student develops a
repertoire of words at a basic level.
Using technology to conduct
assessments was a tting example of how
speaking tests can be carried out while
adhering to COVID-19 guidelines. Using
Zoom as a medium was a good way to
test students from a safe distance. At the
same time, it helped keep anxiety levels
low as students felt comfortable behind the
computer screen and were more comfortable
speaking. Such innovative assessments
are needed, particularly for elementary
school students whose very thought of
assessments can be quite daunting. This
assessment strategy can also be employed
Speaking Assessments by Japanese English Teachers
347
Pertanika J. Soc. Sci. & Hum. 29 (S3): 335 - 349 (2021)
for future speaking assessments. It is the
way forward for many institutions of
learning where assessments at the initial
stages of schooling could be conducted
with the aid of technology before moving
on with face-to-face assessments. In the
years to come, it is anticipated that online
learning will continue to be developed
as the education technology industry is
thriving during the pandemic. Creating more
opportunities to connect students online for
communication is ideal for making speaking
tests more fruitful.
CONCLUSION
Although the data in this study is limited
to 4 teachers, it does provide a basic
understanding of how speaking tests were
conducted prior to, and after the Ministry
of Education, Culture Sports, Science and
Technology (MEXT) of Japan introduced
CEFR. More importantly, the findings
are relevant to teachers today as the new
strategies can be developed into viable
means of assessments when social distancing
has become the new norm.
In a global pandemic when the entire
world scrambled to adhere to guidelines
on social distancing and quarantine orders,
Japan was one of the very few countries that
decided to continue face to face mode of
educational instruction. Although COVID
numbers were on the rise, the government
only decided to close schools for one
month and, resume the face-to-face mode
of instruction after that. This move by the
government was particularly challenging
for teachers since they were faced with two
major concerns. On the one hand, they were
now required to formally grade students on
their speaking ability based on the CEFR.
Nevertheless, on the other hand, they had
to administer these tests while adhering to
strict COVID-19 SOPs as the pandemic
coincided with the government’s directives.
This paper has reported ndings from
four teachers on how speaking tests were
conducted for Grade 5 and 6 elementary
school students in eight schools within
Niigata City. Hence it is premature to
make any rm conclusions. However, the
findings present important preliminary
data on how speaking assessments can be
carried out within the new normal even as
literature in this area is still very scarce. The
ndings also present clear evidence that the
introduction of CEFR into the elementary
5 and 6 English curricula has offered
teachers a better roadmap to manoeuvre
through lesson planning and assessments
which is vital to monitor students’ learning
process continuously. It is proposed that
future research could look at a larger scale
involving a bigger sample of teachers from
dierent prefectures in Japan. In addition,
considering the increment in sample size,
future studies could use findings from
the present study and include an extra
instrument of questionnaire and use a survey
method to gather information from a larger
sample of teachers and students that would
elicit more data. With the introduction of
speaking tests based on CEFR, we can see
that testing provides a more solid ground on
how to measure students’ learning outcomes
despite the use of several methods to achieve
Emily Ee Ching Choong, Pravina Manoharan and Souba Rethinasamy
348
Pertanika J. Soc. Sci. & Hum. 29 (S3): 335 - 349 (2021)
the same goal. The ndings show that this
English education reform can streamline
how the four language skills in English
especially speaking, are taught and tested in
Japanese elementary classrooms to ensure
more consistency in how learning outcomes
are assessed.
There are numerous other variables
within the four walls of a classroom that
dictate how the assessment session can
unfold. For example, students’ motivation
for that day, the presence of face masks
and social distancing that hampers auditory
functions are some of the issues that
can hinder the execution of a successful
assessment. Therefore, based on the
interviews with the teachers, while CEFR
provides a clear framework for assessing
the English language, teachers must always
be prepared for the worst-case scenario
and learn to adapt, modify and restructure
assessments accordingly, and in the case of
2020, it was the global pandemic that has
altered the course of education for many
years to come.
ACKNOWLEDGEMENT
This study was supported by funding from
Universiti Malaysia Sarawak (UNIMAS).
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Common European Framework implementation and English language learning challenges
  • B Behforouz
Behforouz, B. (2020). Common European Framework implementation and English language learning challenges. Journal of Applied Linguistics and Language Research, 7(4),130-146.
The Common European Framework of Reference: The globalisation of language education policy. Multilingual matters
Byram, M., & Parmenter, L. (Eds.). (2012). The Common European Framework of Reference: The globalisation of language education policy. Multilingual matters. https://doi. org/10.21832/9781847697318
0 1 2 ) . n g assessment, Asia Pacific education system review series
  • S H E S T H E R
E s t h e r, S. H. ( 2 0 1 2 ). n g assessment, Asia Pacific education system review series. http://unesdoc.unesco.org/ images/0021/002178/217816E.pdf