A Team Testing Method for
Elementary English Speaking
by Steve McCarty
Long English-only version in the Kagawa Junior College Journal, 26, pp. 1-10 (20 March 1998). A shorter, edited, English-Japanese version of this paper appears in Wada, M., Cominos, A., Betts, R., and Y. Ishikawa (Eds.), Team Teaching in the Communicative Classroom. Tokyo: Taishukan Shoten (25 January 1998), pp. 170-173.
To the extent speaking skills are taught, their degree of improvement needs to be graded, so foreign language teachers need ways to evaluate speaking skills. Dialogues from secondary school English textbooks, adjusted or individualized, provide realistic language material for this speaking quiz activity. Techniques such as jan ken pon among teams of rows ensure fairness with regard to unequal practice time, while heightening students' interest and responsibility for the outcome. Criteria such as closeness to the model of English taught are clarified to the students. One pair of students at a time performs their dialogue in front of the Assistant Language Teacher (ALT), preferably in a different room. Before performing the dialogue, the two students each hand over a name tag, on which the ALT writes their score when they finish. For the Japanese Teacher of English (JTE) to record these grades helps convince the students that English speaking is a substantial part of the course, and that they therefore need to participate in regular oral activities.
To the extent speaking skills are taught, their degree of improvement needs to be graded. Thus as oral English becomes an essential part of the secondary school curriculum, foreign language teachers implementing the Course of Study will increasingly be looking for ways to evaluate speaking skills.
Individual JTEs and ALTs will need to agree upon precise criteria and procedures for the conduct of periodic speaking evaluations, quizzes or tests. For the JTE to record grades as with any other skill to be tested helps convince the students that English speaking is a substantial part of the course, and that they therefore need to participate in regular oral activities.
This article attempts to answer the need for an approach to the evaluation of English speaking skills at the secondary school level in Japan. It relies upon and benefits from the team teaching partnership, describing the roles of the JTE, ALT and students throughout the activity. Alternatives are presented at each main step in the procedure, allowing the JTE and ALT to choose techniques suitable for their situation and for the level of their students.
The criteria for evaluating speaking skills provide a general theoretical framework that clarifies what constitutes effective English speaking. For grading more objectively, it will be suggested that teachers make a checklist of basic criteria weighted according to their judgement of priorities for each English class.
The procedure is couched in terms of a speaking quiz, but teachers could elect to use it as a speaking activity without grading, or as a trial run toward a future speaking test. Moreover, alternatives are offered which make it possible for a teacher to conduct the activity solo if necessary, or to apply the activity beyond the secondary school level, such as with elementary level college English classes.
Adjustability to any Secondary School Level
Alternative techniques are offered at each main step in the procedure, while the criteria for evaluating English speaking are also up to the JTE and ALT to prioritize, according to the level of each class. It will therefore be seen that this activity can be utilized at any secondary school level where English speaking skills are practiced through dialogues.
Selecting or adjusting dialogues from the textbook is specifically recommended for the subject of English at each year of junior high school. At the high school level, textbook or supplemental dialogues prepared by the teachers could also be useful at the pre-communicative stage, possibly in English I and II. But for Oral Communication A through C, dialogues could be individualized or developed by the students into communicative conversations, what the students really wish to discuss in English.
It would be desirable, with guidance from the teachers, for dialogues to be made more communicative at any level, for example by using the students' own names in their performance. While the students are practicing, individualizing or composing their dialogues in pairs, the JTE and ALT could circulate around the class to check progress and answer individual questions.
The JTE and ALT need to discuss the alternatives presented in this activity and agree to a step-by-step procedure. They further need to decide which two class periods the in-class procedure will span, toward the end of a trimester or when a speaking quiz is deemed appropriate.
In-Class Time Required
Up to one full class period will be needed for the speaking quiz itself. In addition, perhaps at the end of the previous meeting of the class, an explanation of the procedure and criteria by the JTE will be necessary.
Alternative. The explanation of the procedure and criteria could be in the form of a written handout for greater clarity and to save class time.
Turning Rows of Students into Teams of Pairs
The students are divided into teams consisting of two rows each, and within the team they form a pair with their neighboring student to practice and perform the dialogues. In case of an odd number of rows, one row could become a team, and pairs could be formed from the front to the back of the row. A classroom with seven rows, for example, would then result in four teams.
Alternative. In this example of seven rows, if one row has no more students than the number of the rest of the rows, the six or fewer students in that row could be seated behind the other six rows to make three teams rather than four. Students may also have to be asked to change their seats to fill in gaps left by absent students.
Practice Time and the Number of Dialogues Needed
If the whole class performed the same dialogue, there would be an unfair difference in practice time, so the number of dialogues prepared needs to be at least as many as the number of teams. All the students practice a certain dialogue for a set time, but only one team actually performs it. They do not know which team will perform the dialogue until the practice time is over and one of the teams is randomly selected.
The length of practice time should be roughly equal for each dialogue, or proportional to the length of the dialogues. This can be flexible, especially when the teachers are still going around the room answering individual questions about pronunciation and so forth. However, to ensure time for students to refine their conversational skills beyond memorization, dialogues with frequent changing of speaking turns are preferable to those with long turns at talk.
The length of practice time allowable could be roughly calculated based on the number of dialogues expected to be used during the class period. The time spent by teams performing dialogues in front of the ALT would also have to be taken into account. Shorter dialogues are again preferable in cutting memorization time and allowing for a more exciting pace.
Number of Times Each Pair Performs
The simplest procedure is for each pair to perform a dialogue once. Particularly when dialogues are individualized by the students, there may not be time to have them perform more than once.
However, when using short dialogues in textbooks or breaking up long dialogues into several short ones, there needs to be something for students to do when they have finished performing one dialogue and much class time still remains. One way to keep the students practicing is to have more dialogues than the number of teams. Depending on random selection, they may perform once or possibly more than once, in which latter case their scores would be averaged or adjusted.
Determining the Order in Which Pairs Perform
When only one team performs a dialogue, there is little difference in practice time among the members, so the order in which pairs perform can arbitrarily be from the front to the back pairs of the team. The question is how to randomly select one team to perform a given dialogue. Here the traditional jan ken pon game of scissors-paper-stone can engage the students and make them feel responsible for the order in which they perform. All the students know how to play this game, and any number can participate. The JTE can conduct it as well as explain it to the ALT if necessary.
At the beginning of the class when teams are first formed, each team is asked to quickly designate a representative. After the practice time for each dialogue is over, all the team representatives do jan ken pon until one team emerges as the loser. This team performs the dialogue, while the others have won more practice time before being evaluated. Toward the end of the class period, if one team is still undefeated at jan ken pon, then their reward would be to practice the last dialogue in the knowledge that they will certainly perform it for a grade.
Alternative. Having the losing team perform the dialogue would seem to accord with the gallows humor of an English speaking test, but the teachers--or students--may elect to have the winning team perform the dialogue if they prefer.
Using Name Tags to Conduct the Quiz in a Separate Room
The first step in the procedure on the day of the quiz is for the JTE to pass out rectangular slips of paper of equal size to all the students. The JTE then asks the students to make their own name tag by writing their name in English, given name then family name, and student number if applicable. Later when the students go to perform their dialogues, they first pass their name tags to the ALT. Then the ALT, who is sitting behind a desk or table, places the two name tags on the writing surface, the left and right hand slips corresponding to where the students they identify are standing. When the students finish performing their dialogue, the ALT thanks them, says good-bye, and writes their grades on their name tags when they leave.
To avoid grading memorization instead of speaking skills, the students could be allowed to bring their dialogues and consult the text if they forget their lines, provided they again face their partner when they speak. The students should be encouraged to practice in a similar manner as well, always facing their partner when in the speaking or listening role.
A separate room has the advantage of privacy and prevents peer pressure on students to perform below their ability. For to do well the students must depart from conventional mispronunciations and not be too embarrassed to change toward the non-Japanese communication style embodied in the dialogue.
To keep students practicing all during the class period and not idle after performing one dialogue, it could be helpful to have students ready to perform more than one dialogue. But if they actually do, they might need a new name tag each time. Then the teachers would have to match name tags and average or adjust the scores of students who performed more than once.
Using Seating Charts to Conduct the Quiz in the Classroom
The JTE and ALT may prefer to conduct the speaking quiz in the classroom, for example because a large class can be tested more quickly. It may also be more convenient in some ways, particularly when the students perform more than one dialogue, because multiple name tags would not be needed.
Instead of individual name tags, one seating chart could serve for each team, usually two adjacent rows forming a number of pairs who practice and perform the dialogues. Since the students would not leave the classroom but simply stand up two at a time, if they performed more than one dialogue the ALT could write any number of scores by their names on the pertinent seating chart.
A regular sheet of blank paper would be passed to each team, with a number or letter at the top identifying the teams in order from the door to the window side or vice versa. The JTE would ask students to write their names in a sort of grid indicating exactly where they sit. Each name would thus be written in a rectangular box on the left or right side, with blank boxes where there are desks but students are absent. If there are an odd number of rows, one row could form a team, writing their names down one row instead of two, forming pairs with the students behind instead of next to them.
The ALT would gather the seating grids when completed by all the teams. Then when a certain team performed a dialogue, their seating chart held upside down would correspond to the exact location of their seats. As each pair finished performing the dialogue, the ALT would write their scores in the boxes containing their names. Although the names and scores would be upside down, it would be easy later to average, adjust or record scores from each box to the gradebook of the JTE.
Visualizing Teachers' and Students' Tasks at Each Phase
A decision is needed as to what the rest of the students are instructed to do while one team is performing a dialogue. If the performances are in the classroom, the other students may be expected to continually listen and applaud each performance. Such model behavior, however, may prove unrealistic to expect. On the other hand, if the performing team leaves the classroom, then the remaining students may need some assigned activity to keep busy.
In planning this activity it is important to visualize where the JTE and ALT are during each phase, as well as what task they and the students are engaged in. When the students are practicing or especially individualizing dialogues, both teachers are needed to circulate and help individual students.
To minimize idle time, and to avoid one team performing twice in a row because of losing at jan ken pon, while one team is out of the room performing a dialogue, the other teams could go on to the next dialogue. Since the performances in front of the ALT could take less than half of the practice time for the next dialogue, the ALT could return to the classroom with the team that just performed, and then still be able to circulate and help individual students with pronunciation questions and so forth. But the drawback with this procedure is that the ALT would not be available to help model the next dialogue before the students start practicing. So during this class period it may be preferable to tolerate a certain amount of idle time as a break from the performance pressure of the quiz. Having the students perform a dialogue for a grade only once is simplest but involves the most idle time to plan for.
When there are an Odd Number of Students
Students are paired to perform dialogues, but on the day of the speaking quiz there may be an odd number of students. This can be solved by simply having the JTE perform the dialogue with one student.
Alternative. Particularly if the JTE does not have time to practice with the student, another student could be asked to perform a role twice, with two different partners, perhaps in return for a quiz grade raised about 5%.
Absences on the Day of the Quiz
Absences may be a problem, especially if the quiz carries some weight in the semester grade. In such cases a make-up quiz outside of class time could probably be arranged. If absent students could not be paired, such individuals could perform a dialogue with the JTE, or with a student who previously took the quiz, perhaps giving the latter a small bonus.
Alternative. If the JTE and ALT could not arrange for an out-of-class make-up quiz, it could be done during a following class period. While the JTE is lecturing, the ALT could go out of the classroom with pairs of students who were absent during the speaking quiz. In case of an odd number of such students, a cooperative student who attended the quiz could be asked to perform one of the roles again.
The seating chart technique described above, not necessarily grids of two rows each, has a variety of applications besides this activity. Foreign teachers needing to learn their students' names, keep attendance, correct students' Romanization of their names to the Hepburn spelling, or make any kind of notations about individual students would benefit from keeping a seating chart. College teachers, for example, faced with students grouping themselves in the far corners of the classroom, instead of calling out each name could take attendance according to a seating chart having the students sit as close as possible to the front.
This speaking quiz activity was first developed with first-year high school classes and with first-year junior college classes. Hence it can also be conducted at the college level or adapted to any stage where students practice dialogues.
Fairness in Grading
Many criteria for evaluating English speaking are possible, and there are as many ways to prioritize them. Especially when the parties involved are from different cultures, these criteria cannot be taken for granted as mutually understood and agreed upon. The main purpose for the JTE and ALT to discuss criteria and clarify their priorities to the students is to ensure fairness in grading. Yet in learning what constitutes effective speaking, particularly to native speakers of English, students also gain a clearer picture of where their speaking practice is aimed, and they can better simulate English speaking as an effective form of international communication.
While performing dialogues is pre-communicative, it will be seen that communicative indicators enhance speaking skills while non-communicative factors such as memorization may detract from speaking skills. Therefore it is fair to include communicative criteria in evaluating speaking skills, provided the selected criteria and their relative weight are clarified to the students at some stage before the speaking quiz.
Speaking is practiced after listening as a preparation for actual communication in English, and the best speaking is that which simulates realistic communication. Appropriate gestures, a cheerful rather than stilted attitude, and other concomitants of effective communication enhance speaking and therefore provide criteria for its evaluation, insofar as these skills are taught to the students.
At the junior high school level, dialogues can be sought or adapted to be as realistic as possible, sounding natural to the ALT. Whereas in Oral Communication classes at the high school level, teachers could make the speaking quiz actually communicative by helping the students individualize their dialogues in terms of their own information or what they really wish to say to their partner in English.
Avoiding Reliance on Memorization
This activity aims to evaluate the improvement in speaking skills resulting from regular classroom practice. The quality of speaking thus needs to be isolated from variables such as memorization which may take the place of communicative skills. Recitation of a prepared speech is even more vulnerable to this problem, but even in the case of dialogues memorization can overwhelm the communicative variables and be mistaken for skill in English speaking. That is, the words can be uttered without understanding, merely as memorized sounds. Instead of listening to their partners, students can simply wait until the sounds of their partners cease. Excessive reliance on memorization results in a mechanical performance unnatural in speed, rhythm, turn-taking timing and other communicative criteria.
To counteract this tendency, dialogues need to be selected or adjusted to challenge speaking skills such as pronunciation, intonation, accent, stress, listening and turn-taking. If each turn at talk is brief, there can be more turns at talk rather than long passages to memorize. Communicative criteria are valuable for the students to know in general, so the students can be cautioned that signs of reliance on memorization will be evaluated negatively. Some telltale signs are a staccato monotone; speaking memorized chunks too rapidly; cutting in before the partner finishes speaking, or waiting too long after the partner finishes because the student was not listening.
Model of Spoken English Selected
Varieties of English exist, even within countries such as Britain and the U.S. There is not a standard English in the way that there is for Japanese or French. The spoken English of the JTE could be considered one valid model for the students. In any case, a model or models need to be selected and clarified to the students. These could include the English spoken by the ALT and on any software such as cassette tapes utilized in class. But students also have experience of English in previous years of secondary school or earlier. British or Australian ALTs, for example, may need to adjust their expectations if student pronunciation is closer to the American English model to which they have grown accustomed.
In most cases the students would have listened to dialogues before performing them, and their closeness to the model would be a fair indicator of their listening as well as of their speaking. Listening could be called the sincerest form of communication. Thus the model of English heard when the dialogue was introduced would usually provide a valid and unambiguous standard.
Since pronunciation could easily be mistaken for the whole of speaking, a number of broader criteria have been considered first. For just as memorizing the sounds well could be mistaken for mastery in speaking, pronunciation alone would also be too narrow a criterion. The cooperation with the procedure and the desire to improve in English speaking are not usually considered aspects of communication, yet they tend to result in better speaking. Similarly, the attention and effort to listen to the model presented by the teachers is not an aspect of speaking, yet it is an act of communication meriting recognition or reward.
The more carefully students listen to the dialogues presented by the teachers, the more correctly they are liable to reproduce them. The speaking quiz could thus become a means of rewarding a positive attitude toward communicating in English, one of the objectives of foreign language education in secondary schools.
Once the model of spoken English has been selected, a certain pronunciation can be considered correct. The students have sufficient practice time and are offered the opportunity to ask about the pronunciation of language they find difficult. Then they are expected to enunciate their sentences as in the model they learned.
Every aspect of pronunciation is involved, including loudness overall, accented syllables in words, reductions and other combinations pronounced differently from the words in isolation. Then at the sentence level there are the patterns of stress, pitch, intonation, breath groups and speech rhythm. These patterns carry information beyond the words, and changes thereof carry a special meaning, such as changes in the tone of voice or speech rhythm.
Thus even pronunciation is shown to involve many variables and pitfalls for the learner. A slowing down in speech or falling intonation to recall something may convey an unintended meaning of reluctance to communicate or some such. Transference of Japanese speaking conventions to English can result in interference from L1 to L2 while, again, the English native-speaking listener may receive unintended meanings. However, secondary school students are still learning vocabulary and piecing together the grammar of English, so they cannot be expected to master such subtle features of a foreign language.
Basically, in speaking English the students are changing from syllable-timed to stress-timed rhythm at the sentence level. This can be explained to students as a continuous sort of "jet coaster" intonation that they should listen for and attempt to reproduce. They need to pronounce English smoothly without rendering it into syllables as they do with foreign loanwords in Japanese sentences. That is, they need to pronounce English as they hear it, not as they read it or render it into Japanese. These points are fundamental enough to emphasize to the students and to evaluate as pronunciation criteria.
A louder voice has a better chance of being understood, therefore it is generally to be positively evaluated. Whereas a softer voice may mask doubtful areas where the student failed to listen or ascertain the correct pronunciation from a teacher. Since a demure voice is considered properly modest and respectful in Japanese society, this criterion also needs to be clarified to the students for fairness in grading. It could be explained that a louder voice sounds more positive, confident, enthusiastic and cheerful, besides being more easily understood. Thus, short of excessive loudness which becomes noise, loudness is an important communicative criterion of speaking.
We have seen that a number of communicative factors affect the quality of speaking, even in a practice situation. The more complete the criteria are, the better the students can understand what constitutes good English speaking, and the fairer they can be graded. Teachers and learners need to keep in mind that the purpose of language is communication, so speaking is accountable to communicative criteria at every stage.
In teaching and evaluating speaking skills, various criteria such as discussed above need to be kept in mind for a balanced perspective. Learning of these criteria from the teachers, the students might aim for them in their regular practice of speaking, while the teachers watch and listen for these qualities whenever the students speak.
The ALT must quickly evaluate two speakers at a time, so it may be more objective to make a checklist of the criteria and their relative weight, as is usually done in judging English speech contests in Japan. Therefore in the next paragraph, summarizing the essential criteria for good English speaking, a percentage will be added to each as an example, totaling 100%. Here again, it is up to the JTE and ALT to agree on the criteria and their priorities, as well as to convey these to the students.
A manageable checklist has to distill the criteria to the bare essentials, yet accurately reflect our standards for evaluating the quality of English speaking attainable by students at a certain level of secondary school. One possible weighting would be as follows: smooth pronunciation and intonation - 40%, loudness - 20%, natural speed and turn-taking timing - 20%, and communicative factors - 20%.
It may be possible for the ALT to listen for more aspects of pronunciation such as accent, but the students may only be able to move closer overall to the the model they have heard. Memorization is required but does not in itself ensure that the speed and timing are natural. Listening underlies most of the criteria, as the quality of speaking tends to reflect the willingness to listen and hence communicate. Communicative factors per se in the performance would include their facing each other, their attitude, gestures and convincing simulation of communication. If dialogues are composed and individualized at the high school level, content could be a factor of communicative realism.
Various considerations surrounding the evaluation of English speaking skills have been addressed thematically, but it may be clearer to visualize the activity as a whole by chronologically summarizing the procedure. Please refer to the pertinent sections above for a fuller discussion of the decisions involved in each phase summarized here.
First of all, the JTE and ALT study this activity and decide on a step-by-step procedure including criteria suitable for each class level. The procedure and criteria need to be explained to students beforehand, preferably toward the end of the class perio