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?

Do you practise what you preach?

Have you ever thought about the discrepancy between what you tell your students to believe and what you believe yourself? I mean, don’t you ever preach water and drink wine? I think I do, quite often, without even realizing so.

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For example, I often tell my students not to be afraid of making mistakes. However, I am terrified of making them myself. Regardless of the fact that my Teacher Self keeps telling me that making mistakes is an inevitable part of learning/doing practically anything, I’m not overly excited when I misspell a word when writing on the board or miscalculate a student’s test score.

Also, I constantly reassure my students that there’s no need to panic about giving a presentation in front of the whole class because nothing really disastrous can happen. The truth is, though, that I’ve rarely stayed calm in such a situation myself. I remember how terrible I felt when I had to give a 5-minute talk in front of a group of my fellow students at uni. I should add that it was supposed to be in German, in which I wasn’t exactly fluent, and it was only three years ago. Needless to say, my legs felt like jelly, my hands were shaking and I had butterflies in my stomach. What was worse, I had forgotten everything I had so laboriously memorized. Now that I think about it, my biggest problem was that at that time, I saw myself as an experienced English teacher, used to standing confidently in front of a bunch of teens. But all of a sudden, I felt like a schoolgirl again, which, under certain circumstances might have been exciting, except that it wasn’t.

I tell my students that it is learning that matters most – not the scores. I tell them that it’s primarily the process, not the result, which is the most valuable aspect of education. Still, I use grades to make my students learn. Obviously, there are many students who are internally motivated, and these love learning no matter the formal assessment, but there are some who just want to succeed. And it goes without saying that in their context, success equals decent grades.

I truly believe that it’s my job to help my students get used to accepting all sorts of feedback. Feedback is there to help them learn, after all. But I can clearly recall my exasperation when my German tutor gave me some rather unflattering feedback after the above-mentioned presentation. She was a little harsh, or, maybe, a tad too straightforward to my taste, but she was absolutely right. And I learned a lot from that particular lesson – mainly about myself and feedback.

Back then I felt it in my bones right from the start that my presentation wasn’t going to be a blockbuster, but it was not in my power to change the state of affairs prior the actual experience, simply because I didn’t have the knowledge needed for that change. All I could do was to learn from the failure and keep the newly-acquired knowledge for the future. This is what we often forget to take into consideration when giving feedback to our students; we sometimes reproach and reprimand, even though we use soft phrases like ‘You should have’, ‘Why didn’t you’, or ‘Next time you could’. But it’s not fair; our students rarely mess things up on purpose.

What’s the point in all the preaching then? I know too well that my students must experience failure and anxiety because it helps them grow. Likewise, I know that my little son is unlikely to stop worrying about monsters in the dark just because I reassure him they don’t exist. All I can do is to be there for him and with him. By the way, I’m sometimes afraid of the dark too.

And what about you? Do you drink water or wine? In what situations?

Observation or Presentation nerves – #ELTChat summary

020520153826As the title suggests, the topic of the 13/5-noon #ELTchat was Observation or Presentation nerves – how to avoid them or overcome them. The first question was posed by the moderator, Angelos Bollas: ‘Who is nervous during observation?’ While few participants said they are hardly ever nervous because they take observation as any other lesson (@TheRedFellow), many of us admitted some kind of uneasiness during formal observation (@juliacphang). It is the fear of the unknown – the unpredictable – which may be one of the sources of this anxiety (@juliacphang). However, @Shaunwilden argued that it should be the observer’s job to limit the unknown.

We agreed that although a certain amount of anxiety can be beneficial, and even a good bit of adrenalin (@juliacphang), when there’s too much of it, it can interfere with the observee’s performance (@angelos_bollas). However, once we get going, it’s ok. Students usually soon forget the observer there (@juliacphang).

The next question that emerged at the beginning of the chat was ‘Do you do something special to overcome anxiety?’ One of the tips suggested by @angelos_bollas was to imagine the audience being naked, which, as some of us admitted, never worked, though. What also helps, for example, is 1) a 5-minute walk in fresh air (@BobK99), or 2) having observers very frequently, preferably once a week or more, which helps you stop feeling it’s strange (@GlenysHanson). Also, the more you observe others, the more you relax about being observed yourself (@TheRedFellow). The moderator concluded that it’s a matter of getting used to being observed.

Another part of the discussion revolved around the observer. Who is the observer? Is it a colleague, the administrator, a tutor, the manager, an inspector, or a parent? There seem to be different kinds of anxiety depending on who observes you (@angelos_bollas). For example, some of us said that parents don’t make us feel nervous because they aren’t professional observers, and they are primarily interested to see what their kids can do. Others argued, however, that the parents who come to observe their lessons are psychologists, educators, or teachers (@rmoyano5). Glenys Hanson, for instance, mainly had observers who were colleagues, only interested to see what she was doing. Also, she observed colleagues in order to learn from them. She argued that if the teacher feels the observer is there to judge, it’s bound to be anxiety inducing. Angelos Bollas later maintained that the less formal the context, the less stress one would feel. I added that the aim of the observer is also important; it makes a huge difference if s/he wants to see what the teacher can do or what they can’t do. The moderator concluded that the aims should be known to both parties before observation.

For the rest of the chat, the concept of observation intertwined with the concept of presentation. While class observation can be somewhat unpredictable, presentations are relatively predictable, some argued (@HanaHainsworth). One of the unpredictable elements of formal observations is the students. Generally, they are better behaved when the class is observed, but they may have a tendency to show off, or sometimes they just do things you don’t expect. With a presentation, on the other hand, you know exactly what you’re going to say (@juliacphang). One way or the other, there is a huge difference between being a teacher and a presenter (@Shaunwilden).

Another point related to a rather high degree of unpredictability of observation concerned the fact the observees don’t always know in advance that/when they will be observed. Personally, I believe that we teachers should have the right to choose when we would like to be observed since the opportunity to prepare more thoroughly than usual diminishes the level of anxiety. Others argued, however, that they don’t mind experimenting, getting negative feedback, and learning from their mistakes (@Shaunwilden, @angelos_bollas).

A large bulk of useful tips was shared by the participants on how to prepare for a presentation. Here are some of them: Start solo, then do a presentation in front of small groups, and finally, present to the whole class (@TheRedFellow). ‘Fake it ’til you make it’ seems to work for @MrHoika. Some participants revealed that they like recording their voice and then video themselves before an observation/presentation (@angelos_bollas), while others admitted that they can’t stand listening to recordings of themselves (@TheRedFellow). Shaun Wilden argued, however, that it is a useful way of finding your faults. You can learn a lot from the recordings, and you can change things that need to be changed, such as timing, pausing, intonation, etc. (@angelos_bollas).

Another interesting idea was proposed by the moderator again, who believes that when it comes to professional presentations, what helps is presenting something online first before you do so face-to-face. @HanaHainsworth finds it best to find an audience to do it with because that way you can get feedback. A very practical tip came from @rmoyano5, who summed it up as follows: 1. Good knowledge of the topic 2. Anticipate questions 3. Good nite’s sleep!

Towards the end of the discussion, @teflgeek suggested that feeling positive beforehand may help a great deal because it’s not the presentation that causes nerves – it’s our thinking about the presentation. He argued that there’s a difference between preparation in terms of content, and nerves and anxiety in terms of delivery. We were advised against making the assumption that the presentation will go wrong. Also, there is no difference between pretending to have confidence and actually having confidence itself. So, we shouldn’t anticipate a reaction, we should just experiment by giving the presentation and seeing what reaction we get. Angelos Bollas concluded that perhaps, it’s a mindset difficult to teach, and I tend to agree; one either has it or not. I’d say it’s a question of experience rather than conscious learning.

Here’s the link to the transcript.