The 4 Skills: ‘Cooking is more difficult than eating!’, or ‘Which come first: the chicken or the egg? – Language development or Exam preparation?’
I was invited back to the annual International House Bratislava conference in Slovakia earlier this month. Last year
at this same conference I gave the opening plenary (on the English Profile programme) and two workshops and this year I was again asked to give…the opening plenary and two workshops. Bratislava lies on the banks of the Danube River, borders both Austria and Hungary and isn’t that far from either Budapest or Vienna, the twin capitals of the former Austrian-Hungarian Empire. In fact, it’s only 60 kilometres from Vienna; they are the two closest European capitals. Anyway, last year my flight back to Paris from Bratislava was cancelled (it happens) and I had to get a shuttle bus to Vienna to catch another flight. So this year I decided to fly directly to Vienna and take the shuttle bus to Bratislava.
As in most of the countries I visit, Cambridge English (previously Cambridge ESOL) exams are growing in popularity in Slovakia and for the opening plenary I was asked by the organisers to speak about exams. My talk was entitled—curiously? enticingly?—‘Which come first: the chicken or the egg? Language development or Exam preparation?’. We started off with what I call a ‘buzz’ activity (an open pair-work discussion) on ‘What are the most difficult skills for your learners?’. Of course it depends on the individual student or class, but, as in most cases/countries, the Slovak teachers voted for writing and speaking. This reminds me of an exchange I had with a Romanian teacher when I gave a similar talk in Bucharest last May:
Gary: What are the most difficult skills for your students?
Teacher: The productive ones of course!
Teacher: Because cooking is more difficult than eating…
A nice analogy (I asked the Romanian teacher if I could use it) and I agree with her. For example, my wife cooks our evening family meals during the week, but when I’m at home in Paris for the weekend I do the shopping and am supposed to cook one of the weekend meals. And, yes, I must say that it’s easier (and better!) to eat her cooking than to cook myself.
We then alternated between looking at coursebook activities from the Objective and Complete series and Cambridge English exam tasks (mainly for FCE and CAE) for both receptive (reading and listening; i.e. input) and productive (writing and speaking; i.e. outcomes) skills. We finished with an ‘interactive’ speaking activity. (NB: The Common European Framework of Reference for Languages actually identifies five skills as speaking is divided into spoken ‘production’ and spoken ‘interaction’; Cambridge exams cover both parts in the speaking paper.) I gave the teachers a picture of various foods as a visual stimulus and asked them to plan a picnic together, a typical exam-type task and class/real life-like activity. Now, as one could expect (and I hoped!), some of the teachers took fried chicken on their picnics and some took boiled eggs—but they of course didn’t really care which came first (the chicken or the egg) when they were planning their picnics. Similarly—and my point—if teachers are using coursebooks such as Objective or Complete, they can both achieve their objective of developing the language skills of their learners while also satisfying what is often the (extrinsic) motivation of their students for exam training, tips and strategies. In other words: language development and exam preparation; ‘Cambridge ELT books for Cambridge English exams’; the chicken and the egg.
BTW: After my talk, a Danish English teacher in Bratislava told me that apparently some American scientists investigated the quandary of ‘Which comes first: the chicken or the egg?’ and came up with an answer. Guess I’ll have to do a Google search to see what they found…
What are the most difficult skills for your students? Are you able to develop their language while also preparing them for exams?
Gary Anderson, Cambridge ELT International Teacher Trainer