Based on my experience working with language teachers, assessing spoken language often poses a number of serious challenges for L2 teachers. Should the assessment focus be on fluency or accuracy? Does poor grammar equate to poor content? Should students automatically fail a speaking task if they have intelligibility problems even though the content might be quite good? How and to what extent should pronunciation be considered in oral assessment? During my time as ISEP coordinator, in an attempt to address some of these questions, I designed criterion-based rubrics (i.e. analytic rubrics) for teachers to use in their speaking classes (see below for an example rubric). The rubrics standardized and hopefully increased the reliability and validity of assessment practices in the program; nonetheless, they didn’t account for one particular factor that I generally find difficult to control: accent familiarity. Having lived in Japan, for example, I am quite familiar with the way Japanese speak English, and research provides ample evidence that familiarity with speakers' accented speech (and with their cultural and linguistic background) does indeed influence listener/rater comprehension of spoken language (e.g. Derwing & Munro, 1997; Major, Fitzmaurice, Bunta, & Balasubramanian, 2002; Munro & Derwing, 1995). What can be done to minimize or control this particular variable? Videotaping speaking tasks to assess student performances is something I have seen teachers use. I must admit, I haven't experimented with this, but the fact that teachers can replay a recording several times seems to me an interesting, albeit somewhat time-consuming, solution. Does anybody have any other suggestions?
Derwing, T. M., & Munro, M. J. (1997). Accent, intelligibility and comprehensibility: Evidence from four L1s. Studies in Second Language Acquisition, 20, 1-16.
Major, R. C., Fitzmaurice, S. F., Bunta, F., & Balasubramanian, C. (2002). The effects of nonnative accents on listening comprehension: Implications for ESL assessment. TESOL Quarterly, 36(2), 173-190.
Munro, M. J., & Derwing, T. M. (1995). Foreign accent, comprehensibility and intelligibility in the speech of second language learners. Language Learning, 45(1), 73-97.
This is a massive question, one that cannot be answered in a short blog post. A study (Gatbonton, Trofimovich, & Magid, 2005) conducted in Canada, however, provides a fascinating perspective. The study examined links between ethnic group affiliation and accent, and some of the results indicated that “[t]he more learners sound like the speakers of their target language, the less they are perceived by their peers to be loyal to their home group” (p. 504). Based on their findings, the authors suggest that second language (L2) teachers should not rush to conclusions when their learners’ pronunciation is not improving because their students’ inability might be connected to their identity and the social pressure they face outside the classroom. Frankly, until I came across this paper, I had never given much thought to social pressure being a potential obstacle to student progress. Hence, I can’t help but wonder how many L2 learners get labelled as being ineffective learners, whereas in reality there might be something else going on behind the scene that many L2 teachers are simply oblivious to. It would be interesting to read anecdotes from L2 instructors and/or researchers as to whether they have had similar experiences or have witnessed or researched students’ unwillingness to improve their pronunciation because of social pressure faced inside or outside the classroom. Anybody willing to share?
Gatbonton, E. Trofimovich, P., & Magid, M. (2005). Learner's ethnic group affiliation and L2 pronunciation accuracy: A sociolinguistic investigation. TESOL Quarterly, 39(3), 489-511.
Extensive reading seems to be receiving a lot of attention in contemporary language teaching and it’s almost impossible to join a language teaching conference without attending a session on this intriguing topic. John Macalister’s keynote at the TESOL Colloquium held at the University of Sydney last month, as well as one of Scott Thornbury’s recent blog posts on extensive reading inspired me to reflect on my days of being an ESL student in New Zealand. At some point during my ESL studies, one of my teachers suggested that I pick up a book at the local second hand bookstore if I was serious about improving my English. I somehow managed to slug through and finish Animal Farm, and shortly afterwards – perhaps impressed by my effort – my host family gave me a thicker novel for Christmas. I also began reading the local newspaper every morning. Reading in a foreign language was not an easy thing for me to do by any means. My vocabulary was extremely limited at first, and I had to train myself to ignore many of the unknown words and simply read on. Soon, however, the reading bug got a hold of me and after a few months of reading I began to feel that I was making progress, not only in regards to fluency but also vocabulary and general comprehension. Yet, at the same time, I realized that I needed to retain some of the low-frequency words I encountered, and so I began to keep an old fashion word list and I started reading with a dictionary. It’s interesting to note that Scott discusses the use of similar strategies. Anyhow, based on my own experience, I believe that L2 learners should underline unknown words while they’re reading and only consult their dictionaries once they’ve read several pages or even an entire chapter; otherwise, reading is tedious and boring and the whole process becomes counterproductive if they open up their dictionary every time they come across a new word. If students are taught this explicitly, generally, they are able to read without being interrupted and they usually obtain a sense of achievement in a relatively short period of time. To return to the title of this blog post, yes, I believe in extensive reading as long as the reader is equipped with some of the strategies mentioned above. Is extensive reading the magic potion that will enable us to learn languages in the blink of an eye? Certainly not, but it’s definitely a step in the right direction.
I am a Lecturer in TESOL at the University of Wollongong in Australia. I blog about L2 learning, L2 teaching, L2 teacher education, and research.