By Jennifer Wallace - Anhui Gongye Daxue, Anhui Province, China
When I came to teach here, although I‘d been a speaking test examiner for more than 10 years (for UCLES exams) I‘d actually never had to set an oral English exam before. I’d taught always in situations where the students were either taking no exam or were working towards an external exam. So if I did have to set tests, they were very much on the mock-exam model.
I’d never taught a modern language within a university/college setting where this was the student’s main subject (major). Although I had a short training specific to coming to this post in China, provided by the NGO who sponsor my post, I came with some sort of assumption that there would be a syllabus, there would be designated attainment targets (although not necessarily expressed in that way). Well, you all know the reality here.
I was timetabled for first year Oral English classes who were provided with one of the ORAL ENGLISH WORKSHOP series of books. If anything, I found that was worse than arriving with nothing. It implied someone somewhere thought the content of this course book was what my students should be mastering.
Anyway, after a semester of muddling along and getting some sort of impression about what might be possible, I realised that the lowest of the UCLES EFL exams I’d been a speaking test examiner for was probably within the reach of everyone in the class. I’d been warned about the tradition of everyone in the class passing the exams. Remember I’d done those UCLES tests for years.
I could remember the type of tasks set in the exam, and I produced a parallel. Those UCLES tests are taken in pairs, but I chose to give each student an individual exam - partly as a public relations exercise about oral exams within my department. I was interlocuter as well as assessor.
So I recorded all the exams and marked them from the tapes. I was right in that all my students were capable of attaining that first level in the UCLES hierarchy, which means that in a grander scheme of things they had all achieved the Council of Europe Basic User level. The descriptors for this (in summary) are:
Can understand sentences and frequently used expressions related to areas of most immediate relevance (e.g. very personal and family information, shopping, local geography, environment).
Can communicate in simple and routine tasks requiring a simple and direct exchange of information on familiar and routine matters.
Can describe in simple terms aspects of his/her background, immediate environment and matters of immediate need.
At the end of the first semester all my students could do that - although a good number could only just do it with a very sympathetic interlocutor. Others walked through it. Which gave me a good spread of marks. And on that basis I decided to model the exam at the end of the second semester on the next level up (which I’d also done examining work for). By that stage my classes had included a fair amount of group work, and so the exam was done in small, randomly selected groups of 4, not including me. This year I’ve done lots more group work, but am actually planning to give one-to-one exams at this stage instead - partly for comparison.
So my decisions were based on a combination of what was within my own capabilities as well as the students. I’m not an expert on language testing. My only teacher training is a CELTA, and in the past when I’ve had to devise and construct college tests it was done under the supervision of a very experienced head of department. But also I’m not into re-inventing the wheel.
The Council of Europe stuff - which relates to ALL the languages taught in Europe (and that includes teaching non-European languages) - is the result of mega-input from experts over heaven knows how many years now. I feel I’d be deluding myself if I thought I could devise any better sort of structure to work within - so I’m using it. I do also like it - I find it clear and easy to get my head around.
I’m also interested to find that now I’ve got hold of an English translation of the syllabus for our English & Education majors, which details Band 2, 4 and 6 targets, I’m starting to be able to relate them meaningfully to the band descriptors I’m used to using. I’ve come across this syllabus too late to affect how I teach and examine this year, but it’s certainly going to help me next year.
It also makes me realise that we tend to see the Band exam stuff from the student-obsession perspective, while underlying it there is the same sort of work I’ve been used to being aware of in a European context. Here, I realise I see the students’ type of understanding - the seeing only the tip of the iceberg - because I‘m not included in my department as a colleague with access to formal and informal discussion about all this.
From my students I have an impression of teaching that’s come down to a lowest common denominator sort of level influenced by the need to get students through those exams to allow them to graduate. But I think I can also see where my own college department is failing to meet the specifications in that syllabus, both in intention and reality. Which in itself is interesting as this is a department that an international NGO thought warranted support in its development.