Sunday, 12 May 2019

PT3-CEFR-aligned Paper: Raising the Standard

It's been a while peeps! I've had all my plans executed thus far, the Balkans being the latest edition, so it's now back to my favourite pastime- blogging! In this post I'd like to offer my views on the current announcement that PT3 examination be aligned with CEFR.

1. Much has been said about the MOE's decision to align the PT3 examination with CEFR (Common European Framework of Reference) Lots of teachers and parents' grouses too due to the rather short duration for students and teachers alike to train students with the new format. The same thing happened with the introduction of the current format used in PT3 a few years ago and there was a lot of hue and cry. There must be very good reasons for the LP (Lembaga Peperiksaan) to announce the current CEFR- aligned papers now. Normally, the paper has to be introduced to the stake holders before it can be disseminated to teachers. By stake holders, I mean the CDC, EPRD, ELTC and many others. This is to ensure it would have gone through a thorough process before it reaches teachers, students and parents. This requires time therefore the recent announcement is understandable.

2. Now that the Education Minister, Dr Maszlee Malik himself has officially announced the initiative, it is time for teachers to embrace it and adjust what needs to be adjusted in the classroom. If teachers have been teaching the four skills and not teaching to the test, then it should not be too burdensome. Teachers are adaptable creatures and they will find ways and means to train their students with the new format. If students have the proficiency level for PT3, they should be able to answer any format. Hence, the need to teach to improve students' proficiency. 

3. I have always believed that we should teach for proficiency and not teach to the test. What proficiency levels are targeted for PT3 students? Do they have the necessary vocabulary needed to tackle the papers? (B1 level for example - threshold level)  Do teachers teach vocabulary directly in the language classrooms?  At this juncture, I must mention the sad truth that vocabulary always takes a backseat because of the over emphasis on grammar. Students are expected to "pick up" the language while being taught all the language skills or via extensive reading. Students hardly read nowadays so how can teachers help build their store of vocabulary in the classroom? Is there plenty of evidence that vocabulary is being taught consistently in the classroom? Is teaching vocabulary something that the Inspectorates of Schools look for in their visits to schools? Vocabulary, Grammar and the four skills are all inter-connected but grammar is always over emphasised. Wilkins (1972) wrote that "...without grammar very little can be conveyed, without vocabulary nothing can be conveyed" This clearly states that one needs to have a certain level of vocabulary proficiency to convey ideas. The EVP (English Vocabulary Profile) below shows the vocabulary that learners around the world should possess at the six levels in the CEFR.

(credit: English Vocabuary Profile

4. Back to the issue of timing and format, how much time is enough for knowing the format of a new paper? I think a few months before the examination will suffice because PT3 candidates have been taught English since Form1 and 2. Analysing the new format, one can see that the biggest change in the papers is in the listening-speaking component. Granted other sections have some additional parts but they also still maintain some elements of the old paper. Besides, the writing section of the new format is less demanding as it focuses on short communicative messages, for example, blog post, email and informal letter. These are genres that are taught at forms 1 and 2 as well. I would say the paper is 'lighter' compared to the old format and much more varied and achievable. As a matter of fact, it was found that some components of the old paper, particularly reading and writing were above-level in terms of content and phrasing. 

5. The alignment of the PT3 and CEFR is a foregone conclusion. It is inevitable because the base has been set for Forms 1 and 2 with the textbook change. I think the Ministry has set a realistic time frame for the alignment to take place and will see the completion with current PT3 students sitting for the new CEFR- aligned format in 2021. There is no need for me to convince anyone on the benefits of having CEFR. There is just too much literature on this that you can read by yourself. Many teachers have been exposed to CEFR and on-going trainings are taking place as we speak; the recent one being assessment of PT3 papers. 

6. I welcome the CEFR on Malaysian shores because we have a lot to gain from it. Global bench marking is one and with CEFR we are bench marked against international standards. But of course, communicative competence is the main objective. However, the most important individual for this change is of course the teacher. It seems that English teachers nationwide have a lot to handle at the moment but change is necessary. For years, we did not align our assessment with an international standard and framework and this does not augur well for the country. Yes, many of our students have made it without CEFR but in the years to come, it is so important that we transform our assessment to be on par with international standards. 

7. Paul Black, an authority in testing once said, "If you want to change teaching, you must change assessment." The backwash effects of examinations on the way teachers teach is too strong to be ignored. Sometimes teachers tend to follow assessment requirements too rigidly that it stifles their creativity in the teaching process. We would like teachers to use various methods of teaching to achieve better results i.e improved students proficiency. Hopefully, the CEFR will get us out of the current examination oriented syndrome that restrains teachers from being creative in the classroom. Ranking of schools CGPA must be flushed out of the system because it has been guilty of devaluing a teacher's creativity and innovation. It would be nice to see only a level and descriptors of the students' performance once they reach Form 5. I am probably asking for the moon knowing how comfortable our principals and officers are with ranking of all sorts...sigh.

8. Changing teachers' perspective and improving teachers' practice too cannot be done overnight. The CEFR came with a lot of changes that can sometimes be overwhelming for teachers. First it was pedagogy and now it is assessment. Too bad the two must be ever-present in any education system. However, with on-going training and support from ELTEC and others, I believe English teachers will not only embrace this transformation but also go that extra mile to improve themselves and help students improve their communicative competence.  Only then can we raise the standard.

Happy teaching!

Those who can DO, Those who can do more TEACH