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>By George –

To accurately test my students, I give them oral exams which are recorded on tape. These exams have two parts. The first part is Q&A covering things we have covered in class. They almost always have a memorized response for the basic questions. I tend to ignore these. I focus on their responses to the follow-up questions. For example, I’ve told them that we might discuss their grandparents, so I might ask

“Are your grandparents alive?” “How many children did they have?” How many boys and how many girls? “Do you know your aunt’s and uncles?” “O.K let’s talk about your youngest aunt” Here is where they begin to breakdown because they didn’t think to prepare for a discussion about their youngest aunt. I’ve also begun by asking about a favorite middle-school teacher and then focus on the teacher they liked the least. Once I get to the real subject I’ll begin with what is the person’s name, age etc. and gradually lead to more complex questions. Then I start looking for syntactic, grammar and vocabulary failure. In many cases the exam ends in 2 or 3 minutes and some have gone as long as 30 or 40 minutes. In all cases I use subjects they are familiar with: Family, School, Friends and Hometowns. If I knew more about sports I would dwell on that. I have been known to ask a student to explain what a mid-fielder, a striker or a goalie does if they play those positions in football or the role of guards, the center or forwards in basketball. I’ve even asked guitar playing students to explain how to play a particular song. In short they give me a guitar lesson.

To test for middle school, determine what is grade appropriate and start from there.

Again, start simple and progress to the complex. At what level do they abandon an answer or the topic entirely. The second part is a short oral reading which incorporates most of the English phonemes. I sometimes give the samples to practice with but they get a new reading for the exam. They must read cold.

Also, I’ve just begun developing a set of reading passages that will begin at about fifth or sixth grade level for native speakers using Flesch-Kincaid RGL measures and which become progressively more advanced. This way I can determine the level at which they begin to break down, identified by their rate of word abandonment. In the first year I will be mainly concerned with phonetic identification and reproduction. As we progress, stress and intonation will become more of a factor.

I’ve not seen the CET tests, so I can’t comment on those. Oral exams can be quantified, but I don’t like using them as the basis for a grade. I tell the school that grades should be considered as a report of a student’s speaking level and how much they have improved. In my classes, the only one’s who actually fail are those who only show up for exams and the rare film. Those who come to class but aren’t there count as absent. Our school weeds them out pretty quick. Last term eight of my students flunked out including two who were pretty good English speakers. Six were expelled for cheating on Chinese teacher’s exams.

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