This academic year has been special for me – for the first time ever I got the opportunity to examine students at the final state exam. I had undergone a series of trainings to become a certified examiner, which was a challenging and exciting process. However, it remained a mere theory until it really happened in reality. When it finally happened, I realized that it’s necessary to climb to the top of the mountain to really see how winding and crooked the path below is. In other words, there are things you can’t learn on the go – some things can only be learnt in retrospect.
To everybody’s satisfaction, the exams went smoothly, mainly because the students and the examiners were well prepared – hats off to them all. Although it was a stressful time, it was also very enjoyable and fulfilling. It was the icing on the cake, so to speak. In hindsight, though, I must admit that up till then I felt rather schizophrenic and insecure about the way I was preparing my students; I wasn’t quite sure whether to concentrate on the ultimate goal itself and spend endless hours on preparing mock exams, or whether to ‘just’ teach the language, and let things go their own way, keeping in mind that if students learn the language properly, they will pass the exam without major difficulties anyway.
Now that I’ve placed my flag up there on the summit, I can descend contentedly and set myself new objectives and thoroughly plan the next climb for my future senior students. Maybe it won’t be as exciting as it was last time, because the anticipation of the unknown is gone, but it will definitely be a much safer trip.
Here’s my reflection and an action plan for the present and the future. As the final exam is, unsurprisingly, divided into the four language skills, I’d like to stick to the format and analyze each skill separately.
1) Speaking: Now that I’ve seen a couple of students in action, I know that I don’t need to spend ages on drilling English tenses. My students will primarily need a lot of B1/B2 lexicon, i.e. ready-made chunks of language, to be able to express their ideas clearly and fluently. They can’t waste time retrieving words from memory and creating grammatically complicated sentences on the spot because the examiners subtract points in the fluency and/or content sections if the student doesn’t react promptly (and extensively) enough. So a special vocabulary notebook for recording words, collocations and useful phrases is a must (plus plenty of speaking practice, both fluency- and accuracy-focused).
2) Reading: Students need to practise reading for comprehension but there’s no point in reading lengthy texts on boring or irrelevant topics. I believe it’s praiseworthy and beneficial if students read extensively at home but it’s useless to force them to do so (at least in relation to the final exam). Nevertheless, my task is to make sure that all students come across a variety of topics and text types because thus they will encounter varied vocabulary, which will come in handy in the speaking part as well. I’ve found it useful when any text, even the one originally aimed at testing or improving reading skills, is exploited to the full, i.e. additionally analyzed and discussed from a linguistic point of view. In my experience, most students fail to comprehend texts because they don’t have a sufficient knowledge of vocabulary – not because they don’t understand the grammar (though, of course, grammar and vocabulary are interconnected to a certain extent).
3) Listening: The aforementioned rules apply to the listening part of the exam as well; students need to listen to a plethora of relevant topics but they also need to understand what’s being said. In my view, there are two scenarios: a student fails to understand because s/he doesn’t know some bits or s/he knows all the words but the speech is simply too fast or unintelligible. So once again, vocabulary is the key, along with a lot of meaningful listening practice.
4) Writing: In order to produce a decent piece of writing, students do need to be aware of basic grammatical rules (word order, making questions and negative sentences, use of articles, un/countability, verb agreement, etc). They obviously need well-chosen vocabulary but more importantly, they need to be able to work with a dictionary. They are allowed to use one during the written part of the exam, and based on my observations, they often find it difficult and/or time-consuming to find and subsequently select the appropriate word offered in the entry. I admit that I’ve always kind of neglected training dictionary skills. I’m not sure to what extent it I should concentrate on spelling but I believe practice is the most effective strategy in terms of improving one’s writing skill in general, including spelling. In other words, if students write a lot and get plenty of feedback, their writing will improve automatically. Two of the most problematic aspects of a B1 student’s written performance are cohesiveness and coherence, which is something that needs to be focused on as well. Finally, students need to be familiar with a few basic text types, such as an e-mail, informal letter, narrative, announcement, etc. to give their writing an appropriate form and style.
Well, there seems to be a lot to work on, but I feel much better now that I’ve written it down in ink. I have to keep the ultimate goal in mind all the way up but it’s also important to walk slowly and safely, step by step, and have fun now and then. The experience of being up there with my students helped me realize that the ultimate goal is not a terminal station – it’s just a springboard for further progress and my students need to be well-equipped for another journey.