Posted by:

TOEIC’s Tertiary Tentacles – Proficiency Tests Infest Hallowed Halls

There I was sitting in my office, admiring my own busyness, when I first noticed it. Dribbling in ominous trickles, oozing like molasses through the cracks in the wall, slimy vines  were creeping through the ventilator, gelatinous tentacles forcing open the windows and slowly encircling my desk. Pulling away in a mad frenzy from the sucking, gurgling goo I managed to wrench the door open and shouted frantically down the hall:

“Help! TOEIC infestation!”




It had been carried by the wind from the newer, stranger corners of the campus. You see, we have a new faculty operating at the University of Miyazaki. Based on the Japanese Ministry of Education’s recent suggestions for revising or replacing dormant faculties, a new ‘Faculty of Regional Innovation’ (yeah, I know) began as of April 2016. Since the request to get the new faculty underway was sudden, little time was left to establish a solid curriculum or to hire suitable specialist instructors.


That’s where we were called in. While the new faculty was taking baby steps, the authorities requested that veteran teachers from other faculties (in my case, medicine) step in for the first year to help establish the groundwork. Fine. I’ll take one for the team. I’ll go above and beyond my call of duty to help out those in need. ‘Please vets, we need your experience to get this motor running!’ Sure, just leave it to us old pros.


we can do it


And that’s when I  started hearing other people — teachers, researchers, and office personnel — referring to the new faculty’s English course as the (shudder) ‘TOEIC Course’. Ouch.


I have issues regarding how readily universities are willing to hand over accredited English courses to what amount to glorified TOEIC training seminars”


It turns out, without knowing what else to do on such short notice but still having to establish some basic type of syllabus, the new faculty’s dean of studies decided that the early focus of English teaching should be TOEIC-based because, to paraphrase a superior: ‘A lot of jobs in Japan these days require a certain TOEIC score as a basis for employment’.


Now, I don’t really have issues with the TOEIC test per se (although a number of people do). In fact, I was once schooled by a former TOEIC item writer. I had written on my previous blog, with some justification I think, that the TOEIC test did little to address or accurately measure certain features of interactive speech, particularly pragmatics (how we use indirect language to produce desired uptake in speech). This item writer subsequently showed me clearly how pragmatics was in fact often embedded into some TOEIC tasks. Good. These tests are getting more comprehensive. I stood corrected — but remained cautious.


But damn, I still have issues regarding how readily universities are willing to hand over accredited English courses to what amount to glorified TOEIC training seminars. So, to stem the infestation, below I write seven good reasons to resist the establishment of a TOEIC (or similar) course at your university:


1. I/we don’t work for TOEIC. I work for a university. Having a TOEIC class in university more or less turns independent teachers into de facto TOEIC shills.


2. Universities are not senmon gakkos (vocational schools). The focus should be placed upon developing and using more holistic cognitive second- language skills, not primarily upon helping students gaining numerical qualifications for the workplace.


3. It is almost impossible to teach a large class for a standardized test. While I would never, ever question a learner’s choice to take a TOEFL, TOEIC, IELTS etc. test, these are most definitely best mastered through independent study and/or with a private tutor one-on-one. Definitely not in a required university class of 30 plus.


4. TOEIC and similar proficiency tests are administered outside the university by private, profit-making, commercial operations. Now, I am not some rabid slogan-spewing anti-capitalist yahoo and I recognize the need for public universities and private interests to work together, but this too easily can become a case of the former being subsumed by the latter.


5. We generally all believe that ‘teaching to the test’ distorts the intrinsic goals and values of education, right? Well, a TOEIC university course makes no attempt to hide the fact that it is nothing but teaching to the test.


6. Teaching these kinds of ‘standardized test prep’ classes is generally as boring as baked bean broth for both the students and the teacher. Especially when the TOEIC empire has provided teacher with the official textbook to be used. Why not just send a TOEIC salesman into the classroom with a briefcase full of promo materials and a hearty sales spiel?


business smile


7. A number of tertiary institutions measure the ‘success’ of English courses (and all too often, teachers) by running TOEIC tests before and after the course. This, generally speaking, makes little sense. TOEIC is a proficiency test, not a course achievement test, and it was never designed to be anything else.


it is a maxim of testing that any valid, reliable achievement test should measure that which has been taught in the classes, so unless it is an explicitly TOEIC-learning course, that’s a big square-peg round-hole scenario.


if the teacher’s skill is being measured by the rise in post-course TOEIC scores (as is sometimes the case) then give me absolute beginners, please. Either that or give me the post-test questions in advance to teach. The numbers will surely skyrocket, proving beyond all doubt my immense skill as a teacher!


Fortunately for me (and more so for my students), the dean of the faculty has recognized our value as experienced educators and has stated that we are not bound by the TOEIC criterion and that we are free to teach what we like, but also that we should be aware that the TOEIC standard offers a degree of incentive and measurable objectivity to the classes.




But does it really? I’m wearing my Hazmat suit at work these days. The edges of my window sills? Duct taped. And I’m packing a weapon too. It’s called my teaching skill.


Mike Guest

Mike Guest

Michael (Mike) Guest is Associate Professor of English in the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Miyazaki (Japan). A veteran of 25 years in Japan, he has published over 50 academic papers, 5 books (including two in Japanese), has been a regular columnist in the Japan News/Yomiuri newspaper for 13 years, and has performed presentations and led workshops and seminars in over 20 countries. Besides ranting and raving, his academic interests include medical English, discourse analysis, assessment, teacher training, and presentation skills.
Mike Guest

Leave a Reply