Tuesday, May 17, 2011


An UNUSUAL—and none-too-helpful--WAY to RUN a (CON)TEST

By Kevin Stoda Taiwan and East Asia

This past weekend I attended a speaking contest for junior high students on a neighboring island. Schools from all over the region were there. It should have been an enjoyable experience for those students I teach--and for myself, who had not observed a speech or speaking contest in several decades, even though I have taught speech and oral communication courses at the tertiary, secondary, and primary grade levels many times over the past two decades.

On the one hand, the fourteen competitors that particular Sunday afternoon each spoke for about 2 minutes on the same topic. Naturally, among those fourteen junior high student speakers, various levels of ability or levels of performance were manifested that particular day.

On the other hand, as I was the only native speaker of English observing the speakers on that day, I would have to say that the competition for the first six or seven places was still very tight. So, we in the audienc all waited for about 15 minutes for the final judgements to be made. Finally, when the winners of the first four places were announced, everyone—especially many obsrving English teachers--was a bit surprised by the judges’ choices and by the order in which the top four student speakers were actually selected and placed by the three-man team of judges, which was made up entirely in membership from individuals from a single local school board..

Retrospectively, I should not have been shocked by the results because the organization who has run the speech (speaking) competition has historically failed to submit to teachers and students the exact criteria for their judgements in advance of the speech (speaking) competition. This lack of information means that students and faculty members across the region have know idea what the target criteria of such annual speeches are. Therefore, from year to year, the criteria may change along with the opics—as far as I can discern. This makes it certainly difficult to prepare students for such a competition.

At my junior high school, for example, I had practiced with students prior to the contest date using some of the following criteria. Do the students:

(a) use basic grammar—like verb tenses and word forms or word endings?
(b) use proper English sentence structure?
(c) use proper overal speech organization—introduction, topic idea, body, and conclusion?
(d) use creativity?
(e) use sufficient content/details/ examples/
(f) use proper pronunciation?
(g) use proper and a good variety of vocabulary?
(h) focus on audience, i.e. eye contact, usage of appropriate gestures? and
(i) demonstrate the ability to talk for two to three minutes without hemming and hawing, i.e. without long pauses between sentences or thoughts?—always trying to recall what one one had intended to say?

My rationale for focusing on such criteria [(a) to (i) above) in scoring my junior high students’ practice speeches was because non-native speakers of English, especially in Taiwan, are weak in these areas of communication.

By evaluating these areas of a short 2 to 2 1/2 minute speech, I—as an English language instructor—have selected criteria which will have great beneficial backwash on how English is studied, learned, practiced, and taught.


While the local audience of students and teachers was still trying to guess which criteria the Board of Edcuation members had chosen this 2011 to evaluate the different speaker’s efforts that afternoon, one of the judges stood up and began to explain. (I—personally—had originally thought that the three judges had intentionally avoided giving the top four awards to those competing-speakers who had already won awards earlier that same day in the local “English spelling and vocabulary” contest.)

After congratulating all foutteen students for their effort, the judge immediately began to outline, in her opinion, to the audience what it actually took to give a good speech. Here were the overt criteria she outlined first and foremost. This judge stated that the speakers were called on to emphasize and demonstrate the skills explained in the acronym: “SIMPLE”. This judge explained that SIMPLE stood for:

S- smile at the audience
I- intonation—use it properly when speaking
M- consider the manner in which you move, stand, and gesture
P- pronunciation—always pronounce words clearly
L- love your audience and show you love what you are doing or talking about
E- use eye contact with audience at all times

The judge, who spoke English fairly well, admitted that when she was in junior high she had never would had the confidence or training to give a good or great speech “back in her day”..

I immediately recognized that (1) only some of the criteria overlapped with my own criteria, which I’ve explained above—(a) through (i)—i.e. criteria intended to have “beneficial backwash” for students, teachers, and English language education as a whole.

I also noted that (2) the weighting of SIMPLE over-emphasized “form” to the exclusion of “content”. Moreover, even though, this judge admitted that organization of a speech was important, (3) form and style were being weighted over organization, too. Finally, even though the judge also noted that “global vocabulary errors”, i.e. those vocabulary errors which extremely confuse the listening audience, could lose the competition for someone, (4) grammar and vocabulary were otherwise not emphasized generally in this particular speech contest.

Later, on my way riding the ferry back to my home island that afternoon, I laughed and explained to my colleagues that what we had thus observed had neither been a speaking contest nor a speech contest based upon the emphasized criteria of SIMPLE. Rather, through the judges’ emphasis on form-over-content, it was a look-like-you-are-giving-a-great-speech contest. In short, one needed neither great content nor great organization nor a firm grasp of verb tenses and vocabulary to succeed in doing well in speech. One just had to smile, love the audience and act like one was speaking—with the less-said-the better (because the speaker who says less has less chance of making a pronunciation error).

On TESTing and on ConTESTS

For generations, language teachers in Taiwan, Asia, and all-over this planet have been adversely affected, in terms of what they are permitted or able to instruct in the classroom, due to the types of regional, state, national, and university examinations (or tests) chosen for usage in their land. One of the most reknowned advocates of improving the “relationship between testing and teaching”, especially in the area of language teaching, for many decades has been Arthur Hughes, author of TESTING FOR LANGUAGE TEACHERS. (This book by Hughes was for decades literally the Bible on good testing and teaching practices for language instructors world-wide. It also clearly outlines what kind of testing teachers, educators, and parents should expect to have in their educational settings nationwide or worldwide.)


Any contests, such as a speech contest, is a form of a test for those participating, right?

Shouldn’t language teachers in Taiwan, therefore, demand that tests--and contests--more appropriately support good learning habits, good teaching, and good language acquisition & langugage practices? Of course, teachers need to be involved in such advocacy all of the time.

Doing such advocacy for testing reform (and contest reform) is not only beneficial to the student and to classroom of any educator, but is beneficial to the entire society. Arthur Hughes has explained that the realtionship between testing and teaching should be one of a “parntership”. If a test or contest distorts learning or deforms teaching and appropriate educational practices, there exists no good partnership between testing and teaching (education as a whole).


In fact, if testing is not beneficial to good teaching and learning practices, such testing will have a negative effect on how educational programs are being developed over the years.

Likewise, if the emphasis or emphases of a particular high stakes test or contest is unclear or unknown by the students and teachers involved, it can be demoralizing for both. By the way, high-stakes testing would include (a) contests of all types, (b) testing for university, (c) testing that effects student placement in any school, grade or classe, (d) testing which affect state, regional, and national school funling, and (e0 tesiting for scholarships.
Advocates of appropriate testing practices and for testing with beneficial backwash on teaching and learning need to demand that any test or contest that does not create a beneficial partnership between teaching and testing needs have its usefulness called into question. Moreover, criteria for judging a competition as well as the criteria to be used on any high stakes exams needs to be about 100% clear to all involved students, parent, and educators. If such level of clarity is not evident, that test should not be used as a high-stakes exam or test. It is not fair, demoralizing to participants, and destructive to the society and to all the elements of trust required by parents, students, teachers, and test-givers (or test-creators).

This concept of building a partnership between teachers and test creators was common knowledge when I did my first M. A. in education over 16 years ago[1]—it seems to have gotten lost in translation here in Asia.


[1] Stoda, Kevin, “A Burning Issue: the Need to Introduce "Beneficial Backwash" and a Testing-Teacher Partnership in Japan in the 1990s, The Language Teacher, 18:10 October 1994.


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