Adapting Communicative Speaking Tests for the JHS Classroom

Writer(s): 
Steven Asquith, Ichikawa City Board of Education

With an eye on the year 2020, a report about English education reform from the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (2014) recommends that schools improve their evaluation methods and set learning goals based on what students should be able to do. Schools have been asked to verify and adopt an evaluation method which covers various aspects including the students’ motivation and attitude for active learning.

With that reform plan in mind, in this issue’s Teaching Assistance, Steven Asquith shares three types of speaking tests that he successfully developed for classes at a junior high school in Chiba Prefecture. At first, students were assessed on their ability to memorize short dialogues using a Class Presentation Speaking Test. When learners were comfortable with producing presentations with the help of a team-teacher, they were given Guided Role Play Speaking Tests. Finally, an Informal Group Interview Test rounded out this integrated series of assessments.

 

Working as an assistant language teacher (ALT) in a Japanese junior high school (JHS), over the past 15 years I have gradually integrated speaking tests into my pedagogy. These tests, separated into three basic types, are adapted to fit with the curriculum, meet the needs of both students and teachers, and apply communicative principles, such as focussing on authentic communication, creative construction, and negotiation of meaning. 

Although English activities have been introduced in elementary schools, JHS is the first formal experience of studying a foreign language for most students in Japan, and accordingly, this stage plays an important role in developing attitudes towards the subject. With this consideration in mind, I design tests which are aimed at rewarding students for what they can achieve rather than penalising errors. In this way learners are able to experiment and apply language previously learned, and build confidence gradually. Students in my classes have responded well to this approach, and by sharing these ideas I hope that others might also benefit.

A lack of time to complete the linear syllabus, helping colleagues to clearly understand goals, and encouraging students to fully participate in lessons are issues most ALTs encounter on a daily basis. Colleagues, brought up with a different teaching style, often doubt that learners are able to complete speaking tasks, and these preconceptions need to be challenged in a logical way. By gradually increasing the complexity of speaking tasks, both learners and teachers can get accustomed to the process. The use of rubrics or scoring bands allows testing criteria to be clearly defined so students and colleagues can understand their purpose. Also, by factoring test scores into yearly grades, students can be properly motivated to participate fully. Most importantly, rubrics provide a means of rewarding students specifically for achieving communicative goals such as task completion, showing creativity, and speaking fluently. This type of meaning-based assessment is uncommon at JHS level, but when adopted both learners and colleagues appreciate its value.

Speaking Test 1: The Class Presentation

Littlewood (2007) suggests that tasks be designed on a scale from least communicative to most communicative depending upon the teaching context. Of the speaking tests I use, the class presentation is the least communicative but the most accessible to students and teachers. Although I have concerns about the lack of spontaneity and memorisation elements of these tests, they are a useful starting point for getting learners used to creatively expressing themselves in English. As all standard JHS textbooks have skills sections aimed at these types of activities, they are familiar to most students and teachers and also have the potential to be adapted into more effective tools.

Preferably starting with the first years, I train students to produce, memorise, and be assessed on short dialogues within a single 50-minute period. To achieve an A-grade, the dialogue must differ substantially from the textbook example and be presented to a teacher smoothly and naturally without checking notes (see photo). I tell the learners not to write the full dialogue – if they really must, they can make a few notes in their textbooks – and to practise it naturally as an interaction with a partner to memorise it. After speaking is assessed, learners write out the dialogues in full so that errors can be corrected. Although at first this is difficult, after a few lessons learners are able to design and present simple role plays easily. Once students can do this satisfactorily, I start to change the rubric to score different factors such as creativity, fluency and presentation separately, thus requiring learners to fulfil a number of elements to achieve top marks. I also sometimes extend the format to span two class periods, with presentations performed and assessed in front of the class. These longer role plays give teachers plenty of opportunity to help students produce creative, fun and natural dialogues, which gradually become more complex as learners grow in confidence. Similar presentations can easily be adapted to group research projects or questionnaires and, if this resource is available, recorded to video.

Speaking Test 2: The Guided Role Play

The second type of test is a little more spontaneous and supports learners during simple negotiation of meaning. Usually, it is introduced once learners are comfortable with producing presentations. In this case the team teacher and I take the roles of non-Japanese speakers with whom the learners must accomplish some form of task such as giving directions, ordering a meal, or buying a product. Learners are given time to rehearse variations of possible dialogues in pairs before coming to the teacher and completing a non-predetermined task such as providing directions to a particular place using a map or ordering a meal using a menu. Learners are then assessed on accomplishment of the task and smooth and natural English. I allow learners multiple attempts to complete these tasks and achieve a double A-grade. Also, students who complete the test quickly can request a more difficult task and attempt to get an A+. In the schools I have visited, learners rarely if ever attempt this type of unscripted production in classes, and increasing this practice could help improve learner confidence.

Speaking Test 3: The Informal Group Interview

The third test is an informal group interview that focuses on learners communicating their interests. This involves groups of three or four students with shared interests chatting with me in a separate room. Students can chat about anything they like, but they must lead the conversation. Typically, interviews last around seven to ten minutes. Prior to the interviews, learners are given a worksheet showing possible topics, conversation starters, and phrases to ask for clarification. They are also allowed to make brief notes on the back of the worksheet. I suggest that students use non-verbals such as gestures, and I only respond to a Japanese word if they ask me for a translation by saying “How do I say this word in English?” During the test, it takes little time for the students to become absorbed in the conversation and forget any nerves. The realisation that they can make themselves understood in simple English has a big impression on students, who frequently comment that they would like to repeat the experience. Usually, I score the tests generously based on attitude, participation and success at communicating meaning. I also provide a positive comment for feedback. As these interviews take three to four classes, I usually conduct them when learners are preparing for formal tests, and they can then use any free time to revise.

Extensions

Numerous practical variations are possible by using rubrics and the three simple test formats that were described (Asquith, 2015). Utilising technology, role plays and presentations could be videoed, presented and analysed by students. Telephone conversation tests conducted remotely with an ALT using Skype, or webchat lessons with classmates in English could teach learners practical skills. Hopefully, if issues such as a lack of equipment and an overly cautious attitude to web security–most practical web-based tools are blocked on school computers–can be addressed, ICT can also become integral in producing proactive and confident English learners.

References

  • Asquith, S. M. (2015). Integrating a functional approach with Japanese junior high school teaching practices. In P. Clements, A. Krause, & H. Brown (Eds.), JALT2014 Conference Proceedings. Tokyo: JALT.
  • Littlewood, W. (2007). Communicative and task-based language teaching in East Asian classrooms. Language Teaching, 40, 243-249.
  • Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology. (2014). Report on the Future Improvement and Enhancement of English Education. Retrieved from <http://mext.go.jp/english/topics/1356541.htm>

Author Note

Steven Asquith is now with Kanda University of International Studies in Makuhari, Chiba Prefecture.

 
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