The New Michigan ECPE Speaking Test
by Michael Reid

In June 2009 a completely new format for the University of Michigan ECPE speaking test will come on line. The older one-on-one interview consisting of little more than personal introductions and a topic discussion is to be ditched in favour of a more complex five-stage activity involving two candidates and two examiners which will last for between 25 and 35 minutes. For both students and teachers this poses a range of challenges. Here we want to review the different stages of the new speaking test and highlight some of the points that teachers and students will have to bear in mind.

Stage 1: Introductions and Small Talk (3 to 5 minutes)

The first stage is a familiar conversation about the students' lives, but with two twists, both of which appear in the following sentence from the official guidelines: "Candidates are expected to actively participate in the conversation by providing expanded responses and also by asking each other and [the] examiner questions."

The first twist – the demand that students ask each other questions – shouldn't be too difficult to deal with. As a guideline for students, the following formula springs to mind as a good one to follow: the interviewer asks Student A (let's call her Nafsica) a question, Nafsica answers it while Student B (let's call him Angelos) listens attentively and then asks Nafsica a question that will prompt her to expand her original answer.

The second twist is a twist of a completely different magnitude. The expectation that the candidates ask the examiner questions is a much more radical break with received ideas about the proper role of the interviewee. Unfortunately the Michigan web site does not state clearly where the new line of propriety is to be drawn. One imagines that the interviewees are not supposed to turn the tables on the examiners and begin grilling them about their free time activities and professional ambitions. Instead, if Angelos is asked about his hobbies and begins to talk about his passion for bird watching and the fact that he has recently seen some hoopoes on the grassy knoll beyond the boundaries of the city, he might then ask the examiner if she has ever seen a hoopoe or felt the joy of seeing such a rare bird for the first time after long days spent motionless and silent in a hideout.

Students will have to practise coming up with simple questions that examiners can answer briefly. This will enable them to fulfil their new role while also allowing the examiners to fulfil their obligation to keep their contribution to the conversation to a minimum.

Stage 2: Summarizing and Recommending (5-7 minutes)

After three to five minutes the initial "small talk" comes to an end and the new four-stage oral activity begins. In its essence the activity is all too familiar: discussing four options in order to come to an agreement about the most preferable. But in the new ECPE speaking test this familiar idea attains a new level of complexity.

The example task given on the Michigan web site involves choosing between four candidates for the post of high school science teacher. Each student is given a sheet of paper with brief notes about two of the four candidates.

Here we reprint one of the sample sheets on the web site.

Candidate 2 Information Sheet
Hiring A High School Science Teacher

Jessica Peters
The following is a list of some of Ms. Peters' personal characteristics and comments made by her co-workers.
4 years experience as laboratory technician
Recently graduated with science teaching certification
2003 "Employee of the Year" Award
Good presentation skills
Experience with newest technology
No experience with high school students

Robert Barton
The following is a list of some of Mr. Barton's personal characteristics and comments made by students and teachers at your school.
20 years teaching English at your school
Conducts training courses for teachers
Also qualified to teach science
Interesting classroom lessons
Organizes many field trips

The candidates have to take it in turns presenting the information about their two options after having read through the notes on their sheet. Apparently, two to three minutes are allocated for this preliminary reading, which is more than enough time if the notes are as brief as the samples. However, it will pay for students to practise thinking a little about the notes before describing the options. In the case of Robert Barton, for instance, it pays to know that he is qualified to teach science before mentioning that he has been working as an English teacher. The student who has made a mental note of this will then be in a position to put together a longer and more interesting sentence beginning, perhaps, with the word "Although". It might be helpful for students in this regard to know that there is no rule saying they have to deal with the points in the order given in the notes.

It is interesting that this stage is said to involve "summarizing", which for most people usually involves reducing a longer text to a shorter one. But with only six brief points for each of the two options and with nearly two minutes to fill, there seems to be little call for summarizing. There is certainly no hint that there may be points that it would be better not to mention. Consequently, instead of summarizing, students will have to expand the notes into a well-formed description and do so without repeating too much of the input.

Another issue here is the question of whether it is acceptable for students to include expressions of opinion in their presentations. One can imagine Angelos describing Robert Barton in the following way.

Angelos: The second candidate for the science post is Robert Barton. Now, he's got 20 years' teaching experience, which makes him a much more experienced teacher than Jessica Peters, but he's been teaching English all these years, which I guess pretty much rules him out. Well, it does say here that he's qualified to teach science, but if that's so, it seems weird that he's been teaching English all these years. That doesn't look so good.

Presumably students are not supposed to mix fact and opinion in this way, although there is no explicit instruction to this effect. Assuming that students are supposed to refrain from expressing opinions at this stage, it may be worthwhile having at least one exercise in class distinguishing between facts and opinions as a prelude to discussing and practising stage two.

Another feature of this stage that will require practice is note taking. The guidelines allow students to take notes while their partner is presenting her options. These notes will be useful in stage three, in which the students have to discuss each other's options without being able to see each other's information sheets. Preparing for this will require not only practising taking notes but also presenting the points for the options in such a way that the other student can take notes.

During this process the student taking notes might miss a point and want to ask the other person to repeat it or to explain what they mean. Presumably this will be perfectly acceptable.

As well as presenting their two options each student has to "make a recommendation to their partner of the best option from the two options presented by their partner." There is no specific instruction about how this is to be done, but it would seem sensible for Angelos to present his two options and end by asking his partner: "So which of those do you prefer, Nafsica?" allowing Nafsica to express her preference before presenting her two options.

Now the odd thing about these preferences is that they are promptly ignored. They don't move the conversation on in the way that would normally be expected. The point is simply to give Angelos an added reason to pay attention to Nafsica and vice versa. The preferences that matter for the following stages are those that the candidates have with regard to their own two options, not those of their partner. Hence the instruction that each candidate must also quietly think about which of their own two options they prefer.

Stage 3: Consensus Reaching (5-7 minutes)

As indicated, the students begin this stage by saying which of their own options they prefer, and then they must discuss those two preferences at some length in order to come to an agreement about which one they will finally recommend.

There could be an odd consequence of beginning with these preferences instead of just leaving the field wide open at the start. If Nafsica thinks the best option is one of Angelos's but this doesn't coincide with the choice Angelos makes between his two options, then Nafsica will lose the opportunity to argue for the option that she sincerely believes to be the best.

However, in practice, for some students the difficulty here will be finding enough to say to fill the five to seven minutes allocated for this stage. Students will need to practise discussing the two options in sufficient detail, bearing in mind that there is a total of 12 points that they can weigh up before coming to an agreement about the option they are going to support.

Another idea to help students extend their discussion is for them to talk about the situation (the job vacancy, for instance) and identify the criteria that candidates for that job ideally need to satisfy, briefly adding why those criteria are so important. For instance, what sort of person does the school need? What sort of person makes a good science teacher? In clarifying this they will also be clarifying the best justifications for the choice they are about to make.

Ideally, the five, six or seven minutes come to a close just as the two students reach unanimity, about which option is to be chosen from the short-list of two.

Stage 4: Presenting and Convincing (5-7 minutes)

The first response to the name of this stage might be: "Hey, didn't we do presenting and convincing already?" Well, yes, but now we must do it with the examiner. The decision made in stage three now has to be formally presented and justified to one of the examiners who will be playing an appropriate role (e.g. the principal of a school).

Students need to be aware that the examiners will swap roles at this point so that the examiner that was off to one side quietly marking now sits close to the students to play the allotted role in the last two stages.

For the first two to three minutes the students must prepare their formal presentation. This involves identifying and clarifying the four strongest reasons for their chosen option (reasons chosen from those that have already been discussed in some depth). Having clarified these, they must quickly decide how to allocate them so that they will have two reasons each to present. It will also be a good idea for the students to quickly agree on the order in which the points are to be presented.

It is worth noting that it is only in stage four that the two candidates can look at each other's information sheets (although there is probably no need now since they have their notes).

Having completed the planning stage, the students turn to the examiner and use the remaining two to four minutes to present their four arguments as persuasively as possible.

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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