The real level of language proficiency

100420153730Every teacher would probably agree that the classroom should be a safe environment free of stress and anxiety. A lot has been written about ways of minimizing stress that interferes with learning. However, I believe that our attempts to keep stress at a zero level can sometimes be counter-productive.

A long, challenging week of the final state examinations is finally over in the school where I work, and I can announce with a great relief that none of our students failed the English part. My colleague and I examined 34 students in five days. During their oral English exam, the students were supposed to react to the examiner’s questions promptly, and they were expected to speak fluently and elaborately on various topics ranging from very personal ones to factual ones. We had to make sure that each performance was exactly 15 minutes long, which added to the stressfulness of the experience. I was the assessor, whose job was to listen carefully, note down errors as well as positive points, and grade each performance. My colleague, their English teacher, read the instructions, asked the questions and reacted to the examinee’s answers. We only had five minutes to agree on the final score before it was the next student’s turn.

It was obviously very stressful – both for us and the students. Unfortunately, this is the type of  situation you can never really prepare your students for. You can provide them with all the language input and the content they need to pass the exam, but you can never rehearse for the actual performance in advance simply because there is one aspect that you can’t simulate – stress. This, however, is one of the variables that have a huge impact on the quality of the student’s performance.

Under stress, your B2 students suddenly and miraculously turn into A2 learners – they make errors they never made in a relaxed atmosphere of the language classroom, where they cheerfully chattered about the burning problems of today’s world. During their final exam, students repeat the same low-level words again and again because they can’t remember the synonyms they are expected to use at their current level. They can’t remember the word ‘equipment’, for example, so they keep saying ‘things’ throughout the exam, which drives the examiner – their English teacher – crazy. Now and then, a fairly advanced student forgets to add an -s to the third person singular verbs but keeps using advanced fillers and linking devices, which proves his real level of proficiency. Unfortunately, points will finally have to be subtracted for these little failures, no matter how sorry you feel for your students and how well you know what they can actually do.

But what is the real level of proficiency? Is is what you can do in a relaxed atmosphere of an L2 classroom or is it the way you perform during a stressful situation? One way or the other, I believe there’s a certain core – the knowledge nobody can take away from you; the facts, data and skills resistant to any level of stress. Just above the core, there’s another layer, which, under certain circumstances, can be very unstable and vulnerable. This layer of knowledge needs to be consolidated before it becomes part of the safe and stable core.

It turned out that some of the knowledge and skills we expected during the examination were still in the unstable state, even though we believed that the students had already mastered them perfectly before. The question is whether (and how) we can find out what our students can really do. Can we find out in the rather unnatural (or inauthentic) setting of the L2 classroom at all?


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Hana Tichá

I'm an EFL teacher based in the Czech Republic. I've been teaching English to learners of all ages and levels for almost 30 years. You can find out more about me and my passion for teaching here on my blog.

12 thoughts on “The real level of language proficiency”

  1. Hi Hana, thanks for this post which raises a number of interesting questions. I find particularly thought provoking, from a sociological perspective, Foucault’s approach to the art and artistry of examination. In particular, his stance that examination, surrounded by all its documentary techniques, makes each individual a “case” which at one and the same time constitutes an object for a branch of knowledge and a hold for a branch of power. In contemporary society this form of power works more on the subconscious, through the insinuation of threat which is manifested through means of education exams-in this case, but in numerous other cases, too- initiating the internal fear response. Maybe this explains why as you write “this is the type of situation you can never really prepare your students for”. Because the examining “gaze” constructs deep in our students’ subconscious that it is not just the object of knowledge at stake here, i.e. what they know, but also the subject, i.e. the knower, the person, themselves as individuals. I don’t like exams, to be honest, and I am lucky they are not compulsory in my setting. I also do not like it when I have to give grades (this is compulsory, however, and I do it) which classify, categorize, and hierarchize students while I very much doubt whether they can intrinsically motivate them to improve. I worked for a few years in an experimental education setting with adult students where we used not to give grades or tests, but descriptive assessments. Huge difference in their attitude.

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    1. Hi Chrysa,

      Thank you for your interesting comment, which I re-read several times before I found the courage to reply 🙂 Honestly, I sometimes wonder what exams are for. Using them is not my choice; I use them because I’m told to. But I’m not sure whether I would abandon them if I could. On the one hand, results of tests and exams show us what we should work on and what our students have already mastered. Also, they give our students a sense of structure and system. On the other hand, as you very pertinently point out, they are a source of fear and uncertainty. You went even deeper by saying that they are actually a very powerful tool for the powerful ones. Now the question is: who are the powerful ones? Definitely not the students taking the tests. The teachers who use them in order to make their students listen to what they’d rather not hear? The creators of the tests who sell them to schools and institutions for a huge amount of money?

      You say: ‘grades classify, categorize, and hierarchize students while I very much doubt whether they can intrinsically motivate them to improve’. I totally agree with the first part of the sentence, but I’m not convinced about the other half. I was always motivated by good grades, whereas most of my peers were motivated to work harder after getting low scores. My friends wanted to pass while I wanted to get the best grade. Don’t ask me why! 🙂 So this is probably individual to a certain extent.

      I’m a big fan of formative assessment, which you briefly touch on in your comment. However, most of my colleagues think it’s a waste of time. People like grades because they are simple and straightforward. Obviously, they can never be totally objective and fair. But descriptive assessments can also be highly subjective. I talk to my students a lot and thus they know about their strengths and weaknesses, even though I eventually give them grades. So I believe it’s about the approach. I suppose it’s in our power to create an environment where grades will be just grades, but our students will know what the grades really mean…


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      1. No need to seek courage, Hana 🙂 I just laid down a few ruminations and anxieties on an issue which is becoming so huge, it might even consume education in the future. This might be so since viewing standardized tests as a significant, positive and cost-effective reform tool, educational policymakers have been using them at an increasing rate. The testing process now costs hundreds of millions and thousands of hours of teacher and student time.
        There are so many questions here. Does testing set meaningful standards to which school systems, schools, teachers and students can aspire? Does testing cater for students’ creative and critical thinking skills? Does improvement in test scores actually signal improvement in learning? What’s the relevance and meaningfulness of their multiple choice formats? Shouldn’t we be concerned if standardized testing feeds instruction (teachers’/institutions’ accountability and evaluation) and learning (curriculum content, materials, methodologies)? I mean, do we teach for learning or is our teaching informed by the measurement-driven test demands?
        “I’m not sure whether I would abandon them if I could”. Of course you are not sure. We have been part of this system as students first, now as teachers and have internalized the “norm” of schooling/education being about tests and exams. As I mentioned in my comment, there are no exams in my setting, the state primary sector, but tests and grades have been there for many years, the situation growing worse in recent times. Children at the age of 8 onwards have to take regularly, in the three semesters of the school year, an irrational number of tests in different subjects. This results in fatigue and demotivation. Test performance and grades are the overall master of the game at the detriment of learning.
        “I was always motivated by good grades, whereas most of my peers were motivated to work harder after getting low scores. My friends wanted to pass while I wanted to get the best grade” When I say intrinsic motivation, I mean because you enjoy it or find it interesting as opposed to extrinsic which is for an external reward. Rewards or punishments linked to evaluative judgment such as grades are an extrinsic motive. Your friends were motivated to work harder after getting low scores because they wanted to pass. This is extrinsic motivation.
        Descriptive assessment, and generally formative assessment, is powerful in that it is assessment for learning and not assessment of learning. This is where the power lies. But it should be supported by relevant policy decisions like class size and teacher training which, ironically, policymakers are reluctant to invest in resorting to the “simple and straightforward” reign of numbers like many of your colleagues.
        I’m certain you talk a lot to your students because you have a passion as an educator. But, why should “testing be always in your/our mind”? Why should the quantitative matter more that the qualitative, and meeting (someone else’s) standards count for more than exploring ideas and values? This is what I feel like questioning, and being skeptical and suspicious about. This working framework imposed on us, students and families. Enjoy, relax and take care. Weekend’s almost at the door 🙂

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  2. Thanks for extending the conversation, Chrysa. I really like the questions you pose in your comment. They’re food for thought – maybe for another post. I have a follow-up question: if you doubt (and I feel you do) that improvement in test scores actually signals improvement in learning, would you say that learning is measurable? In other words, how can we measure the outcomes of learning? I admit I sometimes feel that my teaching is, indeed, often informed by the measurement-driven test demands. For some time, especially when the kids are young, I feel I teach for learning. However, I know that I’ll eventually have to prepare my students for their final tests, and this is what is expected of me. This is one of the goals I’m expected to achieve, no matter how superficial it may sound. Yes, something is wrong and over time I have become pragmatic. But I love my job and I’ll do my best to teach for learning, with or without grades.

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  3. Hi Hana,

    I enjoyed your blog post and the comments, as well.
    What I really don’t like about our education system is that it puts too much stress on grading and testing. I firmly believe the last thing students need is so many tests. If we really want our students to make progress and improve their language skills we must challenge them with interesting questions/creative activities/project work, etc. We must offer support and guidance, give regular feedback, and what is important, we should teach our students how to reflect on their learning. If they are really serious about improving their English they will not restrict their practice to class time, they will find many useful ways to practise and test their language skills outside the class.

    To be honest I’ve never liked grading (or giving marks), and like Chrysa I don’t find it intrinsically motivating for students to improve, there are much more negative than positive sides to it, actually. I also believe that non-graded formative assessment is the best way of measuring and supporting students’ progress. Continuous assessment of language learning (which is not graded) is very useful for the purpose of letting the teacher and student know what are the student’s strengths or weaknesses, if more practice and revision is needed, etc.

    Thanks a lot for your great and thought-provoking post. 🙂


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    1. Hi Ljiljana,

      I totally agree with the argument that grading/testing is a source of stress and anxiety. One solution could be to abandon both. However, this is easier said than done. In my teaching context, this wouldn’t be feasible because in the state sector of education, there are certain rules I have to follow. One of the rules is continuous assessment in the form of grading.

      Now, if I can’t get rid of something I don’t like, I can shrewdly change it. I really like the theory which proposes that every student can (has the right to) achieve a very high score on a test. However, while some students succeed at the first go, others need more attempts. Theoretically, a very weak student should be given as many chances as he needs to prove he’s fully mastered the matter. The problem is that this is very time-consuming. Normally, we give one type of test to all students and then we compare their results against each other’s. This is not fair because this approach presupposes that each student works at the same pace. However, what we do is that we just leave the unsuccessful students behind and move on along with the successful ones.

      Also, I strongly believe that you can design tests in a way that your students will actually look forward to taking them. Thus, you can change extrinsic motivation into intrinsic motivation since everybody loves they taste of success, don’t they? So make it possible for your students to experience this positive emotion as often as possible. You will need to use a few tricks, but that’s why we love teaching after all – because it’s magic 🙂

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  4. Thanks for your reply, Hana. 🙂

    The main point of my comment was not that grading/testing is a source of stress and anxiety (although I agree with you that it is stressful). I wanted to say that in the education system which is all about grading and testing students are more focused on getting a better score/grade than learning and really improving their language skills.

    I know very well (as I’ve been working in a secondary state school for 20 years) that grading/testing is compulsory in state schools and of course that we have to obey certain rules (whether we like them or not). My comment that the last thing students need is a lot of tests implies that it is more useful for students if teachers devote much more time in their classes to interesting activities/project work, etc. Continuous assessment (or quick checks of how Ss understand the concepts, which skills are important and should be improved by practicing more) is a good idea/useful between two formal assessments (end of term/end of year test).

    Also, I completely agree with you that “we can design tests in a way that our students will actually look forward to taking them” (if we are properly trained we can make very good tests, yes). I strongly feel that it is more motivating for our students (if they are serious about improving English!) to do tests by themselves at home once a week/month. We can provide them with reliable sites and they can enjoy the positive emotion of having made headway.

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    1. Oh, sorry. It looks as if I twisted your message but when I said in the first paragraph that I agree with the argument that grading is a source of stress and anxiety, I was actually elaborating on Chrysa’s comment (as you mentioned you had enjoyed the comment section, I, somewhat illogically, came back to Chrysa’s argument concerning fear). This was supposed to serve as a lead-in to the next paragraph where I wanted to pick up the threads of your comment, especially the points about continuous assessment, intrinsic motivation, etc. Now I see that my comment looks totally out of context. Anyway, thanks for stopping by. I really appreciate it.


  5. I would briefly say, Hana, that learning can be measured by the extend to which students understand, experience, conceptualize, are curious, question and reinterpret the world. It is also about relating parts of the subject matter to each other and to the real world which links to active citizenship. It’s less about memorising and acquiring facts and skills. Sorry again for having missed this.

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    1. Thanks for your reply, Chrysa. Don’t worry about missing the rest of the discussion thread. I totally agree with you, but I’d say the concepts you mention are very difficult to measure in the sense we understand measuring, i.e. assessment (for example curiosity?). There are many aspects which classic tests and exams don’t take into consideration, such as creativity. I mean, you can count the number of correct answers in a test, but how can you measure the extent of creativity in a project, for example? It’s up to the teacher to include these into the overall assessment somehow, even though it’s not officially required. Some argue though, that this can be highly subjective and that’s why they prefer standardized tests.

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