Speaking tests and feeling needed

Today was the last day of the first week of the speaking tests. I’ve tested approximately 180 kids thus far, and I’ll be testing about 540 more over the next 2 weeks.

Thoughts on the process:

— It really isn’t a fair test when all is said and done. Since they’ve been given the possible questions beforehand, it’s more of a memorization test than a speaking test (at least in terms of conversational English, which is what I’m supposed to be teaching).

— Additionally, I have about 10-15 seconds between kids to process what they said and decide on a score. If I don’t firmly decide right then and there, by the time I sit back down at my desk 45 minutes later, the kids and their answers are all a blur. To cope with this, I’ve been writing little notes to myself next to their (potential) score, so if there’s any doubt in my mind, I can go back to it later and remind myself of why I was on the fence. Still, I’ve been agonizing over their scores.

— I can totally tell when:

(A) the kids are “reading” their answers in their mind (their eyes see past me as they struggle to recall each word they wrote down)


(B) an entire class has been fed a cookie cutter answer by one of my co-teachers.

I’m fine with (A). I really can’t fault them for pre-writing and memorizing their answers because it’s exactly what I would have done when I was a student.

Actually, I did this for probably my first three years of college whenever I had to give presentations – wrote and memorized everything I wanted to say, word-for-word. The main issue with memorizing answers or presentations is that as soon as you forget one little word in the sequence, it throws you off completely. Your mind goes blank and you sit in horrible silence as you try to get yourself back on track. I know because it’s happened to me. When I finally gained the skill of speaking freely from notes instead of a script, the problem disappeared – because I didn’t have to follow this set order I’d created for myself.

Now, throw a second language into the mix and you’ve got a whole new set of challenges, but I still wish there were a better way to test my kids’ conversational ability. Rather than counting sentences and listening for grammar and structural mistakes, why can’t I just talk with them? So what if they skip the articles of speech, use the wrong verb form, or say “berry” instead of “very” as long as they can get their message across in a way that I understand?

But that’s a very open-ended / gray area for an academic setting, especially in Korea. I get it. The kids need to be tested, and they need to receive a grade. Sigh.

— As for (B), the being-fed-answers-by-teacher part, it irritates me a little. At least let the kids try to come up with their own answers first. I know many of them are plenty capable of it, so why kill their creativity? It was particularly frustrating if I heard the first kid give what I thought was a good and interesting answer… and then about 5 minutes later, a different kid gave almost the exact same answer.

— I’ve also been trying to put myself in their shoes as much as possible. Three years out of college, it’s easy to forget the special kind of extreme anxiety surrounding test-taking (especially when it involves speaking!). But as one of my Korean friends said when I mentioned that I only have a minute or two to test each kid – “For the student, that’s the longest minute!”

And I can see that. Some of them are visibly shaking, their lips quivering between words, voices unsteady. I try my best to calm them down and make them feel relaxed in those cases. Of course, some of them are also bursting with confidence (usually the boys), which is really cute. A few have tried to give up immediately – “I don’t know” – but I’ve been prompting them until they say something so that I can give them a few points. (The answer “London. Beautiful. Famous.” in response to “Which would you prefer to visit, New York or London?” is better than “I don’t know”!)

I’ve also discovered which kids are the quiet-in-class-but-actually-really-good-at-English students. I was completely floored on Tuesday when one of my girls started answering my question. I kid you not, she sounded like a native speaker. I was sure she must’ve lived or studied abroad at some point, but she said she hasn’t. I mean, the girl is fluent. She speaks without hesitation, barely a trace of an accent, and with all the natural fillers that a native speaker would use. It’s insane. Prior to this week, I’d known she was smart because of her occasional participation in class, but this was a revelation. To my knowledge, she’s the only one at that level in the entire school.

The other trend I’ve noticed is that the girls tend to be much better prepared than the boys and have overall been scoring higher; however, they also tend to be quieter and more reserved, while the boys are more likely to be expressive and enthusiastic.

Thankfully, so far there have been no tears.

The last thing I want to say is that if three weeks ago was the time I really felt all my classes open up to me, then this is the week that they embraced me as their teacher. I suddenly feel much more a part of the school, probably because I’ve developed more personal connections with students and staff alike. I can identify which students belong in which class and know more of their names (especially thanks to the speaking test… I’ve been making note of as many names + faces as I can).

Walking through the halls, I’ve been inevitably swarmed with students asking for their scores (I’m not giving them out until all the tests have been completed; I feel like giving them on the spot would be very unwise for several reasons – any teachers out there who do give immediate grade feedback?).

I suddenly feel needed in the school, not just as a foreign entertainer who comes in once a week to show them pretty pictures and speak natural English, but actually as a teacher to them. This week, for the first time, students started coming to me in the office or before class to ask questions about the speaking test, and about other English-related things as well, which makes me so happy.

And from feeling needed, it’s a very short jump to feeling loved.


2 thoughts on “Speaking tests and feeling needed

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