The IELTS, TOEFL, TOEIC, OPI English proficiency are designed to gauge a person’s skills using English as a language. Much emphasis is placed on the speaking element of these tests by our students. That is because they discover that reading, writing, and even listening at times can be studied on their own. However, one element many lack is the confidence to use English when conversing. In my own experience over the years, I have repeatedly encountered people who dread the speaking tasks of these tests. That is because despite having knowledge of lexis, structure, and pronunciation, they find it difficult to put it all together when speaking. So, they come to us for help. Some ways that you can help them face and do better in the speaking tests follow.
1. These Tests Are Not Typically Pass or Fail Tests.
One of the biggest misunderstandings I have observed among students is the idea that they will ‘fail’ the ‘test.’ And why not—they have been ingrained with this concept since the time of early childhood education. When students go to school, they must have the ‘right’ answers or they will not ‘pass’ the quiz, test, or subject. They bring this tension with them to our classrooms. But the major players assign a band (IELTS), scores (TOEFL, TOEIC), or ratings (OPIc), without expressing pass or fail.
Connotations associated with the word ‘test’ perhaps raise a red flag in learners that creates instant cringing. What they do not realize is that these tests do not fail people. They ‘gauge’ people’s skills by scores, levels, or ratings but are not pass or fail. Teach students that these are not pass-fail tests and you will almost certainly help alleviate some of that tension they have.
2. There Are No Right Or Wrong Answers, Only Answers.
Another way you can help reduce the stress of these tests is to get them to breathe when giving answers. You can help build confidence by reassuring them that there are no right or wrong answers—there are only answers.
For example, is there a correct answer to the request, ‘describe your hometown’? Does your favourite colour have a correct answer? Does asking their opinion about billboard advertising in their city have a correct answer? Can a question about their family members have a correct or incorrect response?
There is no answer key for these questions. Test examiners will not conduct research to determine if their favourite colour is red or blue then mark them wrong for not saying the right colour. By helping learners understand this concept, you can help them de-stress. That is also why students must understand the best way to prepare for conversation is to be comfortable with conversation.
3. Conversation Skills Must Be Developed First.
The best foundation for an English proficiency test is to be proficient in the language. Test preparation classes are not the time to begin improving English. That should have already happened in regular ESL lessons. Sometimes students do not understand this point. This is your opportunity to explain that they need to have a certain level of English skill before venturing a test.
One way you can help is by getting them to realize the value of ESL conversation classes. Having the opportunity to talk about a variety of topics will go a long way in helping them gain confidence long before preparing for the test. Granted, we do not always teach in ideal environments. Some places we work may simply focus on the numbers. But we can explain this to students for their benefit.
4. Test Preparation Classes Focus on Strategies, Not Improving English.
When a student arrives in your class wanting to prepare for an English proficiency test, it is ideally because they are ready for it. There should already be a base of English from which to expand from. A test class cannot possibly incorporate every potential subject or perspective that might arise in a speaking test. The people behind these tests make sure they are not compromised. Therefore, the only way to prepare students is by teaching them what the speaking test entails, then practice, practice, practice.
We can explain that the idea of a speaking test preparation class is to equip them with strategies to successfully navigate the speaking part of the test. We can approach the conversation from the aspect that it could save them time, money, effort, and disappointment if they build their English skills first.
5. Teach Them To Speak to Examiners as Conversation Partners.
Students sometimes view the examiners as opponents to getting their goals. That may have some substance to it, but learners can gain more confidence by viewing them as conversation partners. True, sometimes the examiners are a little solemn and distracted but students can still try to enjoy the opportunity.
They can imagine they are talking to a friend or striking up a friendly conversation with someone they just met on a plane. However you choose to instruct them on this, students will benefit from the change in perspective.
Part of what we do as ESL teachers is help people prepare for English proficiency tests. It comes with the territory. Many students you meet will have anxiety about the speaking elements in particular. When you encounter students who are concerned about the speaking parts, you can help put them at ease with these tips. They do not need to fear speaking tests if they have been properly prepared to manage them. Changes in perspectives, having foundational English skills, and strategies will help immensely. With practice, students can view them as simply conversation times. Who knows, they may even learn to look forward to this part of the tests.