Beyond the Achievement-Proficiency Divide: a New Perspective on Language Assessment

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The field of language teaching (represented by ELT as we know it) has one rather unusual feature which sets it apart from other formally taught school subjects. In the specific domain of assessing the progress of learners or pupils receiving instruction, a clear sharp distinction is made between testing, which is achievement oriented and testing which is proficiency oriented. It is widely accepted that the central aim of teaching English language is the development of the ability to use the language for communication or proficiency, though the value of different means (techniques) is a matter of vigorous debate. School board and university syllabi and examinations are known to be heavily weighed down by the ideational content of the ‘passages’ in the readers and lists of grammatical elements demonstrating form delinked from meaning. It is a long-standing complaint that these achievement tests favouring memorization and reproduction do not measure language proficiency. Mathew (2006) in the pages of Fortell  highlighted this issue, asking whether the move from achievement to proficiency is being realized. It is taken for granted that this is an appropriate direction of change or reform. I do not dispute this basic argument in the specific setting of the unhappy history of ELT in India. However, the proposal to address proficiency directly and ‘bypass’ achievement needs more analysis. I propose in this essay to revisit this achievement-proficiency tension in language education from the wider perspective of educational measurement. I go on to address the basic issue of articulating a framework for assessing the progressively developing language ability in English over several years.

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Honing Verbal Skills: the Most Essential yet the Most Neglected!

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Spoken word travels faster than written word! Oblivious to this fact that verbal skill is one of the most sought after skills compared to reading and writing, it is either neglected or ignored in academic circles. Basically, spoken/oral/verbal skills are always on top of the list as any kind of communication begins with the spoken word starting from a new born to a person with a last word. Despite the fact that verbal communication skills are indispensable, modest attempt is being made to hone verbal skills in a good number of schools. Teaching spoken skill often poses difficulties considering various factors such as strength of class, influence of mother tongue, stage fear, fear of being mocked at, faltered pronunciation etc. Besides, many of the syllabi do not focus on spoken skills and this is evident from the fact that all these years, focus in the evaluation process has been on reading/ writing but not on listening and speaking.

It is quite understandable that the need to learn another language is sometimes not natural but arises out of necessity. Anybody moving to a new place attempts to learn the spoken form first rather than the written form. But that is not the case with English. I wonder why school instruction spread over a span of twelve years fails to hone the spoken skills of a child. Doesn’t this demonstrate that learning spoken form in natural surroundings is more effective than formal learning of twelve years of English in a classroom? The reason is that very little emphasis is laid in developing verbal competence of students while they are in school. As a result, at the moment of entering their professional life, they face the exit door due to lack of effective spoken skills. What amuses me is that a child spending ideally ten years in an English medium school finally lands in a spoken English Institute with a hope to learn it in forty days or so. Therefore, it is not surprising to see mushrooming of so many English language institutes in India. It’s really bewildering to comprehend how these institutes can make such promises.

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An Appraisal of the N.E.T. in English Literature

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A status message on a popular social networking website posted after the recent N.E.T. exam reads:

Joke of the day: “The wasteland” has how many lines? Will someone, please, enlighten me?

‘The Wasteland’ (1922) is an acclaimed poem by T.S.Eliot. Any post-graduate student of English Literature can expound on the poem’s structure, content, meaning etc. But is knowing the number of lines relevant? The comments on the above post go on to analyze the logic of such a question and whether the information asked is a benchmark for possessing the knowledge of English literature and if it is then to know the number of lines of enumerable poems becomes vital to pass the exam. Add to these the questions asked on plots, names of characters, settings, locations and bio specifics of authors and one wonders if the exam is for a teacher or an encyclopedia enthusiast. The above instance also underscores the fact that a wrong answer here could fail the examinee if a requisite score is not obtained resulting in multiple attempts at cracking the biannual N.E.T. exam even as excellent scholarship and academic record hang in limbo. Evidently the situation necessitates an assessment of the suitability of N.E.T as an appropriate examination for evaluating teaching aptitude and testing subject knowledge especially of English Literature. It involves a critical look at the disparity, lacunae and shortcomings in the pattern and syllabi of N.E.T. that produced a skewed result of only eleven successful candidates in English in June 2010.

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Learning Styles and Classroom Activities

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What are learning styles?

Every individual is unique and hence the way she/he approaches learning is unique. Individuals have preferences regarding the way in which they would like to learn. These are determined by the learning style of the individual. Learning styles are the ways, tendencies, preferences and conditions under which the individual learns best.

This approach to learning emphasizes the fact that individuals perceive and process information in different ways. The learning styles theory implies that how much individuals learn has more to do with whether the educational experience is geared toward their particular style of learning than whether or not they are “smart.” In fact, educators should not ask “Is this student smart?” but rather “How is this student smart?”

The Classroom Reception of Spenser’s Epithalamion

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* Article first published in FORTELL September 2011 issue.

Teaching texts as remote in time and place as Spenser’s Epithalamion is a challenge indeed. The ears of city-bred adolescents, so accustomed to the unabashed big bang of our pronouncements in Backstreet Boys, Venga Boys and Savage Garden etc. just do not respond to the snow-soft mercy-petitions in Platonic love poems addressed to “impossible she’s”. And the small towners: the rural and the semi-urban first generation migrants, sitting quietly as “backbenchers” in the class, find it funnier still because fresh in their mind are the reverberations of a more vibrant, terse and dialogic Desi or Margi (popular and classical) tradition of native love poetry embedded in Mangalacharsi, Barahamasasii, Bhramar Geethasiii and other Radha-Krishna duos like these.

Any Indian child who has had the chance to spend even a few hours with grandparents, distant aunts and other folk-narrators readily available at community meets is at least vaguely exposed to Parkeeya Nayikaiv or Nakh-Shikh Varnan Paramparav of Indian classics. And my humble submission is that one of the ways of arousing interest in Spenser and his kind of apparently artificial and urbane utterances of love is to place them against the more sophisticated and vibrantly passionate utterances of love in the popular songs or couplets of Jaidev, Vidyapati, Soordasvi, and the Reetikal poetsvii. Thus, studying Epithalamion, as the mangalachar of a typical marriage song of the Nachariviii tradition could be both interesting and rewarding from the post-colonial perspective of highlighting the subtext of differences.

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