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Something old, something new … Part 3

Exam takerMarilena Chirculete takes a look at the revised Proficiency exam and shares her classroom ideas to help students prepare for the new exam format. This is the last one of a series of blogs on the topic.

For the revised Cambridge English: Proficiency. We have already delved into the Reading and Writing components, so today’s post consists of ideas on preparing the Listening and Speaking papers. Enjoy!

Approaching the Listening Paper

The Listening paper has not suffered great changes. It is only Part 4 that became a straightforward multiple matching task; there are 30 questions (instead of 28) to be answered during 40 minutes of recording.

This type of task presents students with the difficulty of solving two tasks at the same time, as both of them refer to the same recording. While listening to a speaker, they have to focus on several statements to figure out which one relates entirely to him/ her. What teachers have to stimulate in their students’ abilities is distributive attention. Here are some ideas for the classroom.

  • For slower students, in the beginning ask them to solve Task 1 the first time they listen and Task 2 the second time they do so. However, this way, they will have no opportunity to go back on their answers. It is, therefore, important to encourage “multi-tasking”, as the exam draws closer.
  • A useful activity might also be staging seemingly real-life social interactions, light conversations. While two students carry out the dialogue, another one has to match a list of several statements to either one of the two participants in the conversation. For a successful task, it is important that you prepare a specific outline of the conversation for the two students to follow. This way, you may manage to develop active listening in a friendly manner, and at the same time enhance distributive attention. As students master multitasking among statements regarding two participants in the conversation, enlarge the chatting crew to three and even four members. The benefits are two-fold: students improve both their speaking and their listening skills. Two birds, one stone!
  • Another idea would be to use the actual tape script. Assign the roles of each speaker to random members of your working group. They will become the team of ‘actors’, while the others will be called the team of ‘spectators’. Hand out the statements included in both tasks for the ‘spectators’ to become familiar with. Allow up to a minute for the ‘actors’ to get into character and to feel comfortable reading the script at a natural pace, as if they were using their own words. Each ‘actor’ takes the floor and delivers the speech, as the ‘spectators’ try to find a match for both Task 1 and Task 2 in the list of statements. This activity ensures that students are fully engaged in the listening process, they perceive it as real and lively and, most importantly, they understand that intonation and overall tone may also offer clues towards the statements that are best suited for each speaker.

Approaching the Speaking Paper

This part of the examination is the one that changed the least. It is shorter by three minutes, on account of reducing the individual stages.

The main difficulty usually encountered by candidates is speaking endurance. Nervousness may deter them from gathering their thoughts on the given topic and rendering a speech worthy of level C2. At this level, everything matters, from posture, to fluency, stress, suprasegmentals, variety and complexity in organization. Fortunately, students already have a comprehensive grasp of the English language, so the teacher’s job is to help them brush up on their spoken discourse.

  • Help students become aware! One way would be to record students, play the recording back and ask them to assess their own performance.
  • As follow-up, I recommend that students do the same thing at home, by using a device: the mobile phone. It may come as a shock to some students that the camera on their mobile phone might as well be their most objective assessor. By solving a Speaking task in front of the camera, not only do students become aware of their voice inflexions, pauses and facial expression, but they recreate an uncomfortable, rather stressful environment in which they must try to control their nervousness. Keep yourself in check!
  • Also, organising debates in class, in which arguing a viewpoint is essential, will most certainly increase students’ confidence in speaking publicly. Arguments make the discourse go round!
  • What has been tremendously successful among my students is staging talk-shows, in which all the guests need to approach the same matter from different angles, thus becoming aware of the variety of approaches they might use in the real Speaking test, in order to make their speech more complex.

This being written, let’s gather as many useful ideas as we can! Do you have any tips and tricks on preparing students for any of the papers and challenges of the Cambridge Proficiency?


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Something old, something new… Part 2

Exam takerMarilena Chirculete takes a look at the revised Proficiency exam and shares her classroom ideas to help students prepare for the new exam format. This is the second part of a series of blogs on the topic.

Let’s continue our stroll through the changes of the new and revised Cambridge English: Proficiency examination. I have tackled the issue of the reformed Reading and Use of English Paper in a previous post but what lies ahead regarding the Writing Paper?

Approaching the Writing Paper

Students will spend only one hour and a half, instead of two hours, on this paper due to the fact that the minimum word count will be reduced from 600 to 520. There will also be less variety, in that Part 1 will only be a compulsory discursive essay, while for the second part candidates may have to choose an article, a report, a letter or a review. Good news on this front, therefore, less text types to prepare for! Further on, I am going to focus on the newest type of task, which makes for Writing Part 1.

Writing Part 1 – what’s in two texts?

Thankfully, the Proficiency examination is usually not the first Cambridge English examination students have sat. This is the reason why they may already be very familiar with what is required of them.

Part 1 has always been the compulsory one, much like in figure skating – there are certain tricks the assessors must notice in the candidate’s performance.

Preparation

The new Part 1 is a follow-up to that former Use of English task which dealt with summarising, organising information and evaluating its merits, as they are now offered by two texts of around 100 words each.

Naturally, candidates will need help pinpointing the essential information in a text and analysing it compellingly. Encourage them to use highlighters in order to stress out significant information, whether it is presented in a contrasting or complementary manner by the two given texts.

‘So, what makes an idea essential?’, your students might ask. Well, both texts are linked by a common topic, theme or subject. Whenever an idea is brought to the table by both of them, that is when students need to pay attention. The arguments may be divergent, of course, even if related to the same aspect and the dynamic between the two texts may not always be transparent. It is the students’ task to make connections, to identify the two ways in which an idea is presented.

‘What next?’, I hear students ask. Once they have broken the message of both texts down into main points and have found the connecting/contradicting viewpoint in between each pair of ideas, it is time to finally get down to the writing. What is extremely important for students in this part 1 is that they understand they must be first excellent readers and only afterwards excellent writers.

Teachers now face the challenge of having to train students to select the main pieces of information and to also use them successfully in their own written discourse.

  • Help students disintegrate a piece into its basics, into the main ideas and then reintegrate them into their own frame of thought.
  • Play detective games, where students must first identify the relevant information offered by the witnesses, then present the two sides of the story, only to conclude with their final pleading – the moment when they weigh both versions of the truth and give their own view and interpretation. There’s your piece! Now, write it down!
  • Individual or group projects are also useful in this respect; cut-outs offer the possibility of recycling what’s given into one’s own project.

Careful with the language! Accuracy and appropriateness are both of the essence. What is paramount, other than a high flexibility and versatility of language use is signposting its functions. A writing task will always ask students to comment, argue, recommend, suggest, persuade, and so on.

Make sure your students have the right tools at hand: language for making recommendations, for instance, or language for persuading. These are the “buffer”-words that will allow their writing piece to function. Concrete arguments and ideas are merely the material that revolves around the way this raw material is put to good use.

Obviously, there also needs to be diversity amongst this kind of preparatory statements. If you are trying to teach language for suggesting or recommending, set the scene for it. Ask students to picture themselves in a therapist’s office. What would they tell the therapist to make his/ her job more difficult and what would they reply, as therapists, to the requests of the patients? What would they recommend and, most importantly, how would they introduce the ideas and smoothen their way into communication?

And finally…

Writing Part 1 is challenging because of its very essence: focusing on both the WHAT  and the HOW. The greatest novelty in the revised Proficiency examination is the fact that there are two steps to solving the task: reading comprehension and relaying information in a discursive piece, while also analysing and interpreting.  It is, however, the chance for students to be personal, to weigh in their own thoughts, too. The candidate gets to feel like a true contributor to a matter of interest, therefore, as a final word of advice, ask your students to speak their mind and to think critically, with every opportunity you might have in class.

In the next post I will be looking at strategies to help students prepare for the Speaking and Listening papers. Details of the changes to the Cambridge English: Proficiency 2013 exam can be viewed here. View the title on our online catalogue.


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Something old, something new…

Exam takerMarilena Chirculete takes a look at the revised Proficiency exam and shares her classroom ideas to help students prepare for the new exam format. This is the first part of a series of two blogs on the topic.

The time has come for those involved in the Cambridge English: Proficiency preparation process to face the latest challenge: preparation for the revised (and abridged) version of the examination which is to be released in January 2013. On celebrating its centenary, the Proficiency exam revolutionises tradition. Training students for such a prestigious certificate is never facile. However, the one aspect I admire in the new Cambridge English: Proficiency is that it seems to keep a much more logical and coherent transition from the Advanced level examination.

New in the revised Proficiency, paradoxically, are the very deeply rooted tasks of lower level Cambridge exams. Nevertheless the question remains: up to what extent and how are teachers and students expected to adapt? Vast as the field may be, in this blog I will focus mainly on the key changes and on what they entail in terms of exam preparation, and will introduce some guiding tips and ideas for teachers to employ in class.

Approaching the Reading and Use of English paper

Paper 1 – Reading and Use of English will consist of 7 parts, out of which the first four test candidates’ grammatical and vocabulary prowess, then the next 3 parts are dedicated to Reading items. There will be 53 questions to be solved in 90 minutes, so your students will need extra practice in managing time successfully, while still maintaining accuracy, attention and thoroughness.

The Reading Component

There is another element of surprise insofar as there are no similar tasks throughout this paper. Thus, reading comprehension tested through multiple choice items is now reduced to a single part, but multiple matching will be introduced to Proficiency. Does this sound familiar, by any chance? Anyone who has prepared students for the Cambridge Advanced will have felt their heart skip a beat. That’s right, multiple matching strikes again! Multiple matching The challenge of this task resides in the discipline and strategy one employs when solving it. The task presents candidates with a text divided into several sections. A list of 10 questions/ statements requires them to find the correlation to each one in a section of the text. Teachers ought to make students aware of the importance of a strategy which should be practised before the actual examination. There are a few stages to help with the task:

  • First, advise students to underline the key information in the 10 questions. Not all the words in the question are relevant and the danger they present is that they might even distract attention. Highlight significant concepts!
  • The next step would be to actually begin reading. It is not a matter of in-depth reading. Skimming should be enough and a close reading should be used only when in doubt between two sections.
  • Remind students that multiple matching does not also imply multiple reading. Their attention should be undivided. Recommend taking each section at a time in the attempt of answering as many questions as possible through a particular fragment, provided that the key words underlined in the questions have palpable contextually synonymic counterparts in the suspected section. No over-interpretation!

The Use of English Component

Of the 5 parts currently constituting the Use of English paper of C2 level only 3 will be kept: the open cloze, the multiple-choice cloze, and word formation. The gapped sentences are history! I expect that those of you who have prepared for the Cambridge Advanced feel the breeze of the revised Proficiency examination, which becomes less of a mathematical configuration (remember trying to find the one word that fits all three contexts?) and less of a poetic quest (students will be happy to know that comprehension questions are out of the way), but more of a test of skilful language use… which is why the key word transformations are back.

Key word transformations

The key to solving this type of task is the key word itself, which must remain intact, however structurally changed the original sentence may need to be. The challenge is two-fold: the meaning must remain the same as in the given sentence while, at the same time, the grammatical changes ought to be correct and natural. So how can you help students tackle this task?

  • Exposure to the language is a main aspect, since it develops flexibility in using it. Take every opportunity to show or elicit from students the various ways a statement may be rephrased in.
  • Practice makes perfect, it is generally argued and it is quite true here. Practising this kind of exam task will increase students’ dexterity in this respect.
  • Last, but not least, encourage students to challenge each other. Being given a certain sentence, a student could come up with a word to be used in rephrasing the given statement. This way, teachers are able to stimulate active processing. Essentially, the first student tries on the shoes of the test builder, by fully grasping the principles behind this type of exam item, while the other student takes on the responsibility of solving the puzzle.

In the next post I will be looking at strategies to help students prepare for the Writing, Speaking, and Listening papers. Details of the changes to the Cambridge English: Proficiency 2013 exam can be viewed here.


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A Statistical Look at English Proficiency in U.S. Schools

Teacher holding a book in classElaine Hirsch takes a look at the changing level of proficiency standards in the United States school system.

English proficiency has steadily improved among U.S. students over the last 30 years, thanks to a collective emphasis on language skills in American schools. As immigration numbers increase on an annual basis, the U.S. Department of Education (DOE) faces new challenges to ensure America’s children are able to communicate effectively with their peers. Luckily many experts believe impressive annual growth indicates an optimistic outlook for American English-speaking students.

Significant improvement has been recorded among children who learn English as a second language (ESL), says the Institute of Education Sciences (IES), a branch of the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Educational Statistics (NCES). In 2010, IES reported that the number of school-age children (5 to 17 years old) who primarily spoke languages other than English in their homes rose from 4.7 million to 11.2 million between 1980 and 2009. As this number rose, so did the level of English proficiency among ESL students. IES reported that roughly 41 percent of these children struggled with English in 1980; by 2009, this figure had reduced to 24 percent.

Age has shown to be a critical factor when it comes to effectively learning English. Seven percent of 5- to 9-year-olds spoke a non-English language at home and struggled with English in school, compared to four percent of children between the ages of 10 and 17. This figure can be largely attributed to the increased amount of programs for English Language Learners (ELLs) in the nation’s schools. The National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) reported that ELLs attending grades 7-12 increased by more than 70 percent since 1992, and K-12 enrollments for ELLs rose by 5 percent since 1990. A resource for accredited online graduate courses explains that as the number of children and young adults enrolling in ESL classes continues to grow, so does the need for teachers. Thus it’s not a bad idea for students interested in education to consider taking classes, or enrolling, in ESL or English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) programs.

Race and ethnicity also play a statistical role in English proficiency. Sixteen percent of both Asian and Hispanic children who did not speak English at home ultimately struggle as ELLs, compared to six percent of Pacific Islanders, three percent of Native Americans and less than one percent among Caucasians and African-Americans. These figures are problematic, since Asians and Hispanics constitute the largest influx of legal U.S. immigrants.

Fortunately, according to No Child Left Behind (NCLB) statistics, the English proficiency of even struggling demographics improves as students get older. Roughly 25 to 45 percent of immigrated Asian and Hispanic children qualified as “limited English proficient (LEP).” Of these students, many lived in “isolated households,” or residences in which no one older than 14 speaks English very well. However, percentages of students in these two categories decreased between 6th and 12th grades, and by as much as 50 percent for children from countries like Vietnam, South Korea, Mexico, Dominican Republic and El Salvador. Furthermore, The New York Times reported in 2007 that 88 percent of second-generation members of Latino immigrant families were strong English speakers, compared to 23 percent of their first-generation relatives. This would indicate the children of immigrants are effectively learning to speak English by the time they reach adulthood.

According to NCES, American students overall improved English proficiency last year. In its 2011 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), English reading scores among American 4th and 8th grade students increased among children of higher- and lower-income families. Additionally, nationwide schools are undergoing major changes that potentially impact ELLs in a very positive way. Earlier this year, the Obama Administration announced plans to dismantle NCLB and transfer the responsibility from federal to state level. This move will conceivably allow each state DOE to customize the curricula taught in its schools. ELLs and other students with special English language needs will play a major role in states with a large immigrant population, including California, Texas, New York and Florida—the four most populous states.

As annual U.S. immigration numbers continue to soar, numbers show more new citizens are learning English than ever before. Their children are grasping the new language early in their education, and are able to hone this skill as they reach adulthood. As our schools evolve to meet the needs of ELLs, experts believe these figures will only improve.

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The Importance of English Language Proficiency for College Teaching Assistants

teacher-holding-bookElaine Hirsch discusses the importance of English language proficiency for College Teaching Assistants.

Learning about how to derive the Black-Scholes formula in a 7:30 AM finance class is a challenging feat in itself; most students would rather not have to worry about understanding their teaching assistants’ English while they’re at it. Unfortunately, you’ve probably had similar experiences in classes taught by master’s degree candidate TAs, and incidences such as these form the basis for establishing guidelines regarding English language proficiency in higher education.

Language proficiency is commonly defined as a person’s ability to speak or perform in an acquired language. In order to evaluate an individual’s abilities, the Test of English as a Foreign Language was established by the Educational Testing Service and is administered worldwide to measure the ability of people to employ college-level English in terms of listening, reading, speaking, and writing skills.

However, the burden of applying this standard through admission guidelines falls to individual states and universities. For instance, the University of Illinois at Chicago requires applicants whose native languages aren’t English to demonstrate above minimum scores on either the TOEFL or the exam of the International English Language Testing System within two years of application.

Similarly, at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign “non-native English speaking graduate students who are prospective teaching assistants are encouraged to demonstrate oral English proficiency prior to arriving on campus” by meeting specific requirements on either the TOEFL or IELTS. The university also administers the Speaking Proficiency English Assessment Kit and an English proficiency interview on campus. Clearly, while the expectation is graduate students confirm language proficiency in advance, the university also evaluates them upon arrival.

Along with valid TOEFL or IELTS scores, the University of Buffalo requires all international students who have been awarded teaching assistantships to take the SPEAK test before class registration, or even in some cases prior to admission to a particular program. On the west coast, the University of California also requires either the TOEFL or IELTS.

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