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To take or not to take a language exam?

Author: Cathy Salonikides

To take or not to take a language exam?

To take or not to take a language exam? The upcoming language exam session are just around the corner. The most common questions brought to our attention before choosing an examination body may vary depending on the “difficulty” or the “friendliness” of the exam, the recognition of the certificate, the cost, the alternative options of retaking the exam without any hidden fees, the available dates, the “convenience” -whatever that might be or interpreted for the test takers and their teachers, the parental approval –God forbids, but it is a must, the age and the “maturity” of the candidates, the socio-psychological environment of our learners and the question list  keeps growing upon request since there is a plethora of  ESL exams.  Obviously, there is a lot to consider before deciding which exam to sit in for. To take or not to take a language exam? Not an easy question to answer since the parameters to consider are numerous, however, the response can be affirmative only if the test taker is academically and psychologically well prepared for it!!! I am not using the word “ready” because it can be misleading; good preparation is more like what students need based on support, encouragement, knowledge and guidance in order to hit their target.

By Cathy Salonikides

So, are we ready to get prepared for a language exam?

Let’s start by understanding the reason why language exams are, without any doubt, essential worldwide.

According to the quote of Alan Davies from the University of Edinburg, ”the purpose of a language exam is to determine a person’s knowledge and/or ability in the language and to discriminate that person’s ability from that of others. Such ability may be of different kinds, achievement, proficiency or aptitude. The term language assessment is used in free variation with language testing although it is also used somewhat more widely to include for example classroom testing for learning and institutional examinations.”

To my mind,  as an “experienced” oral/written examiner (for English and Spanish) in Greece and abroad for over 25 years, as well as a teacher, the purpose of any certification (IELTS,  Cambridge, TOEFL, TOEIC, POI, POIC, LRN, TRINITY, MICHIGAN, TIE, KPG  etc.) is solely practical for either educational, professional or citizenship reasons.  All these tests were meant to be used as a proof of competence when applying for jobs or studies. Do not get me wrong, I am not against them – I make a living out of language exams - but we have to realize when they are necessary to be taken. Over the years, as an educator, I have had to deal with the madness of “the more language certificates, the better” and having parents demand teachers to prepare their very young teenagers to take the proficiency level exam. Really now? For some, reasoning is out of the question and explaining that this particular level requires not only knowledge but also maturity can only backfire your plan to convince them and make the furious parents turn elsewhere. “I have my friend’s son who got it last year. If you cannot do it, I will go to her school”. Sounds familiar? I am sure it does to most EFL teachers, since the EFL market is open and very competitive for school owners and individuals. As a matter of fact, the competition is such that some offensive parents insist on assuring them of their kids’ success! Insane, absurd…but real!

Is it an epidemic or a fashion trend? 

Whatever might be, it is certainly harmful! The Cambridge Assessment English quotes that the “C2 Proficiency qualification is a proof of the highest level competency needed for studies or work in a very senior professional or academic environment”.

What’s the rush??  What is the purpose of holding a proficiency level certificate at the age of 12 or 15 or 16?

Is it worth for parents showing off their ego and pride while putting their children through this traumatic ordeal? I remember, many years ago, examining in Livadia and during one of my breaks I stepped out of the hotel for some fresh air. At the entrance of the hotel there was a little girl holding a paper in her sweaty hands, practically trembling and walking nervously up and down the street with her eyes half closed reciting her prepared answers.  When the fish-out-of water candidate entered the examination my mixed-up order of questions fuddled her noting a strain between the two of us. This was an event that occurred over 20 years ago and the fact that I have a brain like a sieve it can tell you how much this image wounded me! I could actually write a book about similar examination experiences! As it might be seen not only the test takers but also the examiners suffer the consequences.

There are so many other language exams for their age and level that candidates, parents and educators can choose from and convert their examination into a memorable experience! Sitting for a language exam should be a pleasant adventure, something to look forward to, from every perspective, and definitely an accomplishment that will boost the learners’ self-confidence to set attainable goals and believe in themselves to turn their future vision into reality. In order to achieve this, we, educators and family should work together on this and be realistic about certain factors such as the age-appropriate content, the differences between receptive and productive skills, the differences between social and academic language, and last but not least recognize the diversity of our learners before deciding on the proper language exam. Therefore, it is clear that language assessment is a serious matter to reflect on without the bias in favor of attractive bonus packages by examination bodies for schools, competitive tuition fees, shortcuts (from B2 jumping to C2) and false status (easy # difficult).The success of learning a language lies within hard work, consistency, enthusiasm, self-reliance, communication, motivation and above all positive attitude.

Having said all that I conclude that “TO TAKE, OR NOT TO TAKE A LANGUAGE EXAM” is a personal matter.

*Cathy Salonikides holds a B.A. and a TESL graduate diploma from Concordia University in Canada, she is an ESL educator who has taught ESL/EFL at all levels (for over 25 years) in Canada, Colombia, US, UK and Greece. She is a Speaking Examiner for CaMLA, Exam Consultant for Speak (Israel) and a regular presenter at TEFL conferences. She aims at the communicative approach by implementing  the use of art content  in the EFL classroom so as to bring out  the students' creativity and stimulate their critical thinking . Cathy enjoys photography, travelling and cooking.