Penny Cameron-Testing is an integral part of the ESL profession, and the washback effects are undeniable: Whatever we test, the students will be more than anxious to learn. I have been working on materials designed to prepare candidates for the International English Language Testing System (IELTS) test used in Australia, Europe, and Asia as a measure of readiness to study at the tertiary level (the Academic Module) or for other training or immigration to Australia and New Zealand (the General Training Module). This test has mixed parentage, being the offspring of University of Cambridge Local Examinations Syndicate, the British Council, and IDP, Australia's international educational organization.
Acknowledging that the students will surely learn whatever we test leads to the next question: Will the information, strategies, or skills be of use to the students after the test? Candidates are tested in listening, reading, writing, and speaking; the reading and writing tests are differentiated for the Academic and General Training modules, but the speaking and listening tests are common to both modules. Because of space constraints, I concentrate on the speaking test in this article.
IELTS examiners are trained and frequently retrained, or "recalibrated," to ensure they are all using the same standards. This recalibration is important because the test, which from the candidates' point of view should be as painless as possible a way of demonstrating their skill with English, actually follows extremely strict criteria that the examiner must constantly bear in mind. As an examiner writing test preparation materials, I sought to enable the students to approach the test as confidently as possible.
The first phase of the test is predictable: greetings and settling-down chat to ensure the candidate understands and can use social formulae. The students are asked to produce some form of photo identification for the examiner to check, and then the examiner directs the conversation to an area of which the student can be expected to have some knowledge, for example, the student's home country, tourism, leisure interests, and other hardy perennials of the suitable-topic world. In this second phase the examiner is listening for the candidate's ability to provide information, narrate, explain, describe, or compare.
The next phase, elicitation, uses information-gap activities to test the candidates' capacity to seek information from the interviewer. The fourth phase is described as speculation and attitudes, and the candidate is invited to speculate about future events and consequences. Finally, the interviewer concludes the interview, and the candidate leaves. The test has taken 10-15 minutes and is recorded in case of any future discussion.
The candidates tested are hoping to enter English-speaking countries either as students or as citizens. They are therefore going to have to cope with cultures in which their native speaker peers have been in discussion since they were approximately 3 years old, which can be a formidable experience for candidates from less garrulous cultures. Fortunately, the skills required to pass the test help them overcome this barrier.
Developing the materials to prepare people for the speaking test makes the writer very aware of the importance of paralinguistic aspects of communication. It seemed wise to consider register and appropriate behavior as well as vocabulary and sentence construction, proxemics as well as syntax. I found myself including a number of exercises designed to help the candidate keep talking, particularly in the elicitation phase.
Writing test materials is easier than developing a whole course because one has a clearly defined task. The creativity comes in thinking beyond the test to the needs of the students and in combining the two threads. I would be very happy to discuss this sort of writing with others.
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