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To teach to test or for communication — or both?

by Kris Kosaka

Special To The Japan Times

Which is more important: to communicate in a second language or to test well? Often in language education, skirmishes break out among parents, teachers — and even the students themselves — over this thorny question. Of course, being able to do both is the ideal, but how can we as learners and teachers ensure we keep a healthy balance between social and academic language acquisition?

Linguist Jim Cummins believes that these two types of learning and the skills they involve are separable: On one side of the fence are social language skills, which are needed to communicate within society; on the other are academic language skills — those needed to succeed in a classroom or on an exam. Social language skills do not require any specialized vocabulary, Cummins argues, and often comprehension is aided by the context of the social situation. For example, a child in a playground or a university exchange student at a party would rely on various nonverbal social clues when seeking to understand and respond appropriately to a specific situation.

Standardized tests attempt to measure academic language skills, or what Cummins calls cognitive academic language proficiency (CALP). These skills take much longer to acquire. Various cognitive skills such as synthesizing, evaluating, comparing or inferring become necessary, not to mention a high level of communicative skill, both verbal and written. Another major difference is the issue of correctness: Formal, professional or academic settings demand an exactness of language not mastered in classes focusing on social communication skills.

For most language learners, both types of learning are important. The company executive who can pass any English grammar test but cannot communicate easily with potential clients is at a clear disadvantage; verbally gifted students proficient in the latest slang but who lack knowledge of formal conventions similarly limit their own future options.

English proficiency as an educational goal in Japan remains firmly tied to exam scores, starting with the Eiken test for school-age children. From high school onward, the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) or the Test of English for International Communication (TOEIC) are regarded as the standard gauges of English ability. Japanese companies set pass rates of these tests as incentives for bonuses; frequently the tests are also required for admission to overseas study programs at foreign universities, where students could gain valuable immersive experience to improve their communicative skills.

With such an emphasis on teaching to test in Japan, it can be hard to shoehorn more communicative exercises into lessons. To address this imbalance, Bern Mulvey, a professor of humanities and science at Iwate University with over 20 years experience as a language teacher, professor and university administrator, suggests teachers need to get creative.

“It is very possible to teach to these tests in a communicative fashion,” Mulvey says. “I have done so, and I’ve seen others do so too. Conversely, I’ve been struck by how even many supposedly communicative classes in this country feature no communication at all.”

Mulvey argues that the problem is not the exams per se, but the predominant teaching traditions in this country: the twin emphases on line-by-line translation and rote memorization — traditions that predate the exams in question. He believes that the low level of English ability among Japanese students in comparison to many of their peers in other non-English-speaking countries is the direct result of this approach.

“I wish more of my students had acquired even the meager skill set seemingly demanded by, say, the Center exam,” Mulvey says, referring to the unified Japanese university entrance test. “Too often, they lack even basic grammar knowledge, ostensibly a strength of the current system.”

As most language teachers are well aware, balance is the key. To reach a high level of fluency in any foreign language, memorization of more sophisticated vocabulary, higher-level thinking skills in the target language and comfort in both academic and social situations are essential.

Mulvey provides more specific advice: “Activities based on real-life situations that necessitate communication in the second language can be incorporated into any classroom. Examples include having students create and perform dialogues using target vocabulary and grammar, play competitive games — ‘Find the antonyms/synonyms’ — and even present on exam-related topics. However, doing this will require a reexamination of the typical teacher-student relationship at many Japanese schools.”

Mulvey feels that classes need to become less teacher-centered, with students allowed to take more individual responsibility for their own learning. “Teaching to the exams solely via lectures and repeated drills produces passive, unmotivated students who often do poorly on the exams as a result,” he says.

To keep language learners thinking, keep them moving and interacting, suggests Oliver Furnival, who teaches the International Baccalaureate in English at Tamagawa Academy in Machida, western Tokyo. In a recent class I observed, for example, an abstract statement was written on the whiteboard and pairs of students had two minutes to discuss and write down an idea to support or rebut that statement on a sticky note. The classroom became a flurry of students discussing, writing, then running to the white board to add their ideas for the class discussion, which included making students justify the opinions of other pairs.

Furnival, who taught humanities in the U.K. for 10 years after his first stint in Japan with Shane English Schools, says he applies the skills he gained in the classroom in Britain to language teaching. “For many students, academic language is a second language, even in their mother tongue. I was always interested in how to motivate the underachieving students to score well in our GCSE (secondary-level) exams in Britain. Techniques such as getting students to sort, rank, accept and reject statements created by them or the teacher allows students to consolidate their learning and works well with native and nonnative English learners.”

Research supports the idea that a communicative approach to teaching cognitive academic literacy helps the student acquire both thinking and language skills. Good practice starts with “affirming the students’ identity and scaffolding new learning to previous understandings which may be in the mother tongue,” according to Carol Inugai-Dixon, language and learning director for the International Baccalaureate in The Hague. When Inugai-Dixon first started as an English language teacher in Japan over 30 years ago, it was the norm to “forbid discussion in the mother tongue and to teach skills in isolation by drill and repetition.” Part of Inugai-Dixon’s life’s work has involved trying to change such attitudes and to provide practical skills for language teachers in the classroom.

“Learning language is also about acquiring an identity in that language, so it is important to validate that identity by activating knowledge already available in the native language,” she explains. “It is also important to make sure the students cover the entire spectrum of communicative skills within each class, from speaking, interacting and listening to reading and writing. This framework applies to any subject taught, as second-language learners are constantly learning language, regardless of the discipline.”

Inugai-Dixon recommends language teachers encourage research on a new abstract concept in the mother tongue before tackling it in the second language, in order to then “purposefully build on prior knowledge and stimulate the transfer of conceptual understandings, in both the mother tongue and in English. Getting the students to interact with and then speak about a new idea in a new language requires creativity and flexibility from the teacher,” she says. “The ability to apply complex reading skills to decode unfamiliar texts, write for a range of diverse audiences and purposes, listen for meaning and then speak meaningfully for true interactive dialogue, are all important for successful language learning in an educational context.”

Conducting discussions of that topic in the target language, learning new vocabulary through reading and writing repetition, presenting aloud to a small group a definition of that abstract concept in the target language — methods such as these will engage and improve the students’ CALP (academic) skills while also covering the range of communicative skills.

Increasingly, in our rapidly globalizing world, students will require these skills in more than one language so they can think clearly and articulate complex thoughts with others around the world. Similarly, the ability to listen for understanding and meaning to other perspectives is already an important skill for any type of communication.

The sharing of ideas in dialogue with others is full of potential for creativity. That creativity should start in the classroom, whether the immediate goal involves improved conversation or review for an exam. At some level, every teacher is a language teacher, using words to communicate higher-level ideas in a shared mother tongue or in a second or third language for students.

As Mulvey concludes: “No perfectly valid and reliable diagnostic exam exists, which in a sense mirrors real life — how the language preparation in our classrooms never completely covers all the contingencies involved with communication outside the classroom. Still, preparing for even imperfect exams can be a healthy challenge, forcing students to learn new skills and constantly reevaluate their own level of L2 (second language) understanding. Particularly given the lack of exposure most Japanese have to English outside of class, tests can serve as an additional motivational tool, with a place even in a communicative classroom.”

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