Tuesday, 30 September 2008

A Dog Less Wagged

A lot has already been said about the so-called washback effect (or backwash, as some would have it), which could equally well have been called the dog-wagging effect, where the tail (the exam) wags the dog (the EFL course with its materials, teaching priorities, teaching methods and learner activities). Here in Greece Luke Prodromou has done a great deal to remind us of the difference between improving the students' command of the language and honing their exam skills. The ideal of teachers helping their students become proficient speakers, readers and writers of English is probably universally accepted, but I have a sneaking suspicion that the reality is not entirely in conformity with the ideal.

Rather than reiterate the more general arguments for a healthier relationship between the dog and its tail, I want to say something very specific about the sorts of reading passages used in the Michigan ECPE exam (which is the most popular test of proficiency in English here in Greece). Although I am sure that very few teachers would choose to rely exclusively on Michigan ECPE-style material for the reading input used in their advanced classes, I just want to point out what a nasty twitch such a decision could induce.


One of the odd things about Michigan ECPE passages is their range of topics. They usually present details of minor developments in science and technology that would ordinarily be of interest only to postgraduate research students. The sample ECPE exam currently available from the Michigan website has passages dealing with the following topics: the geology of asteroids, cloned cats, carnivorous plants, and the relationship between birth weight and intelligence.

Part of the explanation for this is the academic focus of the ECPE, but it ought to be possible to write in an academic way about basketball (don't they teach sports science at university?), computer games, mass media, family dynamics, education and fashion, to name a few teen-friendly topics.

One reason why writers seem to avoid these arises from the shortness of ECPE reading texts (usually between 275 and 305 words - just long enough to fill half a page). It is not so easy for writers to come up with such a short text that contains sufficient material for five multiple-choice questions of a suitable level of difficulty. There simply isn't space to articulate ideas that candidates might be familiar with, and writers certainly want to avoid a situation where some candidates might be able to answer questions without looking carefully at the text. Hence the predilection for rather obscure scientific topics.

The upshot of this is that typical ECPE texts are far removed from the experience, knowledge and interests of our EFL students. Now is this the ideal kind of textual input for our advanced classes throughout the greater part of the course?

Surely part of our aim as teachers is to help students move from the sphere of the familiar into terrain that is unfamiliar. That requires writers and teachers making connections with what is already known and then coaxing students to go further. Typical ECPE texts just don't do this.


Some teachers welcome the opportunity to combine language work in the classroom with a discussion of topical issues. Often, the most useful texts for this kind of activity are those that try to clarify a topic that might initially seem confusing to students. By contrast, ECPE texts tend to avoid clarifying the matter in hand. In order to make sure that the questions are not too easy writers deliberately leave key pieces of information as mere implications (and what is not said in ECPE passages is often more important than what is said). They also squeeze in so much information that some students will become confused.

Now, the ability to unpick points of confusion and spot implications is a skill that all students need to develop, but this can be done without making the unusual style of the ECPE reading passages into a standard for all our classroom texts.


Teachers concerned about student needs are likely to be concerned about how intrinsically motivating classroom material is. If it weren't for the fear of exam failure (or, in some cases, certificate fetishism), would anyone actually want to sit down and read this stuff? In the case of the ECPE texts, the answer would almost certainly be, "No".

Aside from the choice of topic there is also the style of writing, which is very dry. It is a style that reduces to an absolute minimum what some have called the pleasure of the text. This takes the fun out of reading. But just because the advanced course will ultimately be capped by a rather tedious exam must a ban be imposed on interesting reading material?

More interesting texts would be written specifically to engage the reader - to help them see how bizarre, moving, threatening, ridiculous, hilarious, heartening or amazing something is. ECPE texts, though, are written like post-graduate research papers simply to convey pieces of information to specialists who want to keep up with developments in their field. In the same way, ECPE-type texts ignore the need of ordinary readers to be engaged by what they read.

Reading and Speech

Then there is the role of the text as a provider of inputs into other areas of language use such as conversation. Apart from the speaking and listening activities to boost the students' command of conversational English, it would be a good idea to ensure that some of the reading input is written in a more conversational style akin to the style of popular magazine articles.

If something like this is not done there is a danger that teachers will find themselves adopting an assumption made by the ECPE exam which is probably not appropriate for their students. The proficiency-level exam seems to assume that conversational English has been sufficiently covered by the lower level exams, hence the focus on much more formal, academic English. However, students who just managed to keep their heads above water in the shallow ECCE pool will not be ready to be thrown in at the much deeper end of the pool for the supposedly proficient. In other words, there is something a bit perverse about expecting students to learn long lists of lower frequency Latinate vocabulary before they are coping very well with the more everyday stuff.

For this reason it makes sense to include inputs in a more conversational style at least in the first half of the course. This will maintain a healthier balance of the formal and the informal, helping students to develop in a more well-rounded way.

Reading and Writing

Just as some of the reading texts should help to enrich the students' conversational English, others should also provide good models for their essay writing. Unfortunately, the ECPE passages are rarely (if ever) able to do this. Again, a huge role is played by the strict word limit, which necessitates doing without either an introduction or a conclusion, and the situation is made worse by the confusing density of information, the aversion to clarity and the absence of an authorial voice. In comparison to a good essay, a typical ECPE passage is a horribly mangled and amputated thing.

Just to remind ourselves of the gaping distance between good essay writing and ECPE texts, have another look at this first paragraph from a past paper.

"Geologically, marble is simply limestone that has been recrystallized by heat or pressure. Its different colors derive mostly from intermixture with other minerals. Since Michelangelo's day, no marble has been more highly prized than the statuario of Carrara, Italy. It may or may not be the purest white marble in the world, but the respect in which Carrara statuario outdoes any other marble is its consistency - a scarcity of off-color veins, and a uniformity of rain and crystals."

It is a blessing that students automatically ignore writing like this when they come to write their own essays. But surely we shouldn't have to ignore what we have read when the time comes to write.

Writing is perhaps the hardest skill for the student to master but it would be less hard to master if there were more reading passages written in a format and a style that students could strive to emulate.

An Unpretentious Tail

The conclusion to be drawn from this is not that teachers should turn their backs on the demands of the exam for the greater part of the course. It is perfectly possible to combine improving the students' command of the language with practising skills which will be vital for the exam (like unpicking confusion, spotting implications and writing kick-ass essays). Fortunately there are materials on the market that go some way towards striking this balance - ECPE Challenge from Macmillan, springs immediately to mind. Teachers that don't like being wagged will seek them out.

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