Today I taught my first public high school class lesson that will have speaking tests on its content.  It was amazing.

I couldn’t believe how much the high school 2nd graders in the class paid attention, and tried hard during each of the lesson’s listening and speaking exercises.

I couldn’t believe that they took notes when I told them to, and were paying attention to what I was saying when giving instructions, explaining grammar points, and talking about pronunciation and intonation rules . . . it was surreal.

The reason I couldn’t believe everything comes from having tried to do ‘real teaching’ in the past when I first came to Korea.  The absence of any testing and value for the native teacher’s lessons in the students’ final grades made it practically impossible to expect them to pay attention and make efforts at learning because of the already mind-numbing amount of testing and studying they have to do for their regular school classes.  The native speaker’s class was seen as sleep time, play time, and do anything but learn English time–especially if the native teacher was attempting to do ‘real teaching.’  I made a decision after a while that ‘having fun’ and doing ‘a little bit of learning’ would be the foundation of my lesson planning because the alternative was to drive myself insane fighting the realities of the lack of a clearly defined role for a native English teacher in the public school English classroom, and the absolute lack of testing value being given to the native teacher’s classes.  Students in Korea often make choices about what they will give learning time and energy to based on 1) how many test points the class is worth, 2) how it can impact their overall academic rating in the education system, 3) how a class can help them score higher on tests . . . and you get the idea: no test often equals no motivation or interest.

Anyways, during the end of last week, and over the course of the weekend, I spent about 4 hours studying the book I’m using, and how it’s lessons are designed.  I then set about making a power point for the first lesson and its four pages; this took about 3 hours.  While 7 hours might seem excessive I tend to think that’s fairly normal in my mind when doing teacher prep for a speaking textbook I’ve never used, and haven’t made lesson plans for and need to learn and study how I can teach it best.

Add to the mix that I also have to design 4 speaking tests , 2 for each semester (test #1 will take place during the two weeks leading up to the mid-term exam period, and test #2 in the two weeks before the final exam period), and that it will be the first time ever at my high school for speaking to be a tested language skill in the English classes here . . . and yeah, I needed to spend some time on organizing my lessons and designing the tests.

You may have noticed that I mentioned the speaking tests will take place in the 2 weeks preceding the midterm and final exam periods.  This is because in spite of the fact that it had been decided by the powers that be at my school that my classes would be given 10% of the final grade no one batted an eyelash at the fact that NO TESTING TIME WAS ASSIGNED for my classes in the school’s official testing periods.

The lack of time slots being scheduled for my tested classes therefore means that I have to use regular class time, one hour each week, for the speaking tests.  This means that with an average of 35 students in each class I have to sacrifice two weeks of class hours in order to be able to complete the speaking tests for each student.  Oh, and each speaking test can only be 2 minutes in duration.  Some EFL university profs I’ve been talking to suggested that I do small group speaking tests but I don’t really think that’s a viable option in a boys high school environment (I’ll talk about why in an upcoming post in more detail).

It kind of strikes me as being a wee bit bizarre that FOUR WEEKS out of the twenty-week semester will be lost to speaking tests, and on top of that an additional four weeks for the midterm exam period, and final exam period used for testing all the subjects at the school.   If you do the math on this it means the students lose four hours of instruction time with the native teacher . . . but there’s absolutely nothing I can do to avoid this because of the scheduling choices made by the powers that be.

There seems to be a wide-spread ignorance of the logistical realities involved in testing speaking when it comes to public schools, and when you consider how difficult it is for schools to figure out how to integrate native speaker classes into the schedule I guess it should come as no surprise that something like speaking tests is pretty much not even a blip on the schedule organizer’s radar screen . . . I wonder what will happen when the formal public school curriculum testing for English classes changes and schools have to introduce speaking tests into the already bursting midterm and final exam schedules?  I shudder to think about it . . . lol.

From what I hear on facebook, emails and comments on my blog, and talking to other foreign native teachers it seems like more and more schools are beginning to let the native teachers have 10% (and sometimes more) of the English final grade for testing the speaking/conversation classes they teach.  I don’t know what the actual percentages are of schools with native teachers doing speaking tests but I’d be VERY curious to find out.

Last week I began re-reading key chapters from EFL/ESL speaking methodology books that I have in my library.  The most useful of these were chapters 6 “Developing test specifications” and 8 “Ensuring a reliable and valid speaking assessment” from Assessing Speaking by Sari Luoma, Cambridge Language Assessment Series, Series Editors J. Charles Alderson & Lyle F. Bachman, Cambridge University Press, 2004.  There was a lot of material that I haven’t thought about in a long time and it was really good to refresh how to design speaking tests and rubrics and to have a very detailed process laid out for me in the chapters.  Another really great thing, especially in chapter 6, is the model test specification write ups that they have in the book depending on the type of testing situation you find yourself in, so you can read about how other teachers have gone about looking at the curriculum they’re teaching, and then fleshing out in detail all the different issues that need to be considered when making speaking tests . . .

A university EFL/ESL teacher-trainer I know mentioned to me that in their particular sphere of English testing it takes two eight-hour training sessions per year to keep the raters accurate.  Considering the fact that native English teachers in public schools generally receive no teacher training in how to design speaking tests and rubrics it’s amazing that some native teachers voluntarily ask to do this because then it is up to them to pay for their own EFL/ESL training, and books, in order to produce quality speaking tests and to do the evaluations fairly and well.

If, and when, native teachers are officially told to design speaking tests for public school classes I have to wonder how it would be possible to offer training by qualified teacher-trainers . . . I can just see this kind of training session also being set for the MIDDLE of a semester–long after lesson plans have been made, and test design should have been considered . . .

Anyways, I’m in the process of doing my own test specifications write up in order to make sure my speaking test design is good, and that my rubric will be reliable and valid . . .

Once I’m done writing it up I’ll probably post it on my blog.  It’d be interesting to hear what other EFL/ESL teachers think, and I hope they’ll share stories about what they’re doing too.

Wish me luck,