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More on the TOEFL test

TOEFL

I attended a very comprehensive workshop on the TOEFL test yesterday, conducted by Ron Campbell and organized by MEESA (Miyagi English Education Support Association).

I came away with a much better idea of what the TOEFL iBT is, and what it isn’t. I had been under the impression that it was an adaptive test (ie the questions changed based on whether you got the previous question right or wrong) but this is not the case.

Apparently the TOEFL will be part of the civil service examinations from 2015, which is very interesting.

I also learned that the government is planning to make all public school English teachers take the TOEFL. I think this is a good idea, as it will hopefully motivate less proficient teachers to work on their language skills. I have always been surprised at how little time and effort many English teachers put into their own language study. This is a big contrast to the language teachers I know in the UK.

However, after learning about the structure of the test and doing some practice exercises, I am more convinced than ever that using the test in its current form to test all high school students is an awful idea. It is simply way too hard and focuses on academic English, an area most students who are not planning to study abroad do not need to prioritize.

I am planning to take the TOEFL myself at some point in order to understand it better, but the very high cost is a stumbling block.

You can see my previous post on using TOEFL for university entrance selection here.

 

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curriculum evaluation expectations high school public policy teaching testing university

Japan to use TOEFL as university entrance hurdle?

TOEFL

You may have read about the Japanese government’s suggested plan to use TOEFL as a screening test for university entrance. If not, here are some online articles:

Japan Times (March 25) “Abe Wants TOEFL to be Key Exam”
Japan Times (March 25) “LDP urges TOEFL scores as college entrance, graduation requirement”

I am not an expert on the TOEFL test, and I am not privy to the details of this plan, such as what kind of scores they are planning to require, or how they expect high schools to prepare students for the TOEFL. However, I think this is a horrible idea.

I am really opposed to using tests out of context, for purposes other than the ones they were designed for. This applies especially to the TOEIC and TOEFL tests. As far as I am aware, TOEIC is a test designed to measure English proficiency within a working environment. Apart from the language, it also requires test-takers to have some idea of working environments and tasks. I find that young people with no experience of working in office or professional environments are at a real disadvantage taking the test -basically it is not designed for them.

I believe TOEFL is designed to measure how well candidates will deal with studying in an English-language institution. It is looking at whether they will be able to understand lectures, write papers, take notes, participate in discussions, etc.

Using these tests indiscriminately to measure general language proficiency or achievement is surely less than ideal.

I am opposed to using the TOEFL test to pre-screen candidates for university entrance, as suggested in the articles above, for the following reasons:

  1. The test is inappropriate to measure English achievement over the entire student population, as opposed to a select few who intend to study abroad
  2. Regular high schools are not in a position to prepare students for these tests, which means that students will have to go to the private sector if they want to go to university, which means that only relatively affluent students will be able to go to university
  3. The bar will have to be set so low on the TOEFL iBT in order for normal students to pass it as to render the whole thing meaningless
  4. A foreign company like ETS should not have this much influence on Japan’s national curriculum: giving it to them is an abdication of responsibility on the part of the Ministry of Education
  5. The test is expensive, and presumably most students will take it several times to try to maximize their score, adding 30-50,000 yen to the cost of applying to university

Basically this is the latest in a series of ‘reforms’ that start from a positive goal (improve students’ practical English abilities), then completely fail to implement steps to achieve that goal, due to lack of knowledge, political will, or sheer incompetence.

What do you think about this idea? Is it going to help Japanese students?

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curriculum EFL evaluation expectations language courses Language learning teaching testing university

New (Academic) Year’s Resolutions

Now that we are two three months into 2010 2012 (can you tell when I started writing this post?), it seems like a good time to think about new year resolutions. I didn’t make any specific ones this year, but I would like to make some for the next academic year.

In Japan the academic year runs from April to March, and at universities at least classes finish in February, allowing teachers some much-needed downtime to do admin, write papers, and think about next year’s classes.

So what am I going to focus on next year?

One of my priorities as a teacher and learner is effectiveness, or maximising results. I want to continue making my classes as effective as possible. I define effectiveness as the amount of learning over a certain time.

For my university classes, I am working off the following assumptions:

1. my students have already studied enough grammar
2. we only have a maximum of 22 hours together
3. my students actually want to learn English
4. most of my students don’t know how to get better at English
5. there are things I can teach my students that will help them improve their English
6. tests and quizzes, while very useful for assigning letter grades, are not very helpful

I am going to be teaching the following classes next year:

Reading
Communication
Listening
Presentation

I have already submitted my syllabi and know more or less what we are going to be doing, but I would be very interested to hear any advice or ideas about what I should do in each of these. I’ll be posting the contents later in the week. Please comment below.

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curriculum EFL eikaiwa ES evaluation expectations kids language courses Language learning school management teaching testing theory university

English teachers aren’t really teachers, are they?

This is something I have been thinking about for a while now.

I was just drafting this post when I saw this link by Steve ‘the Linguist’ Kaufmann (NB: I started writing this post three months ago).

I’m not sure that we EFL teachers are actually teachers.

After all, we are in charge of helping learners become proficient in a language. I see this as a skill to be practiced rather than a set of knowledge to be taught. I have always compared language learning to sports, and described what learners should be doing in terms of practice and training. The sports analogy seems to work very well:

1. some people are naturally better at sports/languages than others
2. anyone can get better at sports /languages through practice
3. formally studying sports/languages is of limited use on its own, although it can help if done in conjunction with practice
4. being good at one sport/language will often help you with another one
5. if you want to get better at a sport/language, you should aim to do meaningful practice every day
6. training equipment will help you improve at a sport/language, but is no substitute for practice
7. drills can be helpful, but you also need to practice under realistic conditions if you want to get better at a sport/language

You can probably make similar analogies to playing a musical instrument, or producing art.

The point is, if we are coaches rather than teachers, don’t we need to re-examine our teaching situation?

Are formal classes, exams, class assignments, and grades appropriate ways to help our students master the skill of English language use (as opposed to the academic equivalent knowledge), or are they actually counter-productive?

Now, most of us are restrained by our work situations: we can’t abolish classes or grades, but perhaps there is some way we can change our classes to make them more practical. I’ll be thinking about that in the new academic year, starting in April here in Japan.

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blogging curriculum EFL evaluation expectations Language learning teaching testing theory

Are we stealing dreams?

Seth Godin, who is an internet/new media/publishing/idea guru, just published a manifesto aimed at starting (or continuing) a conversation about the future of education. Very much in the same vein as Ken Robinson’s famous TED talk on the same subject, Stop Stealing Dreams (what is school for?) is a 30,000 word ebook that is currently available for free. Based on his previous work, it’s probably worth your time.