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: http://www.lsa.umich.edu/umich/v/index.jsp?vgnextoid=3b7d4074cf7a4110VgnVCM1000003d01010aRCRD&linkTypeBegin=contentlinkTypeEnd&assetNameBegin=New%20ECPE%20Speaking%20TestassetNameEnd

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.

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