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Language Skills and Secondary Education in India

Sajit M Mathews (sajitsj@gmail.com) is a research scholar at the Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur.

English is the primary “link language” in India. Given the importance of the language, various Indian boards of education, including the Central Board of Secondary Education, have adapted to global changes in language pedagogy by using task-based language teaching. However, not much attention is paid to making the process of assessment task-based. Moreover, little effort is put into assessing listening and speaking skills of students.

In the Indian context, English is an important “link language” used in almost all fields like academics, business, science, etc, during our times. It is a second language to most Indians, and even first language to a few. The importance of this language is clearly visible from the prominence given to its teaching and learning from early childhood to adult professional education in India. Accepting the crucial role English plays in the Indian context, the National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT) in its position paper on teaching of English says: “The level of introduction of English is now a matter of political response to people’s aspirations rather than an academic or feasibility issue …” (NCERT 2005: 38).

Task-based Language Teaching

Given the importance of English, Indian boards of education—including the Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) —have adapted to the global changes in language pedagogy by using task-based language teaching (TBLT) in classrooms and textbooks. According to Richards and Rodgers (2001), TBLT is an “approach based on the use of tasks as the core unit of planning and instruction in language teaching” (p 223). Here, task denotes any pedagogic activity that involves the meaningful use of language in a given context. Most definitions of TBLT are centred on its aims, which directs focus towards communication of meaning as opposed to grammatical form, closeness of tasks to those of the real world, primacy of task completion, assessment based on task outcome, freedom to use all the available resources (including the use of mother tongue), presence of information/reasoning/opinion gap, contextual language use, and authentic materials (Ellis 2003, 2009; Long 2016; Skehan 1998; Willis and Willis 2007). What is important for our purposes is that the use of TBLT caters to language acquisition through promotion of language use in context, negotiation of meaning, and focus on communication (Ellis 2003). Thus, TBLT teaches language through its use in meaningful contexts.

The present CBSE curriculum for English language is skill-based, activity-based, and learner-centred (CBSE 2017). It aims at language development for acquisition of knowledge through a task-based approach. This article analyses Class X textbooks by assuming them to be representative of CBSE textbooks in general. Interact in English, CBSE’s three-textbook package for Class X is task-based as per the definitions given above. It aims to improve learners’ communicative competence to promote language skills for professional, social, and academic needs. They are designed to help develop reading, writing, speaking and listening skills through the use of specific tasks. The question worth asking is whether the assessment, a very important part of pedagogy, is task-based and skill-balanced. This question is extremely important because if assessment is not in line with curriculum guidelines, the whole pedagogical exercise can become futile.

Language Assessment in CBSE

Former language assessment models used decontextualised and discreet items to assess knowledge of language structures in line with the pedagogy of the times (Norris 2016; Ellis 2009). But once TBLT was established and began to be used widely, tasks began to be used in language assessments as well. Thus TBLA emerged out of a sheer need to align assessment with curriculum (Norris 2016).

TBLA evaluates meaningful communicative performances elicited using goal-directed and meaning-focused language tasks (Brindley 1994). It promotes one of the most important virtues of a language test, which is “validity.” This is the ability of a test to test what it intends to test (Ellis 2003). TBLA also positively influences teaching and learning processes by informing the test taker about the communicative nature of assessment, known as the “wash-back effect.” Such assessment can be integrated with classroom teaching, making it less of an anxiety-generating exercise than traditional examinations. Moreover, TBLA tasks are taken from everyday transactions with representative language behaviour or processing (Ellis 2003), making it easier to elicit the best performance out of a test taker.

Now that teaching is more meaning-focused and communication-oriented, assessment needs to fall in line with a task-based approach. Therefore, this article analyses CBSE’s Class X assessment as a representative sample. This brings up two important questions.

The first question is about the alignment of teaching and assessment paradigms. Though CBSE has adopted task-based approach in teaching English, as is evident from its Class X textbooks, its assessment has largely remained unchanged. The alignment of teaching and assessment in terms of methodology is an important element in ensuring validity. Language is better used as a tool for communication by integrating assessment and learning (Brindley 1994). Nunan (2004) states that not using tasks for assessment is a violation of the key curriculum principle that assessment should reflect what has been taught. Aligning teaching and assessment also brings about positive wash-back influence on teaching and learning processes.

The second question concerns the weightage given to various language skills during assessment. While CBSE Class X summative assessment demarcates 80 marks to assess reading and writing, listening and speaking are asses­sed only for five marks as part of formative assessment in classroom. This is a departure from the CBSE’s curriculum guidelines (CBSE 2017), which lay out 18 descriptive points to assess listening and speaking. This heavy imbalance between the assessment of different skills can have long-lasting effects on how well Indian learners acquire the language. In the long run, our students might fail to develop listening and speaking skills to acceptable levels. This has to be seen in the light of the most conspicuous complaint about the poor communication skills of Indian graduates (Padmanabhan 2013). Fairer representation of all skills in assessment can not only support skill development but also promote positive wash-back effect on teaching and learning processes.

It may not be practical to include oral and aural components in summative assessment. Financial and human resource-related investments may be beyond what India can afford at this point of time. But it is possible to assess these skills as part of classroom-based formative assessment, giving them a fair share of marks. Previously, CBSE implemented a similar plan on an experimental basis, allotting 20 marks for assessing listening and speaking skills in class, which would later be added to the summative assessment marks and grade card (CBSE 2012). Such plans can actually work for the betterment of language learning only if proper planning, preparedness of teachers, institutional support, and determination works hand in hand with policy decisions. A balanced approach to assessment of skills is the first step towards this. A judicious combination of internal and external assessments, along with fairer representation of all skills, could lead Indian school pedagogy to this goal.

An available option to deal with this challenge is to teach and assess these two skills in classes IX and XI when there are no board examinations at the end of these years to dictate teaching and learning practices in the classroom. Alternatively, we can also start teaching and assessing these skills from Class V or Class VI so that, by the time students leave secondary school, they develop adequate proficiency speaking and listening skills in English. Individual schools and assessors may see such initiatives as hurdles, but for language teaching and assessment to reach its potential, such practices need to be strictly implemented and constantly monitored.

Assessment Framework

A general framework to classify language assessment, as discussed in Ellis (2003) and Nunan (2004), has two interesting aspects. From Table 1, we get four different types of tests.

System-referenced tests view language as a system of phonological, lexical, and grammatical components. They are construct-oriented, and draw on some explicit theory of language proficiency. Performance-referenced tests are content-oriented and try to provide information on how well a test taker can use language in specific contexts (Ellis 2003). Direct tests directly elicit the language samples for assessment, while indirect tests attempt to measure the language ability underlying a certain specific performance. All these tests then generalise their findings to other appropriate contexts of use.

It is wise to have a mix of these different kinds of tests during assessment. Both direct system-referenced tests (such as composition writing, interviews, information gap tasks, etc) and indirect performance-referenced tests (like identifying paragraph structure, arranging sentences to form meaningful paragraphs, etc) are task-based. Direct performance-referenced and indirect system-referenced tests may not be task-based but, wherever possible, they are useful in bringing variety to the system of assessment. A few proposals may be considered as ways of helping assessment of listening and speaking skills in the task-based fashion, particularly in the classroom. Reading and writing assessments are already treated generously in the existing assessment pattern, and hence does not require extensive discussion.

Task-based Listening and Speaking Assessment

In CBSE’s current model of assessment, listening is not adequately taken into account. Listening is the ability to understand and process spoken language and take part in oral interactions. It is a receptive skill; therefore, it can only be assessed indirectly through observation of the manifestations of comprehension. In normal contexts, listening and speaking happen together and one cannot be separated from the other. In fact, in spoken interactions, listening plays as important a role as speaking itself, and most meaningful language transactions happen using both these skills.

Brown (2004) lists four types of listening assessment tasks: intensive (listening for specific components of speech), responsive (listening to short stretches of speech and responding to them), selective (listening to longer stretches of speech and scanning for specific information), and extensive (listening for global understanding of spoken langnague). Sen (2012) lists six types of listening on similar lines. Brown (2004: 121–22) also lists 17 micro and macro skills involved in listening–comprehension performance. These task types are very useful when designing tasks for assessment. For example, macro skills “distinguish between literal and implied meanings” and can be assessed using selective listening tasks requiring the person taking the test to listen to a conversation and pick out instances of literal and implied meanings and explaining them to a peer.

Listening assessment could use integrated tasks that involve the use of more than one skill. Some examples of such tasks are: taking down a message from a phone call and transfering it orally to another person; listening to a lecture and noting down the most important points; listening to an instruction and performing the instructed action; partaking in a conversation to find out specific information; interviewing a peer and filling out her/his resume.

Speaking assessment is as difficult as assessing listening because of the time and other resources that have to be devoted to the process. Considering this aspect, it would be wise to assess it as part of formative assessment using individual, pair, and small group tasks in the classroom. In the current pattern of assessment, there is very little scope for assessing speaking ability. This needs to change.

Brown (2004: 142–43) outlines five basic types of assessment tasks: imitative (repeating an utterance); intensive (producing very short speech segment); responsive (interaction and comprehension in short conversations), interactive (longer conersations); and extensive (monologue). He also lists 16 micro and macro skills which are very useful in developing indirect speaking assessment tasks. For example, the micro skill of “expressing a particuar meaning in different grammatical forms” can be assessed with an intensive speaking task requiring the candidate to instruct someone to follow a procedure, taking on the roles of a friend, a parent, a police officer, and a stranger at the mall.

Looking at speaking tasks from the perspective of contexts of use, purpose/goal, speaker roles, stakes involved, and time pressure/urgency is also helpful in bringing richness into assessment task types. Useful descriptions of speech characteristics of a candidate—like accuracy, fluency, and complexity—are available in Nitta and Nakatsuhara (2014).

Conclusions

Language curriculum is one of the most important elements of overall education since it is not just a subject of study in itself, but also a tool to learn, understand, and express other subjects. It does not, therefore, suffice to use task-based language teaching alone. We need to use the same methodology in assessment as well, in order to maximise the effectiveness of the pedagogic enterprise. Research in pedagody must also invest in bringing balance and variety to assessment of various language skills. A sensible and pedagogically acceptable balance of test-task types, language skills, and formative–summative task-based assessment can make CBSE’s exercise more meaningful and effective.

References

Brindley, Geoff (1994): “Task-centred Assessment in Language Larning: The Promise and the Challenge,” Language and Learning: Papers Presented at the Annual International Language in Education Conference, N Bird (ed), Hong Kong: Hong Kong Education Department, pp 73–94.

Brown, H Douglas (2004): Language Assessment: Principles and Classroom Practices, New York: Longman.

CBSE (2012): “Guidelines for Assessment of Speaking and Listening Skills (ASL) for Summative Assessment I & II,” http://cbseacademic.nic.in/web_material/Circulars/2012/63_ASL.pdf.

— (2017): Secondary School Curriculum 2017-18: Volume I, Main Subjects for Classes IX–X, Central Board of Secondary Education, Delhi.

Ellis, Rod (2003): Task-based Language Learning and Teaching, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

— (2009): “Task-based Language Teaching: Sorting Out the Misunderstandings,” International Journal of Applied Linguistics, Vol 19, No 3, pp 221–46.

Long, Michael (2016): “In Defense of Tasks and TBLT: Nonissues and Real Issues,” Annual Review of Applied Linguistics, Vol 36, pp 5–33.

NCERT (2005): “National Focus Group Position Papers and NCF,” CBSE, New Delhi, http://www.ncert.nic.in/rightside/links/focus_group.html.

Nitta, Ryo and Fumiyo Nakatsuhara (2014): “A Multifaceted Approach to Investigating Pre-task Planning Effects on Paired Oral Test Performance,” Language Testing, Vol 31, No 1,
pp 147–75.

Norris, John M (2016): “Current Uses for Task-based Language Assessment,” Annual Review of Applied Linguistics, Vol 36, pp 230–44.

Nunan, David (2004): Task-based Language Teaching, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Padmanabhan, Geeta (2013): “A Question of Employability,” Hindu, Chennai, 11 August, http://www.thehindu.com/features/education/a-question-of-employability/a....

Richards, Jack C and Theodore S Rodgers (2001): Approaches and Methods in Language Teaching, 2nd ed, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Sen, Julu (2012): “Testing Listening,” Testing Language and Literature–Block II, M Pandit and A Rasheed (eds), Hyderabad: The English and Foreign Languages University, pp 77–115.

Skehan, Peter (1998): A Cognitive Approach to Language Learning, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Willis, Dave and Jane Willis (2007): Doing Task-based Teaching, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Updated On : 16th Apr, 2018

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