English Language Testing A Critical Discussion English Language Essay

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The purpose of this paper is to critically discuss the implications of the general positions, including the one held by myself towards the issue of regimes related to examinations & testing and whether or not they should be carried using a specific form of English, namely those that are known as inner circle metropolitan varieties (British English, American English, Australian English, etc).

Constant Leung and Jo Lewkowicz (2006:228) argue that 'In terms of English language testing, particularly high-stakes, large-scale proficiency testing administered by international bodies, it would be fair to say that, in terms of language norms, language functions, and pragmatics, the metropolitan speaker varieties have held sway. But the growing knowledge of English as a lingua franca (ELF) in the past few years is beginning to make this self imposed normative insulation untenable'.

The comment that has been stated above will be discussed in light of two important viewpoints. The first one will be a position taken by Jennifer Jenkins (2006), who, to an extent supports what Leung and Lewkowicz (2006) mention. This is position has its own arguments, which will be discussed in due course. The second opinion to be discussed will be that of Lynda Taylor (2006), a type of rebuttal to the opinion mentioned above. Following the discussion of the two opinions, I will discuss my opinion in regards to the two positions, referring to personal experiences to help clarify my argument.

Jenkins's (2006) paper entitled "The spread of EIL: a testing time for testers", sets out from the outset the need for a 'major rethink of English language teaching', but more importantly a 'substantial overhaul of English language testing'. It is clear to see why Jenkins argues for this change. She mentions (p.42) that the English language has spread around the world to an extent hitherto unknown in any historical period for any other language. It is due to this spread of the English language, that it has become nativized in Outer-Circle countries, for example in India, Nigeria and Singapore, where it performs vital roles in the lives of the majority of speakers. Likewise, it also functions as a lingua franca for non native speakers (NNSs) of English world-wide in countries that are known to be part of the Expanding-Circle, in other words countries where English does not perform internal roles. As a result, the term 'Englishes' or 'World Englishes' (WE) have come to light, due to the fact that the English language has now a number of standard varieties and not only two globally useful versions (a standard British and standard American English) (2006: 42). Furthermore, another important change that has occurred is that local linguistic and cultural differences have affected the way English is spoken in the various L2 locations world-wide. As a result, there has begun the emergence of a spread of educated L2 English varieties which, as Jenkins mentions 'differ legitimately' (ibid).

Henry Widdowson (in Howatt with Widdowson 2004: 361) mentioned that speakers from the Outer-Expanding circles need to confirm to the 'norms which represent the socio-cultural identity of other people'. In other words, they are required to submit to standards that are dictated externally. However, the majority of ELT professionals still regard differences from British and American variants as 'deficiencies and L1 transfer errors… or L1 interference'.

Jenkins (2006:46) mentions furthermore that for numerous ELT professionals, there is no possibility that an L2 speaker, no matter how proficient, can depart from NS norms and at the same time be regarded as correct, likewise there is no possibility that NNSs of English as an international language can be creative with the standard language in ways that are permitted to its British, its American and recently its Australian L1 speakers.

With reference to examination scenarios, knowing that there are many forms of English, as has been mentioned previously, how would the NNSs student tackle a such a situation and how would he/she (as a student) be assessed? Jenkins (2006: 43) mentions that the requirement for a NNSs to construct a type of English that is more continuous and somewhat better than a NSs would be 'unreasonable'. Jenkins also states that during examinations, an insistence is still made on grammar that is considered by the examiner(s) to be correct, as well as pronunciation. Furthermore, students are expected to produce informal lexico-grammatical items entirely in 'accordance with NS norms', or more plainly put, 'real' English, as well as covering informal lexical items in standard NS English-written grammar.

There are certain exceptions that the NNSs may be given. These include the 'written grammar for speech' rule (p.44), in which the NNSs student reproduces an instance of NS lexico-grammatical creativity that has passed into accepted informal NS speech. In this case they would be rewarded for their knowledge of what is known as 'real English'. For example, if a student mentioned the statement 'three teas', or 'two coffees', this would reward the student in his/her marks. However, should the student use the same analogy with uncountable nouns, this would result in him/her being penalised (two wines instead of two glasses of wine), and vice versa.

The ironic thing here is that such examinations have international currency, however; as a result penalize the students for using 'internationally-communicative' forms of English. As Lowenberg (2002) points out that the creative processes involved in NS and NNS linguistic innovation tend to be the same. While both types start life as forms that are widely apparent as errors in the standard language, the NS 'error' slowly becomes accepted as a new standard form. Thus one form is accepted and the latter is forgotten. Matsuda (2002) likewise disagrees with this as he also mentions that the mere fact of having an earlier place in chronological development of the English language does not confer everlasting rights of ownership.

Jenkins mentions what Taylor (2006:19) states in praise of Cambridge ESOL which has been grappling with these issues for some years. This is not enough for Jenkins (p.48) who replies by mentioning that practical outcomes are trailing badly behind theoretical good intentions. Jenkins likewise makes certain recommendations to help facilitate examination processes for NNSs.

From the proposals she mentions are that the examination boards need to demonstrate their willingness to embrace NNS-led change in practice. Secondly, she requests that English as an International Language (EIL) on empirical evidence from such interactions as it becomes available and that criteria without evidence are not set. She suggests that the examination boards look at NNs-NNs corpora including Seidlhofer's Vienna-Oxford International Corpus of English (Seidlhofer 2001) and Mauranen's Corpus of Academic English (Mauranen 2003), all of which focus on communication between NNSs and not a NNS and NS. Finally, she suggests that teachers and examiners turn their attention to rewarding the successful use of accommodation strategies and penalizing their absence and to focus for error correction on the use of forms that are not mutually intelligible in EIL, such as NS idioms.

Taylor (2006: 51) begins her own response entitled 'The changing landscape of English: implications for language assessment' by firstly agreeing with Jenkins (2006), by mentioning that few testers would disagree with Jenkins' assertion that the topography of the English language has changed dramatically over recent decades, partly through change within well-established varieties (standard British or North American). She further elaborates by mentioning that what has been mentioned previously does have important implications for those involved in language teaching and assessment. However, Taylor (2006) begins to mention and more importantly, starts highlighting the areas in which she feels Jenkins (2006) has made assumptions that are deemed to be questionable. These areas will be mentioned individually below.

The first area that Taylor (2006:51) addresses is the attitudes and expectations of learners and teachers by mentioning it as one of Jenkins's concerns. She quotes directly from Jenkins (2006) a quote that is attributed to Widdowson (2004:361) that learners are expected to bow to exonormative standards and to conform to norms which represent the socio-cultural identities of others. Taylor's (2006) interprets this as a model of English being forced upon teachers and learners, without any regard whatsoever for their own needs and preferences. She goes on to explain that the views of learners when it comes to the type(s) of English they wish to learn or need. The same can be said about both NS and NNS teachers who will differ about the model(s) of English they prefer to use in their teaching. Taylor (p.51) then mentions very importantly that we need to avoid a patronizing approach towards the motivation of learners' and teachers' as well as their expectations and aspirations of what they perceive as being useful, regardless of whether it relates to 'standard' or 'non-standard' varieties (of English). In regards to the comments Jenkins (2006) makes about ELT examinations having to provide for students whose preferred goal remains despite EIL developments, a near-native variety of English, Taylor (2006:52) responds by stating that it should not be assumed that students are in the minority, nor should they be regarded as being 'unenlightened'. She also reinforces this by referring to a study of students in Germany who showed that they were unconcerned about the type of English that they were learning, although most showed a preference to 'native-like' varieties mainly due to the grounds of 'authenticity' and 'non-artificiality'. Furthermore, motivations were for the most part pragmatic and instrumental, which were to be able to use English across Europe and elsewhere as a tool of communication in study and work contexts.

The second issue that is discussed by Taylor (2006:52) is the role of the native speaker model. She discusses the assumption that all language proficiency tests judge L2 performance against a 'native-like' speaker criterion, which was the case in the past but not so much at present. Taylor explains that many tests no longer make reference to NS competence in their assessment criteria. The main problem for doing so would be defining and describing the idealized NS: which NS? Where from? How young/old? What level of education? (Davies 2003).

A deficit model of assessment is based on how far away an individual is from the top of the scale (previously known as NS competence), penalizes test takers for what they cannot do, or cannot do well. On the other hand current assessment criteria and performance descriptors more often focus on what a learner can do, giving credit for positive aspects of performance, while at the same time acknowledging areas where there is area for improvement.

Thirdly, Taylor (2006) attracts attention to the issue of accuracy against correctness. The deficit model (discussed above), required a profound emphasis on correctness of form. As a result, candidates whose grammar or pronunciation moved away from the NS standards that were accepted were penalized. At present, attention to form is still regarded as being important. For this reason many tests will still include some form-focused sections, or some consideration of accuracy within the assessment criteria for skill-focused papers such as writing and speaking.

Taylor (2006:53) also mentions in regards to assessing writing performance, will involve taking into consideration a number of different criteria including their interaction. Firstly, accuracy (which will include spelling and punctuation as part of the assessment focus) followed by content, organisation, cohesion, range of structures and vocabulary register and format. Along with all this, the effect it has on the target reader is considered equally relevant as features of performance to be taken into account. From the factors of speaking to be taken into account would be range, accuracy, appropriacy of grammar and vocabulary. Examiners of speaking and writing can be trained as Jenkins (2006:53) states as well as being regularly standardized to apply assessment criteria and scales in a consistent manner and to give credit on a range of salient features rather than simply count up 'deficiencies' to determine the degree of 'correctness'. It must be made clear that Taylor is not a stranger to this area, as she represents Cambridge ESOL and has played a major role in the ELT field.