Wednesday, 16 September 2009

Ridiculous testing of spoken English skills

It's national final exam time again in Finnish senior high schools. To graduate our students will have to pass national exams in a minimum of 4 subject. The exams are prepared by a special exam board, and there are two occasions to take them during the school year, in the autumn or in the spring. Students are free to work out their own schedule when they prefer to take each exam, yet the dates are set by the board and they are always the same for every school in Finland.

Today was the date for this autumn's English exam. Instead of the conventional set of reading comprehension, structures and vocabulary and composition, they had come up with a new section this time - filling in lines in a dialogue.

Finland is remiss I would claim, for not testing students' oral language skills for the final tests in any way. I don't know many countries where language tests are solely written! I have a feeling that writing lines in a dialogue was the board's attempt at silencing the many critics of the written-only exams. You see, the board, in their great wisdom, have decided that it is impossible to design and organize national oral exams. Maybe so, but I don't think they have come up with a very clever replacement this year. Or what do you think of the following scenario?

There is a dialogue between a farmer who stops his car to pick up a hitchhiker on the road somewhere in the British countryside. The hitchhiker is a travelling Finn, and the students are asked to write what this traveller would say based on Finnish cues. After the students have been prompted to write the words of the hitchhiker to indicate that he/she would like to get off to continue his/her journey, the farmer then goes on: "Well, the wife likes to have a chat with visitors. Are you sure you wouldn't mind comin' in for a cup o' tea?" After which the cue asks the students to decline politely because of a busy schedule, or something to that effect. Honestly, is this a script from a horror movie? If I was in a situation like that, I don't think politeness would be the first thing on my mind, but rather how to get out of the car in one piece and run away as fast as possible!

Not only is the whole story laughably artificial (would you really get in a strange farmer's car in the middle of nowhere these days any more?), but do they really think that they can test what spoken skills students have acquired in 12 years of English studies by asking them to write ONLY 5 lines in a dialogue? Utterly useless, if you ask me.

Photo: Exam Hall by non-partizan on Flickr


Hanna said...

It's great you bring this up! It's a kind of national institution one cannot seriously challenge or criticize without being accused of heresy. But I couldn't agree with you more. Not only is the spoken aspect missing in the test itself, but the colossal status of the test also determines the approach in language teaching before the test - in practise during 3-4 years. The studies concentrate on preparing for the larger-than-life matriculation examination.

I was once substituting for an English teacher at high school in Finland. I had prepared a session that I thought was fun and educational, with videos, games and lots of discussion. Can you guess what happened? The students said: "We don't want to watch a video, we don't want to play, we don't want to have a conversation, we want to study".

This was almost ten years ago, but just a wild guess that it hasn't changed all that much. If this is what our students learn to understand with "studying", how are they ever going to learn anything useful?

sinikka said...

Thanks Hanna, your guess is right, it's the same old, same old, wasting time on preparing students for the technicalities of the 'larger-than-life matriculation examination' (as you so aptly describe it!). I try to bring some real life language use into my lessons, but it's not often easy. The 'nerdy' students can't see the point in spoken skills as they are not tested.

Yet, not matter what people say about young people being so much better at using English, I tend to disagree. Most of them are just as reluctant and unable as the older generations to initiate any conversation or volunteer any information if not specifically asked. They may be good at answering questions, but such one-way conversation style will not take them far - others will soon get bored with them!