New Test of English as a Foreign Language Will Put Emphasis on Speaking

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Mon Sep 26 12:42:30 UTC 2005

Monday, September 26, 2005

New Test of English as a Foreign Language Will Put Emphasis on Speaking

The Educational Testing Service introduced on Saturday a new version of
the Test of English as a Foreign Language that it said was a better gauge
of how well foreigners seeking to study in the United States and other
countries could really speak the language. The test, which is known as the
Toefl, is taken by most foreign students who are being considered for
admission at English-speaking higher-education institutions, including
those in the United States. Last year nearly 750,000 students took the
test. This year students taking the exam are paying a fee of $140 each.

ETS, the nonprofit organization that owns and administers the test, says
it has been altered in significant ways. The old test depended mainly on
multiple-choice questions, and measured reading, listening, and writing as
largely isolated skills. A separate speaking exam was taken by very few
students. The new test does much more to gauge those skills together.
Students will be asked to listen to a recording and to read about a topic
before writing and speaking their answers. The new test will contain fewer
but longer texts and recorded lectures, intended to better assess
students' comprehension.

Unlike the old exam, the revised test is Web-based, though students must
still physically go to a designated site to take it. For the last decade,
said Mari A. Pearlman, ETS's senior vice president for higher education,
"there has been a growing consensus in the research community that real
language skills are almost never used in isolation." "People would say, A
student did fine on the test, he has a good vocabulary and knows the
grammar, but he can't take part in classroom discussion," she said.

Ms. Pearlman said she expects the new test "will revolutionize English
teaching," as instructors from Beijing to Bamako will need to integrate
students' reading, writing, listening, and speaking skills. Students
around the world already put great efforts into preparing for the Toefl,
said William Grabe, a professor of English at Northern Arizona University
and a member of a committee of scholars who advise ETS on the test. "We've
tried to engineer the test so that, in practicing for it, they're learning
skills they actually need at university. We thought that's pretty clever."

But some people who work with foreign students say they fear the new
emphasis on speaking ability will put Asian students, in particular, at a
disadvantage because their English teachers tend to focus on reading and
writing skills at the expense of speech. The Associated Press on Sunday
quoted an official at Kaplan, the test-preparation company, as saying that
"we're all kind of thinking this is going to be more of a challenge to
Asian students." For the first time, students taking the test will speak
answers into a microphone. The digitally recorded responses will be graded
by panels of three to six examiners. While the examiners are currently
located in the United States, an ETS official said the organization
intends to train and employ English-speaking evaluators in other parts of
the world too.

ETS has been working on a major revision of the Toefl for about a decade.
It has sponsored considerable research into the acquisition and use of
English in higher education. To better understand the English spoken at
colleges, the group assembled a database of 12 million samples of academic
lectures, texts, and casual conversations. Ms. Pearlman said that the
introduction of the revised test was made possible by the rapid growth in
broadband Internet connections, which allows spoken answers to be
transmitted to examiners easily and cheaply, instead of requiring
examiners to travel to numerous testing locations.

More than 2,000 nonnative English-speaking students were scheduled to take
the exam at locations in the United States on Saturday, and the revised
test is scheduled to be introduced in most parts of the world by next
summer. The change to a Web-based exam will also allow administrators to
gradually expand the number of sites where the test is given from about
600 today to 3,000 in a few years, according to ETS. Mr. Grabe said the
new test would "really give universities the information they need to make
better decisions" in recruiting foreign students.

Copyright  2005 by The Chronicle of Higher Education

More information about the Lgpolicy-list mailing list