Monday, July 12, 2010

EFL/ESL Native English Teacher Speaking Tests in a Korean Public High School — Planning and giving speaking tests Part 1

At the beginning of the spring/summer semester at my high school I found out that I was going to be allowed to give speaking tests for my 12 ‘second’ grade classes. Last semester I dropped several comments every once and a while about how student motivation and classroom behavior are heavily influenced by whether or not there are test points assigned to the lesson content they are learning in my co-teachers ears . . . and apparently during a pre-semester meeting it was decided that I could have 10% of the English grade. For my 10 ‘first’ grade classes, though, at first I was told there weren’t any test points that I could get assigned to my classes . . . and then later, about six weeks or so, I was told I could write 3 questions of the 33 questions on the mid-term and final exams for the English section of the test . . . this just goes to show one of many examples of how hard it is for native English teachers to design a semester syllabus, choose the curriculum, and how testing points are all too often not assigned to their classes and/or they’re told about the testing points weeks after they have already prepared and designed their lessons . . . but I digress, and should get back to writing about the process I went through designing my speaking tests.

I have a lot of experience designing speaking tests and administering them with different kinds of EFL language learners (from middle school and high school to pre-service student teachers and in-service Korean English teachers). But I decided to do some research and re-read materials I have in my EFL/ESL library (see the list of relevant books at the bottom of this post) cause I hadn’t looked at them in a long time. While doing my research and writing up my speaking test design I thought to myself, “What do you do when researching “EFL/ESL speaking test +Korea +public school +high school” and your own writing is the only thing you find that is relevant? HAS NOBODY who teaches high school in Korea designed speaking tests, and then written about it online? Wow.”

Actually, there are bloggers who have written about speaking tests in Korean public high schools but they are a minority. Also, due to the nature of blogging as an informal genre most of them haven’t really gone into much detail about their test design process, why they chose the test format they did, and other details that I would have really liked to read about the experiences of other native teachers in Korean public schools doing speaking tests . . .

One teacher I did find, and I posted about, wrote this series by Supplanter‘s blog which I found pretty interesting–and which reinforced my decision to record all the speaking tests with my mp3 player (something I usually do anyways–Korean university students are notorious for trying to get their test scores raised if they don’t like them, so when they do come to ask for an increase I suggest we review their recordings and look at my notes for their test . . . this usually dissuades most of the complainers, lol).

The Grade Changing Fiasco Part 1

The Grade Changing Fiasco Part 2

The Grade Changing Fiasco – part 3

Finally, I come across something related to my search parameters, Evaluation of The Foreign Language High School Programme in South Koreaby Yvvette Denise Murdoch, a master’s dissertation submitted to the School of Humanities, University of Birmingham to fulfill requirements in the Master of Arts in Teaching English as a Foreign or Second Language”, 2002. Unfortunately, while it’s an interesting read, Murdoch doesn’t really provide much in the way of how she tested and what process she went through while designing her tests. But that being said it’s still a good read.

Anyways, I decided to give myself a research and writing project to kill time when I had no classes at school. I loosely based my writing goals on Chapter Six: Developing Test Specifications of “Assessing Speaking” by Sari Luoma, Cambridge Language Assessment Series, Cambridge University Press 2004.

Here is a list of things a teacher should be considering, at least some of them anyways, when designing a language test,

“the test’s purpose; description of the examinees; test level; definition of construct (theoretical framework for the test); description of suitable language course or textbook; number of sections/papers; time for each section of paper; target language situation; text-types; text length; language skills to be tested; test tasks; test methods; rubrics; criteria for marking; descriptions of typical performances at each level; description of what candidates at each level can do in the real world; sample papers; samples of students’ performances on task” from “Assessing Speaking,” Chapter 6, page 114.

The problem is the logistics (I’m going to use this word a lot) of designing and giving speakings tests in Korean public school English native speaker classes is that there are so many unforeseeable, unplannable, and unbelievable (from a native teacher’s perspective anyways) issues and challenges that come up throughout the whole process that trying to do a truly professional EFL/ESL speaking test is nearly impossible–in my opinion . . . but I’ll get into that in more detail in part 2 of this post.

I also found “Chapter Eight: Ensuring a reliable and valid speaking assessment” to be an extremely helpful unit to help me refresh on what I needed to be thinking about as I designed the speaking tests for the high school boys.

While reading Chapter 6 I came across three examples of how to do test specification write-ups: Example 1: An end-of-course classroom test, Example 2: A language test at university entrance, and Example 3: A general purpose proficiency test . . . after reading this chapter I decided to do my own test specifications write up . . . although I was unable to follow the models exactly due to the realities of planning lessons and tests that Korean public schools present.

Alright, that’s enough about why I decided to write this blog post . . . time to wade into the nitty-gritty of what I did while going the process of making speaking tests for a Korean public high school.

Before class/semester begins language learner assessment: There were no opportunities for me to assess the actual language learner levels of the students in each class. The only thing available was the students test scores from the previous semester which in terms of communicative ability and fluency really had no validity or relevance. The only thing I found useful about the test scores that I asked my Korean English co-teachers to show me was being able to see which classes might have a majority of low level students, or average to higher level students so that I could alter my teaching methods accordingly (or ‘differentiate’ them).

Test #1 format (of 4 over the course of the school year, 2 in the spring semester, 2 in the fall/winter semester) : one on one interview, teacher and student

Test #2: one on one interview, teacher and student

Test #3: Unfortunately I won’t be teaching as my contract finishes August 24th, 2010. I am, however, leaving all testing and lesson materials from the book I was using for the next native teacher. I hope that they will continue to teach from the same book . . . my original plans for the four tests were that in speaking tests 3 and 4 that the tests would shift from focusing on accuracy with a low degree of fluency to a higher focus on fluency in balance with the test point values for accuracy. The book I was using focuses on developing fluency and learning, practicing, and mastering speaking strategies so it will be interesting to hear from the new native teacher how the students progress throughout the fall/winter semester.

Test #4: fluency and accuracy have equal values on the rubric.

Class hours before Test #1: two fifty-minute classes.

NOTE: The logistical realities of teaching EFL speaking and conversation in a Korean public high school often necessitate the instructor exhibiting a degree of “flexibility” when it comes to following EFL methodology the way it “should” be practiced versus adapting to and dealing with the chaotic and extremely unstable school schedule and teaching/learning conditions. I scheduled the first speaking test with only 2 weeks of instruction due to several reasons: 1) My classes were not assigned time slots during the school’s official midterm exam and final exam periods (thus necessitating me having to schedule testing during regular classes). 2) The students do not understand fully (perhaps even not at all) how they will be tested (my test will be the first ever speaking test done at the school in its entire history), and this diminishes their ability to develop effective learning styles and habits specific to my classes (I made a “How to” study guide for speaking tests handout (look at the bottom of this post) and gave tips and strategies during my classes). 3) I fully expect motivation and attention levels to dramatically spike after Test #1 has been completed as students will have a much clearer idea based on first-hand speaking test experience with a native speaker/teacher in a public school setting.

Test #1 focus: pronunciation, intonation, grammar, and demonstrating/performing cultural rules for speaking and interactions during the test (for example, how to shake hands)

Test Duration: 2 minutes

Type of school: 2nd grade classes at an all boys trade/sports school transitioning into an academic high school, Seoul–the 2nd grade students were enrolled during the trade school standards for acceptance. The overall English abilities are lower. On average each class has 25% false-beginner, 50% low-intermediate to intermediate, and 25% high-intermediate to advanced levels of English language ability.

Class size: 30-40 multi-level high school boys

Language learners: mixed levels, on average each class has 25% false-beginner, 50% low-intermediate to intermediate, and 25% high-intermediate to advanced levels of English language ability.

Test location: in the native English teacher’s classroom, no other students are permitted to be in the room; also, no Korean English co-teachers (they’re presence would inhibit student speaking performance and test conditions), all other students will be waiting in their homeroom, and in groups of 5 come to the hallway outside, line up and wait for their turn.

General Conditions: each class of 30-40 boys will be divided into two groups, A and B. Boys will do a lottery that places them in one of the two groups, and also determine order of testing. This is to avoid the ‘not fair’ criticism that is a very big concern for Korean students in testing situations (whether or not what they’re saying has anything to do with ‘fairness’).

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Click on the link below to read more at Kimchi Icecream: The Second Serving . . . . I've moved over to and will be blogging there from now on.

EFL/ESL Native English Teacher Speaking Tests in a Korean Public High School — Planning and giving speaking tests Part 1