The examiner was pacing up and down the aisle in the examination room which was gradually getting crowded. Nearly all the candidates had arrived for the written part of a C2 level examination, and it seemed that the procedure would follow the scheduled times. Then, suddenly he heard a voice behind him. “Mister!!!”. He turned around utterly surprised, thinking that he had misheard. But the candidate repeated in the same half demanding/half inquiring tone that a native speaker could easily perceive as rude. “Mister, do we use pencils?” Tempted not to reply but having to do so, the examiner heavy-heartedly said “Yes”.
Text by: Dimitris Primalis
The examiner who confided the story felt frustrated by the lack of communication skills of the candidate who has supposedly reached the highest level of proficiency in speaking English. “Does it really matter if she passes the exam? Can you imagine her trying to communicate with clients or establish rapport with foreigners?” he wondered in horror.
This is not the first horror story I’ve heard. Oral examiners often complain about students who bombard them with numerous, rehearsed idioms in the first couple of utterances they make but communication is barely achieved when they need to reach a decision or justify their opinion.
Are we setting the right priorities?
When the ocean water floods the hull of the boat, there is no point in rearranging the deck chairs (metaphor intended). Yes, teaching grammar and vocabulary are very important parts of language teaching, but should they be isolated and alienated from their original purpose: to facilitate communication? Are we adopting the best practice when we use overprinted practice tests (Kantarakis, 2022) and we do not teach language in context? We can easily put the blame on the lockdown and emergency teaching, the parents, the syllabus or even the bad weather but at the end of the day we know that we are paying our students lip service. Everybody seems to be holding a foreign language certificate, but this is only a part of our job which is to teach learners to use the language as proficiently as possible so that they can use it as a medium to achieve their goals in their studies, professional field and interpersonal relationships. Word processors like Word will automatically pick mistakes in grammar and suggest correct alternatives. Listeners will forgive a speaker if the past participle of a verb is not correct, but will they be equally lenient when it comes to rude tone or pompous vocabulary that impedes communication?
A fallacy that turned into a vicious circle
We tend to repeat to ourselves that there is no time to help learners develop other skills such as critical and creative thinking skills because they are not part of the exams. Therefore, we should devote our teaching time to grammar and vocabulary. Is this the case though?
Most examinations feature skills such as critical thinking skills (summarizing, analyzing, synthesizing) and communication skills (presenting, negotiating, reaching a decision, interacting with the speaker). Test takers are assessed on areas such as “impact on the reader”, “discourse management” and “interactive communication” which account for a considerable percentage of the total grade.
Thus, the excuse that we focus solely on grammar and vocabulary teaching because this is the best way to prepare our candidates for the exams is lame and deprives them of opportunities to develop other skills which are assessed at the exams and are integral parts of effective communication in a foreign language.
What can be done?
Teach learners about tone, register, and underlying messages. This is an investment that will give them valuable extra points in the exams but even more importantly, it will give their language output added value. Incorporate activities that will allow learners to explore the language from different perspectives and discover intended meanings by the writers of texts. For instance, “why is the author using the words X, Y, Z instead of A, B, C? What message is he/she trying to convey?”
Urge learners to use the language creatively
Encourage learners to use the language creatively rather than copy-paste or memorize pieces of writing. Teach them puns and spend time in class focusing on reading between the lines when you deal with texts. Have fun in class by changing the register in formal texts or transforming text messages to formal letters. There are also online newspapers and magazines that will give them a sense of authentic English and how language is used by native or near-native speakers.
Make the most of the learner exposure in the foreign language
The vast majority of learners are exposed to language through the social media and the internet. Find out about their interests – it can be done through a simple questionnaire any time during the academic year- and invite them to share in class interesting facts or their views on issues that are controversial. Alternatively, you can assign projects based on their interests aiming to develop the learners’ critical thinking skills.
Promote communication and interaction
Integrate pair and group work in your lesson. It will give learners the opportunity to practice the language and help them understand that learning a language is closely related to communication. Organize Skype meetings with other schools from other countries so that students can have more opportunities to communicate and at the same time get to know other cultures.
Teach in context
As Teresa Cremin points out in the 2018 Oxford language Report, “Language is most effectively learnt in the context of use, through interaction and through hearing words spoken and read in effectively engaging situations that prompt a desire to understand and to use it for one’s own purposes.”
Set goals based on can-do statements
Rather than setting goals such as “I am going to teach them the Simple Past”, the aim could be “Students can talk about past experiences”. The second aim reflects a wider scope and helps both educator and learners focus more on usage rather than form.
Emergency teaching reinstated the lost prestige of teachers with parents and learners realizing how much effort teachers put into teaching. In a post-pandemic era, a teacher’s work will not be deemed successful only by the high passing rates of their learners in the exams but also by the ability of the learners to use the language proficiently in a highly demanding professional and academic environment. As mentioned above, minor changes in how we approach teaching can accommodate learner needs. It is a matter of adopting a different perspective. The question is: “Are we willing to give it a try?”