New Directions in English Language Assessment Annual Conference, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, 22-23 October 2018
By Neilane Liew
When my friend and fellow-Team Leader, Maruthi, asked if I’d be interested in co-presenting at the New Directions Conference in Kuala Lumpur, I initially balked. Quite frankly, the thought of preparing for a conference, filled with very clever folks from the world of language assessment, was leaving me cold. Sure, I listen very intently, every day, to people talking. I listen for 15 minutes, analysing their English fluency, grammar, lexis and pronunciation. In those 15 minutes, I tease out the language that I know someone has lurking deep within. What did I possibly know about the ins and outs of language assessment? I’m just a humble Examiner Trainer. Look, Dr Vaddapalli, this is all very well for you, with your Phd in Phonics, but me, I’m not so sure. Then Maruthi mentioned the magic word “accent”. We would present a paper on the effect of accent on how pronunciation is assessed. It’s an area of assessment that gets little attention and we would consider whether hearing an accent, or maybe something that isn’t quite Received Pronunciation or Mid-town America, makes any difference. Anyone who knows me, knows I have a penchant for all things “the way people talk and the different sounds they make”.
Most people meet a stranger and they are sizing them up for nationality, social class or how many twitter feeds they have. Not me. I’m waiting for them to open their mouths, so I can exclaim “South Carolina, but with a touch of upper Volta. Did you migrate from Prague as a youngster?” Look at Maruthi and me. I’m a native speaker and Maruthi… isn’t, and yet we speak essentially the same, don’t we? We both have accents. Does it matter? Does where we come from affect the way we speak English and does the way we speak matter to someone being able to understand us? And what does this all mean for how language assessors rate the voices they hear every day? I began to get excited at how this all works. Over coffee, “global intelligibility” “stimulated recall”, and “prosodic features” were terms we bandied about like two old dons down in the common room, before lecturing new freshman in Linguistics and Phonics 101. We discussed getting willing participants for our research, methodology this and that, and suddenly the iconic Petronas Towers began to feel a whole lot closer.
Every year The British Council hold the New Directions in English Language conference, giving new insights into what is happening in the world of English language assessment globally. All that is new and happening in language assessment is showcased at these conferences. This year it was Malaysia’s turn to host and the themes revolved around proficiency standards or frameworks (“tests” or “benchmarks of achievement” to the layperson) local, national and international, and how they relate to, shape and inform teaching and assessment. How to best serve the needs of local language learners is an important consideration. How important are standards in measuring the quality of the outcomes of learning a language? Do we need standards to ensure those outcomes to be the “benchmark” that is desired? But as always, a whole plethora of themes are explored and this gave some of our British Council colleagues a chance to show off some of the projects and research they had been working on. As always, the underlying impetus is to look at the tests we currently have and the extent to which they are meeting the needs of the test taker. This is what underlies the conference; the strive to do things better!
I never realised there was so much to explore in the role of being a language assessor, a job many of us do day in and day out. My examining colleagues chose to consider some of the finer aspects of their role with investigations into several different areas. Whilst IELTS examining may seem pretty straightforward for those who deliver the test, its implications are far from straightforward and, as any item writer will know, designing and indeed delivering the “perfect test” is no easy task. Apart from Maruthi and me, two of our colleagues in Beijing, Dylan Burton and Stuart Goodsir chose areas of the test for special consideration and research. Dylan focussed on how assessors feel about what they perceive to be inauthentic responses by candidates to the examiner’s questions and Stuart Goodsir looked at the effect of interaction by assessor and test-taker during the initial greeting and meeting before the test even begins. Looking further afield, our own Sheryl Cooke, Judith Fairbairn and Richard Spiby looked at a test development project in China, involving Aptis for Teens, and exploring interesting areas such as interactive competence in a computer-delivered test. Evan Simpson gave a lively talk on just how well Chinese IELTS test takers are doing these days, with suggestions for how to keep on improving. Finally, Trevor Breakspear and his team of co-presenters looked at the challenges of introducing a digitally based speaking component for the Chinese middle school English exam.
But I haven’t forgotten the other stars that were also there! New Directions always attracts a who’s who from the world of language assessment and this year was no exception. Gracing the lectern at the grand hall were stalwarts such as the British Council’s own Barry O’Sullivan. With more than 100 publications under his belt and a leading light in the field of Language assessment, Barry looked at how language tests can be better fitted to local and personal needs. Other noteworthy speakers took their turn, all experts in their own fields. Geoff Stead from Babel, the innovative app for language learning, looked at the design of self-administered digital assessment applications and the implications for test takers and human assessors. Dr Carol Spöttl, head of University of Innsbruck’s language testing group investigated the reforming of national exams in Austria. Professor Han Baocheng, Deputy Director of the National Research Center for Foreign Language Education in Beijing Foreign Studies University (BFSU) delved into how we define language proficiency. There was a talk on assessing receptive skills and the impact of education reform from Dr Hanan Khalifa, Head of Research & International Education from Cambridge Assessment English and Dr Souba Rethinasamy , Associate Professor at the Faculty of Language and Communication in Universiti Malaysia Sarawak, looked at bridging the gap between academic English and workplace communication. Plenty of breakout sessions on a wide variety of topics followed, from virtual reality in the classroom, using non-native speakers as the voices of the listening tests and considering paired interactions as a more authentic way of assessing speaking ability.
I just wish there had been more time to savour all the talks on offer. But one thing is for sure. New Directions continues to grow and attract new names and more innovative research every year and it is a wonderful forum for those of us at the cutting-edge of language assessment to discover what is being done and to take those innovations back with us to our respective workplaces. Here’s to 2019!