My Bilingual Kids Were Formally Tested in Their Minority Language Ability for the First Time (And the Results Were Revealing)

Adam Beck, author, blog and forum founder, writes about his insights into the why and how of his children taking one of the most renowned English-tests in Japan

Adam Beck
Updated on
January 26, 2021
10 min read

Until my son was 12 and my daughter 15, they hadn’t been tested in any formal way to assess their ability in English, our minority language. So I signed them up to take the EIKEN test, which is a widely-used English test in Japan and is given several times a year in locations across the country.

The EIKEN test consists of seven “grades,” or levels: the lowest test level is Grade 5, then 4, then 3, then Pre-2, then 2, then Pre-1, and finally the highest test level, Grade 1. You can take the test of any level you choose (you don’t have to start at level 5 and work your way up), and ability at the higher levels is tested in two parts on two different days: the first part of the test assesses reading, writing, and listening; and the second part (but only if you pass that first part) is the test that assesses speaking.

Of course, I had long had my own estimate of their English ability, but I thought it would now be helpful, in these three ways, for them to begin challenging the higher EIKEN levels:

  1. The test results could provide further insight into the strengths and weaknesses of their current language ability.
  2. These tests would give us some new structure and goals for their language development. (When they were getting older, and getting immersed even more deeply in their Japanese lives, it was important for me to pursue concrete ways, that preferably have some continuity, to continue advancing their English side.)
  3. Passing test scores at the higher levels of the EIKEN test could potentially benefit them in the future when they seek to enter high schools and universities, or when they’re eventually looking for work.

The three highest test levels

The year before taking the test, I printed out samples of the three highest test levels from the EIKEN web site—levels 2, pre-1, and 1—and had them give these a try.

Since, in the past, I had helped a number of my students prepare to take various levels of this test, I already was pretty familiar with the range of difficulty and I was able to judge which level would be most appropriate for my own kids.

I say “level”—not “levels”—because Lulu and Roy, despite nearly a three-year gap in their ages, are basically at the same level of general English ability. In a post I made in January 2018—My Bilingual Daughter Is 13. My Bilingual Son is 10. So Why Is Their Level in the Minority Language Basically the Same?—I explained the reasons why and stressed the point that Roy’s greater passion for books and reading has resulted in a greater quantity of input over a shorter amount of time. (Thus, doing your best to maximize your child’s “bookworm potential,” from early on, can have a hugely productive impact on his overall language proficiency through the years of childhood.)

After examining their sample tests, my sense of the appropriate test level for their current ability was confirmed: level 2 would be too easy; level 1 would be too hard; and level Pre-1 would be just about right.

To help you understand the sort of levels I’m talking about, here are vocabulary and reading samples from each of these levels.

Vocabulary and reading samples from EIKEN Grade 2

EIKEN Grade 2 vocabulary sample
EIKEN Grade 2 reading sample

Vocabulary and reading samples from EIKEN Grade Pre-1

EIKEN Grade Pre-1 vocabulary sample
EIKEN Grade Pre-1 reading sample

Vocabulary and reading samples from EIKEN Grade 1

EIKEN Grade 1 vocabulary sample
EIKEN Grade 1 reading sample

Results from the first part of the test

In the end, though, I didn’t register them for the level Pre-1 test; I signed them up for level 2. You see, even though I felt they could probably pass Pre-1, I wanted to ensure that their first experience of the EIKEN test would be a positive one, I wanted them to feel successful, and so I had them take the level 2 test instead. At the Pre-1 and 1 levels, it was not only the difficulty of the material that poses a challenge; it was also the fact that their youth was a disadvantage because their lack of life experience made it even harder for them to comprehend the topics of the reading passages. (The vast majority of test-takers at the Pre-1 and 1 levels are older students and adults.)

When we received the results of their level 2 test in reading, writing, and listening, their passing scores weren’t a surprise, but the results themselves were still quite revealing in terms of their language ability at the time. The highlights:

The second part of the test

The second part of the test is a speaking assessment—reading a short passage aloud and answering a question, then narrating a three-panel illustration and responding to a couple of more questions. Though they were a bit nervous about it, I had familiarized them with the format beforehand and they didn't find it too difficult during the actual test.

Not long after, we received the news: My kids had officially passed their first proficiency test in English, our minority language! And amazingly, their final scores—a combination of both the reading/writing test and the speaking test—were almost identical! My son’s score was 2445 and my daughter’s was 2439 (out of 2600 total points). They had big smiles when they opened their large envelopes and found the certificates inside!

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Adam Beck

Adam Beck is the author of the popular book Maximize Your Child's Bilingual Ability, widely praised by experts in the field and parents around the world, and now also available in Polish. He is the founder of the influential blog Bilingual Monkeys and the lively forum The Bilingual Zoo. He lives in Hiroshima, Japan.‍

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