Perhaps the following scenario is no stranger to students and educators in Hong Kong mainstream education.
Four Secondary Six students from different schools are randomly put in a group. They enter a room together for the Diploma of Secondary Education (DSE) English speaking examination.
Two stern looking examiners are inside the room. One of them says, “Good evening. Please sit according to the colour of your labels. You have 8 minutes for your discussion. You can look at the question paper and your notecard but please do not make notes during the discussion. Turn over the question paper. You may start now. (The timer beeps.)
8 minutes later, the examiner speaks again, “Time is up. Stop your discussion now. Let’s move on to Part B. Candidate A, you have up to one minute to answer this question.” As each student takes turns to respond to the impromptu question in Part B, the daunting assessment finally ends with this announcement, “That is the end of the examination. Please give me your notecards. You may leave now.”
Well, does that ring a bell?
This year I have the privilege to participate in the Sabbatical Leave Scheme for Professional Development of Teachers and Principals organised by the Education Bureau, a scheme that allows serving teachers like me to take time off from their teaching duties to focus on professional development activities or programmes for up to five months. Therefore, from 7th March to 10th April, I was working closely with my Dutch teaching partner, Mr. Hans Venderbos, in Sophianum, a local secondary school situated in the southern province of the Netherlands.
Upon learning how the DSE English speaking paper is implemented in Hong Kong, he asked, “What you’re saying is that students are forced into groups with people they don’t know and judged by teachers they don’t know; that they have no choice at all when it comes to examination materials; that they have nothing more than 3 minutes in total to prove how well they can speak English, a language that they’ve learnt since kindergarten; and that the whole process is done in an efficient but rather cold, businesslike manner.” I said, “Unfortunately, yes.”
“You guys really do everything possible to make the assessment as uncomfortable as possible.” He replied.
Indeed, our speaking assessment format is far from flawless. A casual conversation with a few teacher friends of mine confirms that we all find the exam highly scripted, unnatural, and unfair. Hardly does anyone in an authentic discussion in the real world intentionally repeat what others have said, expand on the elaboration, add a new example, and then ask, “Do you agree with my ideas? Do you have more ideas to add?” all in one single turn.
To investigate and experience firsthand how comfortable the final speaking assessment for the Year 6 Dutch students can possibly be, I sat next to Hans for 4 days during the exam week evaluating every student that came through the door.
Two students were talking and laughing as they walked in.
H: Hello there! Come in! Are you ready for the speaking exam? You aren’t nervous, are you?
Student 1: No, not really.
H: Let me change that.
Student 2: (gasped) … I guess … I am?
H (with a mischievous glint in his eyes): I like them nervous!
The students looked at each other and chuckled as they realised Mr. Venderbos was pulling their leg once again, as usual. After a brief chit chat about the weekend and the exam week, the students looked noticeably more relaxed and the real challenge began.
It was lovely to see what a difference a playful banter and a warm-up conversation starter could make in an exam setting. And that’s a pretty good start, isn’t it? After all, we are much more likely to perform at our optimal level when we are relaxed, aren’t we? The same naturally applies to our students.
So exactly what does their speaking exam entail and how is it conducted? What are the benefits of adding the human touch in English speaking assessments in Hong Kong? Would it perhaps be possible to incorporate certain good practices in our primary or junior secondary curriculum if not a senior one? Let’s take a closer look at this alternative speaking assessment in my next blog post.
Holly Ho (M.Ed. (with Distinction), P.G.D.E., B.A., HKU) - is an English teacher in an EMI secondary school in Hong Kong. She has more than 10 years experience teaching ESL, predominantly at the senior secondary level. She strives to unlock students’ potential through innovative approaches in public-speaking, and to empower youth in leadership training. She is an awardee of the 2014/15 Chief Executive’s Award for Teaching Excellence and has coached student-champions in multiple public-speaking contests.