Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Testing the Masses

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I had an interesting end of semester challenge, how to give an oral English exam to 2,000 students by myself. I have been basically more of a speech therapist, teaching kids who lack certain vowels in their own language to say those vowels. The English teachers most of them have had also lack those vowels, so they are actually “teachahs”, and ewen doh dese kids ah smot, dey hae newah been shown how to say de wuds colleckly.
This semester has been a fun frolic into the mysteries of the letter R. First, I needed to show them that it actually existed, which for more than a few was a big surprise. Every two weeks, I showed them how to actually make the right sounds, and to their collective credit, they mostly got it.
So, back to the challenge. How do you test the pronunciation of a class of 55 students in 40 minutes, then do that 38 times in two weeks? We are talking assembly line testing, efficiency engineering, student evaluation, and accountability all wrapped up into a neat package that can be scored and handed to their Chinese English teachers for recording.
There are easy to read words with the basic R sounds, er, ar, or, eer, and air. You have 10 words that you can grade on a scale of 5 to 10. 100 is a perfect score, perfect being that they sound like me, of course, and the worst are a category I call “Guandong Guy.” *
I handed out the tests, had them put their names and appropriate numbers on them, and gave them the instructions, “I will go to each of you with this list of words, say each word slowly 2 times, and I will grade you on your pronunciation.” I then told them to be quiet and do their homework and let me do my thing.
Of course, there were kids trying to cram, mumbling the pronunciations to their neighbors. This made it nigh impossible to hear, so I had to shut them up a few times, but most classes were happy to put a dent in their bone crushing homework load, so it became a pretty orderly process.
Most kids did well. Many got perfect scores that they would not have gotten in September. Some kids, the ones who either went to countryside schools, or didn’t care, muddled along with ahs and ohs, and a handful just kind of sucked.
I actually got to where I could test the class and get the tests scored in 40 minutes. I think I was able to get as good an evaluation of their abilities as anyone could, given the restrictions imposed, and I think I may have actually had a positive impact on most of their English skills.
And they learned the word “dude”.

*Guangdong Guy says things like, “Mistah Mahso, you my faywat teachah.”