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Assessing Speaking at Basic Level

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Devender Singh

Asstt.Professor in English

Ram Lal Anand College (Eve.)

University of Delhi

The development of oral proficiency varies from person to person, place to place and of course from time-to-time. Basic skills always develop much before advanced skills, but setting a scale for basic level has always been an avoidable problem. When a teacher is asked to evaluate learners' progress, which is not as easy as testing grammar or vocabulary with pen and paper test, he/she feels quite uncertain as about how it can be done with the learners having diverse background and uneven progress. Before designing a test and its methods, the teachers have to face at least the following questions-

i. What is basic level?

ii. Does this basic level remain same for the native and the second language learners?

iii. Which method of testing is the most appropriate one?

iv. What are the requirements for making a test valid, reliable, and authentic?

v. What sort of preparation does a teacher need?

The most frequent problems for teachers start occurring when the learners have different levels of linguistic proficiency. Before evaluation, the teacher needs an authentic definition of the proficiency level to be tested. According to one authentic reliable source, basic level in English language is "A simplified form of English limited to 850 selected words, included for international communication." Since August 2008, I have been the part of English Language Proficiency Course teaching team. This Course was designed at the Institute of Lifelong Learning, University of Delhi for achieving basic and intermediate levels in some specified learners. From my experience of teaching English Language Proficiency Course, after discussion on this issue with many experts in this field, and through the reference of relevant literature , I have realized that the definition of the Basic-level English given in some standardized English language dictionaries is accepted equally and widely. According to Macmillan English Dictionary for Advanced Learners (International Student Edition, 2006.), the Basic English is "A simple form of English consisting of 850 words, as well as some international and scientific words...for use as an international language." This definition covers three aspects of the level it defines i.e. word limit, range of the words, and their use. But, in fact, the problem with this definition is that it is the generalization of what the European linguists and language teachers have experienced. The conditions for basic-level proficiency in English language may be different in India and other such countries where English is either second or foreign language.

Since I have been a teacher of English language for at least for four years, I have noticed that a person having knowledge of just 500 word of a language can achieve the basic level of that language. After meeting with my students in language teaching classes, I, like other language teachers, have also felt the need of assessment. But the problem is that there is no such thing or formula that can be used for definite test of general oral ability. Grammar, vocabulary, and pronunciation all fall under the category of general proficiency. However, the results of studies and practical experience have been very helpful in setting the scales for those whose home language is other than English. The particular scale that I have found suitable for my students includes fluency, grammar, accuracy, intelligibility, appropriateness, adequacy of vocabulary for purpose, relevance and adequacy of content . This scale for oral assessment ranges from little knowledge and evidence of meaningful utterances (graded as Basic-1) to quite fluent, structured, intelligible pronunciation accent, and occasional grammatical errors (graded as Basic-2), and in the colleges of the University of Delhi, this scale can be very useful because more than 60 per cent of our students belong to either rural or sub-urban area. Most of them have studied English language till 10th or 12th class. Therefore, most of them do have the competence of basic-level English, but the medium of study upto school level becomes a great barrier in oral performance in English even at basic level. Being the part of the ELPC team is an exciting experience and more exciting is my meetings with the learners at three different centres in three different roles i.e. as a coordinator, teacher, and assessor. Through two mid-terms and one final assessment, it has become very clear to me that assessing speaking, not only at basic level but at any level, needs certain criteria rather than marks for performance. For example, some speaking tasks should be designed for the learners on the basis of the work done in language proficiency classes. Role-play, pair work, information gap exchange, narrating a picture story, discussion, basic-level social etiquettes, etc. can be very useful in assessing oral proficiency. I as an assessor generally design a test including questions on general introduction, role-play, pair work, and describing a picture. This method has proved to be the most suitable and convenient one. The most positive part of this exam is that it gives time to the learners to gather their courage and to get themselves out of exam-phobia. After general introduction, the learners have a chance to shift their attention from the fear of speaking before the assessors to their immediate roles. Replying to the questions or asking questions normalizes and enables them to convert their competence into desired performance. The task of saying a few sentences about the picture given to them proves to be extremely helpful in compelling them for using their unstructured competence into simple structured sentences. This sort of activity awakens the learners' creativity, and simultaneously enhances the level of confidence specially when the assessor appreciates the learners for transforming their imagination into structured and appropriate utterances.

A test of speaking ability is usually an achievement test, and in cases of a foreign



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