When people come to Fullspate and confess that they are thinking of doing a proficiency exam in English we often tell them to sit down, take a deep breath and think again. In Greece, where we are based, hundreds of thousands of families are absolutely sure that their kids MUST get the proficiency. Little Nick and Maria down the road got the proficiency, so it becomes a matter of family pride to prove that their kids are just as good. Unfortunately, the chances are that these parents know almost nothing about either the content or the aims of the proficiency exam. Perhaps if they understood a bit more about the proficiency exam, and a bit more about how kids can improve their English, there wouldn’t be this nationwide panic. (Hey! Shouldn’t schools be doing more to inform parents?)
Let’s not forget the aims of the proficiency exams (read Preparing candidates for the Cambridge English Proficiency exam ). The new European framework for these exams states that language learners at this level (the top level - level 5) should be “approaching the linguistic competence of an educated native speaker.” Let’s put that in block capitals: APPROACHING THE LINGUISTIC COMPETENCE OF AN EDUCATED NATIVE SPEAKER. And by the way, we’re not talking here about hip-hop, break dance, emo, iPod English. We’re talking about the sophisticated English used in seminars and tutorials at university.
Similarly, the handbook for the Cambridge proficiency tells us that candidates should be able to handle abstract ideas and concepts in a mature way, and they should be able to “advise and talk about complex, sensitive or contentious issues, understanding colloquial references.” Does that sound like you, or do you think you need to carry on with your general education a bit more before you attain that level of intellectual maturity?
In a nutshell
1. If you want to teach English, your priority should be to do a degree in English at university. One of the proficiency-level (C2) certificates would be a useful addition to your portfolio, but still there is no need to rush things.
2. The certificate might be an essential qualification for a job, but if it is really necessary, you don’t want to take the exam more than one or two years before you apply for the job. An employer that really wants you to be a fluent English speaker will not be satisfied with a ten-year-old certificate.
3. Should you try to run before you can walk? What’s the big rush? Enjoy walking first, and when you feel confident you can start a gentle jog.
4. Use it or lose it. Unless you are going to do a degree in English or get a humble job in the office of an English firm at the age of 18 you are probably not going to use the language much until you finish university in your early 20’s and then get your military service out of the way. By that time you will have forgotten so many of those lovely proficiency words and phrases that you spent so many long hours back in your teens trying to remember (words like “exacerbate”, “ameliorate”, “procrastinate”, and “obfuscate”). Isn’t it a shame to sacrifice so much of your youth learning stuff that you are going to forget before you really need it?
5. High school students in Greece are unbelievably overburdened with extra lessons in the evenings at what we call cramming schools (where they try to quickly cram as much information as possible into the very limited space between your ears). University students have much more free time, and because they should have a clearer idea of what they are actually going to do with their English they should be more motivated to sit down and learn the 50 or 60,000 words and phrases which top-notch proficiency candidates ought to know.
6. Where are the poets and the painters of modern Greece? If teenagers had more free time, it might be possible for a few more of them to discover that they have a talent for things like poetry and painting.
Does that mean I should just drop out of the cramming school and play more footy in the street with those guys my mum calls ‘losers’?
Definitely not. The point is not to turn your back on your education, but to find enjoyable things to do to maintain and improve your English language skills without worrying (before there is any real need) about exams that almost half the candidates will fail.
Fun stuff to do out of school
Instead of panicking to get the proficiency when you don’t need it, our advice is: chill out. The overwhelming majority of kids in their mid-teens don’t need anything more than the FCE with an A or a B or a clear pass in some other B2 exam like the ECCE. If you have a good B2 certificate in English at that age, you have all you need to start to understand and appreciate movies, lyrics, websites and books in English ON YOUR OWN. Find a subject you are interested in, like war games, love metal, body art, bikes, web design or whatever, and start reading lots of stuff in English and finding places on the internet where people chat about that kind of stuff in English. Without doing a single multiple choice question your English will improve, and if you really do have to do another exam in the future it will be a piece of cake.
IELTS: the way forward
If you are really stubborn and insist on doing another exam now, we advise you to do the IELTS (IELTS a stepping stone to a bright pathway). This is the grooviest exam on the market at the moment. And what’s one of the best things about it? Check this out: EVERYBODY GETS A CERTIFICATE. Each section begins with slightly easier questions and they become progressively harder. When you get your certificate it will give you a mark from 1 to 9. If you get a 7.5 or 8 you are on the same level as someone with the ECPE (or Cambridge CPE). And guess what: no grammar or vocabulary questions!!! They just check how good you are at doing the things you will actually have to do in real-life English-speaking situations: reading, writing, listening and speaking - which is exactly what you ought to have to do in a good test of English.
It is also worth noting that if you want to go to a British university they would prefer you to do the IELTS exam. Different departments will demand different scores depending on how good they think your English needs to be to do those particular courses. To do an engineering course you might only need a score of 6.5. To do psychology or philosophy, where you need to be more articulate, they would demand at least 7.5.
Bad proficiency results in Greece
Given its glorious past, the education results in Greece ought to be among the best in the world. However, in the EFL business at C2/proficiency level they definitely aren’t. In 2009 while countries like Holland, South Africa, Italy, Poland, Ukrane, Sri Lanka and Latvia had 75% or more of their candidates pass the ECPE exam, in Greece only 56% passed (although Greeks can console themselves that they are better than the Vietnamese, of which only 53% passed, and the Turks, who got only 43% of their candidates through the ECPE). The results for the Cambridge CPE are slightly worse. In 2010 one in two candidates came away from that exam empty-handed.
Why the system in Greece has been failing
Costas Gabrielatos has written some very insightful articles about the poor performance of EFL candidates in Greece. Here we pick out a number of points he makes which we think are absolutely spot on.
Although it might be tempting to blame the results on the age of the candidates - saying they are too young - Costas reminds us that the fault lies elsewhere. The surprising fact is that 14- to 15-year-olds have a better success rate than older candidates. If age is not a factor, what is responsible for the failure rate?
A lack of preparation
One problem is that students simply haven’t done enough preparatory work to bring them up to the required level. “In other words, most Greek learners sit for the CPE when they should be sitting for the CAE” (the advanced exam).
The exam-obsession syndrome
However, Costas gives less emphasis to the quantity of preparation than to its quality. There are some approaches to English language teaching in Greece which are misguided and which directly contribute to the failure of students. A major problem is the obsession with exam practice. Instead of concentrating first and foremost on improving the students’ level of English, too many teachers waste far too much classroom time ploughing through countless practice tests. These teachers seem to believe that the more practice tests a student does, the more likely s|he is to succeed.
Costas advocates an alternative approach: a student’s command of the language should be brought up to the required level before s|he begins intensive preparation for the exam. If a student is already a proficient user of the language, exam preparation will simply be a matter of becoming familiar with the tasks required, practising different approaches to tackling the exercises, identifying pitfalls and managing their time effectively.
The vocabulary list syndrome
Another dubious practice is the fixation with vocabulary lists. Words are readily taken out of context, put in lists with the translations to the right and set for homework. Insufficient attention is paid to collocations, fixed phrases and the kinds of examples of good usage that are the benchmark for more successful language-learners. We would add that the craze for companions in Greece is another symptom of this malaise - they divert the student’s attention away from the way new items of vocabulary were used in the texts and dialogues that they have studied, and they discourage students from developing useful note taking skills.
The coursebook-as-Bible syndrome
The way coursebooks are used is another problem. Students are taken through books from cover to cover without much thought being given to the limitations of the books, their omissions or relevance to the students. As Costas points out, as a consequence “learners don’t usually deal with topics or do tasks that are within their interests and needs; instead they are taken through a series of loosely related or even unrelated exercises.”
The compartmentalisation syndrome
Costas also highlights what he calls the “compartmentalisation syndrome.” “Learners do ‘vocabulary’ or ‘listening’ or ‘speaking’ as if those areas of language were unrelated. There seems to be little integration of the different aspects of the understanding and use of language.”
Costas’ conclusion is sobering. Assuming that the fault does not lie with an innate inability of Greek students to learn foreign languages well, there must be something wrong with what teachers and schools are doing. “Perhaps we would be wise to reassess our perception of exam preparation and language teaching/learning.” •