New English proficiency produces reactions

Trevor Ivan

Some educators said they think the recent addition of a speaking section on the English language proficiency test for international students will improve the way English is taught throughout the world.

Some international students at the university, who recently took the test without the speaking section, have mixed feelings about it.

The Test of English as a Foreign Language, which is administered by Educational Testing Service, is an admissions requirement for international students wishing to gain admission into a university in the United States or Canada.

The test currently contains listening, reading and writing sections. The new speaking section will require students to speak into a computer about a given topic. Their speech will later be downloaded and assessed by an evaluator.

Klaus Gommlich, the director of the university’s English as a Second Language Center, said the speaking section is geared toward ensuring students are able to apply English to various academic situations and not simply memorize grammatical rules from a textbook.

“There is a need to be able to do academic work,” he said. “Students also need to be able to understand other people and have the ability to read extensively.”

Students can take the TOEFL in their home country or after they arrive at the university. Kent State’s test is an institutional test, since the results can only be used to gain access to the university. Students who take the test here will not have to take the speaking section.

Students who don’t take the test in their home country must enroll in ESL classes upon arrival at Kent State. They then must take the institutional TOEFL before they can enroll in an undergraduate program.

The university’s ESL program is geared toward giving students the skills they need in order to pass the test, even though learning the language is still the main objective of the program, Gommlich said.

“Our program is geared at building the skills needed to master the language,” he said. “The requirements of our program are also in agreement with the requirements of the new test.”

He said teaching styles differ in Asia, where students are simply expected to memorize grammatical rules. This new test is geared at changing those teaching methods.

Gommlich said the topics on the speaking section will be topics that an educated person who is applying for admission into an American university should possess. They may include topics such as recent advances in technology or ecological issues.

Some international students said they are concerned if a student gets a topic he or she doesn’t understand, it may lead to an inaccurate reflection of his or her abilities.

“The test could ask you something about American football,” said Nicola Dietzfelbinger, an exchange student from Germany. “If you don’t know anything about that topic, that doesn’t mean you don’t know anything about English.”

This new format will also change the way students prepare for the TOEFL as it would be impossible to prepare in only a few weeks, Gommlich said.

“This test is not going to benefit students who are just good test takers,” he said. “It will prove which students are able to perform in stressful situations, which is comparable to a regular academic environment.”

He said many of the study guides available to help students prepare for the TOEFL are becoming more geared toward applying skills in everyday uses as well.

Another concern of some students is the impersonal nature of speaking into a computer.

“When you’re having a conversation with a person, you know if they understand you,” said Gerasimos Fergadiotis, a graduate student in speech pathology from Greece. “You can see if they nod their head or look puzzled. You can rephrase things if you need to. However, when you’re talking to a computer, you can’t get any feedback.”

Gommlich said the speaking section will acquaint students with different speaking situations. The speaking section of the test resembles a situation when students would be making a presentation in class. They must balance speaking skills and the content of their presentation.

Debra Druesedow, the academic programs coordinator for the ESL Center, said English is pronounced differently all over the world.

“Some courses in international universities are taught in English,” she said. “However, the English spoken there is influenced by the native language in terms of idioms and pronunciation.”

This difference in pronunciation has confused some international students while taking the current TOEFL.

“The listening section was the hardest part for me,” said Nishanthi Wijekoon, a graduate student in geology from Sri Lanka. “I wasn’t used to the American accent. Americans pronounce things differently than we do in our country.”

Contact international affairs reporter Trevor Ivan at [email protected].