The Michigan ECPE Speaking Test

The Michigan ECPE speaking test involves two candidates and two examiners with a structured conversation that is divided up into five stages. It can look nasty at first and far too complicated. Fullspate thinks it is too complicated, but with a little practice it turns out to be not too difficult. Here's a description of what is involved in each stage, with some advice about how to excel.

Stage 1: Introductions (3-5 minutes)

The first stage is a familiar conversation about the students' lives, but with the added demand that candidates don't just sit passively waiting to be asked questions. Here is the key sentence from the official description of the new ECPE speaking test: "Candidates are expected to actively participate in the conversation by providing expanded responses and also by asking each other and [the] examiner questions." Here's an example of the beginning of a conversation that would tick the right boxes.

Examiner: So, Angelos, what do you like doing in your spare time?
Angelos: I'm really into extreme sports. In fact, most weekends I'm off bungee jumping.
Nafsica: Bungee jumping! Wow! I've always wanted to go bungee jumping but my uptight Dad won't let me. He says it's too dangerous. What would you say? Is it really as dangerous as it looks?
Angelos: Well, as long as you do all the safety checks and you're really careful to get the right match between the height of the jump, the weight of the person and the elasticity of the rope, it's really no more risky than crossing the road.
Nafsica: If it's as safe as that, I should definitely be allowed to have a go. (Turns to the examiner) What do you think, Mr Examiner? If you had a daughter ... Do you have a daughter?
Examiner: No.
Nafsica: But if you had a daughter, would you let her go bungee jumping?
Examiner: Well,...

Few students, I imagine, would feel comfortable being as direct as Nafsika, but most should be able to become comfortable asking a simple question about whether the examiner has ever done any extreme sports or would be interested in trying them. More importantly, though, Students need to practise commenting on what their partner has said in response to the examiner's question.

The candidates can help each other have the right kind of three-way conversation by turning their chairs so that they face slightly towards each other. Then when one candidate answers the examiner's question it is easy to look across to the other candidate as well as looking back at the examiner. The eye contact will help the partner feel included in that part of the conversation and make it easier to chip in with his or her comment.

Remember that by helping your partner and helping to keep the contributions to the conversation fairly equal, you will be scoring more points yourself. And of course, it isn't a competition. Candidates that ignore and exclude their partner are likely to score less than candidates that involve their partner more in the conversation.

Stage 2: Summarizing and Recommending (5-7 minutes)

This is where the long, four-stage task begins. One of the official examples of this task involves choosing between four candidates for the post of high school science teacher. Each student is given a sheet of paper with the briefest of notes about two of the four candidates.

Here we reprint one of the sample sheets from the Michigan website.

Candidate 1 Information Sheet
Hiring A High School Science Teacher

Jessica Peters
The following is a list of some of Ms. Peters' personal characteristics and comments made by her coworkers.

  • 4 years experience as laboratory technician
  • Recently graduated with science teaching certification
  • Recent "Employee of the Year" Award
  • Good presentation skills
  • Experience with newest technology
  • No experience with high school students

Robert Barton
The following is a list of some of Mr. Barton's personal characteristics and comments made by students and teachers at your school.

  • 20 years teaching English at your school
  • Conducts training courses for teachers
  • Also qualified to teach science
  • Interesting classroom lessons
  • Organizes many field trips
  • Doesn't stay after school to help students

Candidates have time to quietly read their information sheets. The Fullspate advice here is to sort out the points into three categories: facts that simply describe the options; points in favor; points against. Why not write a little plus next to the benefits and a little minus next to the drawbacks? Only if you sort the points out into these categories, will you know how to introduce them with the most appropriate linking phrases (on the other hand, by contrast, in addition, etc).

After reading the points through quietly, the students take it in turns to describe their two options, and at the end of their description they ask their partner to express an initial opinion about which of the two options is better.

When candidates are listening to their partners' descriptions, they can take notes if they wish. This might or might not be helpful. You need to practise doing it both ways to see which is better for you. Note: If your partner is taking notes, you need to look at him/her and make sure he or she can keep up with you. It would also be perfectly natural (and I presume acceptable) for the candidate taking notes to briefly interrupt if there is a point that they didn't manage to get down.

Do you have to remember everything that is said in your partner's description? No, you don't. It is more important to evaluate what is being said so that you will have an opinion about which of the two options is better.

Some advice about what to say in your presentation:

1) Include comments about what you are going to say. E.g. "Well, Helen, let me present my two candidates for the post of science teacher at our school. The first candidate whose details I have is called..." Similarly, when you move onto the second option, "Now let me turn to the second candidate, whose name is..."

2) Although the official instructions ask you to paraphrase or summarise, really you need to elaborate. Usually, this involves saying why an advantage is indeed advantageous (or the opposite). For instance, you are presenting options for a charity and one note says that this option is cheaper. You can elaborate by saying, "This will mean we have more money left to devote to the rest of our charity's work."

3) Avoid very informal English in your presentation (things like: "Hey, this is awesome/absolutely wicked/crazy/gross, etc").

4) When you finish, ask your partner to comment: "Well, those are my two options, Helen. Which do you think is better?"

5) When you give your opinion about your partner's options, briefly give a reason. You could just highlight the biggest advantage of the preferred option.

6) Take the initiative to move the conversation on, saying something like, "Let me present my two options now. The first is..."

At the end of this section the examiner will probably ask you to state which of your two options you prefer. You shouldn't give any reasons for your choice at this stage.

Unfortunately, the preferences expressed at this stage are completely ignored in what follows.

Stage 3: Consensus Reaching (5-7 minutes)

The candidates begin this stage by saying which of their own options they prefer, and then they must discuss those two preferences in order to come to an agreement about which one they will finally recommend.

If you made notes in stage 2, you can refer to them in stage 3. However, if you didn't make notes, it shouldn't matter because you will have enough time in stage 3 to ask your partner about any points that you can't remember, and because questions are such big point scorers in the interview it might actually be beneficial to have a few gaps in your memory. Note that candidates are not allowed to look at each other's information sheets at this stage.

Some advice about how to conduct the discussion:

1) Don't assume that your task here is to fight for your option and pressurize your partner into agreeing that yours is best.

2) Don't begin with a long speech in defense of your chosen option. Begin with a question. Questions are good - they help to keep the conversation bouncing back and forth, and that will help both of you get a higher score. You might begin like this: "So, Helen, why do you think your preferred option is the one we should finally recommend?"

3) If there is an important point that you can't remember, ask your partner like this: "What did you say about the location of the school? Where is it exactly?"

4) Keep your discussion focused on the task in hand. You have to make a decision in an imaginary situation. Refer back to it from time to time. For instance, if you have to choose a summer school for a group of kids, ask: "Which of these two schools would be best for our kids?"

5) You might want to explore or highlight the criteria that ought to be important. For instance: "I think we need a school that is..." Or: "A good place for a camp like this ought to have..."

6) Keep your eye on your watch (which you might want to put flat on the table in front of you). Within five minutes you need to have come to a consensus about one of the options. Avoid taking too long, but also avoid coming to a consensus too quickly. Even if you think your partner's option is the best, spend some time talking about the strengths of your chosen option.

Stage 4: Presenting and Convincing (5-7 minutes)

For the first 2-3 minutes of this stage the students must prepare a formal and well-organised presentation which will be made to the examiner, who will be playing a role (perhaps the principal of a school, for instance). Before making the presentation, candidates have to clarify, between themselves, which are the four strongest reasons for their chosen option (reasons chosen from those that have already been discussed in some depth). Having clarified the four, they must quickly decide how to allocate them so that they present two reasons each.

This is the stage where we do think you should jot down four very, very brief notes - notes of the topics of the four points you are going to make to persuade the examiner that your jointly chosen option really is the best. You will also note which points you will present and which your partner will present. This will help avoid the nightmare scenario in which your partner accidentally covers one of your points and leaves you with little to say.

It is worth noting that it is only in stage four that the two candidates can look at each other's information sheets (although there is probably no need now since they have their notes and they are likely to know all the important points off by heart).

Having decided who will say what and in which order, the students must turn to the examiner and present their allocated points as persuasively as possible - driving home the arguments that they have already discussed between themselves and ignoring the fact that the examiner has already heard everything. (This is made only slightly less artificial by the fact that at the beginning of this stage the two examiners swap places so that the one that was off to the side quietly marking now comes to sit opposite the students.)

Within two or three minutes of the beginning of stage four, the candidates should turn to the examiner and say something like: "We are ready now to present our chosen option."

Again, don't skip the introductory comment: "Well, we are convinced that X is the best option. There are four main reasons why we believe this. The first, although not the most important, is that ..."

If you speak first, pass the presentation over to Helen. Don't just stop speaking and expect Helen to jump in. Say something like: "Those are two of our justifications. Helen has another two, don't you Helen?"

Remember that the presentation is supposed to be rather formal, so avoid any obviously informal language.

Stage 5: Justifying and Defending (5-7 minutes)

Phew! The last stage.

Having heard the arguments (again) the examiner is to "question the candidates about the decision they have made and about the reasons for that decision." I am glad I am at not going to be an examiner for the Michigan ECPE speaking test. During the 20 minutes or so prior to stage five reasonably proficient students will have mentioned or discussed the pertinent points four times already (twice in stage four and once in stages two and three). How much more can be said about a candidate for a science teaching post, for instance, who may have been described in only 24 words?

Some advice about this stage (which will probably be the easiest):

1) Remember that there are no right answers (you can't lose a single point because of the particular option that you chose to defend or because of the particular arguments that you used to defend it). The examiner's questions in stage 5 might convey the impression that he or she thinks your choice was the wrong one, but remember that he/she is obliged to say something along those lines just to keep the conversation going.

2) As in Stage 1 the examiner will want this to be a three-way conversation, instead of interrogating you individually. Bear this in mind, and help by passing a few things over to your partner. You might say, for instance: "I think Helen's point about the unpopularity of that option was a good one. What was it you said again, Helen?" Or you might say: "In my experience, teachers who try to be very friendly with students don't always get the best out of their students. What do you think, Helen? Have you observed that as well?"

3) Be prepared for a question about the possible drawbacks of the option you recommended. In your presentation you will have highlighted four advantages. Now the examiner will probably want to find out about a weakness or failing you didn't mention. You need to be able to say why that drawback is not so serious.

The End

Hey, that's it! Is it really so painful? We don't think so.

If you have any questions or comments about the new ECPE speaking test, do send us an email. We'd love to hear from you.

Footnotes

1. Elaboration: a grey area
One problem with this multi-stage task is that candidates end up having to say the same few things over and over again. Talented candidates might be tempted to elaborate. For instance, in the discussion of the four applicants for the science teaching post nothing may have been said about race, for instance, and the imaginative student might suddenly say that Jessica Peters (the recommended applicant), despite her rather WASPish name, is the only black candidate, which is a huge advantage because all the other teachers at the school are white and the racial mix of the teachers ought to reflect that of the pupils, which happen to be predominantly coloured.

That might sound ridiculous, but the information sheets come close to inviting students to start improvising in this way. Have another look at the first point about Robert Barton in the example sheet above: "20 years teaching English at your school". If I (as an interviewee) am supposed to say this guy is a teacher at my school, am I not supposed to know more about him? Am I not supposed to know how good a teacher he is - how funny, how poetic he is and yet how stern with miscreants? And if I don't volunteer any extra information, would it not be perfectly natural for the other interviewee (perhaps also the interviewer?) later on to ask me to provide a few more details, given that I know the guy?

If imaginative students respond to these cues or even begin elaborating without them (and elaborate in a way that keeps the story intact and does not make the whole game unplayable), should the examiner in the interview just go with the flow and accept these unexpected revelations, or is she supposed to nip this in the bud and insist that the students stick to the facts explicitly stated in the 24 or so words that are printed on the sheet? To be honest, I don't know what the answer is here.

2. What has been lost
Once upon a time we assumed that at the very heart of a proficiency-level interview there would be a discussion about a controversial topic like hunting, juvenile crime, or the imbecility of the media, or the degradation of the environment. No point assuming that now, though. Topics like those are unlikely to come up in the "multi-stage, semistructured task", which will almost certainly stick to safe and simple situations like the one with the vacancy for a science teacher. Now that traditional topic discussions have been dropped from the ECPE speaking test my worry is that teachers who were already inclined to keep speaking to an absolute minimum will reduce it even further in the belief that this "multi-stage, semi-structured task" is just the sort of thing that can be practised and honed in an intensive fashion over a two- or three-week period towards the end of the course. I hope not.

About Fullspate: - Fullspate is actually one man with a PhD and a laptop who grew tired of the bland contents of EFL coursebooks, decided to write slightly more engaging stuff for his English students, and then thought it might be nice to share them online.

 

 

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