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?

Behind the scenes

The other day I posted a couple of photos to the #eltpics Facebook group. I had taken the pics during a workshop called Design Your Ideal Coursebook. From the images one can tell that it was a truly enjoyable experience and that doing workshops is great fun. Let’s look behind the scenes, though. 
At first I should confess that I originally wanted to write a different post – about how much trouble I had had planning this particular workshop. However, I eventually stopped babbling about how desperate I felt and instead I decided to wait and see how the workshop actually turns out. The truth is, though, that this post is going to be a rant anyway.
Here’s the story: each year, a number of subject teachers at our school are ordered asked to come up with an idea for a workshop. The summary of the workshop is displayed on a huge board opposite the entrance gate. Students then choose workshops, mostly based on the content, and sign up for them. However, I believe there are other criteria students consider when opting for a particular workshop, such as the teacher’s popularity. Here comes the first flaw – there are more workshops than necessary and thus some of them end up being empty or with just a couple of names on the list. The reader might object that this approach is fine because thus students have a greater choice of topics. The trouble is, though, that the teachers who didn’t succeed in attracting a satisfactory number of students take it as a failure or blame themselves (or somebody else does so) for not having tried hard enough. 

Anyway, I passed the first checkpoint by managing to ‘gain’ 13 participants. They were a mixture of 12 and 13 year olds, and I knew they were a creative and motivated bunch of English learners, so I was really happy. The empty workshops were finally cancelled and the teachers were asked to assist their colleagues. 
 
As I already mentioned above, it really worried me that until the last moment I didn’t have a very detailed plan of what the workshop should look like. I had a rough idea of what I wanted to do with the students but there was no particular order, sequence or any sign of clear structure whatsoever. So I brainstormed in bed, took notes on the bus, drew doodles in the kitchen, created mind maps; I even used the post-it notes technique Joanna Malefaki describes in her post. But I was hopeless. It was not just one lesson or a double lesson, or even a string of separate lessons to be thought through; the project had to be designed so that it covered a period of five lessons in which I had to provide my students with content that was interesting, engaging, cohesive, meaningful, and cross-curricular. Having said that, you can imagine that teachers are not exactly over the moon when the day finally comes. The preparation stage is time-consuming, and the overall experience is emotionally challenging. 
The night before the workshop I gave up. I had lots of random ideas, I knew how I would start but I decided to leave the rest up to serendipity. In was in the title after all: Design your ideal coursebook. How could I prepare every detail in advance? It wouldn’t have been their ideal coursebook if I had planned too much. I know it sounds like an alibi but I just had to look at things rationally once I felt lost. 
 
Needless to say, my creative gang were absolutely amazing and the workshop went really well. In the morning we looked at some old coursebooks and we discussed what was good and what was not so good. Later on we compared those ancient publications with modern coursebooks and argued what had improved over time. We also carried out a small survey outside the school, and analysed and presented the results. Based on the discussions and the results of the survey the students then agreed on the content and the title of their Ideal Coursebook. I asked them to work in pairs – each pair was responsible for one unit of the book – but they also had to keep the integrity of the book in mind and cooperate as a team. 
To cut it short, it was a lovely morning and we had a great time but I shouldn’t forget to mention one more drawback. After the workshop finished, all the teams gathered in the gym for the final presentation. Each team then presented the outcomes of their learning in the form of posters, projects, role plays, etc. This was a great show and lots of fun, except that there was a committee that was supposed to vote for the best three presentations. In fact, you could spend all day preparing for the five-minute presentation, and do nothing else, and your team might well win the first prize. Or you could spend one hour working on a super poster and then put your feet up on the wall and listen to a guided relaxation – and your team might still win. Or your team could work non-stop and engage in lots of interesting activities and then prepare a nice presentation but they may still end up ‘medal-less’. I ask: How can you assess the process only based on the outcome? 
 
 
My colleagues and I had protested against this summative type of assessment of something that should not be judged and measured this way before. How can you assess a biology workshop alongside with a German language one anyway? Last year my team won and the members were on cloud nine when they got some sweets, but I felt sorry for the kids who had been working hard for the previous 4 hours and ended up empty-handed. This year my team didn’t win and again, I felt upset about the fact that they had been judged and assessed this way. Why do I always feel the bitter-sweet taste at the back of my tongue?  I would like to enjoy the experience to the fullest but somehow I can’t …