by Adrienne Radcliffe
Like many teachers I was basically thrown into teaching my first exam preparation class. My CELTA qualification and one year of experience did not prepare me for the paper-based TOEFL: random, discrete item multiple choice testing of grammar, a listening section which tests memory more than comprehension, academic texts ranging in topic from meteors to fisheries, strange conversations between a man and a woman…what does the man mean?? My communicative teaching techniques failed me – how could I create any kind of meaningful context for the lessons? Instead of helping the students develop their listening skills I had to show them the tricks to the test: in the short conversations don’t choose the answer that sounds the same, identify and eliminate the clearly ridiculous answer choice, develop your range of bizarre idioms…and what are reduced adjectives clauses??
I taught TOEFL PBT and TOEIC in Korea and then moved on to the Czech Republic and the Cambridge suite of exams. These were better: the books looked liked general English course books and you could teach in a more communicative way, just adding more practice of the exam question types. With the introduction of the IELTS exam, testing seemed to be moving completely away from discrete items to real skills testing. And with universities in America complaining that foreign students who were taking the TOEFL PBT as an entry requirement could not speak or write, the TOEFL changed from PBT to iBT (with a short, intermediate period of CBT which is not really worth mentioning).
In 2007 I started my DoS position at IH Kazakhstan. The schools were rapidly expanding as was the exam center, which had got approval to run IELTS and TOEFL iBT exams. Taking the IELTS or TOEFL exam is one of the requirements to qualify for the “Bolashak” government scholarship program, which offers university placement to Kazakh students in 30 different countries. From 1994 to 2009 5,950 scholarships were awarded. Clearly there was a demand for the tests and test preparation classes. One of the first discussions I had with my director was about who was going to teach these exams classes… “The teachers need some training to do this, don’t they?” When he said this I knew that I had come to work at the right place. The senior managers were committed to training, which would develop the teachers and in turn improve the quality of education we could offer. We started with individual workshops introducing the exams, but this was not enough. It was then that we discussed offering an exams teacher training course. My director wanted to start doing it the next day, but I wanted the course to be similar to IH courses in terms of length of time, trainers’ notes for each session and suitable assignments. I needed time to think it all through, so I said we’d run it in six months.
We ran the first course in 2008 with ten of our own IH teachers as participants. The second course which has just finished also included some outsiders: DoSes from other schools and teachers from secondary schools which plan to integrate IELTS preparation into the curriculum. I believe it was worth the wait because what we have now is a 30-hour course that not only covers the basics: the layout of the exams (we cover IELTS, TOEFL iBT and the dreaded PBT as this is still used as a first screening for the Bolashak scholarship program), the question types and teaching techniques; but so much more..
Washback, norm referenced, alternative assessment…
One of the first sessions on the course covers general testing terminology. The aim is to make teachers more aware of the theories behind testing and specifically for our IH teachers to get an understanding of the kinds of assessment we use at our schools. We recently increased the weighting of the skills components of our end of course tests for general English courses in order to create a beneficial washback on teaching. Now our teachers focus more on developing their students’ writing, speaking and listening skills than they did before and our students go along with it because they know these will be tested. We have also introduced an alternative type of assessment – individual tutorials given 2-3 times throughout the course. This encourages student self-assessment and provides good customer service as students receive regular, personal feedback on their progress. The test-prep teacher training course looks at different ways of assessing students and the quiz, given half-way through the course, tests the participants’ understanding of these test types. The participants are also asked to think about and describe an alternative type of assessment that could be introduced into their teaching context.
What is this strange grammar?
As mentioned before, the TOEFL PBT includes such delectable grammatical items as reduced adjective and adverb clauses, inversion, and appositives. For our local teachers who have learned English rather than acquired it and have pedagogical degrees on top of that, teaching this advanced grammar is not much of a problem. But for some of our native speaker teachers, much of this grammar just can’t be found in New English File or the Swan grammar book and therefore remains a mystery. It’s tempting the think that this grammar is esoteric, not very useful in real life and can be dismissed as just another taxing part of teaching the TOEFL PBT. But in fact it is these areas of grammar that prove really problematic for advanced learners of the language: Japanese learners have real difficulty comprehending texts which include reduced clauses and Russian students who learned that English has a fixed word order feel they have been deceived when they meet inversions. We are probably doing our students a disservice by not addressing these grammatical items even in general English courses. Appositives tell us what unknown words mean – what could be more useful! On the test-prep course the teachers are made aware of the grammar students typically find difficult and are also given the tips to beat this tricky exam.
Study skills: note-taking, summarizing, paraphrasing…
When preparing students for the IELTS and TOEFL iBT, developing skills is the focus and grammar can be dealt with mainly through error correction. The internet-based TOEFL includes the challenging integrated tasks. In these tasks the test-takers need to read a text, listen to a lecture or a student conversation on the same topic, then answer a question which involves paraphrasing the information from the reading and the listening. The academic integrated task mimics real world academic work as authentically as possible in a timed testing environment. I’m a bit more dubious about the aim behind the campus integrated task where the man and woman from PBT reappear but have now focused their conversations on topics related to university campus life. What is being tested here? The ability to listen in to a conversation and summarize the main points – this sounds like the test-takers are being tested on their ability to gossip! Anyway, identifying main points, summarizing and paraphrasing are all useful skills for students preparing for the TOEFL exam as well as for their later university studies.
To encourage teachers to think in terms of course planning that goes beyond simply following a course book, our last session of the test-prep course looks at analyzing students’ needs, reflecting on their learning styles and strategies, the implications these have on teaching, choosing materials appropriate to meeting these needs and organizing them in some kind of logical way. The second assignment on which the participants are assessed is a course planning task which asks them to write a profile of their student or group of students, suggest materials and provide a course outline that addresses the needs of these particular students. This assignment will also be good preparation for those teachers going on to tackle the DELTA 3 module, the specialized case study.
Where to go next
I think the test-preparation course meets the original aim of providing training to our teachers so that they feel more comfortable teaching exams classes. At the end of the course teachers are equipped with an overview of the exams, an awareness of the question types and some practical teaching ideas. There is still much more to understand about the three exams than can be adequately covered in a 30-hour course but they will learn more through experience. Aside from this practical understanding of the exams, I believe this course goes further in making teachers aware of and able to think critically about testing in general and focus more on meeting learner needs. In terms of our teachers’ development this is a good course to make them more knowledgeable senior teachers and to prepare them for further study: the CAM, DELTA, MA in TESOL, etc.
This year the test-prep teacher training course was run in Almaty and Astana and we plan to continue offering it every fall. Our training department also offers IELTS sessions to secondary and university teachers as the desire to learn more about this test continues to grow. Adding additional components for the Cambridge suite, TOEIC…and the list goes on…are also under consideration. Also, considering that Bolashak applicants come from 15 different regions in Kazakhstan, some of them quite remote, we are thinking about designing an online IELTS preparation course which can reach these distant learners.