The New Michigan ECPE Speaking Test
by Michael Reid
In June 2009 a completely new format for the University of Michigan ECPE speaking test will come on line. The older one-on-one interview consisting of little more than personal introductions and a topic discussion is to be ditched in favour of a more complex five-stage activity involving two candidates and two examiners which will last for between 25 and 35 minutes. For both students and teachers this poses a range of challenges. Here we want to review the different stages of the new speaking test and highlight some of the points that teachers and students will have to bear in mind.
Stage 1: Introductions and Small Talk (3 to 5 minutes)
The first stage is a familiar conversation about the students' lives, but with two twists, both of which appear in the following sentence from the official guidelines: "Candidates are expected to actively participate in the conversation by providing expanded responses and also by asking each other and [the] examiner questions."
The first twist – the demand that students ask each other questions – shouldn't be too difficult to deal with. As a guideline for students, the following formula springs to mind as a good one to follow: the interviewer asks Student A (let's call her Nafsica) a question, Nafsica answers it while Student B (let's call him Angelos) listens attentively and then asks Nafsica a question that will prompt her to expand her original answer.
The second twist is a twist of a completely different magnitude. The expectation that the candidates ask the examiner questions is a much more radical break with received ideas about the proper role of the interviewee. Unfortunately the Michigan web site does not state clearly where the new line of propriety is to be drawn. One imagines that the interviewees are not supposed to turn the tables on the examiners and begin grilling them about their free time activities and professional ambitions. Instead, if Angelos is asked about his hobbies and begins to talk about his passion for bird watching and the fact that he has recently seen some hoopoes on the grassy knoll beyond the boundaries of the city, he might then ask the examiner if she has ever seen a hoopoe or felt the joy of seeing such a rare bird for the first time after long days spent motionless and silent in a hideout.
Students will have to practise coming up with simple questions that examiners can answer briefly. This will enable them to fulfil their new role while also allowing the examiners to fulfil their obligation to keep their contribution to the conversation to a minimum.
Stage 2: Summarizing and Recommending (5-7 minutes)
After three to five minutes the initial "small talk" comes to an end and the new four-stage oral activity begins. In its essence the activity is all too familiar: discussing four options in order to come to an agreement about the most preferable. But in the new ECPE speaking test this familiar idea attains a new level of complexity.
The example task given on the Michigan web site involves choosing between four candidates for the post of high school science teacher. Each student is given a sheet of paper with brief notes about two of the four candidates.
Here we reprint one of the sample sheets on the web site.
Candidate 2 Information Sheet
Hiring A High School Science Teacher
The following is a list of some of Ms. Peters' personal characteristics and comments made by her co-workers.
4 years experience as laboratory technician
Recently graduated with science teaching certification
2003 "Employee of the Year" Award
Good presentation skills
Experience with newest technology
No experience with high school students
The following is a list of some of Mr. Barton's personal characteristics and comments made by students and teachers at your school.
20 years teaching English at your school
Conducts training courses for teachers
Also qualified to teach science
Interesting classroom lessons
Organizes many field trips
Doesn't stay after school to help students
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