Tuesday, July 04, 2017
Crime and punishment
Within the European Union there is an agreed framework for language study. Various educational bodies organise exams to accredit learning at the various levels which go from starters - A1 - through to more or less bilingual at C2. So B1 is a lower intermediate type course.
This is the official description of the B1 level: Can understand the main points of clear standard input on familiar matters regularly encountered in work, school, leisure, etc. Can deal with most situations likely to arise whilst travelling in an area where the language is spoken. Can produce simple connected text on topics which are familiar or of personal interest. Can describe experiences and events, dreams, hopes & ambitions and briefly give reasons and explanations for opinions and plans.
So basically it says that you can get by in situations that you know about with texts, recordings and conversation in English. Obviously enough, within the documentation for the exams there is more detail but to give an example, about pronunciation, the documentation says that a word should be intelligible.
Now I have a critic. A Spaniard who lives in the UK and who always takes me to task whenever I make generalisations about Spaniards. So here we go. I await his comments.
It seems to me that one of the elements of the Spanish education system is to punish errors. The exam I am teaching to is run by Cambridge Examinations and their style is to reward success. To give an example at school. If a Spanish pupil fails more than a given number of subjects then they are sent back to repeat the year. There are opportunities to resit the exams between the end of one academic year and the start of the next so lots of Spanish youngsters spend a good deal of their summer holidays cramming for exams. If they pass sufficient of the failed subjects they can continue without repeating the year.
Lots of the students I deal with have learned with the la Escuela Oficial de Idiomas, the Official School of languages. Without having direct experience of la escuela oficial it sounds to me as though they have some quality teachers doing a quality job. On the other hand they seem to be very nit picky. They teach the sort of English that is grammatically correct but, at the same time, old fashioned. It may well be true that "Could I have an orange juice, please?" is more formal than "Can I have an orange juice, please?" but I don't think many English speakers would worry about that. Indeed it may well be that the escuela oficial is even more grammatically correct and teaches "May I have an orange juice, please?" I was taught, and I still say, "If I were you..." but I have no problem with "If I was you..." - I'm sure the escuela oficial does. So the students are barraged with lots of rules, lots of detail. They become so caught up in the detail of the grammar that they find it difficult to speak or to write fluidly. Now grammar is important but if it gets in the way of basic communication it becomes a problem.
So one of the problems I have with my students is getting them to see the broader picture. Through their learning career they have seen their work returned covered in red pen. Every detail mistake is punished. Rather than being praised for having written something that has mistakes but would be perfectly comprehensible to an English speaker, the only comments are on the errors. Students are corrected as they speak breaking the spontaneity and communication. Obviously mistakes have to be corrected but they don't need to be over emphasised. "Then these two persons go to the cinema," says the student. "Ah, says the teacher - so these two people went to the cinema - and what film did they see?" Corrected but not deflated. Oh, and I've been told a couple of times by Spanish colleagues and employers that I should replace my black or blue biro with a red one so that the mistakes are highlighted.
We were doing something about the speaking exam and I mentioned that asking for clarification was a good thing - it shows that students are behaving as real people would if they were speaking. I mentioned that navigating around a word they didn't know or remember was also considered to be positive. "Oh, I've forgotten the name but it's the thing you use to dig the garden". I sensed that the students didn't really believe me. On the listening exam where lots of the questions are multiple choice I was stressing that they should leave no question unanswered. if you have three choices and you don't know which it is give yourself a sporting chance and plump for one. "Don't they take marks off for getting the answer wrong?" I was asked.