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Exams & Preparation

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Are they truly independent users of the language?

Are they truly independent users of the language?

The goal of most foreign language learners is to reach the level of independent users of the language, i.e. to be able to do things like the following:

  • understand at least the main ideas of authentic written and spoken texts in the target language, even when complex and abstract ideas are expressed

  • communicate fluently and spontaneously with other speakers of the target language, without having to struggle to understand what the other person is saying and without testing the patience of their interlocutor

  • produce clear, accurate texts on a wide range of topics, including more theoretical or argumentative texts on contemporary issues

 

By George Vassilakis, Author and Teacher Trainer, ACE TEFL

Independent User

If one takes a moment to think about the implications of this general description, based on the B2 global scales in the CEFR (2001: 24), for teaching and learning foreign languages, two things become immediately clear:

  1. Having reached the B2 level in a language means being able to function autonomously in most everyday, educational and professional contexts. In other words, the learner should be able to live and work in a country where the foreign language is spoken without facing much difficulty in the majority of situations they encounter.
  2. It is very rare for someone to have developed an equal degree of skill in all of the areas. A learner might, for example, be able to understand the main ideas expressed in a fairly complex written text but might have difficulty identifying the main points of an equally complex spoken text, such as a lecture; or they may be able to take part in discussions on contemporary issues with fluency and precision of expression but not to write an essay on a discursive topic. Thus, the same learner may well be an independent listener or speaker but need support with reading or writing.

 

The B2 Level in Greece

In Greece, the vast majority of English language learners supposedly reach the B2 level at a fairly young age, when they are still at school. In most cases, it can hardly be the case that these learners have become independent users of English when it is doubtful that they are independent users of their native language in some of the areas outlined above: few fifteen-year-olds can hold an intelligent discussion on an abstract topic and even fewer can produce a coherent written argument or explain a viewpoint on a topical issue. And yet, that is what they are, naturally, expected to prove that they can do in English when sitting B2 level exams, of which there are more than a dozen available in Greece. That a very high percentage of these young candidates manage to pass these exams is amazing. I am not, however, sure that their success in these examinations is, in fact, an indication that  they are truly independent users of the language, even if the examination in question is one of the more reputable ones.

 B2 Language Exams

The obvious reason why I find it difficult to believe many B2 level certificate holders can really do all of the things a B2 level suggests they should be able to do is, as I stated above, their young age. It is neither the only reason, nor the most important one, though. The nature of language examinations and the way these examinations are used in this country is actually an even more important factor.

Language examinations can only attempt to test a sample of each learner’s performance, which is thought to be representative. By necessity, they will only test a small subset of the abilities that need to be demonstrated at each level. Unfortunately, these days we cannot even assume that an exam will attempt to elicit and assess samples of performance in all four skills – there are exams recognised in Greece, which only test two skills, so the conclusions we can draw about the learners’ overall performance are even more limited and even more open to doubt and criticism.

In addition, even if evidence were available that the test material in all the B2 exams is at the same level, the scoring systems different exams use vary widely: some have a cut score of 50% or less, while others require 65% or more; some require that a minimum level is achieved in each subtest, while others require just that the aggregate score is above the cut score. It is, then, not at all unusual for a learner to pass a B2 level exam even if they cannot do half of the things that the CEFR suggests they should be able to do!

Teaching to the test

 Because, however, the impact of language examinations on teaching and learning is so heavy in Greece, the situation is, in fact, worse than it appears to be at first sight. In reality, most teaching and learning activities in the foreign language teaching centres focus on and are shaped by examination preparation. Coursebooks and other teaching materials are published specifically for exam preparation purposes, teachers are required to have an excellent knowledge of the requirements of each exam, learners (and their parents!) demand that they get at least a B2 certificate by the time they are fifteen and the quality of the teaching that takes place is evaluated on the basis of the examination results the learners achieve.

Given these circumstances, it is unsurprising that teachers concentrate on exam practice and exam technique training activities, almost to the exclusion of everything else; in other words, teachers will ‘teach to the test’ to keep their students, and their employers, happy. As a result, little or no emphasis is placed on developing language and skills needed by an independent user of the language; the emphasis is on what to do in order to pass the test – and if the learner’s level is significantly below the minimum required to pass the test, there will usually be another, easier test that can be recommended to them.

 Conclusion?

 The attempt to quantify and describe in exhaustive detail learning outcomes at different stages of learning is continuing, stronger than ever: a companion volume to the CEFR was published only a couple of years ago, with more detailed descriptors and new areas of language use; the English Profile project keeps detailing the grammatical, functional and lexical exponents needed at each level; examination bodies keep carrying out CEFR alignment exercises to demonstrate how their exams are ‘linked’ to the CEFR. And yet, language learners are not developing into independent users of the language – rather, they are depending more and more on their teachers’ exam guidance tips and tricks and preparing less and less for using English in the real world.

Perhaps it is high time we re-evaluated our practices and perhaps it is even time we started questioning the validity of the tedious quantification processes that are fast replacing educational content.