Professor Barry O’Sullivan

All four skills - listening, speaking, reading and writing - are necessary to develop practical English communication skills. We spoke to Barry O'Sullivan, Head of Assessment Research & Development at the British Council, about the importance of developing the four skills, the positive effects of assessments and the educational reforms required in Japan.

  • Why is English 4 skills (not only 2 skills) education important for developing practical English communication skills?    

It is really important to develop all four skills because they are so closely interconnected. For example, when we speak with somebody, we listen to what they have to say and then respond with an appropriate comment or observation, so listening and speaking are clearly connected. When we write, we are usually responding to some external input, like an email or a text message, or if we are a student, we respond to a question set by our professor. Of course, a student must first gather some information to help with his or her writing and this normally comes through reading books or papers or else from listening to lectures.   

Studying on the reading and listening means that a learner never learns how to actually use the language in real-life situations. This is a huge disadvantage when looking to find work in an increasingly global economy where English is the lingua franca of business. This puts the individual and the country at a serious disadvantage.  

  • What is the washback effect of introducing 4 skills tests? (any good achievement as an example?)  

I’d like to broaden our usual understanding of washback to include the impact on the individual and the impact on broader society. By treating language as a school subject, to be studied, tested and forgotten, many countries are in fact failing their learners. Let’s face it, there is little joy in seeing reading as essentially a translation activity and listening as a sort of game, where the learner listens for clues in an unrealistic situation to answer questions that never really tap into their actual comprehension ability. Where language is treated as a tool for communication, to be studied and used, the learner gains significantly on the cultural and cognitive level. Continuing to focus on the more testable skills (reading and listening) has seen generations of learners graduating from secondary and tertiary institutions with little or no capacity to use the language they have studied (often for many years). Many companies have struggled to find sufficient numbers of graduates who are in a position to operate in the global economy. This has hindered the economies of many countries, especially (but not only) Japan.  

  • What should be done to advance the English education reform in Japan?  What is necessary to improve the quality of education besides changing the test?  

When we consider educational reform, we must take a long-term view. It is well known that such change will typically take a generation before the full benefits are seen, though of course we can expect to see some benefits emerge during that time. In order to ensure that a reform has any hope of succeeding, it is important to consider the national curriculum (or course of studies), the delivery of that system (teacher training and monitoring; textbooks and online resources; the physical learning environment), and assessment (both in-class assessments and formal tests). We call this the Comprehensive Learning System. It is only when all three elements of the system are in full alignment that the hoped-for changes will happen. It is critical that policy makers fully understand this and look at a broad reform to ensure that teachers are fully prepared to teach to the new expanded goals, that the publishers are engaged with developing textbooks that reflect these goals and that the testing system is reformed to include a focus on the four skills. This is not an easy task and will not bring about rapid change, but evidence from countries such as Spain indicate that if properly and fully implemented then there is real hope that there will be a measurable improvement over time.  



Professor Barry O’Sullivan is the Head of Assessment Research & Development at the British Council where he was responsible for the design and development of the Aptis test service. He has undertaken research across many areas on language testing and assessment and its history and has worked on the development and refinement of the socio-cognitive model of test development and validation since 2000. He is particularly interested in the communication of test validation and in test localisation. He has presented his work at many conferences around the world, while over 100 of his publications have appeared in a range of international journals, books and technical reports. He has worked on many test development and validation projects over the past 25 years and advises ministries and institutions on assessment policy and practice. 

He was the founding president of the UK Association of Language Testing and Assessment (UKALTA) and holds honorary and visiting chairs at a number of universities globally. In 2016 he was awarded fellowship of the Academy of Social Science in the UK, and was elected to Fellowship of the Asian Association for Language Assessment in 2017. He was awarded an OBE for his contribution to English language testing in 2019.