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?