Saudi performance on the IELTS and TOEFL iBT

According to publicly available information on the Cambridge Esol and ETS websites, Saudi’s seem to perform best in the speaking skill.

In both exams, listening comes second, though a little behind on average compared to speaking.

In IELTS, Saudi’s do worst in writing, but in the TOEFL iBT they do worst in reading.

So basically, reading and writing are the weakest skills.

What’s odd (in my opinion), is that I thought that as the TOEFL iBT is online, typing might be an issue. It seem’s not based on the statistics available.

Fundamentally, what the figures (for 2014) show, is that speaking is way ahead in terms of average performance, whereas listening, reading and writing are clustered closely together.

It’s difficult to read too much into these numbers, but one thing that policy makers should start focussing on, is the development of reading and writing abilities in the long-run, especially for those who are planning to travel overseas for further study or work.

 

 

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Are universities around the world selling themselves short in order to gain overseas students?

I’ve worked now in Saudi Arabia for a few years (10 at the time of writing) and work within a university context.

Over the years, I’ve met a lot of students coming back from overseas, with either a Masters qualification, or even a PhD. When in discussion with some, I’ve been taken aback by the level of their English (you assume they’ve written their assignments in English) and some (meaning many) at PhD level seem unable to converse fluently about their particular area of research.

There are even rumours of individuals who are ready to ‘help’ overseas students with their writing. There is a lot of money being exchanged to ‘edit, rewrite and prepare students for their viva.

The fact of the matter is, is that you are left wondering what’s going on. Are there two sets of assessment criteria? One for locals and another for the more lucrative overseas students?

The reality is this, that the reputations some countries have built over the generations, are at risk for the sake of a few dollars/pounds. If things don’t change soon, we are going to have a large number of ‘graduates’  with advanced qualifications which are not worth the paper they’re written on – in fact there are too many of them already.

Is anyone listening?

Teaching very very weak students how to write

picture source: emiller27.wordpress.com

How many times have you ended up with a class of students who seem to be well below the level required for a particular class?

They cannot seem to comprehend what you say (listening and vocabulary knowledge?), and are unable to respond when you speak to them. They seem to lack basic words, and yet you have to teach them how to write a 5 paragraph essay!

You have a course schedule with a number of units to cover within a finite period of time. You cannot at this point resort to teaching them grammar and improving their lexis.  Admittedly the latter is easier to do than the former.

They also seem to have a problem when it comes to brainstorming, and seem to lack ideas. May be the ideas are there for a restricted list of topics, as they have probably not had to talk about societal issues. I’m assuming that if ideas exist, they are unable to convey these as those ideas can only be conveyed in their L1.

Strategy so far

I’ve been focussing on ensuring that the students internalise the framework of an essay. What I mean is, the idea of having introductions, body paragraphs and a conclusion, and the sub-levels for these important pillars of an essay, e.g. a hook, thesis statement and supporting ideas.

In every class, we have a new topic or topics, and a brainstorming session. This is followed by trying to fit the ideas into the framework. Which of course is then followed by adding meat to this skeleton. This is a good way to introduce new vocabulary. Throughout this period, I’ve been acting ‘all enthusiastic’ as if I’m some kind of football team manager/ motivator.

In addition to the above, I’ve come to the conclusion, that in order to get the attention of the students, we need to brainstorm topics that they can relate to, or are close to their hearts.

I’ve covered topics like ‘finding a marriage partner’, ‘why a certain famous person is famous’ and even how to make ‘rice and meat’ also known as kabsa! I’ve been amazed at the attention the students give, and how familiar, interesting topics engage them. You can see their eyes light-up and of course the smirks when I try to introduce some ‘silly’ topic.

How are we progressing? Well, the prognosis is, that irrespective of how well the student understands the framework, or likes the topic under discussion, if the message cannot be conveyed, which requires a reasonable level of language, then the chances of success are low. Ultimately, the reader needs to understand the message being conveyed. Being able to piece together accurate sentences with appropriate vocabulary is a necessity. Even part accurate will do. But we are even below that. You know how serious word order problems, along with inappropriate vocabulary can just totally confuse the reader.

I’m sure there are ways that others deal with such difficulties, but when you are teaching a 2-3 credit hour course over a semester, it can be difficult to do anything extra. I have asked them to revise certain tenses they may have studied as part of a grammar course in the past. But should I be following this up? There’s little time.

All of the above obviously brings up issues relating to teaching, learning and assessment issues. Issues that I’ll try to discuss in the future. My final thoughts link in to these issues.

Final thoughts: Who let these students pass the previous courses? They could not possibly have passed looking at their current performance. What were they being taught before and how? What kind of assessment was going on, and using what standard? Is the context a major problem, and do we need to take a closer look at this?

All the best.

Are book publishers killing teacher creativity and student learning potential?

Okay, so how many of you teaching English are using a text from a major
publisher? And how many of you seriously think that you, let alone your students are particularly enjoying the topics under the microscope? I mean, how does someone sitting in a dusty office in the middle of no-where decide what our students are going to learn and talk about. A few years back, I was teaching the topic of spanking to a group of Saudi students. Of course, this had nothing to do with their life experience, and the topic went down like a lead balloon! It
didn’t make for much interesting conversation.

 The other day, I started a discussion with my students about the latest smart phones. I mentioned the iphone, Samsung Galaxy, the HTC desire, the latest Blackberry Bold and a few other ‘in-phones’.

The students ‘pounced’ on the chance to talk about their phones memory size, whether Android beat IOS, and the various functionalities of the phones concerned. It goes without saying, that many of us are also ‘into’ these kinds of ‘in-things’. It was an opportunity to justify positions for choosing particular phones, and of course the resulting argumentation resulted in a lot of ‘talk’ – which of course was the desired outcome.

I find without reservation that most book publishers are way behind on interesting content. At times it feels like we’re stuck within a straight jacket that just does not give us the freedom to be creative. You have to focus on the content so that students perform well on the ‘achievement exam’.

The discussion on smart phones, fitted into the broad categories of technology, communication, computers etc. etc. Themes which are sometimes separated or combined as main topics within books.

My proposal is that within a teaching context, a collection of main ideas or topics should be decided by the teachers, and then teachers left to build whatever content they want around it – subject to the proficiency level of their students. Yes, build the content ourselves. We’re teachers, we’re meant to be
creative!

Collect the content that’s interesting to both sides (teacher and student) and start learning using more interesting content.

Okay, now I can hear many of you saying that if you have ten teachers, producing or acquiring their own content, doing their own thing, in their own class we’re going to end up with a bit of a ‘biryani’ or should I say ‘mix-up’.

If we take the example of travelling, whether you discuss the Bahamas, having a good time at a beach front, a trip to Tokyo or even Dhaka in Bangladesh, the
vocabulary used is going to be quite similar. The lexis students use will be very close.

All content areas have similar core vocabulary. No matter what you talk, read, write or listen about, the same words will be repeated across the classes, again and again.

The main topic or area acts as the starting point for creating content. The specifics of the content are in the teachers and students hands.

To summarise, teachers should have the freedom to choose whatever content they deem appropriate, look for content that is relevant and useful for students, taking into account student experience in their lives, and importantly items which are interesting and current.

Back to work – A new academic year begins

 

“First, thank you to whoever took this photograph. The black and white backdrop, the papers on the desk, the telephone. They all nicely depict how I would describe my desk, and my day! A lot of things to think about as the new academic year begins, new challenges, re-visiting ideas and looking through my increasingly longer ‘articles-to-write’ list. Of course in the new world of professional networking, it’s imperative to ‘link-up’ with people who share the same passions, wherever they are in our increasingly intertwined close-knit world. It’s going to be fun and I’m looking forward to the ride. Have a good year fellow educators. And for the rest, if you’re not an active student, why not think about learning something new?”