Further Trinity Lancaster Corpus research: Examiner strategies

This month saw a further development in the corpus analyses: the examiners. Let me introduce myself, my name is Cathy Taylor and I’m responsible for examiner training at Trinity and was very pleased to be asked to do some corpus research into the strategies the examiners use when communicating with the test takers.

In the GESE exams the examiner and candidate co-construct the interaction throughout the exam. The examiner doesn’t work from a rigid interlocutor framework provided by Trinity but instead has a flexible test plan which allows them to choose from a variety of questioning and elicitation strategies. They can then respond more meaningfully to the candidate and cover the language requirements and communication skills appropriate for the level. The rationale behind this approach is to reflect as closely as possible what happens in conversations in real life. Another benefit of the flexible framework is that the examiner can use a variety of techniques to probe the extent of the candidate’s competence in English and allow them to demonstrate what they can do with the language. If you’re interested more information can be found in Trinity’s speaking and listening tests: Theoretical background and research.

After some deliberation and very useful tips from the corpus transcriber, Ruth Avon, I decided to concentrate my research on the opening gambit for the conversation task at Grade 6, B1 CEFR. There is a standard rubric the examiner says to introduce the subject area ‘Now we’re going to talk about something different, let’s talk about…learning a foreign language.’  Following this, the examiner uses their test plan to select the most appropriate opening strategy for each candidate. There’s a choice of six subject areas for the conversation task listed for each grade in the Exam information booklet.

Before beginning the conversation examiners have strategies to check that the candidate has understood and to give them thinking time. The approaches below are typical.

  1. E: ‘Let’s talk about learning a foreign language…’
    C: ‘yes’
    E:Do you think English is an easy language?’ 
  1. E: ‘Let ‘s talk about learning a foreign language’
    C: ‘It’s an interesting topic’
    E: ‘Yes uhu do you need a teacher?
  1. It’s very common for the examiner to use pausing strategies which gives thinking time:
    E: ‘Let ‘s talk about learning a foreign language erm why are you learning English?’
    C: ‘Er I ‘m learning English for work erm I ‘m a statistician.’

There are a range of opening strategies for the conversation task:

  • Personal questions: ‘Why are you learning English?’ ‘Why is English important to you?’
  • More general question: ‘How important is it to learn a foreign language these days?’
  • The examiner gives a personal statement to frame the question: ‘I want to learn Chinese (to a Chinese candidate)…what do I have to do to learn Chinese?’
  • The examiner may choose a more discursive statement to start the conversation: ‘Some people say that English is not going to be important in the future and we should learn Chinese (to a Chinese candidate).’
  • The candidate sometimes takes the lead:
  • Examiner: ‘Let’s talk about learning a foreign language’
  • Candidate: ‘Okay, okay I really want to learn a lo = er learn a lot of = foreign languages’

A salient feature of all the interactions is the amount of back channelling the examiners do e.g. ‘erm, mm’  etc. This indicates that the examiner is actively listening to the candidate and encouraging them to continue. For example:

E: ‘Let’s talk about learning a foreign language, if you want to improve your English what is the best way?
C: ‘Well I think that when you see programmes in English’
E: ‘mm
C: ‘without the subtitles’
E: ‘mm’
C: ‘it’s a good way or listening to music in other language
E: ‘mm
C: ‘it’s a good way and and this way I have learned too much

When the corpus was initially discussed it was clear that one of the aims should be to use the findings for our examiner professional development programme.  Using this very small dataset we can develop worksheets which prompt examiners to reflect on their exam techniques using real examples of examiner and candidate interaction.

My research is in its initial stages and the next step is to analyse different strategies and how these validate the exam construct. I’m also interested in examiner strategies at the same transition point at the higher levels, i.e. grade 7 and above, B2, C1 and C2 CEFR. Do the strategies change and if so, how?

It’s been fascinating working with the corpus data and I look forward to doing more in the future.

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