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Say what you see – vocabulary and images

23 May

This is an activity that I used as a warmer with my classes last week with great results!  It works really well for vocabulary review, with lower levels, but also with extending and developing the range of vocabulary that exam classes use when they are confronted by images.

  1. Select an image to use.  It could be topic related to reflect a particular lexical set (e.g. one of Carl Warner’s foodscapes to review food vocabulary with a lower level group) or more general.
  2. Students work in groups of three.  Each student has three lives.  Students have to say something they can see in the picture.  If they can’t, they lose a life.  The winner is the last person to still have a life left.  There should be no repetition of items and students can challenge if they think someone is making it up!
  3. Show students the image and off they go!
From @eltpics on Flickr

From @eltpics on Flickr

Variations:

With my exam classes I introduced a couple of variations – I selected pictures that were linked by theme, such as might appear in a First or Advanced speaking exam, and they weren’t allowed to use single words.  They had to use collocations or at least add a layer of additional description or comment to the item.  So they couldn’t say “a car” but they had to say something like “an ugly green car” or “a vintage BMW”.  They found this quite challenging, but reacted well to it and I found that when they then went on to do a comparison and evaluation task (like the speaking part two), they were able to not only do it more effectively, but also to demonstrate a stronger range of lexis.

With my young learners I found that weaker students, perhaps not surprisingly, were out of the game quite quickly, so as an alternative I gave the groups two minutes to write down as many items as they could and then did a board race to get the language up onto the board – with the proviso that there be no repetition across groups (so if group A writes “balloons” up, none of the other groups can).  This made it more collaborative initially, still keeping the competition element, and added another layer of peer teaching.

 

Is it worse when bad students do well or when good students do badly?

5 Apr

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This is a question that occurred to me in a frenzy of test marking that took place last month…  I’m interested to know what people think!

I’d appreciate your answer before you read on….

Having gone through fifty odd tests and looked at the scores, there were quite a few surprises in there.  Students who are attentive and hard working in the classroom who scored very poorly and of course the opposite – students who do the bare minimum and who mess around and who lack focus and who confound expectations by doing well.

So what does that tell us?

Mostly it tells me that labelling students as “good” or “bad” is not a particularly helpful activity and in fact I know this already and have written about it before in “The Myth of the Good Student“.

It also tells me that behaviour does not equal learning and just because something looks like learning, doesn’t mean it is learning.  I remember a student who, at a previous parent teacher conference had been exhorted to try harder, started sitting up and writing stuff down more during lessons and doing the coursebook exercises promptly and with reasonable efficiency.  Upon slightly closer monitoring however, it turned out that he was literally just moving his pencil over the page in random squiggly lines and then putting it down and saying “finished” when there were enough other students doing the same to hide in amongst.  I’m not sure what he thought it would achieve, but it is probably a tactic that works in other contexts, where there are thirty odd students in the class and the teacher doesn’t get beyond the first row very often.

There is a part of me though that believes effort, when it is made, should be rewarded.  When I see the “good students” who proactively write things down and try to do the activities and exercises properly and who try to practice the language, and who give every appearance of being bright, keen and engaged – when I see them fail or score poorly it gets to me.  I want them to feel like the time and hard work they put in was FOR something.

The flip side of that of course, is that it ever so slightly annoys me when the students who don’t do any of the work and who muck about in the lessons just breeze through the tests without any apparent effort at all.  There are of course any number of reasons why they might behave the way they do, one of which might well be that they know it all and don’t need to make the effort because it is familiar ground to them.  Or they could be swans.  Effortlessly gliding on the surface whilst underneath they are paddling furiously – they might go home to parents who sit with them for an hour a day doing homework or extra reading….  You just don’t know.

So my answer to the question is that it’s probably worse when the good students do badly, but there is a third option which I didn’t put into the poll:  when bad students do badly.  I think this is probably worst of all, just because if the intention and motivation isn’t there, it’s very difficult to get them back on track again.  But let me know what you think…..

child staring school window

IH Journal: Examinator Column

30 Mar

It is with very great pride that I’d like to share my new column in the IH Journal!

I love teaching exam classes.  I find them to be among the more motivated and interested students and while this isn’t always the case with every student, very often having that fixed goal of the exam helps the students to think about what they can do, what they can’t do and what they need to know to get where they want to go.  So the fact that I now get to write about teaching exam classes is just the cherry on top of the cake!

David-screenshot-212x300

In this first column, I look at teaching writing to exam classes, which I find is often an area of weakness as students don’t always get asked to work with the text types or text structures that an exam demands, until they get to the exam itself.  It’s not that writing is neglected necessarily at lower levels, but that exam writing asks for a different approach to writing than is often presented in more general English course books.

So in this article, apart from introducing the column, you’ll find three key ideas to help your learners with their exam writing.  Find out more here:

Examinator Column:  Helping Learners with Exam Writing

And while you’re there, why not take a look at some of the other great articles on offer?  This issue sees a bit of a revamp of the IH Journal format, under the new editorship of Chris Ozóg, and includes new columns on teacher training and development, academic management, as well as familiar favourites on technology and Young learner teaching.  This particular issue also has a special focus on materials writing, how to get into it, how to do it and what it’s really like.

If you have any comments on my piece, but can’t submit them via the IH Journal site, feel free to comment here.  Particularly if there’s an exam related topic you’d like me to address in future issues.

Enjoy!

PechaFlickr – exam speaking practice

4 Jun

One of the common complaints students have about exam speaking is that they never know what to say.  In practice sessions, I’ve had students dry up completely and embarrassedly freeze half way through a sentence, I’ve had other students refuse to talk about the topic saying that they know nothing about it!

About a month ago, Richard Byrne shared a post about PechaFlickr that I think can help with this.

silhouette-774836_1280

PechaFlickr is a web based app that displays 20 random images for 20 seconds each.  As the name suggests, the images all come from Flickr and are selected based on how they’ve been tagged – this adds the element of randomness that makes it such a great tool as you can never be entirely sure what you’re going to get.  I tried it with the topic “school” and got a a child crying in front of some ruins, a grinning child staring at the camera, what looked like a teachers meeting, a somewhat inappropriately dressed Japanese lady (but dressed enough for the sake of propriety), and some people holding a candlelit vigil.  I gave up at that point…!

In the advanced settings you can change the number of slides shown and the length of time they are displayed for, so you could easily adapt it to practice Cambridge English: First & Advanced speaking tasks, though it doesn’t practice the exam tasks in the sense that the tasks require comparison and contrast of two photos.

What it does help practice is thinking about what pictures represent and what they could represent, finding connections between images and topics and perhaps more importantly . quick thinking.

I think this could be a great warmer for any class with an interactive whiteboard and it could also be a great tool for students to practice at home – especially if they record and review their own performance.

Another alternative is to play a “Just a Minute” type game, possibly setting timing on each photo to slightly longer and adding more  pictures (depending on how long you want things to take), where as soon as the speaker falters or fails, they stop and another one has to take their place.

Any other suggestions?

Try it out here:

pechaflickr

 

The Colour Coded Essay – #IHTOC7

13 May

With the introduction of a compulsory essay task in the Cambridge English: First & Advanced exams, it’s become quite important for learners to understand essay structure and organisation.

Here’s a ten minute talk I did for the International House Teacher’s Online conference:

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And here are the slides for the presentation:

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Check out all the other great talks in the IHTOC7 conference here:

https://sites.google.com/site/ihtoc7/

 

Free Teachers’ Online Conference – Friday 8th May #IHTOC7

5 May

The annual International House Teachers Online conference is taking place over this weekend and it’s a great opportunity for teachers to drop in and take part in this free event.

On Friday 8th, 10.30 – 16.30 (GMT) there will be a series of ten minute sessions from teachers in the IH network – twenty three different sessions in all, grouped loosely together under the headings; The Big Picture, Fabulous Feedback, Rampant Resources and Culture & Nurture.

I will be giving a quick ten minute talk on essay structure for the Cambridge exams – and showing how using a colour-coded essay template can help learners to make textual connections and strengthen the organisation and structure of an exam focused essay.

Saturday 9th, 10.30 – 15.15 (GMT) focuses on teaching modern languages, with IH teachers of Russian, German, Spanish and French sharing their ideas in a series of one hour sessions.

Click here for the timetable, with information about when everything is happening.  Links to the online conference rooms will also appear here on the day.

Click here for the conference programme, with abstracts and biographies of the speakers and their sessions.

Make sure you get the timings right!  All conference times are in GMT.

Image credit: Frits Ahlefeldt-Laurvig. Reproduced underAttribution-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-ND 2.0) Licence.

What is “good speaking”?

26 Jan

We are approaching the end of the first semester in our school and this is typically a time when we review our assessments, give out our grammar and vocabulary tests and write all the reports.  Like many schools, our reports contain the categories: Grammar & Vocabulary, Listening, Reading, Speaking, Writing.  The students do three assessments in reading, listening and writing that are spread out over the semester and then a larger grammar and vocabulary test at the end of the semester.  The marks for each component get converted to a score out of twenty and the scores for all five components are added together to give a percentage, which is the student’s final grade.

The eagle-eyed amongst you may have spotted the problem here.

Assessing speaking is always difficult.  One of the biggest problems I always find is whether I am actually assessing their speaking or whether I am assessing their spoken production of grammar and vocabulary.  To what extent does personality play a part in this?  Susan Cain’s TED talk on “The Power of Introverts” reminds us that just because people aren’t saying something, doesn’t mean they can’t.

Rob Szabo and Pete Rutherford recently wrote an article arguing for a more nuanced approach.  In “Radar charts and communicative competence“, they argue that as communicative competence is a composite of many different aspects, no student can simply be described as being good or bad at speaking, but that they have strengths and weaknesses within speaking.

Szabo and Rutherford identify six aspects of communicative competence (from Celce-Murcia) and diagram them as follows:

competence 01

 

This is an enticing idea.  It builds up a much broader picture of speaking ability than what is often taken – a general, global impression of the student.  It also allows both the teacher and the student to focus on particular areas for improvement:  in the diagram above, student 1 needs to develop their language system, it isn’t actually “speaking” that they have the problem with.  Equally student 2 needs to build better coping strategies for when they don’t understand or when someone doesn’t understand them.  These things aren’t necessarily quick fixes, but do allow for a much clearer focus in class input and feedback than just giving students more discussion practice.

From a business perspective, which is mostly where Szabo & Rutherford’s interests lie, there is also added value here for the employer or other stakeholders.  One of the points that David Graddol was making at the 2014 IATEFL conference (click here for video of the session) was language ability rests on so many different dimensions that in certain areas (Graddol mentioned India as an example) employers may well need someone with C1 level speaking ability, but it doesn’t matter whether they can read or write beyond A2.  Graddol kept his differentiation within the bounds of the CEFR and across abilities; Szabo and Rutherford take a more micro-level approach and suggest that the level of analysis they suggest may well be useful to employers in assigning tasks and responsibilities.  Quite what the students may feel about that is another matter.

Whilst this idea has been developed in a business English context, it is a useful idea that should also make the leap from the specialist to the general, as it has clear applications in a number of areas.  In reviewing the different competences, there are cross overs to the assessment categories used in Cambridge Exams for example – where discourse management, interactive communication, pronunciation and Grammar & Vocabulary have clear corollaries.  Diagramming pre-exam performance in this way again, can help teachers and students have a clearer picture of what needs doing and can make instruction more effective.

A helpful next step for the authors might be to think about how this idea can translate into practice in the wider world.  Currently, it seems as though a mark out of ten is awarded for each competence and while this inevitably gets the teacher thinking in more detail about what exactly their student can or can’t do, no definitions are currently provided as to what a “10” or a “3” might mean.

 

 

Cambridge First & Advanced in 2015

16 Oct

If you prepare students for FCE or CAE, then this might be useful for you.  Cambridge English: First (FCE) and Cambridge English: Advanced (CAE) have recently undergone significant revisions to their structure and organisation.

This has been on the cards for some time and indeed I blogged about it back in May.

Recently however, I gave an online workshop for International House, which was available to IH staff around the world, and which outlined the changes being made to these exams and discussed some of the implications of those changes.

The workshop was videoed and has been posted on you tube – you can watch it there or here, but it is about an hour long – so make sure you have a cup of tea or a glass of wine (depending on your preference or the time of day) before you press play!

 

Unfortunately, I suffered from the odd wifi glitch during the presentation, so service is interrupted every now and again.  I have, however, also posted my slides on slideshare, so you can download and view your own version – and watch any sections of the workshop that need some kind of clarification!

 

In the webinar I mention a number of coursebook reviews for the revised First exam.  You can find them here:

Any questions about any of this – let me know!

 

Coursebook Review: Complete First

26 Jun

Complete First

Guy Brook-Hart

Cambridge University Press,  2014.

As the Cambridge English: First exam is changing from January 2015, this review is one of a series of coursebooks designed to prepare learners for the exam.  Reviews are also available for:

The version of the book I looked at was the 2nd Edition, with 2015 exam specifications.

Practicalities:

Unsurprisingly for a Cambridge English: First exam preparation book, this is a B2 level coursebook, though it seems aimed at a university age market, somewhere between 18-24.  I say that because some of the recurring characters in the book are student age and while some of the content is aimed at older adult students, the feel of the book is definitely young adult.  I’m honestly not sure how much material there is in there.  The structure is quite bitty – lots of smaller self-contained sections – and obviously it depends how you teach the material as to how long it takes you to cover it.  If you just pushed on through, with a bit of bookending to give the lessons a beginning and ending, then I expect it would be about 5 lessons a unit.  If you extended out and made some of the smaller sections a lesson focus and supplemented to that effect, then maybe 8 lessons a unit?  So somewhere between about 80 hours and 140 hours of material, but then that upper figure does require additional material from elsewhere.

Components:

I only had access to the student’s book and the workbook.  There is also a teacher’s book and resource CDROM available.  And the “Presentation Plus” pack, which seems to be the digital version of the book and teacher’s book, adaptable to projector or IWB.  Which I haven’t seen.

Skills Work:

The criticism here is one that can be leveled at many exam books:  much of the skills work is skills practice, not skills development.  Receptive tasks are dealt with in the standard “pre-task prediction / task / one question discussion” model.  Productive tasks are dealt with from a model / language input perspective.  Which is, again, quite common and not necessarily a bad thing – learners do need the relevant language to perform the relevant tasks after all!  The writing sections are quite detailed and mostly seem to use a model for learners to analyse and do lead learners through all the different things they need to consider for exam success, though I’m not sure about the integration of language input work into these sections, it seems a bit split focus to me.

Language Work:

Language input is mostly text based in what I think of as attempted noticing – the examples are often drawn from the text and then analysed, or at least the learners are given the chance to think about which rules apply to what.  Followed of course by lots of practice activities.  One nice feature is that the language practice is often contextualised into an exam type task, giving practice of the task types without an overt focus, though these do also appear elsewhere in the units.

Engagement:

Not too bad – there’s enough white space on the page so that it doesn’t come across as too crowded or overbearing, though it does get a little bit dense in places.  Lots of sunny blue sky pictures with carefully multi-cultural smiling faces….

Overall Comment:

6.5/10.  I think the book has everything it needs, and which learners need, for some fairly thorough preparation.  Despite the young adult focus, it feels like quite an old book and just looks a bit dry in places.  I think for an adult group it would be fine.  My main concern is how easy it would be to work with – I suspect it would need quite a lot of adaptation.  Obviously all books need a certain amount of adaptation to fit the needs of their classes, but I feel that Complete needs a bit more work than most – not because the materials are poor quality, they are not – but because this is a book where you need to make constant decisions about what to leave in, what to leave out and what to focus on in class and I think that makes it harder work to use effectively than some of it’s competitors.

 

Complete First

 

Disclosure:  The image and title links above and at the top of the page are affiliate links.  Purchases made through these links provide a small referral fee. 

 

 

Coursebook review: Objective First

26 Jun

Objective First

Annette Capel & Wendy Sharp

Cambridge University Press 2012 (3rd Ed.) / 2014 (4th Ed.)

 

As the Cambridge English: First exam is changing from January 2015, this review is one of a series of coursebooks designed to prepare learners for the exam.  Reviews are also available for:

The book I looked at was the 3rd Edition, which is based around the 2008 exam specifications and NOT the revised 2015 specifications, however the links on the page are to the 4th edition, which does contain the revised specifications.  I’m assuming that there aren’t significant changes to content or approach – but will revise and update this review when I finally get to see the new edition!

Practicalities:

This title seems aimed at the adult / young adult section of the B2 market, the themes and questions aimed at the students look like they require a bit more life experience than the average teenager possesses.  It looks eminently teachable though – three very neatly self contained double page spreads per unit that I think parcel up into lessons quite effectively.  With 24 units, this makes about 72 lessons in the book or about 90 hours of material (obviously depending on your lesson length, you may need to drop some bits or add a few more bits in!)

Components:

I only had access to the student’s book and the workbook, though there is also a teacher’s book with a teacher resources CD ROM available (not sure what those resources are…); and something called a Presentation Plus DVDROM, which appears to contain a digital version of the book that allows you to manipulate the content in  a variety of interesting ways.  Sounds expensive though…

Skills Work:

Skills are predictably exam focused and within the units the receptive skills are largely practice based.  Some of the task set up may help build skills but the impression is that rote practice is enough for the exam.  Each unit invariably contains a small speaking section, which may or may not be exam focused and a receptive skills task.  Writing is only dealt with in the “writing folders”, which alternate with the “exam folders” to provide specific exam segment development and strategy guides.

Language Work:

There is quite extensive language input – at least one double page spread per unit is dedicated to grammatical input and practice and I think the fact that they are laid out across two pages (mostly) helps make the input sizeable enough to form the key component of a lesson and consequently a lot more teachable than in some books.  There is a nod to guided discovery approaches in that learners are often asked to consider the evidence and figure out the rule (or choose from some rule possibilities), but for the most part the language input is rule based instruction, application and practice.

Engagement:

The double page spread system makes the book very easy on the eye and very accessible – despite the fact that there’s often quite a lot of content on the page, it doesn’t feel overwhelming and from a teacher’s perspective it looks easy to figure out where to start and stop.  The graphics are fairly standard – the typically bright, colourful and inoffensive coursebook fare.  The smaller unit size means there are more of them in the book, 24 in total, which I think would probably add to a learner’s sense of perceived progress as they motor through, and which also allows for a bit more variety in the range of topics.  It is an adult focused book though, so teenagers may have some issues in responding to discussion questions that assume more experience than they have.

Overall Comment:

9/10.  I really like the way this book is organised and I think it gives exam learners exactly what they need to prepare effectively for the exam – with the caveat that this preparation takes place over an extensive 100 hour course!  I think the structure makes it relatively easy to teach with and the clear focus that each section of each unit has makes it easy to decide where the focus of each lesson lies.  The exam folders and writing folders, when used effectively (and I think some adaptation is needed here), should give the learners a very thorough overview of what is required of them and what they need to do to be successful.

 

Objective First

 

Disclosure:  The image and title links above and at the top of the page are affiliate links.  Purchases made through these links provide a small referral fee.