If you were a student who was about to take an English speaking assessment, would you prefer to be assessed by an external examiner or an internal examiner, a friendly face who knows you well?
In my previous blog, I mentioned how taking such an examination does not have to be a daunting experience. In fact, the assessor may even tell jokes to help you relax! The whole process can be relatively stress-free, just like having an ordinary conversation with a teacher. Do you think students can perform better in this kind of exam environment?
A secondary school in the Netherlands has designed a student-centred speaking examination that can turn this ideal scenario into a reality. To save time, I highlight the information about their Year 6 final year speaking assessment in a table below.
Table 1: A table showing details of Year 6 Final Speaking Examination in a local secondary school, Sophianum, in Limburg, a southern province of the Netherlands
Two examples of the 12 texts that are uploaded for students to choose one month in advance before the speaking assessment.
An example of the scoresheet.
What I found enjoyable was that it did not even feel like a speaking assessment at times. Of course some students were more talkative and fluent than the others, and time flew when everyone enjoyed a good conversation, using the topics in the articles as a springboard to discuss personal opinions on anything ranging from social media, robotics in social care to bringing food to the cinema and the existence of aliens. Ultimately, the assessment was exactly what it was designed to be - a good discussion on interesting topics that can showcase students’ proficiency.
Another point worth mentioning is the lack of competitiveness. We evaluated many pairs of friends coming in for the speaking assessment together. Between them, they already shared a good vibe so students were completely at ease with each other. Obviously they both wanted to get good marks but a palpable uneasy competitiveness between students was not detected in any way. When invited, they naturally asked each other questions about the text and expressed their opinion or further elaborated on their friend’s answer. Communication strategies were used more naturally. Nobody needed to be reminded to look at their friend when they talked because they genuinely were listening to what their friend said.
What impressed me the most was how students were treated more kindly, with a gentle human touch. Even if some students were a bit tongue-tied in the first two minutes of the exam, and if they accidentally responded in French because they just came out of a French speaking exam, they still had ample time to prove their speaking ability. No one was pressed for time so the teacher could be his usual self, not suddenly transformed into a strictly formal and overtly efficient examiner. Hans could even tell a joke in the form of a half-hearted warning - “My hand hurt last night and I only slept two hours. If I fall asleep halfway through your assessment, you’re too boring.” Or if a lot of students chose to talk about the same article, he would ‘complain’, saying “not Bianca Devins again. Please tell me something original and interesting.” His students would gladly comply. At the end of the exam, students often left the room somewhat happy and relieved, saying goodbye to their teacher with a smile.
Hong Kong and the Netherlands are vastly different not just in education systems, values, and beliefs. It isn’t feasible for us to blindly imitate every good practice that we learn elsewhere. Despite the constraints and limits to what we can do, surely there is still room for other possibilities that will add the human touch to online learning, classroom teaching and assessment arrangements. For example, a past student of mine is now a full-time English teacher. In a classroom speaking practice, she wanted to encourage her students to give more specific information and make full use of the one minute in the individual response by first sharing her own experience related to the topic before asking that impromptu question. Encouraged by the teacher’s demonstration, her students indeed managed to follow suit and gave a more extensive and personal answer. Here is another suggestion: how about allocating additional two minutes for examiners to give instant encouraging feedback to each group in a formative or summative speaking assessment? It may add an extra 20 minutes to the overall rundown but if the students leave the examination room with more confidence and a greater sense of achievement, isn’t it time well spent? Schools and educators can make a concerted effort to humanise a robotic system, and to cultivate an authentic environment where students enjoy having a genuine conversation in and beyond the English language classroom.
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.