I WAS WRITING for a new post last night. When I got it all done, I published it and let my followers know about it via Twitter and facebook. Then I deleted all of it.
As I read the post again, I got the impression that there might be some people who would become disappointed and even hurt. In the article, I introduced a negative attitude (or so I think) of average Japanese learners of English and blamed it for their inability to speak English. This topic is a very sensitive issue to discuss. Some authors and publishers, as well as institutions, take advantage of it to make a profit. This is because there is enough demand from consumers, or (novice) language learners who cannot improve their ability. Therefore, I thought I would end up discouraging all those learners by pointing out what could otherwise have been ignored.
If so, and this is a mere speculation, then that’s not what I had intended. As a language teacher, my job does not lie so much in discouraging learners as in encouraging them to learn more and get better results.
Thus no sooner had I published the post than I deleted it.
Then, what good does this new post have? After writing all this, I now realize this has such a cathartic effect on me. I teach (the TOEFL) writing for a better score, but the act of writing itself can make you feel better. You can kill two birds with one stone.
p.s. If you do not understand what I wrote about in the first half of this post for the lack of specific description, never mind. It is all written for my own sake 😉
Here is the hardest part of learning a foreign language as an adult learner.
This learner, Ken, is a civil engineering expert who has just started his research for his doctorate dissertation. Since he needs to improve his English for his presentation (he has never studied abroad), he decides to go to school to learn English. His use of the second language is limited basically to the academic settings, so the TOEFL would serve his purpose, his adviser suggested.
That has brought him to this speaking class.
This hypothetical learner is very good at thinking logically and analyzing an issue. He already knows all the necessary technical terms to explain his major. The only thing he has in common with the other learning mates is the lack of English ability.
However, TOEFL familiar topics will ask you whether you prefer to eat out or eat at home, which of the three meals is the most important to you, or what was your favorite toy when you were a child. Many of the TOEFL test takers are happy to discuss these issues. This is especially true if they are still high school students – those whose memory about their childhood is still vivid. This hypothetical student, however, is, in my opinion, overqualified.
He is not interested in the toy he played with in his childhood, nor does he want to talk about it. He is not interested in the language per se; his interest lies in his major.
Ken’s case sounds a bit too extreme, but in general, adult learners would be more sympathetic with Ken’s struggle of discussing with his teenage learning mates what his favorite toy was. Familiar topics should be dealt with in the speaking test to measure one’s ability to have a casual talk with his/her friends. However, they may be an affective factor in discouraging him/her from displaying the otherwise enough ability to get by.
At different stages, TOEFL test-takers have a different impression on the speaking section. You start to seriously prepare for the test when you are a young adult, just as you come back from your exchange program (which most students of mine did). They have already gotten used to responding to everyday events, so all the familiar topic questions like “Describe your favorite food.” or “Do you prefer to get up early to start the day’s work?” are very easy.
In fact, that’s what these young adults have been doing for the past year. At the same time, they find it extremely hard to effectively summarize a lecture on why dinosaurs became extinct (which, obviously, is an Academic topic). So this hypothetical young adult learner would receive a score report that says Familiar — G(ood), Campus — F(air), Academic — L(imited).
When this student gets older and seriously starts to get back to school (hopefully a grad school for his/her MBA degree), things will have changed. They will always see themselves struggling out of familiar topics. They cannot even develop their favorite food. “My favorite food is Chinese food. I have three reasons for this choice. First of all, it is delicious…” – a response that does not represent what they really have in mind. Such being the case, their score reports will say Familiar — L, Campus — F, and Academic — G.
Which results in the same score of this speaking section.
From my teaching experience – longer than the TOEFL iBT itself – this phenomenon has always repeated. So much so that I have even hypothesized that there should be a trade-off between the two topics: familiar and academic. This is what makes this section extremely difficult, compared to the reading section, where you can improve your score by one if you get an additional correct answer. The result in the Speaking Section does not form a linear line.
One strategy that can result from the above hypothesis is to focus on the Campus topics, which seem to be topic-neutral. The topic itself does not determine the difficulty level of the prompt.
The next time you take the TOEFL, however, I do hope that you defeat my hypothesis!
The private student I’m teaching today studies English for the TOEFL. The TOEFL she is getting prepared for is not the internet based, but that of two generations ago: ITP (Institutional program also known as paper-based test). Since the score she needs is not like 600 (which can be an equivalent of 100 in the iBT), there is only one thing she should do. That is to learn all the basic rules for the “structure and written expressions” section. Simply put, she should learn basic grammar. There are only limited numbers of rules that are tested in this section, so by focusing on them and practicing them repeatedly, the required score can be achieved.
This is what the average Japanese test takers used to do back in the 60’s up to 90’s (and for some people, still now in the 21st century). They were criticized for the lack of speaking ability, which was then added to the exam.
This is how tests evolve. Once thought of as satisfactory, the test gradually looks quaint and malfunctioning. This is modified by adding and subtracting items. As far as the TOEFL is concerned, grammar has been removed from the test, while the passage (both reading and listening) has become twice as long, and the speaking and the writing sections have been added. With 4 hours 30 minutes to complete, obviously, the current test looks and is more difficult.
This way of evolution may apply to other tests. You may find a certain test rather simple and easy to pass, but you never know, by the time your child take the same exam, it will have become one of the hardest. Then it’s time you show off your certificate (which you got a generation ago).