01 Apr Oral placement in 5 minutes over the phone? Yes, it can be done!
Author: Ilinca Stroe
Someone walks into a language school wishing to enrol on an English course. One of the first questions they’re bound to be asked is, “Have you studied English before?” It’s the preliminary step to ascertaining their current level of English, which is needed for putting them in a group that matches their (age and) level of proficiency. A level test is likely to follow, ideally including a written part and an oral one (most probably, an interview with a teacher). Once the level test result is clear, the prospective student can be placed in the right group and effectively start the course.
That is the standard procedure any professional language course provider will apply when approached by a new client. When, however, it is not just one client, but a larger group wishing to enrol on a course all at the same time, the level testing procedure might need to be a little speedier and efficient. Such is often the case with in-company courses. When a new one is about to start, the course provider might have to test the level of dozens of people in a limited amount of time, and face to face interviews might not be possible. Hence, the challenge of assessing someone’s level orally over the phone, in about five minutes, so that by the end of the day the whole list of tens of in-company future students is gone through and done with.
Supposing there has been a written test whose score is, ideally, already known, how can you approximate someone’s current level over the phone in such a short verbal exchange? How can you, bearing in mind that on the phone people’s (foreign) language is notoriously poorer (i.e. below their actual level), ascertain their proficiency correctly? How can you reconcile the demands of an oral placement test with the assessment’s time constraints (the 5 minutes), the rather uncomfortable channel of communication (i.e. via telephone), and the assessee’s probable nervousness – and still come to an accurate result?
The short answer is, by using skill and intuition; expertise and feeling.
The longer answer is that you need technique and teaching experience (at all levels) to prepare a set of questions that are very well graded and allow the assessee to use a range of grammar structures, from basic to more advanced, if they know them. Start, for example, with questions about routines or hobbies, which allow the use of present simple, and proceed to questions like “what are some of your major achievements to date?”, which give the assessee the opportunity to use present perfect, or “tell me about some regrets you have”, which calls for the use of conditionals and/or “I wish” structures. (And don’t refrain from modelling language a bit, for example using present perfect or a conditional in the question, to prompt their use in the answer.) Finally, while monitoring the assessee’s grammatical range, also listen for how varied their vocabulary is, how much/little repetition there is in their answer, how well synonyms or paraphrase are used.
And intuition? Why is it needed? Well, unable to see the assessee’s face or body language, their voice is the only indicator you can rely on to see how confidently and naturally they use the language. How do they relate to you during the conversation? Do they use active listening markers? Do they respond naturally, perhaps using interjections or exclamations like “Oh, wow!” to get across feelings like surprise, interest, enthusiasm, etc.? Do you feel the oral placement test is turning into a natural chat with natural reactions? If so, your assessee probably has a higher level of proficiency, even if their grammar isn’t strikingly sophisticated. As an assessor, do take ease and confidence (and, of course, fluency) into account, at the time of determining your assessee’s level.
To end with, a piece of advice and a sample set of graded questions applicable (and answerable) in 5 minutes. The advice is, do your very best to carry out the oral placement test as if it were a friendly conversation. (That is to say, you yourself should respond naturally, express feelings, use interjections and so on.) And the list, after getting the assessee’s basic information (name, job, city) goes like this:
1) What do you usually do at weekends?
2) Tell me about a personal or professional project you’re currently working on.
3) What did you do your last summer holiday?
4) What are you plans for your next holiday? What are you going to do?
5) Tell me about the most important things you have achieved in life so far.
6) Imagine you were born in Japan. In what ways would your life be different?
7) Tell me about some regrets you have. Are there things you think you should have done differently in life?
8) There’s a famous line which says, “No man is an island”. Why do you agree or disagree?
International House Bucharest runs regular CELTA and DELTA courses for teachers of English at its Teacher Training Centre, as well as training events online, onsite or at partner locations. To sign up for a course or event, contact [email protected]. Also, check out our upcoming conference for language teachers around the world.