Friday, July 07, 2006


This week I've been holding conversation tests in many of my classes. On paper, this is to make my grading look more objective, and it keeps the bureaucrats happy. For the students, it is something to aim for, and causes them to take me more seriously. This is a society based on tests. Everything has a test, and if it does not, it is not worth anything.

But the real, secret purpose of the test is to provide me with a stick for the days when the carrot is not working. Another, more valid reason, is that sometimes during these tests I am surprised by a quiet student who has made real progress, unnoticed in the hubbub of class.

In fact the test is worth only a little of the students' final grade, and although I tell them this, they really don't seem to get it. They take the test VERY, VERY SERIOUSLY. When they sit down in front of me, two at a time, and I ask them to have a conversation about one of the topics they have been practicing all semester, they are horribly nervous. There is a lot of sweaty hand-wiping and self-hugging, and quite frequent moments of blind panic in which all English is forgotten and they stare at each other, helplessly stagestruck. (When that happens I stop the timer, laugh at them, and tell them to BREATHE. They're generally fine the second time.)

But the biggest problem with the tests is boredom. Not for the students, but for me. I want them to show me how well they can do, but when I am testing all day there comes a point where my attention starts to drift, and once that starts it's almost impossible to get it back properly. I start listening to each conversation totally determined, but by thirty seconds or so in I am staring fixedly at my grading paper, apparently listening carefully, but actually my brain has taken flight and is somewhere else entirely. Then the timer goes off and I do a little internal jump, frown at the paper with my pen poised, and in my head rewind the tape of the conversation I've just been totally oblivious to. Then I tell them their grade and add a comment or two and some advice, and ask the students if they're happy with that. If they want another go they can have it, with a different partner, but almost nobody takes advantage of this offer. They're happy to have it over with.

This tape-rewinding technique doesn't always work, however. Towards the end of the day I occasionally find myself staring at the paper and making up numbers and comments based on what I remember those particular students doing in class during semester. Then I ask the students, as I always do, if they think the grade is fair. I've never had anybody say no, although I've had the occasional delighted, '"REALLY?" which has made me wonder whether I drifted off during a pause that lasted the length of the test.

(I have just established myself as a very bad teacher, haven't I? Sometimes it is true. But how many times can YOU hear - What is your hobby? - Sleeping. How about you? - I like to shopping and watching TV - without drifting off?)

On Tuesday during these interminable tests, one of the students was making a lot of horrible mistakes. Almost all of them were things I'd noticed and corrected during semester. The two most grating mistakes, which I spend a lot of time on, were wrong forms or usages my students seem to all pick up somewhere (where? WHERE?) and really LEARN. These mistakes are incredibly hard to eradicate. One goes like this:

Q. How many families do you have?
A. I have six families. My father, my mother, my grandmother, my old brother and my dog.

And the other one goes like this;

Q. What do you like music?
A. I like music hip-hop.

And yes, I know, that first one has more than one problem, but the second comes in various incarnations, too: What do you like food? and Who do you like soccer player? and so on. During semester I correct both, often, and provide lots of practice with correct forms, and everybody, more or less, starts to get it right. Unfortunately the correct forms only persist until the test, when panic takes over and they revert to making the same mistakes all over again. After the test I take great care to undo the damage the test did by reminding them AGAIN, at which point they all smack themselves on their foreheads and wonder, as I did, how they could have got something so simple wrong.

So ... where was I ...? Oh, yes, this particular student somehow managed to make almost every utterance into one of these common mistakes, or something like them. It was painful to listen to, and I was having trouble restraining myself from jumping down his throat and pulling his vocal chords out with my bare hands to ensure that he would never again inflict his version of the English language on my delicate ears.

But then I happened to look up as he shifted in his chair and the movement revealed the front of his t-shirt, which said, in large letters,


And yes, I'm sorry, that was the punchline (if you can call it that) of this story. Not a very good one, I agree, but it seemed funny at the time. A little light relief goes a long way at times like that.

After the test I had a little conversation with the student.

"What does your t-shirt say?" I asked. He looked surprised and tugged at his front, trying to read it.

"Never mind," I said. Apparently he hadn't noticed he was wearing a t-shirt with English on it, in his English class.

I then spent the rest of the day horribly distracted, dreaming up suitable t-shirt slogans for the rest of the test-takers. My favourite one, if I say so myself, was for the student who answered questions in this way:

Dogs? Yes, I like.


I went to concert. I enjoyed.


I don't have a car. I want.

I have designed the perfect t-shirt for him. His t-shirt would say:



Lucy said...

both t-shirt punchlines made me laugh :)

Lia said...

I like the punchlines, too.

Re the testing - did you ever try conversing with them yourself? I remember from my language class that the oral test was each student having a conversation with the teacher. Two advantages - gives them cues to correct their own mistakes, instead of having other beginners reinforce the wrong usages (and they would get those cues if ever conversing with a native English speaker, so I don't think it's cheating), and it would keep you from getting bored. You could sneak all sorts of strange things into the conversation.

Wiccachicky said...

Oh I love it!!! I remember all the crazy English T-shirts in Japan. None of them ever seemed to be grammatically correct at all. I think my favorite was one my host sister bought with a picture of a kitten on it that said, "Cute pussy I like". I didn't have the heart to try to explain it to her.

Badaunt said...

Lia: I have tried that, but the logistics make it impossible. When I have them conversing in pairs, it halves the time necessary. It takes the full 90 minutes to test 26 students as it is. Any more than that and it goes over to two weeks, and I couldn't really justify three or four weeks if I tested them individually, which is how long it would take. The semester is only 14 weeks long!

Lucy and Wiccachicky: The t-shirts here are really amazing sometimes. You see things that make you cringe, or laugh, or both. When students wear them to their English classes it doesn't seem to occur to them that they might mean something to their English teacher. I will never understand this. They're so shocked when I read them aloud and laugh!

The Editter said...

Or how about:

This sentence no verb.