SOMETIMES “HELP” IS NOT THAT HELPFUL!

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Preparing for the Test of Oral Proficiency can be stressful, even for those who are functioning at a high level and already doing much of their daily work in English. Knowing your strengths- and being aware of the areas which need improvement – are crucial to success. The tutor who works with you will help you to focus on your strengths and will find ways to help you address any weaknesses that may be preventing you from reaching the A, B or C that you are working so hard to achieve.

At your workplace, there will be many people who have taken the tests- and even more people who try to give you “helpful” advice. Several of my students have been told by their colleagues, “Oh, for sure you’ll get the C! Your English is really good!”  Or students themselves say, “I don’t understand why I didn’t get the C. My English is much better than _______’s!”

These informal assessments are not very helpful or productive. Unless the work colleague who is complimenting you on your English knows all the descriptors- the expectations – at the C-level, he or she is in no position to be evaluating your chances of getting the C at the exam.  And judging your own performance against another’s is, again, not an accurate way of telling whether you will be able to meet those C-level descriptors. Even if that person received a C, you were not there at the exam and don’t have any idea of what specific questions were asked or what that person chose as a speech topic. You simply don’t know in what ways that person was able to meet the majority of descriptors and satisfy the expectations in a global evaluation of their second-language skills.

For those reasons, I believe that it’s the tutor and learner who must work together to ensure that the   majority of expectations are being met, and come to a mutual understanding of whether the learner is there yet.  Of course, test dates are sometimes imposed and come sooner than we would like, so and tutor and learner have to work to prepare for whatever that date may be. But, for those of us who are tutors working to prepare our learners for the exam, we ourselves have to be very careful about what we say to them. Telling them things like, “Not many people are getting the C these days” is counterproductive- and just plain wrong. Despite the rumours you hear, learners are getting that C on a regular basis. And, at the other end of the spectrum, I think that it’s irresponsible for a tutor to say, “Oh, there’s no question you’re going to get the C!”  We need to help our students build confidence and be as prepared as they can possibly be, discussing strategies with them, helping them fix what needs fixing and encouraging them to build vocabulary so that they can be as precise and clear as possible. Most of the time, we have a pretty good idea of who will succeed and who might need a bit more preparation. However, we need to find that healthy balance of accentuating the positive and showing our learners where they are at the C–level, while still addressing the few problem areas which may be impeding their progress.

 So, feedback from your colleagues as to your daily use of English in the workplace can be very helpful and encouraging. But hearing from them that you will or won’t get that C is something that you should take into account…. but not necessarily count on.

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