Schools have started to move away from point counting in assessing language skills, and are increasingly focussed on communicative skills. The championing of disturbing and non-disturbing errors in the Cambridge tests has improved the standards of oral and written assessment enormously, but employers are still focussing on accuracy. Is there a way out of this conflict?
I’m doing oral testing in a secondary school this week. At the moment my brain feels lightly poached. By the end of the week it will be deep-fried. Any language teacher will tell you that good oral assessment requires a lot of concentration on the behalf of the assessor. It’s not just the concentration on a whole swathe of things happening at once – it’s the balancing act of seeing through a mistake and recognising the communication.
Some language teachers will privately admit that they’re less than perfect in this area. Others will openly state that it isn’t difficult. I’ve tested in tandem with many teachers, and initially I kept very detailed notes about differences of opinion. Over time I found that where there were differences, they were often consistent. So a colleague who normally gives around ten percent less than me can be accounted for. (Note, I’m not talking about which one of us is more accurate in their assessment here, just that we are consistent.) It gets much harder when there are fluctuations, and I’ve experienced a co-assessor who fluctuated regularly between +30% over my assessment to -40% under. This all adds to the stress factor in the assessment process and to the feeling that luck plays a role in the students’ marks.
And then come the prospective employers.
To be honest, the dissatisfaction of employers with the standard of English teaching in schools is what keeps me in a job. Alone the gap between the wants of the employer and the content of the school curriculum would be enough, but small talk with HR Managers before and after their lessons often gravitates to one subject – why can’t the current intake of trainees write a simple error-free email? And at that point the ritual flogging of the dead horse starts all over again.
Because employers want accuracy, and it’s fairly easy to understand why. If an employee communicates with a customer or supplier, the communication (written or spoken) is a reflection of the values of the company. The belief in senior management is that the image of the company stems from all outward facing aspects, not just the product. So advertising, correspondence, and social media presence all contribute to the the impression of that company in the eyes of outsiders. To turn that around… If you got an email from a company with spelling and grammatical mistakes, you might easily begin to wonder if the company cared about quality.
So schools are pushing communicative approaches, but employers are looking at a different set of criteria. Can a common ground be found? Or can the communicative aspects be integrated with a lower tolerance for errors? This is a very tricky balancing act, because from the teaching point of view, a zero-tolerance for mistakes is fairly simple to apply (especially in spelling and standard grammar). But what about the argument that too much correction can hinder the will of the student to learn? Learners often say that they want to be corrected in every mistake they make. I hear that especially in one-to-one tuition in technical English. But if I apply that wish, the learner realises after two or three minutes that it isn’t a practical way forward. The teacher needs to take the longer view, and prioritise the errors. But even small errors that are ignored for too long become ingrained, and much harder to eradicate later. This is a very tough call for teachers in a one-to-one environment. If they are in a secondary school with the associated class sizes, then the improvement strategy built into the course will fast become unmanageable.
So there’s the paradox – language teachers focus on communication, but their learners are likely to be required to deliver a level of accuracy that the teacher considers unnecessary. Learners want to be corrected, but that can get in the way of development. Teachers are guided by a curriculum and expected outcomes that aren’t in accordance with the wishes of potential employers.
One thing is sure – the job of teaching English in companies isn’t going to go out of fashion any time soon! But is there a way of bringing the camps closer together? Get the discussion rolling in the comments.