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ENGLISH LANGUAGE EXAMINATIONS

Среда 16 Январь 2013

Опубликовано в печатной версии журнала. Вып. № 6.


Some thoughts and advice for teachers and students who are undertaking UK International English Examinations ESOL & SESOL

 

настроение: thoughtful

ключевые слова: exams, four criteria, writing, speaking, listening, levels, advice

город: City & Guilds Representative in Russia

e-mail: andrew.bayley@cityandguilds.com

 

The following commentary is written from my experience of conducting official English language exams in Russia over 20 years. It follows that my expertise is founded mainly on one examination board City & Guilds, however as all UK government approved UK and EU English exams have to conform to the six European levels of language skills, the insights I can offer you should hold good for all.

First you may ask why choose one approved exam board over another, well you may also ask why choose a BMW over a Mercedes or vice versa. Both are equally good, they cost much the same and have a similar range/level of cars. However they do feel a little different in their driving experience even though, at the end of the day, they deliver the same result.

City and Guilds International spoken and written examinations are designed in line with the European Common Framework for Reference. This means that the four criteria of Accuracy, Fluency, Pronunciation and Range all have equal value, and equal importance. If I were to characterise the City & Guilds examinations, as compared with another well-known UK exam board, I would say that City & Guilds place their emphasis on everyday language and communication, while another board may have a greater emphasis on traditional or grammatical elements. While some teachers may feel more at ease with grammar as it is often their expertise, real, practical and communication skills are actually what students (and employers) want most.

It is usual now that even the “written exam” includes a significant part which is prerecorded i.e. “listening” to conversations from which answers have to be chosen. This clearly indicates the way English language should be taught, i.e. that there should be a very large emphasis on the spoken language, and, by implication, current everyday language.

The higher levels of the exams also demand a concomitant level of accuracy and range of language. Candidates should be wary when they get to level 4 upwards that they must not only understand the question, but be able to utilise an increasingly mature analysis matched by an appropriate level of language. For the highest levels teachers and students should practise discussion of current topics, from ideas, politics, economics — even philosophy.

Written/listening exams ESOL

There are a number of obvious mistakes that students can make when undertaking a written/listening exam.

Not planning their time will be the first. This can be the result of a haphazard approach to the questions i.e. not balancing the question value with the time spent on it, or simply running out of time by leaving the longest or most difficult question until the end. Generally at the lower levels candidates will find that they have sufficient time to complete the exam well, but at level 4 and above, time will become their enemy as time management becomes a real factor during the exam.

Another fault is in not reading the question carefully, or writing a short essay which the candidate has already preplanned in the hope that it will do. Such an approach is unsatisfactory even at the lower to middle levels and at the higher levels it would be unforgivable, no matter how well written.

How to succeed at ESOL

  • Write all your answers in ink not pencil — you do not have time to rewrite everything!
  • Answer ALL the questions.
  • Read each question carefully and do as it asks — no more, no less!
  • Listen very, very carefully to the CD in Part 1 — you will hear everything twice.
  • Leave time at the end of the exam to check over your paper.

Spoken Exams SESOL

Spoken exams are often the most in­teresting, as the examiner has an immediate interaction with the student. At this point an immediate rapport will help a good deal. The candidate should be relaxed and it is part of the interlocutor’s job to try to achieve this. The first questions tend to be a little more straightforward and at the lower levels act as icebreakers — they are designed to ease the candidate into longer and more varied responses later in the exam.

The most obvious problems which can occur are

  • a candidate who is extremely hesitant or gives a very slow answer — not a good sign.
  • some candidates may even give a long answer to a very simple question — it does not help.
  • There is no virtue in being hesitant and none in giving a long answer when not required. Longer answers will be appropriate in the later questions. In any event all exams are deliberately timed so short answers should be used where required, and longer answers where required also.

Lower level students (i.e. 1–3). Some questions may ask students to speak on their own on a given subject. It is likely that they will have time to prepare. We often see the candidate trying to compose a full and complete monologue. On reflection, this is impractical. Here students need to be taught to create a quick “spidergram”, or bullet points. This acts as a memory aid and breaks the subject down into easily spoken about components.

In addition higher level students (4–6) may be expected to discuss a subject such as global warming, globalisation or even a philosophical idea. Again to give a satisfactory answer the candidate is given a very short time to prepare an answer. In many cases, a good plan might be to write down a few words “single words only”, for and against the idea. The candidate should then concentrate on using language which is appropriate to the level. They should also be prepared for interjections or contra suggestions by the interlocutor and be quick to deal with them. Teachers should consider using video clips from the BBC in order to promote topical conversations with their students in class.

A few common spoken language faults

  • Pronunciation of the plural of “clothes”. It is not like the plural of house i.e. “houses”.
  • Word order “I very like ~”. It should be “I like ~ very much”.
  • The use of the word “funny”. Care should be taken to understand the uses of “funny”, “amusing”, “entertaining”. “Funny” can also have a negative connotation!
  • The use of “What?” when not understanding or hearing. This response is considered rude and “Sorry, can you repeat that, please?” would be a far better response.
  • The use of, “Didn’t” rather than “Don’t” against a question starting with, “Do”, for example, “Do you play tennis?” might receive the incorrect response of, “I didn’t play tennis”, rather than the correct, “I don’t play tennis”.
  • In reply to, “Do you like …”, the reply, “Yes, I like very much …” is common. This omits the noun after like. As an alternate, English could also use “it” as a definite article after the word like. (e.g. I like it very much)
  • This also relates to general omission of definite articles.
  • The application of time and distance. Here, when asked “Is it far to …” we hear the response “I should go 1 hour to …” Instead of the correct “It should take 1 hour» or, in more fluent English, “It takes an hour”. Occurs across many levels.
  • There are a number of words that translate from Russian into English, which, as direct translations seem to work well but, in English usage, can contextually incorrect. “Comfortable” in usage might be applied to clothing, a chair or bed, however, when applied to an activity, for example shopping is rarely used. Better words include “convenient”, “enjoyable” or “pleasant”.
  • Similarly, the concept of “a house”. In English usage this is invariable a single building for one family, usually having an upper and lower floor. A single storey dwelling would be a “Bungalow”. A large Russian style apartment blocks would in English be referred to either as an “Apartment Block” (American) or, more often, a “Block of Flats” (English). The single dwelling area would then be described as a “flat”. This is particularly relevant if asked to, “Describe your house”.

How to succeed at SESOL

  • Make and maintain eye contact with your examiner.
  • Answer the question/s you are asked, not the question/s you would have liked to have been asked!
  • Time is NOT your friend — give CLEAR and CONCISE responses to the questions you are asked — avoid repetition, and deliberately talking slowly!
  • In Part 3 be prepared to DI­SCUSS the picture/s, situations or, issues/topics openly rather than adopting a fixed/closed one-sided approach (using extended/sophisticated vocabulary at Levels 4, 5 and 6).
  • Practice speaking on a given subject and recording your own voice for 1 or 2 minutes as appropriate. This should help you to be really well prepared for part 4 at all of the 6 language Levels. The use of a video recorder is an even better teaching aid.

Helpful Web sites

Whilst there are many, I would also draw your attention to four websites which will give teachers and students lots of useful insights into the exams and better use of English.

City & Guilds global website
www.cityandguilds.com This may appear to be a huge website, difficult to navigate and even a little dry in style, but it does contain a lot of factual material relevant to the exams.

www.english-exam.ru This is a Russian hosted web site with around 50% of the contents in English, it is more lively and relevant to Russian students and may encourage them to venture into more language work. It is certainly more helpful to parents who need to understand more about what the child is studying. Students can also contribute to the site.

www.cityandguildsenglish.com This is a part of City & Guilds global website specifically designed to assist students and teachers with the use of English and preparation for English exams. This site is especially useful as it contains teacher development material. This helps the profession teacher understand more about the 4 criteria of “Accuracy”, “Range”, “Pronunciation” and “Writing”.

www.bbc.co.uk You will find any number of short video clips for example on almost any topic of current interest. These will be of greatest use for higher level candidates, but you will also find English language learning materials for lower level candidates too.

How to become an International English Language examination centre for City & Guilds

We have exam centres all over Russia, from Moscow State University to state schools, from private universities to private schools, and also several major international and Russian companies. To find out more contact andrew.bayley@cityandguilds.com

Teachers some thoughts to ponder

  • You are in the communication business! Should language teaching be didactic?
  • Grammar is the bone structure or skeleton for the “skin” of language communication. Do you see the skeleton or the skin of a person you talk to?
  • Do you need perfect grammar in order to communicate? Does every nationality make common mistakes with grammar which do not affect communication?
  • How old should a person be to start to learn a second language. Any answer above 2 or 3 is correct!
  • How many English people in 1,000 know what a phrasal verb is? The answer will probably be less than 10, — even though we use them all the time.

 

 

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