The news is out and nobody is surprised. This month EF Education First published the English Proficiency Index survey. Both the Korean and international press were quick to react to Korea's poor English ability when compared to 59 other countries.
In a similar vein, a 2010 article in the Korea Times, Korea ranked number 1 in the world in money spent on English language education and 121st in English speaking ability. Japan has similar disconnect between effort and effect.
On the other hand, also in 2010, in an educational ranking of developed countries, Korean 15-year-olds ranked first in the world in Math, and third in the world in Science.
Why do Korean students perform so well in Math and Science, and so poorly in speaking English? Well, in math class, they give math tests. In science class, they give science tests.
Simply put, what gets tested gets done, and communicative speaking ability is not tested. Thus – surprise – there is little communicative ability.
In general, most university freshmen classes contain advanced students, but beginning speakers. They have had 10 years of grammar-focused, teacher-centered English education. The three high school years are generally “test English”, that is, English courses geared to passing university entrance exams. In all those 10 years, students have had none or very few communicative classes, or communicative tests. Thus, their communicative rank of 121st.
Despite huge investment and educational zeal, the English language skills of Korea’s adults have not improved and have remained at a moderate level over the past six years... - Korea Herald
The problem is not that students in a Confucian society are reluctant to speak. If given an interesting topic that they know a lot about (Me), opportunity (class time), and incentive (speaking tests), they are effusive speakers, as are all teenagers. In consequence, a lot of speaking requires a way to test a lot of speaking. Communicative classes require communicative testing.
7 reasons why communicative tests are necessary
1. Communication is in our genes, not grammar. Grammar is computer code. The human brain develops in children as language develops. Stop messing with mother nature. Grammar-based tests are used because it is easy to mark right or wrong, not because it improves communicative speaking.
2. Good grammar comes after a lot of speaking, not before. It is a result, not a precondition.
3. Communicative ability will flow only from communicative tests. What gets tested gets done.
4. For teenagers and older, speaking a foreign language is a skill.And mastering any skill requires this ratio: 10% instruction, 90% practice.
5. What is the purpose of your class? To prepare them for another standardized English test, or prepare them for life?
6. Most Korean students are advanced students, but beginning speakers. Step aside and let them speak. Beginners in any skill who do a lot, improve a lot.
7. The engine of speaking improvement is speaking.
The restriction, the bottleneck, to improving speaking ability is speaking tests. When speaking is tested, grammar-graded speaking tests result in more grammar study, and memorizable role-playing speaking tests result in more memorizing. Other indirect testing measures such as describing a picture have little authenticity and less impact. Speaking ability can be tested en masse over the Internet. While all these testing methods may provide an accurate measure of something, that something is nothing like authentic communication.
Check out part 2 of this article here: English Speaking Assessment: How to Give Transcribed Tests.
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