One of the most unique things about being a native English speaker in a foreign country is that we are immediately qualified to be judges for English competitions (and there are lots). We don’t have to have a background in education, or even speak perfect English ourselves, because we are expected to intuitively know when we hear correct vs. incorrect speech. And since judges don’t fix the speech, they just evaluate it, being a native speaker might actually be a sufficient qualification. I do, however, have my doubts about the presumed necessary aspect of having native speakers as judges since I think it puts the importance on grammar rather than on communication, and when I think back to how my host family and I could communicate with so few words, well I get frustrated when students are afraid to speak for fear of being wrong. But, that is a tangent for sure since those were not the students we were evaluating. So, here goes the summary of my experience as a judge last month in UB.
There were 15 judges, all Peace Corps Volunteers, for a few hundred students, both high school and college level. I couldn’t begin to break down the various categories and rankings, so I’ll just link you to it here, if you’re interested.
The prizes for this competition were the huge draw (there were 10,000 participants!), first place at 5 million tugricks (about $3,000, which may not sound like much but is really enough to send a kid to college for several years). This particular speaking competition was brand new, so while there were guidelines there were no pre-determined matrices for us to use as a standard across students and, more importantly, across judging pairs. That was our first task.
Our first day was simply informational. The process was explained and all the judges had a chance to have questions answered. The second day is where we really worked out how we would evaluate. Day three was the competition which was a 10-hour day for the judges.
There were two parts to this competition. The first was a written test two weeks prior. Only students who passed that test came to UB for the second part. The second part included 4 components, only 3 of which required the judges. While judges weren’t needed for the listening exercise (with ten questions), I volunteered to record the text so I can tell you that it was difficult! There were two texts for college students and two texts for high-school students. The two I recorded were: the history of the piano, and something about satire (the purpose of…, what defines…, I don’t remember). The questions were very specific so that even with the text in front of me, I couldn’t answer the questions without looking back to the text, yet the students were expected to answer from memory: advantage to the student who already knew in which century the harpsichord was invented.
So, now to the three parts that required the judges. During our second day, we split into groups of five and each group tackled one of the parts; we then presented to the entire group our plan for evaluating that component. My group was in charge of “The Diagram” which meant that we first had to choose two diagrams (from a stack of diagrams), one for the high school group and one for the college group, then come up with what we would look for in a complete answer. It looked something like this:
|Pts||HS – Life cycle of a frog||College – Cycle of abuse|
|5||Use all words||Use concepts, phrases from each stage||Students must complete all stages of the cycle for full credit|
|5||Ordering words||Ordering words||Since these were cycles, students must order them (i.e., first, next, then, after, finally)|
|3||Complete thoughts||Complete thoughts||Not necessarily sentences, as native speakers often interrupt ourselves, backtrack, or deviate midway through a sentence.|
|2||That special something||That special something||Any mention that a cycle means it will happen again, any reference to relevance in Mongolia, any personal knowledge (i.e., not on the page)|
|5||Speaking quality||Speaking quality||Including, but not limited to: confidence, delivery, pronunciation|
The students had 15 seconds to look over the diagram and 45 seconds to speak about it.
The second component that students were judged on was translation from a Mongolian text (2 or 3 paragraphs) to English. Since the eligibility requirement was that participants be a citizen of Mongolia, and many Mongolian youth who were educated abroad would have an advantage as far as grammar and speaking ability, this translation component was added to level the playing field, the thought being that students educated abroad might not be fluent in Mongolian (especially written Mongolian). In the end, this translation did exactly what it was designed to do. Of course, as we are not fluent in Mongolian, the group assigned the translation evaluation was given an English version of the text. They identified 13 distinct events in the story (which, by the way, was about Chinggis Khan) and assigned them one point each. For example, the text stated that there was a well-thought out plan for battle, but that it failed; the group decided that the fact that the plan failed (not that it was well-thought out) was the key event. The remaining 7 points were discretionary for things like grammar, and the detail of the translation. The students had no preparation time (i.e., had to translate as they read) and had a minute and a half to two minutes (depending on level) to speak.
The third component was answering a question chosen at random. Sample questions include: Who is a person who influenced you and why? What was your most embarrassing moment? What is your most valuable possession? The students had 15 seconds to prepare/brainstorm their response, and a minute or two (I really forget) to give an answer. The group assigned this component decided that there would be no points for an answer that was off topic. For those that were on topic, we would assign points based on critical thinking (5 pts), intelligibility and flow (3 pts), and grammar (2 pts).
I don’t want to mention any students or identifiable answers in this public forum, so the best I can do here is give an overall impression and some generalizations about the students’ responses. Firstly, I really enjoyed being a part of this activity. As I said, it was a unique experience, especially coming up with the criteria to be evaluated. Also, in addition to seeing some M23 Volunteers I hadn’t seen in months, and meeting some M24s for the first time, I also spent an afternoon talking with some of the Mongolian students (who were not participants) at the English education center.
Now, these are some of the observations that I’ve since taken back to my classrooms in Govi-Altai:
Many students limited their answer to the diagram or question; even if there was time left, they said, “That’s it.” As a judge evaluating a person’s spoken English, I’d strongly encourage students to keep talking: restate the same thing in a different way, add detail, and/or give your opinion of the topic. Don’t let those precious seconds tick by if there is anything else you can add to demonstrate your command of English. One student’s addition to the life-cycle of a frog was completely unexpected!
Many students read from the diagram. Since this was an evaluation of speaking English, this should have been an obvious no-no. Here, I’d encourage the students to put the text into their own words, either initially, or as an explanation of the text. Reading from the text, in addition to not showing English proficiency, did one of two things: it slowed the students down so that they ran out of time and couldn’t finish the diagram, or it caused them to “finish” prematurely (having reached the end, they had nothing else to say).
Many students didn’t take advantage of the brain-storming time allowed for the question; they began their answer immediately. The effect of not planning out their answer meant that many students’ answers were incomplete: to say person X is a wonderful person doesn’t answer the question of how they influenced you. Another result was getting caught up in the details and running out of time, never getting the opportunity to say how person X influenced you.
So, there you have it. Feedback, as always, welcomed and appreciated.