Thoughts of the Times; Mandatory Oral Testing in English

Korea Times (Seoul, Korea), February 21, 2000 | Go to article overview

Thoughts of the Times; Mandatory Oral Testing in English


Several articles in The Korea Times last month stressed the need for Korean students to learn to SPEAK English. The Jan. 21 editorial ``English as a Second Official Language'' states, ``Few college graduates, even after more than 10 years of study, can make themselves understood in English. Something is seriously wrong with our English education.'' Mr. Park Eung-kyuk's Jan. 20 front page article, ``Duck and Korean Education,'' in the series ``Going Global in the New Millennium,'' mentions Seoul National University's consideration of screening future students with oral interviews in English.

Including speaking skills on the college entrance exam and giving students in our regular school system comprehensive preparation for it are indispensable steps to take if Korea truly wants its middle and high school students to learn to speak English. Most students have probably never had an oral skills test and do not expect to have one. Students are generally motivated to study for tests. How much would they study any of their school subjects if there were no tests? Korea must train its English teachers to give oral tests covering, initially, at least basic English and require them to begin testing their students' speaking skills. Students will be motivated to study for oral tests that account for a significant portion of their English grade, especially if they can realistically choose to be successful in learning the material covered on the tests. Furthermore, early success will give them a feeling of accomplishment and reduce their fear of English.

The Korean education system could do the following: (1) Set up an evolving, mandatory oral testing program that Korean English teachers, even those who are not yet very fluent, can learn to participate in with confidence; (2) Give students a practical way to be able to choose the degree of success on the oral tests that their motivation permits; and (3) Construct the program in such a way that parents do not feel a need to send their children to private language institutes to prepare for the oral tests.

Why do so many students have trouble learning to speak English in our regular schools? Unfortunately, they usually focus on memorization and translation, both of which inhibit their progress in learning to think in, and speak, a foreign language. An example of this is the fact that many students translate the author's question, ``Am I a teacher?,'' word for word into Korean ([unknown characters] ?), leaving themselves with the impression that the question is about them, and then answer with ``No, I'm not,'' instead of ``Yes, you are.'' However, the lack of sufficient oral communication practice, which requires a speaking partner, is overwhelmingly the deciding factor in why most students fail to learn to speak English. If a language program does not give students a way to get enough oral communication practice, or the program simply does not stress speaking skills, why should anyone expect students to learn to speak, and how fair would oral testing be?

It should be one of the goals of English teachers and materials writers to enable English programs to cover the needs of students so well that their motivation to learn to speak will be the deciding factor in their success or failure. This writer believes that pair practice in class alone is usually not enough speaking practice for developing speaking skills, in part because speaking is not the only skill or activity that merits class time. He concludes that oral communication homework (OCH) is the pragmatic way for homework partners to get the extra practice necessary to prepare for oral tests covering specific material, while also making progress towards fluency. Students receive homework in other subjects. Why not give them oral English homework? After effective in-class preparation for doing OCH with special materials, no one is more available and logical for providing sufficient oral communication practice for oral mastery of a given amount of material, at no cost to parents, than one's fellow students. …

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