Saturday, 30 August 2008

Take a Break

Students deserve a break - they deserve a holiday. But wouldn't it be a good idea for the holiday to also be a fun way to really boost their fluency in English? How about a trip to an English-speaking country - perhaps even the U.K.?

One option, especially for younger students at language schools, is to go on an organised trip with their classmates to a summer school offering language lessons in the morning and trips or other activities in the afternoon. This can sound like a great idea but it has its drawbacks. One is the lessons - more lessons. Heck, haven't the kids had enough lessons? The other is that students are likely to spend most of their time speaking their native tongue with their friends from back home rather than mixing with hip English dudes and learning the authentic lingo.

So is there an alternative? Yes. What we did was arrange for a couple of students to go on an outdoor pursuits course for two weeks in the Lake District with the long established organisation called Outward Bound. These are courses aimed mainly at British boys and girls with excellent programmes of team-building activities and interesting things to do outdoors (canoeing, raft-building, orienteering, hiking, camping, climbing, etc). The facilities at Ullswater, where our two students went, were first rate and the location is beautiful. The days are so busy that there is rarely a chance for a couple of foreigners to hide away in a corner being homesick. All the time they were mixing with the others, speaking English and enjoying their new-found ability to cope in English in England. Although the girls had their doubts before setting off for England, they had no hesitations in recommending the course on their return. And it didn't matter that neither of them were super athletes.

Outward Bound courses are not cheap but the prices are reasonable given what is on offer. They can also arrange helpful things like meeting people from train stations ensuring a safe journey.
For further details see

Wednesday, 27 August 2008

Unenlightening EFL Exams

Ostensibly EFL exams are simply tests of linguistic ability. But they are not just that. They are themselves a form of political education, although this may seem a rather grand term to describe the way they oblige people to adopt particular attitudes to texts in the exam. The way we deal with texts in the classroom is part of the way youngsters are prepared for the political culture they will participate in in adult life – a culture which may be more or less authoritarian, more or less conservative. Now, what sort of preparation do younsters get from the way texts are dealt with in EFL exams? To sum up the effect: The youngsters get the message that all the marks go to those who are uncritical and efficient and unconcerned about leaving the world exactly as they find it. If it were just a matter of an exam taken only once and lasting only a few hours, this would be insignificant, but the expected exam usually sets the tone for the entire course so that teachers and writers of EFL materials oblige students to adopt the same dubious attitudes in virtually every lesson. Of course, if the EFL course were the only influence in this direction, it could safely be ignored, but it is far from being the only influence.

The political conservativism of EFL exams is evident in their treatment of texts. Firstly, there is the choice of texts, which tend to stick to a presentation of the facts about something: the latest statistics or the findings of the latest research, for instance. In a recent ECCE paper one reading passage was about the marriage customs of the Amish – a passage sticking strictly to the ethnographic details of what is customarily done. In its place the University of Michigan would never have chosen a passage expressing a controversial opinion about the importance of preserving the old customs or about the decay of the traditional family or about the value of monogamy or about the role of religion in marriage. No, the texts must stick to the incontrovertible facts.

And what do students have to do with these texts? Don't the texts touch on issues – albeit ever so tentatively – that the student ought to have an opinion about? Doesn't the writer make claims that the student could agree or disagree with? Doesn't the student have a whole world of experience and understanding in terms of which some parts of the text could have a powerful appeal or persuasive force and others not? But in EFL exams such considerations – it seems – are irrelevant. The questions do nothing more than ask students to accurately discern the facts – not compare the claims of the text with the facts of the matter, but just identify the facts as described by the author, whose authority and veracity are never called into question.

Then there is the influence of the time constaint in EFL exams. The Michigan ECPE is probably the worst culprit, expecting its candidates to get through questions at the fastest rate of knots. Throughout their course students will have to be trained to cope with exams like these, and with EFL texts they will have to develop the habit of reading fast – of looking for the answers and then moving on without a second thought. What this entails is that students learn to be uninterested in the texts. Students have to take no interest in the texts. They have to lose the expectation that a text might be interesting otherwise when it proves to be uninteresting they will be disappointed and will lose the frame of mind required to tick the right boxes at the maximum speed. Students must perform the task allotted to them as efficiently as possible, ignoring any exquisite turns of phrase that less efficient readers might linger over and ponder.

Marshall McLuhan once reminded us that the invention of printing and the emergence of a culture of the written word gave rise to a more critical mentality – a mentality that was foundational both for what we call the Enlightenment and liberalism. People could privately reflect on arguments in print without the forceful presence of orators and cheering crowds. In a quiet room of one's own texts could be compared and arguments weighed up in a process that also deepened the individual's self-assurance as someone with a mind of his own – as someone with a right to say 'yeah' or 'nay' to the prevailing opinions of the day, and as someone with the ability to see through the idiocies that pass for conventional wisdom.

Ambassadors of the English language who also know of the connection between the written word and the enlightened culture of critique are inevitably a little disappointed that EFL classes – under the influence of exams designed according to bureaucratic and commercial criteria – so readily encourage youngsters to become both uninterested and uncritical – content to leave both texts and the world exactly as they found them.

Tuesday, 26 August 2008

The Blasted Oak of EFL

Some sensitive souls who have entered the teaching profession are acutely aware that the world is not as it ought to be. For them, becoming a teacher was apparently a way to join the forces of good and to keep their hands as clean as possible. However, the sensitive soul who comes to teach English may find herself reeling from the experience, staggering back to her garret with a heavy heart and a bad conscience.

The hope was to inculcate a love of the subject. Knowing what remarkable voices are to be heard in the more thoughtful corners of English culture, she wanted to bring students to the point at which a work in Engish might begin to resonate, to speak, to express something students can feel an affinity with so that it might take on a lasting significance as a work that peoples their private cultural worlds, coming to mind time and again, not in the manner of an advertising jingle, but in the manner of something that bears all the traces of a kindred spirit. What she hoped was to begin what could become a lifelong dialogue in English, with students beginning to feel at home in the language and reacting with joy when English begins to speak through them too.

Sensitive souls have high ideals - too high for the dog eat dog worlds of business and politics - but not too high, or so it was thought, for the world of education, where young people were supposedly to experience how things could be otherwise. So it comes as a shock to realise how much the world of EFL, rather than opening new horizons, is simply more of the same.
However, right from the start there was already a contradiction between the noble ends of the project and its being premised on a fact of no nobility whatsoever. The demand for teachers of English is a function of its status as an international language - a status it has acquired not because of any claim to cultural excellence or because of any international democratic deliberation but simply because it is the language of the guys that kick ass at this point in history. At the end of the day the sensitive soul, whether she likes is or not, must do her own little bit as a footsoldier on the linguistic flank of the New World Order.

Too enraptured by the eloquence of Blake, Dylan and Bobby Gentry to pay much heed to these grim realities, the sensitive soul embarks, hoping that it is still possible to do something creative and inspiring with the language in the classroom. Yet these hopes are soon dashed.
Despite the predictions of nineteenth century social theorists, the working day remains long, arduous and stressful. For the sensitive soul adolescents should be able to enjoy what is left of their childhood before being cast into the loveless world of work, and they should have enough free time to begin to grapple with what maturity is to mean to them. Consequently, the sensitive soul finds herself feeling guilty about her participation in a system that overloads students with extra lessons and a quantity of work that can only be got through by taking no particular interest in any particular subject. She balks at adding more to the timetable of an already overly programmed existence. Youth is squandered and the beloved subject is reduced to another rung on the treadmill.

EFL may be just one in a long list of evening classes on which students feel forced to enrol, but the sensitive soul hopes that English can be a lesson with a difference. Another hope dashed against the hard rocks of economic necessity. Employers demand certificates and parents want tangible proof of progress, and time, being money, is limited, so there is a rush to prepare students for exams. Teaching ends up being equated with exam preparation.
Yet English exams - the sensitive soul reflects - could have been exams with a difference - exams premised on the value of students developing an individual response to English. Texts could be chosen that students might actually want to go into in depth. Students could write on topics geared to their interests, and write at their own pace, drafting and redrafting their work with feedback from their peers. Such coursework could be an important part of the final assessment. Drama could also be used to deepen an appreciation of the spoken word, and media studies could be included to help develop, for instance, a more critical appreciation of English-language cinema. If only.

As it is, after all those years of linguistic square-bashing everything hinges on a few hundred multiple choice questions, with reading exercises that put all the weight on forms of speed reading for which a genuine interest in the text would be a definite handicap, and with essays to be written in a time so short there is no opportunity to do anything other than re-heat pre-processed, pre-cooked ideas. `

Teaching can kill. And when the language is reduced to rules, lists and endless cloze exercises, and students are put through their paces again and again until they can tick the correct boxes, and along the way are denied the chance to make the language their own, the prognosis is not good.

Reflecting upon this, the sensitive soul realises that her beloved language has been reduced to an instrument, a tool of no intrinsic value - a language so devoid of expression it begins to seem dead. The voices that turn life into poetry go unheard and the hoped-for lifelong dialogue is stillborn. She realises too that her students are being trained more for a world in which high ideals are replaced by the peculiar dualism of corporate efficiency and private pleasure - just what is required for the perpetuation of the status quo. The sensitive soul was hoping for something more. Now she is racked by her complicity and she despairs at the thought that if the hope for something better cannot be nurtured in the realm of education, where else?

Friday, 22 August 2008

How to Break a Child

We recommend that if teachers and trainee teachers have not yet read Herman Hesse's "The Prodigy" they really ought to. It is a classic story of how a child is broken. Admittedly the book deals with an extreme case: an exceptionally gifted child who ends up floating down a river after what might have been suicide, but the story has a much more general significance. It is not only the brightest children who can be broken, and to be broken doesn't mean you are on the verge of ending it all. Since these milder forms of breakage are so common, Hesse's story can be taken to illuminate a very broad swathe of educational practice.

So how do you break a child? It is really quite simple. Here are a few steps you can follow:

1) First you need to command the respect of your pupil. You must stand tall and proud (albeit a little stiff) and ooze knowledge. It must be clear that you are the conduit to a world of learning that, as yet, the child can only look up to and marvel at.

2) You must also endeavour to be likeable. Approach the child personally with a warmth that reassures her that this is where she belongs. Only if there is this personal touch will the child end up wanting to please you.

3) From the earliest lessons ensure that every piece of work the pupil does is marked. Record all the marks and then make their sum total the focus of the report to the parents. The child must learn that it is the marks that really matter, not the work itself.

4) Then, as gently as possible, you need to raise the issue of the child's progress. She must appreciate your concern about whether she is achieving her true potential. Perhaps she could aim higher and do more? The child needs to see that achievement is everything.

5) To twist the knife a little more it helps to draw a few comparisons between the child and her peers. How close is she to being top of the class? Could she not be closer? Surely she doesn't want to let the others beat her?

6) In doing all this you will inevitably point occasionally to the clock and calendar and stress the fact that there is no time to waste. The child's young age is no excuse for allowing valuable time to be squandered on childish pastimes. It might once have been fun to run through the fields and play with the goats or make daisy chains in the sunshine down by the river, but the time for that has now passed. We must concentrate on trying to get ahead and, as they say, "Time waits for no girl".

7) Don't forget to keep showing you care. As well as a warm word and a tender hand on the shoulder, don't miss the opportunity for an occasional gift. An extra photocopied worksheet perhaps, or a book for the "holidays" or (best of all) some extra lessons at the weekend at no extra cost. The child will appreciate the gesture and will strive so much harder to come up to your expectations.

Remember, though, that throughout this process the teacher cannot guarantee perfect results from her efforts alone. At the very least, the cooperation of the parents is also required. Fortunately they are such accomplished accomplices in this loving process of psychological erosion. How often have we been told by the poor girl's parents to be firm with her? The girl is lazy and bored, apparently, and the advice is to get firm. Give her a good telling off. Embarrass her in front of the rest of the class. That will snap her out of her old ways. It's for her own good after all. She has to see that her future success is at stake. Although we have tried to emphasize how the process can be made as sweet and painless as possible, the parents are right to remind us that fear can be just as effective, if not more so. In the end, if all goes well, your efforts will bear fruit. A number of children will reach the point at which the most important thing in their lives is the recognition they get from you and from the educational system's official panel of judges. To come out on top or be given a distinction or at least to get a certificate and be one of the winners - that is what matters. Such children have been so perfectly moulded that their self-esteem is entirely a function of the educational system's estimation of them.

What can the child look forward to as a result of all this conscientious schooling? It depends. Those who do actually come out on top are likely to be channeled into other areas of achievement, both academic and professional. Since they are the winners there is no excuse for them not feeling good about themselves, but won't there be a certain hollowness to it all? With their sights set exclusively on the target, the goal, the peak, the accolade isn't there a risk that they will forget to make the way there as pleasurable as possible? Peaks are wonderful places and the views are magnificent but they aren't places where you can stay long. After the congratulations and the photos the descent begins. If the peak is everything and you can enjoy neither the ascent nor the descent something has gone sadly wrong.

The winners also find themselves on a treadmill that has a curious momentum of its own. As it turns, a doubt starts to gnaw again at the back of the mind: could I not be better? With that doubt there will be a perpetual need for reassurance, again in the form of some official recognition. No one can rest content after putting a single trophy in the glass display cabinet and believe forever that they are a winner.

Things are much worse though for the majority who, for one reason or another, do not find themselves amongst the cream. They are likely to feel not that things have a hollow ring but that they have been left with a completely empty husk. The child who believes that her estimation of herself is nothing more than the system's estimation of her cannot but draw the conclusion, when she fails, that she is indeed a failure. No one need say anything. The result is enough and the conclusion follows logically.

How could they possibly find the psychological strength to brush aside the ruthless judgment of the system and make their own assessment of the path that they have taken? Having been robbed of their own power of judgment, how could they possibly look back and say, "Despite the result, it was worth it"?Of course, in a sense, there are still things to go back to - old sources of pleasure. There are still daisies down by the river. But even if the girl can go back to them, she will find that they have been changed utterly. They are no longer what they were, now that the judgment of their inferiority and insignificance has become so ingrained.

The outcome is almost never as tragic as the one in Hesse's narrative. People find ways of muddling through and the indoctrination is rarely so complete that nothing whatsoever can console those who don't come up to scratch. Parents are never as single-minded as the father in the novel, nor are children as isolated from supportive friendships as the child prodigy. And society is much more welcoming for those who don't make it into the fast stream. After all, it is full of places for the legions of the browbeaten and downtrodden. Look how quietly they take their place and uncomplainingly play their humble part.

They are welcomed and they take their place, but still their life has been lessened and damage has been done that cannot be undone. The child who was full of herself, taking pleasure in the wealth of the world, has become an adult somewhat emptied, somewhat broken.

Tuesday, 19 August 2008

Amazing People in EFL No.1

Ever wondered who is the most amazing person in EFL?

Well, we can tell you.

She is Sabriye Tenberken. Now, we don't generally pay much attention to Oprah Winfrey, but when Oprah declared Sabriye to be one of the world's "phenomenal females" we had to agree.
Born in Germany, she had a degenerative retinal disease that left her blind by the age of 12. A major setback, but one she overcame with the thought she expresses like this: "Okay, I may be ugly and blind but I have a brain. I can do things." With the assistance of what sounds like a very good boarding school for the blind she succeeded in getting a place at the University of Bonn, where she was the only blind student out of 30,000. Perhaps thinking that a little extra challenge might not be such a bad thing, at university she decided to study Tibetan even though there was no braille transcription of the language. She developed the first system for transposing Tibetan texts into printed braille.

Having completed her studies she thought it might be a good idea to travel - alone - on horseback - across Tibet, where the blind are ridiculed in the streets as people shout: "Watch out! Here comes an idiot" and where blindness is seen as a punishment for terrible sins commited in past lives.

It was in Tibet that she found out the appalling circumstances of many of the country's 30,000 blind people - severely discriminated against and denied the most basic education. So she decided to set up the first school for the blind in Tibet a boarding school - using her own money to get the project going. One of the aims is to change perceptions of the blind in Tibet and raise their status. As she puts it: "I believe that changes in the community's perception of the blind should radiate from the blind themselves. When our children return to their villages, they know many new things their own families have never learned. In many villages, the families don't speak Chinese or English; the returning blind child is able to translate for them. He returns with a new value; for the first time he's seen as useful."

Apparently, there was tremendous resistance to the idea of a blind woman setting up a school for the blind in Tibet. "In the beginning it was horrible," she says. "But the obstacles made us stronger. People tried to put limits on me, but limits always show opportunities. I persisted because I believed it was possible."

The best insight into the woman and her work in Tibet is from the documentary "Blindsight" which follows her expedition with some of her blind students to one of the lower peaks of Everest. An amazing film. It also includes some of the English the children have learnt at the school, and to hear the little Tibetan boy with unseeing eyes singing with such enthusiastic innocence: "Me and you, and you and me ... so happy to-ge-therrr" is a devastating piece of footage.

Sabriye has written a book: "My Path Leads to Tibet" which might be excellent in its original German but the English translation is unfortuately bad. Sabriye has her own characteristic and powerful voice in English which the stuffy translation has missed. Nothing compares to hearing her voice on the film.

The project she has set up, Braille Without Borders, also has its own website, but when I last looked I couldn't find any interesting biographical or personal accounts from the woman who obviously prefers to keep a low profile and let her work speak for itself.

Monday, 18 August 2008

A novel about EFL?!

Had I thought about it - which I didn't - I wouldn't have believed it possible for there to be a moving novel set in the world of EFL, but there is. In a charity shop in a small town in England I had the good fortune to come across a well-preserved copy of "Europa" by Tim Parks. I bought it thinking it would have some profound reflections on the state of Europe and only discovered once I got into it that the protagonist was an English teacher (in Italy, as it happens). To be honest my expectations plummeted at that point - a point at which I also learned that a large part of the novel was taken up with a trip on a coach filled with language teachers (in the minority) and young students (in the majority and mostly female)referred to by some of the predominantly male teachers as the "shag wagon" full of what is also referred to as "tottie", which ties in with the worst kind of easy hedonism that can occasionally be found among ex-pat EFLers. But it immediately became apparent that the text goes way beyond that while still accepting that it is enmeshed in it.

There is not much point summing up the plot of the book since it's power lies elsewhere - in the long tortured sentences of a stream of consciousness first-person narrative that would put off anyone looking for an easy read but that grab the reader who wants depth rather than pace - long tortured sentences that are devoured by those who also feel they are burdened by an excess of self-awareness and equally enmeshed in something that they also have doubts about.

Not a new book, so one that could well be found in other charity shops, and also, it seems, at amazon.

Sunday, 17 August 2008

Language as a weapon

Just saw an interesting scene in a documentary about a high school in China. The camera was panning round a classroom of children at orderly desks learning English with some good old-fashioned (but doubtless very effective) drilling, and the camera lingered on a painting on the wall with some suitably proud socialist realist figures and the words: "A foreign language is a weapon." Unfortunately no commentary on how English becomes a weapon in the mouths of the Chinese. But I warm to the metaphor (if metaphor it is) and much prefer it to the more common (in Greece at any rate) equation between English and a certificate as an aid to getting a job so that the mortgage can be paid off together with the instalments on the hatchback.

Yes, it might be good to see the rows of seats filled with linguistic guerillas who are itching to turf out the moneychangers from the temple of the world, and do so in English.

Saturday, 16 August 2008

Nowhere left to hide: rampant privatization in EFL

A creeping development in recent years in Greece, at least, has been the privatization of EFL exams. In the good old days in the early 90s there was really only one set of exams in this corner of the Mediterranean: those from the University of Cambridge, and there was only one organization administering them: the British Council.

Now there is a glut of new exams and even more of a glut of organizations competing to administer them. It is getting hard for a conscientious teacher to keep up to date with just what is on the market, how good it is and whether or not it is recognised by the bodies that need to recognise these sorts of things.

The confused teacher almost inevitably begins to wonder if the free market is really an ideal home for EFL exams.

Why not? Doesn't it improve choice? Doesn't it empower the educational consumer who can turn his back on an old-fashioned product that he dislikes because it reeks of stuffy, old, literary England?

But what about the flip side?

If exam boards have to compete with each other in a cut throat market, there is an inevitable tendency to "satisfy the consumer". Now the consumer in this case is more often than not the school (given that most registrations are made through schools). And what, I wonder, do schools want? Since their reputation stands or falls with their pass rate, they obviously want their charges to be given the certificates that are the be all and end all of their expensive education. Perhaps this is the reason that the Michigan exams in Greece are now more popular than the Cambridge exams. They are perceived (rightly or wrongly) to be easier - to be a surer bet. Of course an exam must have a certain level of difficulty to be taken seriously as a measure of competence, but there is a grey area which can provide a smokescreen for undesirable developments.

And how did it come about that school owners can turn their schools into examination centres for their own pupils? Of course this cuts costs, which might mean that exams can be offered at a more competitive price, but does it not introduce certain tempations? I am sure that all my colleagues in Greece are spotless and would never allow anything to happen that might give their own students an unfair advantage, but it is easy to imagine a parallel universe in which people with less moral fibre give into temptation and bend the rules in collaboration with examiners who know that their trusted customers must be happy and if they don't do it someone else will.
And then there is the problem of students having to prepare for two exams at the same time. It seems obvious to many school owners that to maximize their students' chances of passing an exam they should be entered for more than one, and must consequently prepare for more than one at the same time. Admittedly, this benefits a few very able students who, quite by chance, have a bad day when it is time for the one exam they really wanted to pass, but my own feeling is that these cases are outweighed by the opposite ones. Aren't quite a lot of pupils stretched too thinly when they are obliged to prepare for two different exams? Wouldn't it be better to concentrate on one and prepare for it more thoroughly?

So what was the reasoning behind this opening up of the market to all and sundry? Was it supposed to be an improvement - a raising of standards in the world of EFL - or was it simply an ideological insistence that there must be no limits to economic liberalization?

Tuesday, 12 August 2008

The New Michigan ECPE Speaking Test

Teachers of classes aiming for the University of Michigan ECPE will doubtless know that a new format for the ECPE interview is to be introduced in June 2009. Apparently preparations for the new speaking test got under way in Michigan in 2005, meaning that there were three years for the English Language Institute (ELI-UM) to get it right. But did they?

Here we take a close look at the plans as posted on the University of Michigan website:

The first significant change is that henceforth there will be two candidates. A good idea. It makes a wider range of speaking activities possible in the speaking test, making it easier to achieve the stated aim of allowing "candidates to demonstrate the full range of their speaking ability." But what exactly will the candidates do in the interview to demonstrate their abilities?

The first stage is a familiar conversation about the students' lives, but with two twists. Here is the key sentence from the official description of the new ECPE speaking test: "Candidates are expected to actively participate in the conversation by providing expanded responses and also by asking each other and [the] examiner questions." The demand for expanded responses goes without saying but I suspect some students will have trouble with the demand to ask questions that effectively interrupt the examiner's enquiry into the fairly personal life of the other student. That's the first twist. The second may cause more trouble. The students must turn the tables on the examiner, which is a complete break from previous speaking test protocol, unless I am mistaken. How will this pan out? Is the following exchange the sort of thing that the University of Michigan have in mind?

Examiner: So, Angelos, what do you like doing in your spare time?
Angelos: I'm really into extreme sports. In fact, most weekends I'm off bungee jumping.
Nafsica: Bungee jumping! Wow! I've always wanted to go bungee jumping but my uptight Dad won't let me. He says it's too dangerous. What would you say? Is it really as dangerous as it looks?

Angelos: Well, as long as you do all the safety checks and you are really careful to get the right match between the height of the jump, the weight of the person and the elasticity of the rope, there really is no more risk than crossing the road.
Nafsica: If it's as safe as that, I should definitely be allowed to have a go. (Turns to the examiner) What do you think, Mr Examiner? If you had a daughter ... Do you have a daughter?
Examiner: No.
Nafsica: But if you had a daughter, would you let her go bungee jumping?
Examiner: Well,...

Is that the sort of thing they have in mind? Or do they expect someone in Nafsica's position to go even further and start asking the examiner about his spare time activities? He doesn't go bungee jumping but he is very fond of drowning his sorrows in cheap vodka. But we don't want to go down that street, surely.

My suspicion is that interviewees need clearly defined roles, but the demand for a three-way conversation about personal issues seems to me to blur those roles just a little too much. (People from other cultural backgrounds could see it differently, though.) If I were an interviewee, I wouldn't welcome the expectation that I begin prying into the personal life of the examiner. It is just too much of a role reversal.

Anyway, blurred or not, that "small talk" constitutes stage one of the ECPE speaking test and is meant to last 3-5 minutes. Then comes the new four-stage oral marathon (not the description used by ELI-UM) which could last a total of a whopping 32 minutes. (The entire ECPE interview is meant to have a duration of between 25 to 35 minutes, and 35 minus 3 is 32.)

In a nutshell, the two candidates are given an imaginary situation in which a selection must be made from a choice of four options - a familiar sort of activity in a foreign language interview/speaking test. Not a bad idea, but what does the new ECPE version of this familiar activity actually involve?

Let's go through the stages one by one (beginning with stage two, since stage one was the small talk).

Stage 2: Summarizing and Recommending (5-7 minutes)

The example task given on the Michigan web site involves choosing between four candidates for the post of high school science teacher. Each student is given a sheet of paper with the briefest of notes about two of the four candidates.

Here we reprint one of the sample sheets on the web site.

Candidate 2 Information Sheet
Hiring A High School Science Teacher

Jessica Peters
The following is a list of some of Ms. Peters' personal characteristics and comments made by her coworkers.

  • 4 years experience as laboratory technician

  • Recently graduated with science teaching certification

  • 2003 "Employee of the Year" Award

  • Good presentation skills

  • Experience with newest technology

  • No experience with high school students

Robert Barton
The following is a list of some of Mr. Barton's personal characteristics and comments made by students and teachers at your school.

  • 20 years teaching English at your school

  • Conducts training courses for teachers

  • Also qualified to teach science

  • Interesting classroom lessons

  • Organizes many field trips

  • Doesn't stay after school to help students

The official description of stage two allocates two to three minutes for candidates to "read through the information." That is more than enough time if the information is as brief as the examples suggest. The candidates really only need a preliminary glimpse and then they could be off describing the options, taking each point in turn. There is no indication that the students need to prepare their monologue first. Having said that, however, a closer look at the Robert Barton example shows that the student really needs to have read the third point before she begins talking about the first.

After skimming the information, the students have to take it in turns to describe their two options. It is interesting that this stage is said to involve "summarizing", which for most people usually involves reducing a longer text to a shorter one. But in the new ECPE speaking test, with only six brief points for each of the two options, what sort of summarizing is possible? It doesn't seem that there will be points that could be missed out (the examples on the web don't include anything that is obviously irrelevant). In any case, each student might have to keep talking for two minutes so instead of reducing the information given they are more likely to have to spin it out somehow.

By the way, it undoubtedly goes without saying that the examiners want interviewees to use their own words wherever possible (although they don't like hesitation so there is a balance to be drawn here) instead of just reading stuff off the sheet.

In addition to the fuzziness of the notion of summarizing, there is another aspect of the presentation about which the instructions from the University of Michigan are not sufficiently clear. The question is: Should students stick very strictly to a presentation of the facts and avoid commenting on those facts? Michigan doesn't say this, but I imagine they don't want something like the following (not in stage two anyway):

Angelos: The second candidate is Robert Barton. Now, he's got 20 years teaching experience, which makes him a much more experienced teacher than Jessica Peters, but he's been teaching English all these years, which I guess pretty much rules him out. It does say here that he 's qualified to teach science, but if that's so, it seems weird that he's been teaching English all these years. That doesn't look so good.

When thinking about how to prepare for this stage it is worth bearing in mind that the guidelines allow students to take notes while their partner is presenting her options. The notes will not be of much use in stage two, but they will be useful in stage three. Now, this activity of notetaking may well alter the nature of the presentation. Nafsica will have to speak in such a way that Angelos will find it easy to take notes, for one thing. And then there is the issue of clarification, which is not mentioned in the Michigan guidelines. Angelos might miss a point for some reason and want to ask Nafsica to say it again. I assume this will be perfectly acceptable, but that is just my assumption.

As well as presenting their two options each student has to "make a recommendation to their partner of the best option from the two options presented by their partner." We will have to see how this works in practice because the instructions from Michigan are rather vague. My guess is that Angelos presents his two options and ends by asking his partner: "So which of those do you prefer, Nafsica?" And Nafsica expresses her preference before presenting her two options.

Now the odd thing about these preferences is that they are promptly ignored. They don't move the conversation on in the way that would normally be expected. Instead, the instructions say that each candidate must quietly think about which of their own two options they prefer, and it is that preference which is taken up in stage three.

Stage 3: Consensus Reaching (5-7 minutes)

As indicated, the students begin this stage by saying which of their own options they prefer, and then they must discuss those two preferences at some length in order to come to an agreement about which one they will finally recommend.

There could be an odd consequence of beginning with these prefences instead of just leaving the field wide open at the start. If Nafsica thinks the best option is one of Angelos's, but this doesn't coincide with the choice Angelos makes between his two options, then, without any argument whatsoever, Nafsica will quickly have to change her mind and start arguing for a less attractive option.

The other problem for the candidates (and this is a recurrent problem) is finding enough to say to fill the time. There will be no need to spend time quietly reading or thinking or panicking as in stage two so the students will have to spin out their discussion of the two remaining options - options about which they know so very little - for at least five minutes, which is quite a long time to go over the 12 points that have already been described.

To prepare for this unpleasant task, students will need to practise discussing all the imaginable pros and cons of the two preferred options before insisting on their most decisive arguments for the one they judge to be the best. Another idea is to talk more about the situation (the job vacancy, for instance) and identify the criteria that candidates for that job ideally need to satisfy, adding perhaps (briefly) why those criteria are so important.

Ideally the five minutes come to a close just as the two students reach unanimity, with smiles on their faces now that they know who, for instance, deserves to be the new science teacher.

Some students might think this is enough and expect not to have to say any more about the science teacher, because hasn't everything now been said that could possibly be said? But no. More must be said - enough to fill at least another ten minutes. So, on we go to stage four.

Stage 4: Presenting and Convincing (5-7 minutes)

The first response to the name of this stage might be: "Hey, didn't we do presenting and convincing already?" Well, yes, but now we must do it with the examiner.

For the first 2-3 minutes of this stage the students must prepare a presentation which will be made to the examiner who is sitting right in front of them but to whom they won't speak just yet. They have to imagine that the examiner is the person (perhaps the principal of a school, for instance) to whom they now have to make a formal and well-organised recommendation. Because they are going to have to convince the examiner that their choice is the best one they first have to clarify, between themselves, which are the four strongest reasons for their chosen option (reasons chosen from those that have already been discussed in some depth). Having clarified the four, they must quickly decide how to allocate them because they must present two reasons each.

It is worth noting that it is only in stage four that the two candidates can look at each other's information sheets (although there is probably no need now since they have their notes and they are likely to know all the important points off by heart).

Having decided who will say what and in which order, the students must turn to the examiner and present their allocated points as persuasively as possible - driving home the arguments that they have already discussed between themselves and ignoring the fact that the examiner has already heard everything. (This is made only slightly less artificial by the fact that at the beginning of this stage the two examiners swap places so that the one that was off to the side quietly marking - but not out of earshot - now comes to sit with the students.)

Stage 5: Justifying and Defending (5-7 minutes)

Phew! The last stage.

Having heard the arguments (again) the examiner is to "question the candidates about the decision they have made and about the reasons for that decision." I am glad I am at not going to be an examiner for the Michigan ECPE speaking test. During the 20 minutes or so prior to stage five reasonably proficient students will have mentioned or discussed the pertinent points four times already (twice in stage four and once in stages two and three). How much more can be said about a candidate for a science teaching post, for instance, who may have been described in only 24 words?

If I were an examiner in the ECPE interview, I would request clarification from the University of Michigan about how to respond to candidates who, in order to avoid just repeating themselves again, use their fertile imagination to come up with other details with which to demonstrate their proficiency as speakers of English - and it is not necesssarily all that easy to demonstrate your proficiency in English if you are limited to saying the same six things over and over again. In the discussion of the four applicants for the science teaching post nothing may have been said about race, for instance, and the imaginative student might suddenly say that Jessica Peters (the recommended applicant), despite her rather WASPish name, is the only black candidate, which is a huge advantage because all the other teachers at the school are white and the racial mix of the teachers ought to reflect that of the pupils, which happen to be predominantly coloured.

That might sound ridiculous, but the information sheets come close to inviting students to start improvising in this way. Have another look at the first point about Robert Barton in the example sheet above: "20 years teaching English at your school". If I (as an interviewee) am supposed to say this guy is a teacher at my school, am I not supposed to know more about him? Am I not supposed to know how good a teacher he is - how funny, how poetic he is and yet how stern with miscreants? And if I don't volunteer any extra information, would it not be perfectly natural for the other interviewee (perhaps also the interviewer?) later on to ask me to provide a few more details, given that I know the guy?

If imaginative students respond to these cues or even begin elaborating without them (and elaborate in a way that keeps the story intact and does not make the whole game unplayable), should the examiner in the interview just go with the flow and accept these unexpected revelations, or is she supposed to nip this in the bud and insist that the students stick to the facts explicitly stated in the 24 or so words that are printed on the sheet?

However, whether or not there is much imaginative elaboration the time will pass, even if it is a period as long as 35 minutes, and the examiner will interrupt that final heated discussion, which may well have slipped off on a tangent, bending the rules ever so slightly to talk a little about alternative ways of teaching science perhaps. The students will then rise and dutifully avoid asking how they have done, bid the examiners goodbye, smile, walk out of the door and down the stairs into the foyer where they will collapse into the comfortable chairs and hope that they never have to do that again.

The End

So the 25-35 minute ECPE speaking test is over. But some might be wondering about those traditional C2/proficiency-level topic discussions that we used to enjoy preparing for and which we assumed were the nub of an ECPE interview. They have gone now, it seems. They are unlikely to come up in the "multi-stage, semistructured task", which will almost certainly stick to fairly safe and simple situations like the one with the vacancy for a science teacher. For some of us it will not only be the interview that is seen to suffer as a result of this but also the ECPE course leading up to it. We used to choose topics and materials, in part, with an eye to the sort of issues that students might have to discuss in the speaking test. In recent years I have had students who were asked about censorship in the Michigan ECPE speaking test, reinforcing the need to include material about this in the course and make sure that the issues were discussed in some depth. Doubtless this sort of approach will be continued partly because the same topics can come up in the written paper but also because some (many?) teachers will just consider it good practice. However, my own feeling about the situation here in Greece is that students, who often don't seem to get enough opportunities to speak in ECPE classes, are now going to get even less. Now that traditional topic discussions have been dropped from the ECPE speaking test my worry is that teachers who were already inclined to keep speaking to an absolute minimum will reduce it even further in the belief that this "multi-stage, semistructured task" is just the sort of thing that can be practiced and honed in an intensive fashion over a two or three week period towards the end of the course. I hope not.