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The New Michigan ECPE Speaking Test
by Michael Reid
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Stage 5: Justifying and Defending (5-7 minutes)

The last stage.

Having heard the arguments (again) the examiner is to "question the candidates about the decision they have made and about the reasons for that decision."
I imagine that this could be more of a challenge for examiners than for candidates, given the possibility that during the 20 minutes or so prior to stage five reasonably proficient students may have covered the ground so thoroughly that the examiner is left wondering what else could be said about the matter in hand.

It is also not inconceivable that one or two students might start to feel that the briefest of outlines provided by the notes is just too brief to sustain the discussion and so might start filling it in with details that they come up with. For instance, in the discussion of the four applicants for the science teaching post nothing may have been said about race, and the imaginative student for whom race is an issue may say that the recommended applicant, Jessica Peters, despite her rather WASPish name, is the only candidate who is black, which is a huge advantage because all the other teachers at the school are white and the racial mix of the teachers ought to reflect that of the pupils, which happen to be predominantly coloured.

That might sound ridiculous, but the information sheets come close to inviting students to start improvising in this way. Recall the first point in the notes about Robert Barton: "20 years teaching English at your school". If I (as an interviewee) am supposed to say this guy is a teacher at my school, am I not supposed to know more about him? Am I not supposed to know how good a teacher he is – how funny, how poetic he is and yet how stern with miscreants? And if I don't volunteer any extra information, would it not be perfectly natural for the other interviewee (perhaps also the interviewer?) later on to ask me to provide a few more details, given that I know the guy?

If imaginative students respond to these cues or even begin elaborating without them (and elaborate in a way that keeps the story intact and does not make the whole game unplayable), should the examiner in the interview just go with the flow and accept these unexpected revelations, or is she supposed to nip this in the bud and insist that the students stick to the facts explicitly stated in the 24 or so words that are printed on the sheet? Unfortunately, this is another area where we are left guessing.

Afterthoughts

Looking at the format for the new speaking test some of us may be thinking about what has happened to those traditional C2/proficiency-level topic discussions that we used to enjoy preparing for and which we assumed were the nub of an ECPE interview. It seems we must bid them farewell. This might be a benefit for some students who won't have to sit in the examination centre foyer before the speaking test worrying that they might be asked to talk about something complex like genetic engineering or about the many subtle influences of advertising.

It would be sad, though, if the decision made in Michigan to leave out the topic discussion were taken by teachers as a cue to spend less time discussing such topics in class. It would be very sad if speaking skills came to be seen as something that could be left until the end of the course when the new "multi-stage, semistructured task" could be practised in an intensive fashion over a two or three-week period. Instead, it is to be hoped that teachers will retain the traditional topic discussions as a classroom activity and will also spread interview practice throughout the course.

Teachers who want to take this approach will doubtless be on the lookout for ECPE course material that combines stimulating topic discussions and thorough preparation for the new speaking test, in addition to activities to bring students up to scratch in all the other skill areas. Such teachers will do well to consider the new ECPE Challenge course, published by Macmillan. ECPE Challenge is not only an unusually stimulating C1/C2 course book but also one that systematically takes students through each of the stages of the new ECPE speaking test.

Biodata

Michael Reid is a teacher, author of ECPE Challenge and contributor to www.fullspate.net

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