Friday, 22 November 2013

Speaking and writing in exam training: blended solutions

I presented this paper on behalf of OUP at the IATEFL conference in Liverpool in April 2013. For those of you who couldn't be there, here's a summary of what we discussed in the session.

Success factors in exam training

When teachers are faced with the task of preparing a group of students for a given exam, there is one known constant: the students, without exception, must attain the level required by the exam. Although this objective – exam success – is clear, there are several factors that necessitate teachers’ attention in the classroom.

First of these is the current level or starting level of the individuals comprising the group. Teachers need measurement tools, both valid and reliable, to efficiently measure students’ level of English in order to establish the starting point for the exam training syllabus. Online and computer-assisted as well as printed placement tests cater for this need.

Another key factor in exam success is familiarity. As one delegate aptly put it in the session: ’there ought to be no surprises in the exam’. Learners need to be familiar both with the test itself (its structure, the types of tasks involved, the amount of time available for each paper and part and so on) and its assessment criteria (to put simply, how candidates can obtain or lose scores as well as the relative weighting of the various papers and parts). The simplest solution is to select course materials designed around the particular exam that learners are preparing for – or to supplement a core course material with such dedicated exam training materials.

Finally, teachers must also provide a balanced coverage of all the language (grammar, vocabulary, functions) and all the skills tested in the exam, both receptive and productive skills. To ensure exam success, the focus should not be on what is easier to quantify and to teach, or what is practical to fit into a lesson timeframe, but on what each learner will be expected to do in the exam.

Potential problem areas for training for productive skills

Writing and speaking both present a number of practical difficulties that teachers must find solutions for. By their nature, productive skills are less predictable (there is often no such thing as ’the’ correct answer) and more challenging to break down into classroom activities.

Writing issues

The writing process proper takes an inordinate amount of time – often more than how much time is feasible in the contact hours available. Writing activities therefore often take place outside the classroom – that is, outside the environment controlled by the teacher. Only the lead-in work, and occasionally some form of follow-up is usually done in class. Task-setting may be done in or outside class, but subsequent monitoring is difficult, impractical, often even impossible. Teachers only find out that some learners got on the wrong track after students have completed their assignments. This then leads to further complications like more unplanned remedial work or a repeat of the writing task, preferably with modified parameters to avoid duplicating the task for those learners who got it right first time around.

Furthermore, if marking is to be thorough, by necessity it will be extremely time-consuming. Conversely, if it is to be done quickly and promptly, it will be superficial.

Speaking issues

All speaking work, on the other hand, is normally done in class – precisely so that teachers can control it. This means learners either have to perform simultaneously, where again the issue of proper monitoring arises, or they perform individually (or in open pairs or groups), which reduces all other learners’ chances to speak. Teachers face the dilemma of providing either maximum opportunity–minimum control/feedback or maximum control/feedback–minimum opportunity.

Blended solutions

Blended learning: the amalgamation of face-to-face and course material-driven approaches with online approaches can provide a solution for the above issues.

The following diagram shows a possible model for covering writing training.

The difficulties caused by the practical necessity of completing writing assignments out of the classroom can be remedied through the use of a Learning Management System (LMS) which allows teachers to set up and monitor tasks remotely. Many online services also offer an automatic (or at least a guided semi-automatic) marking facility for more closed types of writing.

Speaking can also be aided through the use of online learning services (online workbooks, practice tests, etc.), which often offer a speak-and-record facility. Teachers can find similar free-to-use web services online. Embracing social media channels, like online video chat can also enhance exam preparation and extend contact time.

Blended learning may not provide solutions for every exam training issue, but is well worth considering.

Go digital - life is peaceful there... or is it?

Digital was a big thing at this year's IATEFL in Liverpool - some publishers didn't even bring books to their stands! I fondly recall a confused teacher walking up to said publisher's stand, asking: "You don't have any coursebooks any more?" - to which the marketing person replied: "Of course, we do. Have a look in our catalogue." The teacher, relieved, "So, may I have a catalogue then?" Marketing person, slightly embarrassed, "Actually, we haven't got any printed copies with us, but use one of the iPads at our stand to browse our online catalogue." The teacher ambled up to the row of iPads, then stood around helplessly until the same marketing person walked up to her to find out what, if anything, was the matter this time. "Can you show me how to use this thing, please?", the lady said... No comment. 

BEBC didn't refrain from commenting on the subject, though:

So is digital a bandwagon we should all be in a hurry to jump on? I read this thought-provoking article on where Laurie Harrison made a compelling case for iterative publishing - that is, continually updated online teaching materials replacing coursebooks:

To me, the cons still outweigh the pros. This is where my reservations stem from: digital is simply a different medium, but the pedagogical values and teaching/learning objectives should neither be restricted by the medium's limitations or by its vast technological potential. We shouldn't be doing only what the format allows us to do, but we should mould the format to allow us to do what we want to do. We pay a lot of lip service to "blended learning", but what I'm missing here is old-fashioned (yes, coursebook) values blended with a mixture of media to provide a more stimulating as well as more familiar environment for learners. 

For more food for thought, have a look at Hugh Dellar's insightful blog post into the wider ramifications:

I'm not against digital in principle, obviously. Digital media open up opportunities for real communication as well as communication practice, they provide access to vast amounts of information as well as stimulating materials, and they come equipped with the facilities for differentiated, personalised learning experiences. None of which was around when I was a student, then a teacher of English. I had to make do with what limited amount of support I could find around me in a non-English-speaking environment. Before the advent of digital, that wasn't a lot.

Anyway, I just thought I'd throw in this topic for all of us to think more about. I believe there is a way in which digital can work in our favour - but we, teachers, should be mapping the route and leading the way, not technology. What do you think?