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Speaking Test: Making Teaching to it meaningful

Test prep as student-driven communication

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Here I’m describing a process for turning speaking test ‘exam practice’ into highly-motivated, personalized, reflective, critical speaking practice for university-level EFL students.

While I haven’t asked this particular class, my first year undergrads would most probably agree with much of what their peers at another Korean university wrote recently about lack of motivation and direction, and increasing zombification, republished here.  At my university, all students must pass a uni-created speaking test before graduation, and complete a one-semester ‘Discussions and Presentations’ class which culminates in that exam. Fail the test, and they retake the class. The test is coming in two weeks.

Hence, if you ask them what they want to do in class, which I did with this particular group, because little good can come from me deciding unilaterally, they’ll tell you they want to practice for the exam. Such an answer is in keeping with the culture of “school as test prep” that many of them have acquired during most (perhaps all) of their educated lives, and reflects a belief that test practice would boost their chances of passing the speaking test on the first go.

They also told me that they’d like to have class discussions on topics that they are interested in.  Well, wouldn’t you? Or would you rather have discussions on topics dictated to you by a textbook or a teacher with whom you have nothing (gender, nationality, generation) in common, culturally, even if efforts were made to get the topics right?

Speaking Test Description

The speaking test of course bares little resemblance to anything anyone does in any ‘real life’, and is delivered to a computer (audio only), alone.  It has four tasks:

Task 1. Soft-ball warm-up questions (e.g. “Tell me about yourself”) 20 seconds

Task 2. Describe a random photograph (20 seconds to think, 70 to answer, 5 sentences minimum)

Task 3. Describe a random process, such as mailing a letter at a post office (does anyone still do that) (20, 70, 5 sentences)

Task 4. Discuss advantages and disadvantages of a random issue such as school uniforms (20, 80, 6)

Intermittently during the semester we worked up models of #2, 3, and 4 so that students could practice substituting specific examples relating to the random item, and learn to address the topics in the time given. This was always done in pairs (sometimes brainstorming together, sometimes listening to each other and providing feedback), and until last week we worked through official sample questions, except for the picture description task, which came from my collection and students’ cell phones.

I was fairly pleased with this practice, and the students seemed at least to enjoy practicing with several different partners, occasionally even with me.  But when they asked for still more exam practice, and for discussions of topics that they choose, I grew weary at the thought of dreaming up circus hoop exam practice tasks that serve no other purpose for the students. It’s enough to make a guy change careers. So, with a two-hour class coming last Friday, I determined that the students would be responsible for all the content, that they would get valuable opportunities to improve their presentation skills, and that they’d have fun doing it.

The Speaking Test Practice Class: Part 1

Here’s the preparation procedure:

1. Students pair up with someone currently sitting near them.

2. Students individually write four personal questions that they would like to ask their classmates.

3. Students individually select two photos in their cell phone photo gallery that show something happening (in other words, not a selfie or a portrait of someone else).

4. Students (in pairs if they wish) think of/write down three things that they do frequently that involve at least a 3-step process that a visitor to Korea might not know about, or might do differently.  Examples might be paying for and riding public transportation, or eating a meal at a typical local restaurant.

5. Students (in pairs if they wish) think of/write down three dilemmas/problems/uncertainties in their personal lives. An example here might be “I don’t know whether I should confide in my parents about the different kinds of fun I have at college.” See? I have no idea what my students might choose to address here, so why should I tell them what to talk about?

The Speaking Test Practice Class: Part 2

Here’s the practice procedure for the first task (personal questions). I repeated this procedure for the 2nd –  4th task types.

1. Each student repairs with someone who has no knowledge of what’s on her prep list, and the new pairs turn chairs/desks to face each other, as far away from other pairs as possible.  This was the only part of the class that I dominated/controlled, as it seemed most efficient for me to assign the pairs, and usher them to a suitable spot in the room.

2. Pairs decide who is A and B.

3. A starts her cell phone video camera app & gives phone to B.

4. B asks A 1 personal question, starts recording A. A answers question.

5. B stops recording at 20 seconds and returns cell phone to A. (I had planned to do the timing, but there was no need, as all video camera apps have digital timers on them).

6. Reverse roles and repeat 3-5.

7. Pairs watch both videos, identify strengths and weaknesses together, determine what to improve, check vocab/grammar with me, each other, or resources via phone.

8. Repeat steps 3-7 with a 2nd personal question.

9. Repeat steps 3 – 8 with tasks 2 – 4.

Reflections on the class

Task repetition provided rich opportunities for students to reflect with video recordings on their work, and for those reflections to get deeper as they progressed through the tasks. They were familiar with the idea already from multiple video post homework assignments in a Google+ community, but it’s difficult to ‘force’ reflection on those posts. Motivation appeared to be extremely high throughout. My guess is the amount of talking they were actually interested in was much higher, as the prompts all came from the individual student, so they were bound to be more invested in the material than if I had done all the item selection. In a class of 18 I witnessed students in all parts of the room checking their dictionaries between recordings, and noticing facial expressions and speech habits (“um”, “like”, etc) they could, and did, control better.

There can be no doubt that 50 minutes of focused dyadic communication was well-spent time as far as fluency and proficiency development is concerned. For the second or third time recently I managed to remove myself from the center for virtually the entirety of the class, by getting all 18 of them communicating in English about content they chose for nearly the full 100 minutes. This also allowed me to attend to my relationships with students on an individual basis, and spared me the potentially demotivating work of disciplining, corralling, or assessing content and performance.

I began this post by pointing out that these students have the same motivational hurdles as most other Korean university students, and have found that whenever the class begins to resemble something like traditional school, many, perhaps most of them can’t help but go zombie or start talking to each other or texting on their phones. Such behavior forces me to switch to manager/dictator/judge… or to surrender and let that behavior (and any useful learning) go.  It also provides me with live visual evidence that I’m not using their time efficiently. I’m their leader, after all – it falls to me to help them understand and buy into the usefulness of their time with me. I think this personalized speaking test practice is a culturally appropriate step in the right direction.

Speaking Test: Making Teaching to it meaningful

Comments (0)

I'm in this for the dialogue :-)

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