Среда 24 июля 2013

Testing linguistic knowledge in ЕГЭ[1]; developing an argument in the IELTS[2] speaking module.

Introduction: what is argument?

Sometimes the word describes a situation where there is a noticeable lack of communication. We use the noun ‘argument’ or the verb ‘to argue’ when we want to describe something trivial. Perhaps a dispute or disagreement over something as when two neighbours are in conflict over a domestic problem. e.g. Excessive noise levels, pets behaving badly, parking arrangements and the rest. Such matters are nearly always personal and confrontational. Here the noun argument is generally countable.

But if we, as educationalists, are debating a point in an impersonal, non-confrontational way, we are engaging in argument or arguing – or even engaging in argumentation. In contrast to the example above, argumentation is about expressing as clearly as possible ideas that are sometimes complex but nearly always abstract and speculative – and doing it in a way that invites objection. Wikipedia offers a fuller and generally reliable definition[3]. In order to be clear with this distinction we may agree to call domestic deputes ‘arguments’ but refer to augmentation when we mean academic debates and discussion. The noun argumentation is generally uncountable. Before moving on, cognates in Russian should be identified. See box above left.

Examining linguistic knowledge.

Although our concern here is with ЕГЭ, I, as a non-Russian, might be forgiven for thinking that this state exam focuses on the acquisition of the English language only. Of course, ЕГЭ is about much more than this – in fact it is about something no less important that preparing pupils for life after school at university and then as working people. There is much to be learnt at school across a whole range of subjects and disciplines. I have yet to meet a young person of school age who has not complained about his or her school workload. But pupils must work despite the load regardless of how much they might want to complain about it. Afterwards they have to be tested, and in the ЕГЭ English exam, linguistic knowledge is tested in questions B4-16 and A22-28. The ЕГЭ speaking test module, which after all is based on the IELTS speaking module, however, cannot be fully utilised by teacher/examiners if it is seen more as a test of linguistic knowledge rather than one of communicative competence. This will be discussed in the next section shortly.

Russian teachers of English (RTEs) should be commended for the life long learning they set in train at mainly, but not exclusively, secondary level. The linguistic knowledge they themselves build up over a career also make them eminently suitable for preparing other students taking exams such as FCE, CAE and CPE[4], which all have papers that test extensively linguistic knowledge. I refer to the English in Use paper in each.

Facets of argumentation: accounting for, considering, evaluating, assessing, evoking, speculating…

Given RTEs’ success with the International exams mentioned above and their commitment to them, it is perfectly understandable that such teachers are wary of a university entrance exam like IELTS (valid for only two years where other International exams, FCE, CAE, CPE are valid for life). IELTS has more of the instance of a Mediterranean stir-fry about it. To use another analogy, it is merely a snapshot of a candidates’ English rather than a forensic examination of it.

However, the IELTS speaking module (which remember ЕГЭ resembles) demands a skills-based approach from the student and not a demonstration of systematic linguistic knowledge that gap fill, word transformation and the other sub-skills try to capture and assess. The question thus becomes: what can the exam candidate communicate competently despite non native speaker linguistic knowledge rather than what are the limitations of that knowledge per se.

It cannot be said, and no would say, that systematic errors on the part of the exam candidate are acceptable as far as obtaining a useful score in the IELTS speaking test is concerned. Grammar range and accuracy together with lexical resource account for 50% of the candidate’s score (pronunciation accounts for 25%). The other 25% of the score covers ‘fluency and coherence.’ This relates to how the candidate arranges what he/she is saying in order to develop argumentation supporting any or all of the following sub skills: accounting for, considering, evaluating, assessing, (where comparatives and superlatives must be used) Also evoking as well as speculating (see appendix), and agreeing/disagreeing. The challenge of the last mentioned is that to agree or dis-agree the speaker must take a position (i.e. argue a position) before justifying it and then offering some evidence from personal experience.


I would never want to suggest that linguistic knowledge is not important in a performative skills based test like the IELTS and ЕГЭ speaking modules. It is more a matter of how to activate it. For the reasons given above, RTEs are uniquely placed to do this, unlike some, but of course not all, native speaker teachers, who are more like trainers where the training itself is little more than conversation practice.

RTEs, having taught a group of pupils over at least one semester, are able to make a judgement as to what is being tested on the basis of what has been taught in connection with course content. The aim is to have candidates communicate elements of content competently by way of language awareness (or linguistic knowledge) which the exam candidate should draw on to support the content. In order for the examiner to create a platform from which a candidate can show both his/her communicative competence and linguistic knowledge, a function area needs to be promoted by the former and recognised by the latter. Of the six function areas that head the previous section, two evoking and speculating will be looked at in detail. The one presupposes use of the retrogressive perfective aspect in order to discuss the past, the other presupposes the progressive perfective aspect (and modality) to talk about the future. Just how this approach may work in practice is demonstrated in the appendix.


[1] Единого Государственного Экзамена
[2] International English Language Testing System
[3] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Argumentation_theory
[4] First Certificate in English, Certificate in Advanced English and Certificate of Proficiency in English respectively.

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